INSIDE THE MIND OF AN ENTREPRENEUR: AARON GARD

aaron-hassan-200x300This past summer, Aaron Gard joined the Forrest Firm as an attorney with a practice focused on assisting entrepreneurs. After playing varsity soccer and earning his undergraduate degree at UNC Chapel Hill, Aaron received his law degree from American University.  He then embarked on his legal career in the Houston, Texas office of Jones Day, one of the world’s most well respected international law firms.

Upon his return to North Carolina, Aaron reunited with one of his UNC teammates, Hassan Pinto, to build GreatestFan, a collection of businesses known for promoting sports properties, including Blue Blood Rivalry, which celebrates the Duke-UNC rivalry through multimedia, live events and consumer products.

The Forrest Firm blog recently sat down with Aaron to discuss his journey, which began at Jones Day, but changed paths so that he could pursue entrepreneurial dreams of his own.

Forrest Firm:  What sparked your interest in entrepreneurship?

Aaron Gard:  In pursuing a traditional legal career, I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t have any attorneys in my family to help me understand what practicing law was all about, so I relied on family friends to learn what I could. But there I was, starting my job at “Big Law” firm Jones Day, grinding away, learning each day and getting my feet wet in the legal world.

After practicing for five years, I thought to myself, “I’m not locked into this!” In my legal advisory role, I naturally kept meeting others with law degrees who were doing other things in business.  I thought I could do that too, and it would be fun.

Forrest Firm: You’ve made a conscious decision to be both a lawyer and entrepreneur.  Why do you remain committed to both careers?

Aaron Gard: Starting a business can be stressful. When you work on entrepreneurial projects, they’re typically not financially rewarding out of the gate. However, once things get rolling, the sense of accomplishment makes everything worthwhile. I find that I’m most satisfied when I’m able to use my legal background as part of a team and help build a business.

I’m finally at a place where I’m working on cool, interesting projects and not confined to a particular box.  I look at my career now as a portfolio—I want to be diversified. Since “Big Law” alone wasn’t satisfying all my career needs, I’ve added other eggs to the basket. Working at the Forrest Firm is great because it affords me the flexibility to work on multiple projects while simultaneously developing my legal practice.

Forrest Firm: How do you balance your efforts as a lawyer and entrepreneur?

Aaron Gard: When multiple projects come to fruition, I find myself as busy as I want to be, working on fun and challenging issues.  I’m no longer reliant on one source of income like when my head was buried in prior law firm jobs.  Rather, I now have multiple income streams and get to work on interesting projects of my choosing. I’ve struck a nice balance that works for me.  I know many lawyers who aren’t happy with their traditional practice, and it appears to be common across the industry. Many have substantial law school debt, work long hours, or aren’t happy with the type of projects they’re working on.

For me, it’s about having the freedom to work on different things that interest me. The longer I’m away from traditional law firm practice, the more emboldened I am to try more! I’m consistently in the community, making new contacts and building relationships. For every person I meet, I think about how we can work together, what are the synergies. In my old job, I was never encouraged to do that, so I never did.  Now, as I continue to explore my entrepreneurial and legal sides, I’m constantly bringing people together, building relationships, and brokering deals.

It’s an ethos, really, that helps me achieve the right balance. I surround myself with intelligent people and build relationships. Then, we see where we can help each other.

Forrest Firm:  How has your law background helped in your entrepreneurial pursuits?

Aaron Gard: The degree alone catches people’s attention and is always a source of discussion. I impress upon all our clients, but particularly entrepreneurs, the importance of having competent attorneys, accountants, and other advisors involved early in the process. My legal and entrepreneurial experience gives clients a level of comfort, and it helps to establish me as a more valuable part of their team.

I really love the other aspects of building a business, such as sales, marketing and building out operations. My transactional experience helps me structure a wide variety of deals.

With regard to risk management, attorneys are trained to think worst case scenario. Ironically, we’re trained to defend our clients from our own kind! While planning for the worst can be an effective mindset for an attorney, it can be counterproductive for an entrepreneur. The trick for me has been learning when to think like an attorney and when to think like an entrepreneur. Knowing when to wear these different hats has been the key to my success.

Forrest Firm: Has your experience as an entrepreneur made you a better lawyer?

Aaron Gard: Sure. It’s granted me access to so many more people and opened doors to the diverse projects people are working on both in the Research Triangle and elsewhere. My company, GreatestFan, has an office at American Underground in Durham.  I learn so much from all the great folks at AU—simply by working in that environment, we have access to great people in venture capital and private equity, as well as our fellow entrepreneurs working in a wide variety of fields. There are so many great people with very diverse backgrounds. They challenge me as a lawyer to fit in, and that’s the greatest impact that they bring to my law practice, forcing me to be more adaptable to more people and their needs.

Forrest Firm: What questions or challenges do your fellow entrepreneurs articulate to you in conversation?

Aaron Gard: The questions we get vary on where they are in the development of their company. If they’re in the infancy of the business, it’s about what kind of entity do I need to set up, what are the advantages of having an LLC vs S Corp, etc.

Entrepreneurs also need a lot of help on the business development front. Once they have their concept ready to launch, they think, now what do we do to get people to use our product/service? As a strategist, I help them think through issues and leverage their relationships to cultivate clients and eventually build revenue.  One thing I like to show them is how to structure fee agreements to help them build strong referral sources.

Their questions change as their companies grow. After those initial steps are taken, we get into questions centered on raising money to fund more growth.  Are you at a stage that requires angel investment, or are you beyond that, looking to bring in private equity or venture capital? They need to know the implications of taking on investment from different sources and how to structure those deals. The younger a company is, the more difficult it can be to value. This makes raising investment capital tricky, but it’s an issue I enjoy working through with our clients.