Mentor Insights: It takes a village to raise a child, a good network to grow a startup

This past spring, I had the wonderful opportunity to mentor the Knomos team during their involvement in Microsoft’s Machine Learning Accelerator in Seattle. Knomos is a web app that maps a visual knowledge network of legal information for research, education, and knowledge sharing (think Bing Maps for law). The Knomos platform leverages data visualization and deep machine learning technologies to bridge the legal knowledge gap for everyone. In today’s post, I’d like to share some insights from my experience.

Relationships Are Integral to Growing Startups

Microsoft Accelerator startup-mentor matching event

As the old adage goes: it takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, it takes a good network to grow a startup. One of the key advantages the Microsoft Accelerator program offers startups is access to a large pool of highly talented professionals. Having direct access to domain experts with the right set of knowledge and expertise provides a huge opportunity for startups to make connections they can leverage both during the program and after they graduate.

Building a robust network was one of the key things we focused on with the Knomos team during this program. We identified the company’s needs (technical and business) and synergies (market reach), then set out to make the right connections—connections Knomos could begin to leverage immediately and continue to build on in the future.

Knomos is building the next generation of legal research and knowledge management software, leveraging data visualization and Microsoft Azure’s suite of advanced machine learning capabilities.

Screen capture of the Knomos product

Critical to the product was the ability to ingest vast amounts of legal documents (e.g., laws and cases), cross-reference the citations between them, and index this data for quick retrieval to provide users with a clean, simple, and intuitive visualization. After our initial discussions, it was clear that some of the Azure suite of products would be an excellent fit, specifically Azure DocumentDB, which would be perfect to address the scale and indexing requirements. We then identified sessions the team could attend to better understand Azure and Azure DocumentDB, as well as the internal connections available for additional support and guidance to make the most of this technology.

Direct access to Microsoft internal resources accelerates onboarding and the development of key technologies. Microsoft's continued commitment to the success of our company means we can keep leveraging these resources as we stand up the next iteration of our product. -James Abney, Knomos CTO

On the business development side, one of Knomos’ key customer segments are lawyers in corporate legal departments and law firms. The Office 365 suite of products is the industry standard for these customers, used by the vast majority of all legal professionals. Here was an opportunity for potential synergy, where Knomos could seamlessly integrate with O365 to provide the rich data visualization capabilities of their platform on top of the enterprise software their target customers already know and trust.  What’s more, Knomos was able to further validate their product’s key features and value proposition by partnering with Microsoft’s internal legal department. This was an excellent opportunity to get feedback and potentially bring immediate value to the team.

Partnering with Microsoft’s legal department has been a game-changing opportunity for us. The pilot integration with Matter Center and Office 365 enables us to ensure that our enterprise product meets the needs of in-house counsel at every step. It also sends a strong signal to prospective customers and investors about the value of what we’re building. -Adam La France, Knomos CEO

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Sir Isaac Newton once famously said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Mentors, as part of the Microsoft Accelerator program, bring a wide range of experience and offer a foundation for startups to build upon.

Adam La France, Knomos Co-founder & CEO, at Seattle Demo Day

One of the key challenges we were looking to solve was moving the product in the right long-term direction with concrete short-term steps, which would result in incremental customer value. In order to accomplish that, we needed to build a clear execution strategy.

As part of the exercise to drive product focus and highlight clear customer value, we decided to try a few things that had worked for me in the past. I had the Knomos team write up a Press Release and FAQ for the product (commonly used at Amazon and with a lot of success). This pushed the team to work backwards from the customer’s perspective and helped crystalize the value prop and communicate it in a simple, easy-to-understand format.

It also helped the team to clearly think about the long-term vision for the product while challenging them to identify immediate and incremental customer value they can bring with their product. In Knomos CEO Adam La France’s words: “This process challenged us to think deeply about the product and the value it offers from customers’ perspectives. This really makes it easier to evaluate where to make investments in our product that consistently deliver high-value features to our customers.”

The Path to Success Requires Consistency and Determination

The arc towards becoming a successful enterprise can be long, and it depends on doing things every day to move the company in the right direction. Once there was consensus on the long-term vision and product features, we worked backwards to identify the key building blocks and the order of execution.

One of the guiding tenets we embraced was building features that helped increase the number of active users and that incentivized users to come back, contribute, and evangelize the platform. A sizable user base is critical for any platform to succeed. It helps the product team to move faster and iterate quickly. It is like a dragon boat race where the paddlers (users) on your boat (platform) are paddling (using and validating capabilities), and helping you move faster toward the finish line (success!). This thinking helped us determine the sequence of work and build the right layers. Over time, this approach will take the overall platform towards the full vision.

After four months, the accelerator program culminated in a Demo Day for both internal and external audiences. I am super excited for the team at Knomos and the product they are building. You can watch the full Knomos pitch in action below.

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Senior Program Manager, Microsoft
Aug 15, 2016