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Startup Stories: Horace Wu, Founder & CEO at Syntheia.io

Syntheia.io founder & CEO, Horace, had a chat with us about how his background as a lawyer inspired him to launch a start-up to help other lawyers.

by hao-nguyen on November 1, 2021

Horace Wu is the founder & CEO at Syntheia.io, a knowledge platform for lawyers. He spent over a decade as a lawyer at top-tier law firms in Australia and the US before launching his own start-up.

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Hi Horace, great to have you here with us today. For those who may not know, can you tell us a little bit about Syntheia and what led you to launching it?

Syntheia is software that helps lawyers do legal work faster and better by delivering useful information to them where they need it and when they need it. Lawyers leverage their past work, what we might call precedent documents, when they are doing work for clients. 

Finding the right precedent documents is time consuming and does not always get a lawyer what they need. Syntheia helps to solve this problem. We describe what we do as closing the gap between lawyers and the knowledge they need. We do this by leveraging machine learning and natural language understanding technologies. Syntheia was born from my experience as a lawyer. 

I spent over a decade working at top tier firms in Australia and in the US, and noticed the challenges lawyers were facing when they were working. I noticed a big problem when it comes to drafting legal documents. Lawyers would often have to ask other experts for examples or search through tens of documents before finding something useful. Being aware of the problem, I wasn’t sure that there was a solution to it until one Christmas when I was having a coffee with a friend of mine who was a data scientist for a German NLP company. Syntheia was born when I realised the problem could be solved. 

With that decade that you spent working at law firms, what was that transition like when you switched to running your company? What were some of the biggest challenges you ran into?

I was more than a decade into my career when I decided to take the leap. It was actually a fork in my career where I could have stayed at the firm to try for partnership, but the firm was kind enough to give me a year off to do something else. 

I decided to start a consumer tech company that helped people find events and things to do, sort of like Netflix for the real world. Syntheia is my second start-up, and so it was not as much of a switch as it seems. I learnt a lot of lessons running my first consumer tech start-up, and applied them to avoid the similar mistakes when running Syntheia. 

Interestingly, I think the transition was not that big because you have to be quite entrepreneurial when you get to the partnership stage of working at law firms anyway. You have to learn to grow a book of business and learn how to create “products” that clients would be happy to buy. I guess the biggest difference was that outside of the law firm, I had to learn to use a far wider array of disciplines than lawyers would need.

Netflix for the real world, that sounds awesome! What were some of those mistakes that you learnt from your consumer tech start-up that you applied to Syntheia? 

There were a lot of lessons learnt, but two of them stand out. First, really test out the market before scaling. Figure out what people want. Figure out what works. Figure out how to optimize the user experience and align it with the problem. I think the start-up books talk about it as “product-market-fit” and give a lot of different shades of interpretations on what exactly this means. 

To me, it means being ruthless about our own creation. We have to treat our product the same way that a new user might, and don’t coddle it. Second, don’t build out a large team from day one. Be selective about your team. Free resources like interns or friends who volunteer their time sound great in theory, but they take away time that should be spent on building and refining a product that users will love. The founder’s time is the most precious resource at a start-up. Throwing more bodies at a start-up ends up taking away time from the founder. Start with building a small team that works well together.

Speaking of building a small team, when you’re hiring new staff, what are some of the skills or traits that stand out to you most?

Two things above all else – first, the ability to learn, and second, the willingness to really understand a problem. Everything else is secondary. We are creating a technology the legal profession has not really seen before, and so this isn’t solved with experience or knowledge. 

We want someone who empathises with the problems and pain points of our customers, who thinks about solutions, who can learn the skills needed, and build something from thinking through the situation on a first-principles basis. It does take a little longer than adopting a trusted existing pattern and rolling it out, but we are not making cookies from cookie cutters. 

We are creating something fresh and delicious, and for that, we want chefs who understand the science of ingredients and techniques, not cooks who follow someone else’s recipes (even if that cook nails the recipe every time).

That’s a great analogy! As a follow-up to that question, with your experience in the start-up world, how would you describe that working environment to someone who has never worked at a start-up before, but they’re thinking about it? 

Start-ups are hard. When you go from a large professional services firm or a large company to a start-up, you suddenly have to deal with the realisation that customers don’t just turn up at your door, and you have to win them over. 

The volume of rejections bruises the ego pretty quickly, so deal with it. Another thing that bruises the ego is the realisation you suck at a lot of things. When you are working at a company, you have to do a pretty narrow range of work, and a lot of people tend to get pretty good at doing a narrow range of things well. 

Once you go into a start-up, you realise that what you have spent years honing does not even make up 5% of what you have to do every day. You are thrust into a situation where you need to learn the other 95% extremely quickly, or the start-up will die. The realisation you suck at things also bruises the ego massively. But, the flip side is that the wins are thrilling. When you win a customer, or when you learn something new, you gain an amazing sense of achievement. For anyone who wants to go into a start-up, be prepared to feel like you suck and be prepared to work hard to broaden your skills. The rewards are worth it if you can tough it out.

One last question before we let you get back to it, how has your role as CEO evolved over the past few years as Syntheia has grown?

My role as a CEO has both broadened and deepened. When we created Syntheia, it was very much about understanding the problem, and creating the best product. We needed to see everything through specific lenses – what does a user need? What does a user feel? What can we do to solve problem A, and what about problem B? How do we create a system to solve all the major pain points? 

I had to manage only a handful of customers and their expectations, and create a product out of nothing. As we have gained traction, my role became more managerial – I am trying, and I am still not great at this yet – to empower my team to make decisions for themselves, where they are not just solving problems I have identified, but also identifying the problems. 

This goes for the engineering team, and also the sales team. We are all explorers and scientists. I don’t want my team to just follow the map I have drawn for them. Instead, I want to tell them the destination, and I want to empower everyone on our team to scan the whole landscape, and map their own best path across the land.

Thanks so much for a great interview, Horace! It was great chatting to you and learning more about Syntheia, we’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on your story. 

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