Tips From The Top: One On One With John Suh, CEO Of LegalZoom

I spoke to John Suh, CEO Of LegalZoom, about his best advice

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Adam: First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?

John: I’m a supply chain geek. I’ve been running Internet companies with interesting supply chain approaches for more than 20 years, from fashion apparel to consumer electronics to the law. It’s fascinating how technology transforms the manufacturing and delivery of products and services across different industries.

In joining LegalZoom, I recognized that small business owners want to focus on their products, customers and teams rather than the ‘necessary evils’ of law and tax. The mission of democratizing law resonated with me then and it continues to be our guiding premise today.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

John: I’ve launched businesses in multiple ways. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the wildly scrappy approach of rapid prototyping on a shoestring budget. On the other end is the “build it and they will come” approach of investing millions and several months up-front to create the first customer experience. I regret the latter.

It may seem that the only way to do something innovative is to build it and have people experience it first-hand, but if you dig a little deeper, you often find many ways to test your fundamental assumptions on real customers with something short of a complete product. Rapid iteration informed by customer feedback is a far more powerful way to develop something special.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

John: Leadership qualities have to be matched against the stage of the business, and they change with scale.

In the early days, you are more player than coach. You and a small team are tasked with putting points on the board. The people you manage wear multiple hats depending on the day’s challenge.

The key for leadership at scale is embracing the role of coach/general manager. At scale, you spend the vast majority of your time coaching others. That means developing their talents/skills, aligning them by a set of values/philosophy, and helping them score. You are also more likely to be managing a leadership team of specialists rather than generalists. It is a different skill set to lead individuals with capabilities/skills that you do not have and may not understand.

Leaders ultimately succeed by their ability to communicate, inspire, and build teams. Great leaders that want to continue leading as their company scales simply have to adapt their style to a different set of challenges.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to an audience of entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?


· Choose your business partner wisely. Picking the right business partner out of the gate creates a relationship that will help you in perpetuity. Look for a partner that complements you, whose greatest strengths are your weaknesses. Behind many a great company is a 1-2 punch, even if you have never heard about the #2.

· Ensure your team is spending 80% of their time on what they do best in this world. Too many people want to be well rounded. That’s great in your professional/personal life, but in business I want my team to spend their time on their strengths and avoid their weaknesses altogether. A small team spending the vast majority of their time on what they do best is wildly powerful.

· Find a great mentor. A good mentor can be invaluable in coaching you towards achieving your true potential. It’s often helpful to talk with someone one or two steps ahead of where you are today.

Adam: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

John: My best career advice was the opposite of what I expected. My dad, who’d been pushing me to pursue a career in medical research, asked me one day what I wanted to do with my life. My biggest passions were acting and the NBA, but I clearly lacked self-awareness. I told him I wanted to be an actor or play in the NBA. He told me “Too many people say, ‘Follow your passion.’ Passions are hobbies. You can be passionate about your hobbies, but you’re going to like your career if you’re good at that job. Find out what you’re good at, and you’ll start to like that career. Eventually, that career will become your passion.”

I thought that was boringly non-idealistic but it stuck with me. Later in life I realized what great advice it was. I enjoyed being good at what I did. The more success I achieved, the more I grew to love the work. Today, my work is my absolute passion.

Adam: How do you pay it forward?

John: If we focus on developing great leaders, everyone benefits, from the team, to the company, to society at large. I take pride in seeing various people that I have worked with become fantastic leaders, within LegalZoom or in new pursuits. I borrowed practices from many mentors along the way, and I hope my “best hits” list contributes to those around me. Every six months, we take the top 200 or so leaders of LegalZoom through a day of professional development, investing in their continuous growth.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

John: Basketball. Watching the Lakers build a dynasty and then struggle through a transition soon to come back on top is a great lesson for leadership. Sports analogies are often over-used, and I am guilty as self-charged, but the dynamics of players and coaching are powerful.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

John: A lot has been written about disruptive and
innovative companies. For LegalZoom, innovation simply represents examining an
age old problem from a different perspective, and then building solutions that
solve for price, service, and quality in unprecedented ways. We operate in an industry that has changed
very little over the last 40 years and relies on precedence to guide the
future. We don’t believe in innovation
for its own sake. We are trying to
solve a problem using every available tool at our disposal. At some point, a solution breaks the
traditional tradeoffs of price, service, or quality (where you can pick no more
than 2 of the 3) so dramatically, and you are labeled a disruptive
innovator. We would be content if our
mission could be accomplished through a more traditional approach… our goal
is to democratize law. However, when
all other means have failed, you must try something different.

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