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Erik Vollebregt – How to build a successful niche business

In this episode, Erik Vollebregt, Partner at Axon Lawyers, talks to Elena about how he managed to build a successful niche business. Erik explains how he uses his golden triangle recruitment approach to employ unicorns, why letting employees choose their work gadgets brings unexpected results and leaving a legacy is not something that keeps him up at night.

How a little-known field turned out to be a golden opportunity

Eric started his career back in 1998 as a lawyer in European intellectual property. It was a natural progression after he completed his studies in Sweden. He was working in Amsterdam for a large law firm when he was chosen to carry the flag for life sciences regulation. Later, when medical devices regulations became a bigger topic, he jumped at the opportunity to add it to his specialities. No one else was offering expertise in the combination of life sciences and medical devices regulation and his practice became very successful.

So successful, that eventually, he started his own law firm. His wife’s idea to start doing something on his own also had a lot to do with it. Loyal clients were ready to follow him for his expertise and the competitive fees he was able to offer them.

How do you compete with the Goliaths of the legal world?

I feel a smaller firm has the advantage to service their clients better as long as they have a niche carved out. I would say that my clients don’t make a decision to hire legal services based on how big the firm is. They value that the highly specialist areas I cover may be underrepresented at a big name firm, or left out of representation altogether.

A select number of outstanding, highly specialised experts make up my team. Not only are they experts in law, but they also offer complimentary practices and backgrounds, such as medicine, biochemistry or genetics.

What I found is that running a niche practice really makes a difference to my clients. They want lawyers who understand them without having to explain things twice. They need legal advice from specialists who have already concluded their learning curve, built their networks, market share and established themselves as experts. Why should they pay to educate the people at the law firm at their expense? It can end up being a needlessly expensive and frustrating experience.

Smaller businesses have a better setup and hit the ground faster. They can invest in developing and sharing knowledge. Clients appreciate and will know you for that.

What’s your advice for people who are thinking about starting their own company?

      • Accept that it will take some time to get the business up and running, maybe even a year.
      • Do not spend too much time on the planning.Their value is relative to the time when they were created and could be worthless a week after your start because you need to adapt to changes in the market.
      • Prepare yourself to have to deal with a lot of admin and hassle. Dropped your phone? Too bad. No more IT department to come to your desk and hand you a new one. You have to go and buy yourself another one or fix it.
      • Tax, pension, legalities. It’s all up to you now.
      • Marketing, advertisement, branding. If you don’t want to have to take time out and do a degree in promoting your business, just use my foolproof system. I call it isometrical marketing – maximum impact with minimum means. Make use of blogs and social media to build a community and turn up at events in person to offer advice.
      • Be generous and share valuable insight for free. You’ll get your investment back several folds. People will know you as the person to go to and you’ll never be short of clients.

What are the biggest challenges to date?

The biggest one is me, myself and I.

I found myself suddenly in charge, responsible for other people. How do I become a good boss, employer, leader, educator and mentor? How do I micromanage less? How do I work with all these different people when I enjoy working alone the most?

To deal with the rest of the world, you need “me time”. I had to go from a hyperactive 20 something to be able to run a company with people working for me. I tried all sorts of things and learned that yoga, spiritual work and the occasional scuba dive are all my tools to bridge difficult times.

‘Hell is other people’

Then, the second challenge is other people.

It’s not all about me anymore or how I empower others to make me shine at all costs. I let others excel in what they’re best at. I aim to provide exciting and challenging work and people are happy to turn up , do more and go beyond the minimum effort.

Taking care of unicorns and rainbows

I use my Golden Triangle method to hire these mythical figures that work in my office. They must excel at all three sides of the triangle: law, regulatory know-how and technical training or background.

Highly intelligent, science-based lawyers are extremely hard to find. You need to look after them well. They are mostly introverts and tend to forget themselves. I give them the option to work from home with no mandatory office-based hours. I let them choose their laptops or mobile phones so that they have a twinkle in their eyes when they work on them. Small gestures go a long way.

People are reasonable when you are reasonable with your expectations. I am open to annual salary negotiations and you’d be surprised what makes people happy. It’s not always a wad of money that they want.

Who are the most influential people in your life?

Every now and then someone comes to my life and either knocks me over or gives me a small nudge. To name a few who knocked me over, I’d start with a Professor at the University of Stockholm. He did a great deal for me during my studies and immediately after.

A partner at the Düsseldorf office of Clifford Chance invested a lot in my life sciences practice and pulled many strings to see my success. He was very patient with me.

Peter Bogaert, of Covington and Burling, is my living inspiration for all things to do with my field of expertise.

If you could go back to your 20’s...

I would tell myself to worry less. Things will turn out just fine. I don’t think I would tell myself to do anything differently.

I believe in karma and the wheel of Saṃsāra. Keep repeating mistakes until you get it right, and when you do, you’ll escape the grip of the hamster wheel.

What is the legacy you want to leave on the world?

I’m not really working on leaving a legacy. I’d rather impact this moment positively and leave a legacy on the moment. How can I do this right now? Make it better for people to be around me, help clients and employees meet their goals, be a good father and husband and live life with less regret.

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