Adam La France’s journey into the world of startups and legal tech is one with many twists and turns. A well-spoken and easygoing lawyer by trade, Adam was kind enough to share the insights of his journey from a 2014 McGill Dobson Cup finalist to building Knomos as a company, and also his personal accomplishments and challenges along the way.
From Toronto & Ottawa to the Caribbean and Back
Growing up in Toronto, Adam moved down the 401 to Ottawa for his bachelor’s degree in Human Rights & Law at Carleton University. While he enjoyed his undergraduate studies, Adam’s adventurous side took him to the Caribbean where he taught sailing in the Turks and Caicos islands. It was here where he met his future wife, while they both worked at a local resort at the time. After spending a few years in the beautiful string of islands, Adam decided it was time to come to frigid Montreal to pursue his studies in law at McGill.
At first, he was interested in studying international humanitarian law but as time progressed, he realized that it was the intersection between law and applied technology where his true passions lay. But the idea for Knomos was born perhaps not solely out of Adam’s new-found passion for legal tech but also his unique style of visual learning. The first kernel of Knomos was created during one of the typical coffee-fueled evenings studying during bar school. Using a tool called a ‘mind-map’ — a tree-diagram used to sort information — as a study aid to help fit together the complexities of the law, Adam saw a gap in its basic functionality and the precise need he required.
From a study tool perspective, these mind-maps were effective but they did not directly tie-into other source material essential to understanding the mechanics of the legal system. Not only that, but his notes were not shareable and were not housed within a dynamic platform:
“As a visual learner, I needed a bird’s eye view of the material so I could understand a specific topic — I wanted to be able to see how all the information fits together. I found that the tools needed to get that overview simply did not exist in law. When you read the law itself, you have a micro-view of different parts but you never get the bigger perspective.”
The Epiphany & The McGill Dobson Cup
It was from this absence of a specific tool for law that Adam realized he needed to make his idea into a reality. He wanted to build a platform that would help visualize and sort all of the moving pieces within the law; it would allow the user to rearrange the different sources of law into a way they wanted. But he needed a little help on the technical side. Like any good story involving serendipity, a bit of chance and a bit of luck led Adam to meeting his cofounder. It was through his personal connections to EA Montreal that helped Adam meet Jesse, a gregarious and energetic video game developer with a penchant for visual information. It was the unlikely marriage between each cofounder’s respective domain expertise of law, technology and video games that helped breathe the first fibres of life into Knomos.
“Here’s someone with an extensive background, who is terrific at building large-scale projects in the software and video-game industry. He knew how video-games could succeed or fail. When I explained the project to Jesse, the first thing that came to his mind was how he could apply his knowledge in a novel way with the law.”
Having heard of the McGill Dobson Cup Start-UP Competition, the team set their sights on building a proof-of-concept, to show that it was even possible. The team built an attractive demo which Adam compares to a Rorschach Inkblot Test, in the sense that it allowed the team to put something abstract yet tangible enough in front of customers, lawyers and investors, and test their ideas.
It was with this feedback that Adam and Jesse went back to the drawing board and set out to ask further fundamental questions such as: how to create and support a business that would generate revenue, how to show specific customer segments that they had a business solving problems with slick features? Adam credits the McGill Dobson Cup with forcing him to answer those questions, particularly, how Knomos could become a viable business and not just a fun project.
It was through the rigorous process of building a business plan that allowed the team to sit down and flesh out specific details on their strategy on becoming a profitable and scalable business moving forward.
After submitting their executive summary, Adam and Jesse received a message letting them know that they had moved on to Phase 2, where they would be able to pitch their idea in front of a panel of judge-mentors. It was during this phase where the founders of Knomos met Grant Yim, a judge-mentor and First-Place McGill Dobson Cup Winner from 2013.
It was Grant’s advice and feedback on focusing on customer segments and how to make a better pitch which helped the team achieve the next level. “He told us to read the Art of the Pitch because for an audience to believe your pitch, they had to first believe in you. He pushed us to present in a relatable way that allows everyone to believe in you and then your vision.”
This advice allowed the team to focus their effort between phase 2 and phase 3 of the Cup. They also realized that the larger opportunity in the Cup would come from the experience and exposure to the world-class judge-mentors, not the prize money.
Adam understood that it was what he had to gain from the process itself and not the actual outcome. Kicking into high-gear, Adam and Jesse started to focus on what they could accomplish in the present moment rather than trying to stretch themselves too thin and fix multiple problems: “We realized that if you try to be everything to everyone then you are nothing to no one.”
It was during this time that the duo focused on building a compelling value proposition and core product for one specific segment of the market. Thus, Knomos’ trademark user interface was developed, in addition to a more complete and convincing pitch. Taking this new minimum-viable-product (MVP) into the final phase to pitch in front of a new set of judges, the team wowed the panel.
“The bigger win is not the money but the experience.”
After the McGill Dobson Cup, the McGill Dobson Centre invited teams, including Knomos, to fly down to San Francisco for an exclusive Silicon Valley networking opportunity. During this time teams toured the head offices of Zendesk Operations, Artis Ventures, Roblox, the Canadian Trade Commission and more.
“People focus too hard on winning or losing. For us, we realized that the Cup was a means to an end, whether it was feedback or the incredible networking opportunities and the chance to participate in the San Francisco tour. We understood that you become part of an ecosystem, which is invaluable.”
Sound advice for aspiring Dobson Cup Participants
“Quite simply, you don’t know unless you try”. Adam emphasizes the point that the McGill Dobson Cup offers a great framework to experiment: with its supporting events on legal information, financial workshop and pitch workshops, the Cup gives teams every chance to improve themselves. Adam also noted that one should take the feedback that the judge-mentors give to heart, and to invest in long-term relationships with the broader community. “By putting that type of level of effort in, we received so much more in return than had we try to do everything ourselves or just throwing in an application to see how far it could go.” The Cup creates a sense of urgency according to Adam, so it is in his humble opinion that teams put in a serious application but get should ready to work hard throughout the process!
Knomos Today: From Dobson Cup Finalist to nearly $1M in funding and a deal with the Supreme Court
After the McGill Dobson Cup, the team took the judge-mentor advice and started working tirelessly on making the MVP of Knomos a reality. After a few months, Adam and Jesse knew that they had reached a point where they needed funding to scale the company’s growth. That’s when they saw applications open for the Canadian Media Fund (CMF) — a fund traditionally reserved for film, television and language projects — but had an interesting experiential stream which Adam believed Knomos could be eligible for. “The CMF was a darkhorse but it came with Jesse’s experience in the video game industry. In 2010 the CMF launched an experiential stream that funds innovative and interactive digital media projects.
We are by no means a traditional applicant, in fact we’re only one of twenty-two companies who received funding as part of our round.” It was for this reason that when the team received the e-mail letting them know their submission had been accepted and they would receive funding for just under $700,000 that they had the confidence and financial flexibility to move forward. “The funding sent a really strong signal of market validation, the government saw that there was a real problem with access to justice and the value of what we’re building. It shows that there’s real need to innovate within the legal industry.”
So what’s next for Knomos?
Since the Cup and the CMF, the team brought in a third cofounder, James Abney, who was able to build a functioning version of the platform. Like the Dobson Cup, the CMF provided a greater peripheral benefit, one of networks, to the team. “With that successful application, we were able to get the buy-in from key industry stakeholders such as with the BC Government and the Supreme Court of Canada, so all their key decisions will be hosted on our platform.”
Thinking about the long-term vision, Adam hints at the platform’s cross-disciplinary potential. “We are the Wikipedia for Canadian Law and so much more.”