Sally Yoon is an IPilogue Writer and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Kevin Keller is General Counsel at Super, a Series B startup with business verticals in travel, fintech and commerce. Before Super, Keller worked at many notable technological companies, such as Facebook, Microsoft, Instacart and Amazon. He is a first-generation college graduate who obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Brigham Young University and JD from New York University School of Law. Keller generously offered his time to the IPilogue to discuss his experiences to inspire law students interested in supporting startup companies.
How has your background as a first-generation college graduate influenced your approach to your legal career?
Those of us who are first-generation graduates can fall into one or two groups; some may be overly cautious and conservative with their approach because they’ve gone so far, learned so much, secured the job, and obtained the education. They have already taken so much risk, going outside every expectation, that turning down a solid and more predictable path is one step too far. Then there’s a group of people who will take every chance because they have nothing to lose – you get a lot of entrepreneurs that are first-generation.
I started my career a little more conservative. But, as I went further along, I got more comfortable with risks and decided that I could lean on my own skills and experiences. Taking those risks has, by and large, led to greater outcomes for me and my career, but it can be hard to do as a first generation.
What’s the story behind how you became one of the founding members of InSITE, one of the world’s first technology incubators/launchpads?
I realized mid-way through law school that there was a part of me that was entrepreneurial.
I shared this feeling with Alex Cohen from Columbia Law, and we decided that if something didn’t exist that gave us the opportunity, we would have to create it. We went to both the law and business schools of our schools and put up posters claiming that we were starting an elite group, with venture capitalists and the hottest startups in the city. We had none of that, but we decided that’s what we were going to have. We eventually got Fred Wilson on board and got some law firms to provide us with space and funding. It came together, partially through force of will because we wanted to create something that didn’t exist.
Oftentimes, when I’m looking at resumes during a hiring process, I look for whether in absence of something, [the applicant] created it – if they were entrepreneurial in some fashion.
You spent 11 years at Amazon and were the first attorney hired by Amazon’s Lab126. You were also named as an inventor on 17 issued and 6 pending Amazon patents. What was it like being a part of the legal and engineering team?
Lab126 was formed by Amazon to develop its hardware products. When I joined, I was sitting alongside everyone. It’s one of the things about joining a start-up that is kind of unique and fun for attorneys – you’re there in the thick of it with the rest of the employees. This environment led me to think of ideas for how the products could work together or how we could make something that might help us around a regulatory problem in a customer friendly way. I was super privileged to be able to participate in that creative process.
You have seen a lot of major tech companies in their initial stages of development. What key roles do you think the legal team had in ensuring the success of these companies?
It’s a fine balance. A good legal team will identify significant risks, but also allow start-ups to be start-ups – they’re going to take some risks and that’s ok. Even with experience, it’s still nerve-wracking as an attorney to know that there are rocks that you haven’t overturned, but you have limited time and resources so it’s necessary for you to apply your judgment to best posit which are most likely to harbor significant risks.
Can you briefly describe your company Super? What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a legal career in a start-up?
Super is a startup with business verticals in travel, fintech and commerce. Altogether, we have SuperCash, SuperTravel, and SuperShop, and they are all under the umbrella of “Super” with the overall mission to help people save and build credit.
For people who want to go into start-ups, you’re probably not going to be right out of law school. The first attorney, the start-up hires because they’re going to want someone who can jump in and do everything across the board. Even if you are that one person with experience, it’s difficult to have all that experience – employment, real estate, compliance, corporate, security, intellectual property… hopefully not bankruptcy. There’s a combination of classes that could be helpful: venture capital or corporate finance courses that talk about funding would be very helpful. Some general knowledge of IP would also help, it doesn’t have to be deep. I would consider myself an IP expert at this point in my career, and the only course I took in school was Trademarks.
I just hired someone in November who was largely in corporate security and M&As. Now she’s two months in supporting our marketing team, doing some trademarks analysis, dealing with consumer complaints, working on our end-user agreements and thinking about privacy and doing a great job of learning that stuff quickly. You’re not gonna have everything but you need to realize that even without everything, you have that one core skill set of being able to learn things fast, and that’s something valuable you can bring to the start-up.
Note from the Interviewer:
I would like to express my gratitude to Kevin Keller for taking the time to participate in this interview and sharing his valuable insights into his experiences across various roles within the tech and start-up industries.