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Success Story: Benjamin Kern: Juggling Technology Startup and Law Firm Partnership

JD Bliss (JDB):  You’ve achieved success in law as a partner at a technology law firm and in business as founder of your own technology company, Canary Wireless. When you started law school, did you envision that kind of dual track for yourself?

Kern:  It’s difficult to consciously construct a career that way.  My approach was to follow my own interests, and that included a longstanding interest in business.  I majored in English and Japanese as an undergraduate because I thought those would be useful business skills, and I entered law school at Cornell because I perceived the law as training that could apply in many directions.  However, I found it to be more of a trade school than I expected.  The law teaches you to think logically, but mainly in the context of being a lawyer.  After my first year in law school I decided to switch to Cornell Business School for a full year, then combined both fields of study for a third year to graduate in 1997 with a J.D. and an M.B.A.

JDB:  How did you develop your focus on technology in your legal and business careers?

Kern:  Technology was a major personal interest.  I’m a longtime computer hobbyist, and my brother and I built our first personal computer from a kit in 1980.  I’ve been a heavy email user since the latter 80s, and became a regular on the Internet after I started at Cornell.  With law and business degrees it was natural for me to become a corporate lawyer, and I started in practice doing M&A and securities work with a big Chicago firm.  I really enjoyed that experience, and in the late 90s enjoyed even more the few deals I did with technology companies.  I chose in 1999 to join my current firm, Gordon & Glickson, because they’ve been working with technology companies for 25 years and are one of the few firms in the Midwest with that kind of focus.

JDB:  What technology companies have you worked with, and what have you done for them?

Kern:  I’ve done a lot of work for a big wireless carrier, but have gotten involved with companies that have a variety of high tech applications:  nanotechnology, computer hardware, innovative component suppliers.  When I started working with technology companies my main emphasis was on venture capital and other financing transactions for emerging companies.  Now I counsel larger and more established buseinsses on licensing and technology transactions, and represent emerging companies on a range of corporate matters – choosing the right entity form, developing business plans, preparing for an IPO or other securities offering.

JDB:  That all sounds pretty standard.  Conceiving a new technology product and starting your own company to bring it to market definitely isn’t.  What was the genesis of your company, Canary Wireless?

Kern:  I use the Internet for everything I do.  With wireless Internet access – particularly using Wi-Fi – I can be anywhere, do anything and access anything that I can from my desk in my office.  The trick is to find a Wi-Fi signal.  One day more than two years ago I was sitting in an airport in southern Illinois, where I’d gone for a client presentation, and spent five minutes unpacking and booting up my laptop trying to spot a Wi-Fi network without success.  The unadvertised free ones, which are often offered by bars and restaurants in airports as a marketing tool, are particularly tough to find.  It occurred to me that I could do a real service to other Wi-Fi users, and myself, by developing a product that would tell whether a Wi-Fi network is available, how strong it is, and whether it is encrypted.  Based on my work with wireless companies, I thought I knew just what features such a product should have, and started to talk to people about bringing that idea to life.

JDB:  How did you handle the nuts and bolts – the product design and development?

Kern:  There are other wireless detectors on the market that indicate a network is present, but don’t tell you much more than that.  I wanted a handheld device with a digital display to provide detailed information about the access point, the name of the network and encryption status.  I was referred to a group of developers who were formerly engineers at Motorola before they joined together to form a technology consulting company, Delta Mobile.  They designed the technical pieces of the product, and used their contacts in Asia to come up with production sources.  We wanted something that was simple, small and low cost.  We used the Canary Wireless name to evoke the “canary in the coalmine” metaphor –miners used canaries to alert them to the presence of dangerous gasses.  The result was the Digital Hotspotter that we began selling for $49.95 through our company web site,

JDB:  With your corporate law background, did you actually form the company itself?

Kern:  I formed the company, but actually launching the business proved to be much more complex than I expected.  I’d been on the phone doing this type of work with clients for years, but I found that it’s very different when you’re the person in the driver’s seat.  We announced the availability of our device early in November 2004.  That was almost a year later than planned due to the complexities of raising capital, sourcing production and establishing distribution.  We still are selling only through our web site, and have been dealing with customers from around the world:  Britain, Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands, Russia, throughout Asia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Australia, to name some.

JDB:  Particularly intriguing to many attorneys will be the fact that you’ve remained with your firm – in fact, were even named a partner – even as Canary Wireless has gotten off the ground.  How did you arrange that, and what parameters, for example with billable hours, do you have?

Kern:  In my own case the combination has been made possible by a special set of circumstances that might not be as readily available to other attorneys.  I work for a progressive firm with a large number of technology clients. My work with my own company is an advertisement that we have the kind of commitment to technology and hands-on experience that makes us more valuable advisors to clients in their own technology businesses.  All of the attorneys in my firm are focused on technology applications, and they have given me a lot of support and help.  The timing of my becoming partner was really incidental to the announcement of my company’s formation – I had planned to go to market in 2003, and knew by the time I was ready to announce the product in 2004 that I was coming up for partner consideration.  The firm was really great about it, and even announced to me the partnership decision using the display on the device.  Other than that, though, I continue to have my same client responsibilities and the same billable hour targets as my fellow partners.  The only real difference is that I can combine a lot of my efforts with Canary and my non-billable business development time, because of the marketing value to the firm of Canary’s visibility.

JDB:  Doesn’t having two full-time careers produce some difficult time management issues?

Kern:  Well, I really have three careers, because I also have a family with young children.  And yes, the time pressures can be considerable:  a 14- to 16-hour day is the norm for me.  The use of technology, especially Wi-Fi, is one big reason why my schedule is possible.  Another factor is that my work with Canary is what I term “lumpy” – there are periods of intensive activity followed by less active periods, and in both of them I have a number of other people I can rely on for help.  Really, my schedule as a lawyer is the one that has less flexibility, because the client demands are steady and ongoing.  But for the foreseeable future everything seems manageable, and I don’t feel any real pressure to choose between being a lawyer and an entrepreneur.

JDB:  What about lawyers who have similar entrepreneurial ambitions – do they have to make a choice between either business or the law?

Kern:  Unless you have exactly the right situation, as I do, I think you almost have to choose.  Being an entrepreneur is harder than I thought it would be because there’s so much uncertainty.  And you can’t just say, “Today I’m going to become an entrepreneur.”  I believe that you really need a substantial and long-term interest in any activity that you want to pursue as a business – get deeply involved first, and then see how you can use your training as a lawyer to foster it.  A legal practice can be a great tool for building a business foundation, just as my counseling of wireless companies and startups was really the foundation for Canary Wireless.