How are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Toby Unwin: We’re doing well. There haven’t been many cases near us; I buy practically everything from Amazon anyway. When I discovered Amazon Fresh, there was no longer a need to go to the supermarket for food. We’re very fortunate that we live in a World where work from home is easy, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. Things are bought to our doorsteps, the average person with a smartphone has access to more information than President Clinton did when he was in office. We can collaborate, and video chat with friends and family across the world for free. Imagine doing months of lockdown without the internet…
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Premonition
Toby Unwin: Once upon a time, I got sued a lot, and it really pissed me off. America is the lawsuit capital of the world, and I’ve been sued for things like not having an elevator in a 1-floor shopping center that I owned. I discovered that many of the lawyers I was hiring weren’t actually all that good, despite being “highly esteemed,” and that many of the best lawyers didn’t advertise, nor were widely known. I realized this was a data problem. If I could get court data, I could crunch it to find out which lawyers won which case types before which Judges.
I have a multi-disciplinary background and knew enough about business, tech, and law to realize when Clerks of Court refused to provide me data from the public record that the way to go was to scrape their websites. We do thousands of these in 12 countries every hour now. We’re the biggest litigation database in the world, bigger than LexisNexis™, Thomson Reuters™, and Bloomberg™ combined. We know which lawyers win before which Judges. It’s a very, very unfair advantage in litigation. It quickly became clear that good business was to be made around that information, and Premonition was formed.
How does Premonition innovate?
Toby Unwin: Innovation isn’t complicated; you take an idea from one area and apply it in another. The problem is corporate hiring practices emphasize specialists over generalists, though nearly every breakthrough has come from people outside the field. I’ve worked in many different areas and read over 5,000 books on every subject you can imagine, so I constantly see areas where people could be doing something exponentially better. If you’re setting out to change an industry, it helps if that industry is hopelessly antiquated and inefficient.
Law is perfect from that respect; there are many opportunities for Perception Reality Arbitrage. We are constantly building new tools to make our existing products better and capable of doing new things. Once they’re built, it’s easy to see that if we had X or Y other modules, then the system would be capable of doing things that no one else can see, let alone do. The cycle repeats itself constantly.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Toby Unwin: We’re in tech, so it’s been a major benefit. Microsoft reported 3 years of tech adoption in 3 months. We might have even seen more. Walking down the corridor and putting a note on someone’s desk no longer works. Companies need tech and lots of it. If they’re going to buy tech, they may as well buy something great. They look around and see we can do things that no one else can; thus, they reach out to us, no more outbound sales. What was usually a 5 person call with one asshole issue spotting things so he wouldn’t have to do anything new, is now 18-20 engaged people asking good questions and trying to find a way to make our solutions fit. “We don’t know what we want, but we want everything” is something we hear surprisingly often. We’ve always been a very distributed business with most of our people in India, the US, and the UK, so work from home is pretty much business as normal.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Toby Unwin: Not really, we’ve always been well set up with collaborative tools, Google Suite, etc. It’s been the rest of the industry, realizing that they don’t need to be in the office, and many repetitive clerical tasks can be automated. We’ve had dashboards for about 5 years. We’ll build a dashboard to measure a problem before we think about how we might solve it, because, as Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Also, just because you fix something once doesn’t mean it will stay fixed. Dashboards become alerts, and the bots watch your business for you, letting you know when something is amiss so that you can focus on new issues.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Premonition in the future?
Toby Unwin: I triage problems into monetary or non-monetary, things I can control or things I can’t, then prioritize them. If I can’t control it, I don’t spend time on it (though I may monitor it), if it’s a monetary problem, what’s the return on investment? The highest ROI stuff is done first; the rest is scheduled or deleted. So, personally, I’m mainly focused on non-monetary issues that I have some control over. I set my goals, turn them into every more manageable action points, pick the lead domino, and work on it. Each project has a folder, and I set a time on my calendar on when I need to work on it next. Gradually it all gets done. I set 5-year goals then break them down. I’ve found out the hard way that plans beyond 5 years are nothing more than dreams; there are so many random elements in life that are beyond your control.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Toby Unwin: This is usually the point where an entrepreneur claims they have no competitors, and the Venture Capitalist rolls his eyes. In truth, we have hundreds of thousands of competitors; however most of their offerings are difficult to compare to ours. Law firms offer “expertise” and “success” in court, though rarely put numbers to this. Alternative fee structures and technical innovation appear frequently in their promotional material, but rarely on their invoices. There are, outside of the big 3, about a dozen companies that provide court data. We have more coverage than all of them combined.
Staying in the game is easy (for us) – Courts get harder and harder to scrape, our competitors actually lose coverage, and then approach us to acquire data in those areas. Technically, we’re many years ahead of the industry, and I don’t see that changing. On the business side, we’ve lagged. We’re interested in partnerships in verticals like finance, insurance, and law. Data acquisition and automation is a key strength that can be applied nearly anywhere.
Your final thoughts?
Toby Unwin: 2020 has been crazy, and it’s not over yet. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future,” but a potentially fraught US election and 2nd+ waves of COVID mean that the crazy train won’t be reaching the station any time soon. We have seen that when we can put politics to one side and focus on raw data to make decisions, they tend to be better ones. Better data drives better tech. Tech is good, tech works, tech will save the day.