A passion for startups drove Sheryl Hunter to launch a super-specialized law firm. Clients are rolling in.
Company. Hunter Business Law/The Entrepreneur's Law firm Industry. Law, entrepreneurs Key. Firm's niche is with startups.
One lawyer joke in particular gets to Sheryl Hunter — the one about how attorneys are only around to kill deals.
“There's no reason for that,” says Hunter, an attorney since 1995. “It doesn't have to be that way.”
Hunter, 46, has been on a mission to rework that yarn for the last three years, since she founded Tampa-based Hunter Business Law. The fast-growing firm, in one sense, does what many other law practices do: help business clients with deals, contracts, patent protections and many more tasks. But unlike the dozens of firms that include business law in their practices, Hunter Business Law is hyper-niche on a specific class of business clients: entrepreneurs and newbies.
“Not many firms will take only startups and entrepreneurs, but those are the ones I get fired up about,” Hunter says. “Big firms aren't tailored to meet the needs of small businesses.”
Her mission stretches to the subtitle of the firm's name, The Entrepreneur's Law firm, for which Hunter was awarded a trademark for last October. Hunter says the model of the firm, run out of a two-story, 2,100-square-foot house in Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood, is to be like the general counsel down the hall for clients. She adds the firm, with five attorneys and two paralegals, is a management consultant for clients in addition to a law practice.
That's what drew Karri Zaremba, founder of Tampa-based startup Venuetize, which works with arenas and stadiums on improving fans' mobile experience during live events, to Hunter. Zaremba says her other, more expensive, law firm in Washington, D.C., missed and omitted several details in contract and other work Hunter caught. Zaremba also says Hunter is a top-notch connector, who uses her network generously to help clients.
“There are a lot of things she does that go deeper than just being an attorney,” says Zaremba, who started five companies prior to Venuetize. “She's also very good at cutting to chase, and in a startup, speed is the name of the game.”
Hunter has had a diverse career, in business and law. A graduate of Georgetown University School of Law, Hunter began her career with Carlton Fields, one of the largest law practices nationwide. She worked for the firm's Tampa office from 1995 to 1999. “It was a great firm,” she says, “but I wasn't a big law firm kind of girl.”
Since 1999, Hunter has made some non-traditional career decisions. Stops include: an attorney with the Nursing Home Abuse Law Center; a vice president and project manager for BVG Inc., a luxury real estate development firm with more than $700 million in projects, from Sarasota to Sandpoint, Idaho; a destination vacation club with $32 million in properties; general counsel for a commercial real estate company; and she started and ran an online education business for the elder care industry.
That varied experience, says Hunter, is a definitive advantage when she works with clients. “I'm just as much a businesswoman as I am an attorney,” she says. “I'm not just some attorney practicing law in an ivory tower.”
The firm recently surpassed 100 clients, who pay on a variety of fees, from retainer to hourly. Revenues grew 220% from 2013 to 2014 and another 108% last year, when they eclipsed $1 million. The firm meets with, on average, two to three new prospective clients a week. “We aren't cheap,” says Hunter. “We don't sell ourselves as a discount firm. But we are reasonable.”
Hunter moved the firm into its current home in July. She paid $508,000 for the building, according to Hillsborough County property records, and spent at least $100,000 on renovations and furniture. “It's been a wild ride,” says Hunter. “I feel so grateful for our growth.”
The firm has four practice groups: asset protection and business succession/estate planning; crowdfunding and capital raise; labor and employment; and helping buyand sell businesses.
One of the firm's attorneys who specializes in crowdfunding is Ajay Singh, who, like Hunter, has an entrepreneurial background. He was a CPA before he was a lawyer, and he worked for Deloitte & Touche and ran his own accounting firm. “I know the stress of owning your business and having it all on your shoulders,” says Singh. “But I also know the excitement of owning your own business.”
Join the club
The firm's clients are mostly in the Tampa region, with a few in Sarasota, Naples and other parts of Florida. Electronic medial record startups, software firms, biotech companies and even an e-cigarette business are among the eclectic list of companies with whom Hunter and her team works.
A solid amount of the clients are under 40, many under 30, and just about everyone dresses casually for office appointments, Hunter says. They wear jeans, mostly. The welcoming office decor fits that style — it has the feel of a startup, with open spaces, sleek furniture, and artsy accessories. A conference room doubles as a reading room, which the firm calls the lounge. “I want it to feel relaxed and kind of edgy,” she says. “Not like a traditional law firm.”
Hunter says that carries over to parking. One reason she chose Hyde Park over being in the thick of attorney action downtown is so clients wouldn't have to hassle with a parking garage and wait for an elevator.
The office is also the site for Club 119, a startup-centric service Hunter created, named after the building's address, 119 S. Dakota Ave. Hunter calls Club 119 a catchall for things outside traditional law services that are integral for startup success. Services, which run $95 a month for basic benefits or $150 for elite, include virtual tenant space, conference room use, notary services and a street mailing address.
Club 119 is also home to T.E.A., The Entrepreneur's Afternoon, a networking event for clients and non-clients. Many of those events are a who's who of Tampa's startup scene, and Zaremba, one Hunter's clients, is among several who say the connections made there are invaluable.
Hunter has more plans for Club 119. That includes startup workshops for early-stage entrepreneurs and a book club, where clients can share insights from business books and magazines.
The core purpose of all the non-law work, says Hunter, is to prepare her clients for success. “We don't want people to guess,” Hunter says. “We want them to understand the decisions they make.”
Hunter says her decision to go out on her own after working for a big firm at the start of her career has been the ultimate reward. One of the many perks is not having to constantly check in with a bureaucratic board of partners. “I love the freedom of running my own firm,” says Hunter. “It allows me to be entrepreneurial. I can take more risks.”
The Partner Trap
Tampa business attorney Sheryl Hunter, with a focus on startup and entrepreneurial business clients, has a major a project outside her fast-growing firm: helping business owners protect against, and possibly avoid, the problems with co-ownerships.
Hunter has handled six business divorces since 2014, and she has seen a few common themes. “Rarely are the challenges of owning a business with one or more people talked about candidly,” writes Hunter in one of several articles she's written on the topic, “leading far too many people to walk down the aisle and say 'I do' to a business marriage without adequate thought and planning.”
She calls it the partner trap, and she's writing a book on the topic. She also gives talks on the topic in the Tampa area. Here are some of Hunter's tips on how to stay out of the trap:
Avoid the crutch: Don't let insecurity about your business idea or invention lead you to a partner. Often times, Hunter says, the come-late partner takes more than he gives.
Consider alternatives: Knowing you need help with tasks and giving up ownership are vastly different. Finding people who can provide labor in exchange for sweat equity is a good way to start the process toward a partnership.
Date before you marry: Starting a business with a friend sounds nice, but it doesn't guarantee partnership success. The only way to test it, says Hunter, is to “work on professional projects together to determine whether compatibility felt over a glass of wine is sustainable when burdened by business demands.”
Understand your relationship: Recognize the dynamics of the partnership. For example, if one is a doer and the other is a dreamer, then compromises must be made.
Sign a business prenup: Don't cement a business marriage with a handshake. Items for an operating agreement, says Hunter, include ownership control percentages, equity stakes and profit shares.