Geoff Dunnett trained as a solicitor in the City and worked as a Project Finance lawyer for a US firm until he left to work for a small firm that focusses on startups. After going on to do the Barclays TechStars Accelerator Program, he now works as Director of International Growth for Shieldpay, a startup escrow payments system that hopes to soon be global and which he describes working for as “super fun!”
mtl: Hi Geoff, please can you tell us about your legal career and why you wanted to move on from it?
After a degree in Modern Languages, I trained at Mayer Brown and qualified into Project Finance at Milbank. At around 2yrs PQE I realised that I wanted more real responsibility and to manage my own cases and clients. In a big private practice environment that was a long way off. The level of personal satisfaction that I got from the work wasn’t high enough to be sustainable as I was always working to help realise someone else’s project rather than creating something myself. I wanted ownership in some way of what I was doing.
So at that point, I began looking at what else I could do. Rather than jumping into the unknown, I began to go to startup and networking events and I took Escape the City’s Startup MBA weekend course. That was a real eye-opener as I met people who’d taken massive leaps of faith in their own careers.
The next step of my exit plan was to join up with an accountant friend to set up a consultancy practice which we called “Startup Capital Advisors.” We did sweat equity advisory work for a few startups including a coffee substitute product, a pop-up becoming a restaurant chain, a personalised chocolate maker and a CV validation business. We put a lot of time and effort into the business on top of our day jobs, providing general business advice, negotiating with partners, grant and loan applications, financial modelling and covering off the legal aspects too. We learnt a lot and in areas we had little expertise on, but were related to our skillsets. Despite the work feeling meaningful, we realised that the model was floored as early stage companies often don’t have much cash and we therefore had no liquidity ourselves!
In the meantime, still looking for something I could create, I came across a small Australian law firm called General Standards with a sole practitioner in London who was focussing on startups. We met up a few times to discuss a grand vision of a tech led law firm powered by document automation. I resigned from Milbank and joined him. We spent the next 18 months working together with over 150 clients and I did a variety of work from employment contracts and trademarking to investment rounds with angels.
mtl: So what happened, why aren’t you still there?
We were so busy doing client work that we had no time to build the tech side of the firm, so I was still “just” doing law. I decided to explore other avenues away from law. I knew the Barclays Techstars Accelerator Program very well and decided to apply for the role of business associate. I was successful and started in January 2017. This gave me the chance to work with ten of the world’s premier fintech startups and it was the best three months ever! I worked on product development, funding, business plans, growth hacking as well as going to meetings with clients and Barclays.
One of the companies on the Program that I particularly liked was Shieldpay and they offered me a job. Shieldpay is an instant digital escrow provider with a mission to eliminate online payment fraud and allow everyone everywhere to transact in total confidence.
mtl: Tell us what you do at Shieldpay…
I came into the business as part of the founding team and wearing many hats. Initially I helped with the final steps of our FCA authorisation and setting up the base compliance framework and legal contracts. Since then, I’ve worked on developing our products and in business development and I am now on the enterprise side of the business. We’ve created a platform for payment solutions for Third Party Managed Accounts, ultimately replacing the need for law firms to hold client monies, with an initial focus on M&A, Real Estate and Fundraising. The highlight of my time there so far was recently when we did the first fully digital property transaction in the UK with Barclays acting as the lender and Premier Property Lawyers as the conveyancer.
My current job title is “Director of International Growth” and my focus is on getting regulated in as many jurisdictions as possible as quickly as possible. We are opening in New York soon with Singapore, India, Canada and the rest of Europe to follow.
A typical day involves getting in early (not a problem due to my baby daughter’s sleep patterns) and then I spend a lot of the day on calls explaining the enterprise proposition to lenders and lawyers. I work on product updates, which I discuss with developers and although we have a head of legal, I still do some law as its a startup and we have to do a bit of everything. I also lobby government, regulators and organisations as well as managing the sales pipeline and making sure we are on top of it as well as finding new targets.
My days are like being on a rollercoaster with successes followed by lows from firefighting and the odd mission critical issue. It is emotionally draining but fulfilling every day and I feel totally invested in the business and its vision.
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Do your homework before leaving law or trying to get into startups as it is not all rose tinted. Take your time and upskill yourself while you are still working in a law firm. Listen to audiobooks, attend weekend conferences and networking events, read, build your own website etc while doing what you know as you need to know that you are going to like what you want to move into before you jump.
I’ve had to put financial gain to the side for now, which is something that you should think through before attempting a leap. For example, my wife, baby daughter and I have moved in with my parents to save money…
mtl: Any regrets about doing law first?
No, being a lawyer has helped me in a number of ways. Working at two top firms has given me a rigour and professionalism that has enabled me to establish myself in this new area. Also I know I can work for two days straight and not be bothered by it, which is a useful skill! I’ve found the network I gained from the legal industry very valuable. I genuinely feel like I have the safety net of going back to law if I need to and that I would take a huge amount of industry and practical problem solving experience with me. I would enjoy law more now if I went back to it…!
mtl: Thanks for your time Geoff.
You can see the Shield Pay website here.
You can see the Barclays TechStars Website here.
You can read about how Shieldpay benefited by being part of TechStars here.
2004 - 2008
2011 - 2013
Trainee, Mayer Brown
2013 - 2015
Startup Capital Advisors
2015 - 2017
Barclays Techstars Accelerator Program