As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Sparks, founder of Sparks Law works in Business Law and helps small businesses with trademarks, business formation, mergers & acquisitions, employment contracts, restrictive covenants, and estate planning. Prior to founding Sparks Law, Jonathan worked at a big law firm, representing Fortune 500 companies. He is extremely passionate about entrepreneurship and prides himself on his ability to find creative approaches to everyday life.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was the lovechild of 2 musicians that played at political rallies in DC and grew up as the stepchild of a doctor turned entrepreneur in the late 80s. I recall our initial marketing strategies, to print our own advertising, fold the pamphlets and like the stamps and envelopes (that was my first “paid” gig). I learned to make money by making jewelry, brownies and lemonade that I’d sell at a stand on the corner. My mother would walk me through my Profits and Losses — I always had to pay her back for the grocery expenses to make the brownies and the jewelry costs. After high school, I went into the music business, and ran a local studio. I had a knack for business deals, and a lot of artists would hire me to redline their contracts. That’s what pushed me towards business law. Now, as the sole owner of a business law firm, I get to talk shop with thousands of business owners every year, help them to rock and kickass in their industries, while keeping them compliant with the rules.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I was inspired by my dad’s going out on his own, refusing to work the normal 9–7 work hours for his doctor-peers, and investing a portion of his life into building a company that would eventually work (and pay him) without depending on him. It’s truly breathtaking when a company matures from total dependence on the business owner, to total independence — when it pays the business owner profits with little to no effort by the business owner.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’s’ you learned from that?
LOL, when I first started, I took a “trespassing” case “on contingency,” meaning that I would only get paid for it if we won a lawsuit. I had no idea, at the time, that there hadn’t been a single trespass case brought in my state for 70 years, and the one prior that was in the 1800s. I didn’t know that litigating a case like that would take well over 150 hours. It taught me the valuable lesson that everything I do for my firm has to push the firm closer to my goals. Entrepreneurs have a tendency to say “yes, I can do that” to any customers with money, and there’s a benefit to that, but I think real entrepreneurial maturity can be measured by your ability to say “no.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, my business coach, Ramesh. We met when I was about a year-in. As a lawyer, I wanted to spend work hours focusing on things like unpaid research and going to lawyer get-togethers. Ramesh taught me the discipline of only spending work hours on things that mattered for my business. If I chose to do legal research after hours, I could, but if my business’s growth is a priority, I need to stay focused on things that actually push the needle.
It’s easy, and even tempting, to do “work” that makes you feel very productive but does nothing for your business. My business has grown quickly, and is resilient, because I was disciplined in how I spent my time.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Entrepreneurship is the best vehicle for personal growth out there, and my personal development basically caused a divorce. There was a day, with a business coach, that we were all sitting down and deciding on the long term 10-year vision for my company — where did we want it to be in a decade? I came up with the goal of a company that threatens LegalZoom’s market share (which was a billion a year at the time) by helping over a hundred-thousand business owners with rock solid legal advice. That meant an annual revenue of a hundred million dollars. My wife (at the time) was terrified by that number, and we had a rather heated discussion about it. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but her financial set point topped out at around 500K per year. To make even 10 million was unfathomable to her, and 100 million was terrifying. This disagreement ended up in divorce. I’m grateful for it, now, but it felt like chaos for a couple years.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We just get 1 life. If you’re not living, you’re dying. A friend of mine, from high school, died suddenly from an overdose around the time my ex-wife and I had that argument, and it put it all in perspective for me. I think she wanted me to focus on the long-term goal of a business that made a little over a million. But I could no longer bear to think and be “small.” I decided to move forward with my dreams, knowing that it risked our marriage. It’s a hard thing to do, to go after a dream even when it makes your family members uncomfortable and (subtly) threaten to not like you, but it gives you a life that’s meaningful.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We are kicking ass. I have a 4-year-old and care greatly about her education. I recognize, though, that with technology doubling every 6.5 years, there is no “career skill” that the education system can teach her now that will be relevant when she’s 18. Further, changes in technology make changes across the board — our lives were very different before the iPhone came out, and that was just 14 years ago! My daughter’s success will be tied to her resilience and grit — her ability to not only cope with change, but to embrace it and capitalize on it. When she struggles with a task and gets frustrated, I empathize with her, and encourage her to express her feelings about it all, but I don’t fix the problem for her — I encourage her to create a way to fix it on her own. It takes longer, but when she fixes the problem herself, she is so proud of herself, and her confidence skyrockets. That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. As a business owner, there is often no one that can even see the problem you’re experiencing, much less fix it for you. But our ability to reframe the problem from a sort or woe-is-me-I’m-a-victim perspective to a creative-problem-solver mindset is our greatest asset.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are creative. Hundreds of times, clients came to us, having spoken to other lawyers, thinking their situation was hopeless. We offered them creative legal solutions, that worked. A telling example was when a client was told by his prior lawyer that he had to pay $40,000 to a bully competitor, because that attorney was frightened by a demand letter. Rather than run and hide in a corner, we dug in, found that the bully-competitor was in fact doing some illegal things, and brought this all to their attention. Our insights and resilience resulted in our client getting paid, himself, for all the trouble the bully-competitor had put him through.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I love that you are asking this question, because it honors our own capacity as human beings, and that’s not something that we entrepreneurs do enough of. For me, I started tracking the time I spent working for my business. I didn’t change anything — just watched it. I figured out that I was consistently doing 50 hours a week, regardless of whether those weeks had holidays in them. I was honest with myself about my own capacity to produce for the firm, and when I was redlining. Each Quarter, I set an intention to limit my work hours to 8 hours a day, then 7, and 6. This forced me to be far more efficient than ever before, to delegate out nearly half of what I spent my time on and had the wonderful side effect of giving me peace of mind, time to relax, and live the life of my dreams.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I don’t believe I would have been successful had I not brought a lot of goodness. People hire my firm because the jobs we do are worth more than the money it costs to get them done — our clients profit from our work, and we profit from working for them. We’ve helped thousands of businesses to be successful. Each business supports at least a few families, which means that the work we’ve done has helped to support tens of thousands of people to meet their own success. My hope is to continue to inspire business owners, and be inspired by them, myself.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Prioritize your business’s success over your need to be liked. Customers will try and leverage your need to be liked to get a better price for the products or services you’re selling, and unless you’re running a charity, or a business that is only here to help you to be “liked” by a bunch of people, you need to set your priorities. Further, employees will leverage the same thing as an excuse to make you pay their salaries even when they refuse to do 50% of what you’re paying them to do. So, prioritize your business’s success over your need to be liked!
Have a big “WHY.” You will not have the fortitude and resilience necessary to build a strong business unless you have a very strong reason WHY you’re building the business. Your existential reason for existing, for working hard long hours, taking the risks necessary, making investments, facing threats head on, and so forth, without a very important raison de etré. So, before you start your business, figure out WHY you your business needs to exist; put your flag down!
You are your best employee and the worst boss (over yourself). Know that, starting out, your ability to be an employee of your company is probably your biggest asset, and if you make that one employee so overloaded that they quit, you are stuck with nothing. Be “task oriented,” but don’t be a “taskmaster.” Be kind to yourself and know that your productivity and efficiency will grow over time. Rome was not built in a day, so don’t expect that out of yourself. Success comes from daily discipline. Be good to yourself!
Prioritize your tasks between Gold, Silver, and Bronze hours. My best hours, when I’m the most focused and able-bodied to do great work is between 9:30 and 11:30, and again from 1–2 PM. Those are my Gold hours. I schedule the most important tasks during those hours — the stuff that I have to get done that day, the stuff that takes the most of my focus. I’ve got Silver hours from 9:00–9:30 and from 2–5, when I do regular stuff, and I put bronze stuff, like dealing with vendors, and some marketing efforts on the afterhours daily work. Prioritize your tasks based on your Gold, Silver, and Bronze hours!
Remain constantly aware of the (changing) value of your time. When you first start, your time may only be worth around $25 an hour, but as you get better at running your company, that number will change rapidly. After a couple years, it could easily be at $150 an hour. As your work efficiency levels up, you need to hire people to take over the administrative tasks that can be done by others for less than the value of your time. So, if for example your time is worth 25/hr, it is already well worth it for you to hire an admin person to do things that only costs your company $15 an hour, so that your time is opened up to doing more productive work that only you know how to do. So, be hyper-vigilant about the changing value of your time!
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I used to think that success was only obtainable by sacrificing my time, and really my happiness. I was a hard worker — I identified with that struggle and would even fight efficiency so that people agreed that I was always “working hard.” A mentor asked me, once, if I was in business with the goal of working hard, or to have a successful business. He said, “they’re both legitimate goals, but implementing them is different. If your goal is to work hard, you should go work at a factory or construction yard. That is hard work, undeniably.” I told him that my deeper goal was to be successful, and he taught me that my success absolutely required that I let go of the need to “work hard,” in the ways I used to. Nowadays, I “work hard” to challenge myself to make things easier.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
That’s a great question! I think that the knowledge is most-always available to us, but our habitual minds ignore it. These habits, of looking at the world the same way, even though it’s a new day with new data all around us, is very efficient and takes little to no effort, but it of course restricts us from the lessons. I think that most people just run through the years in this way and aren’t very mindful of things. Entrepreneurs, though, view the world in a different way, and if we set our intention to hear wisdom, I think we can hear it and learn from it, even without making a mistake.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would make “the authentic human being” movement. The goal would be to help us all to be proud of who we are, authentically, and to strive to find ourselves and route out our own shame and guilt that we have left over from childhood. We have core beliefs and fears for things that are no longer relevant. For example, I used to believe that no one would take me seriously, hire me, or respect me as a lawyer, if I wore “loud” clothes or had long hair. I truly believed that people only hired lawyers who were stuffy, dull, and boring. Little by little, I made changes, though, and every step of the way, I found that those were just lies and BS I told myself, probably passed down from my parents. I’ve been amazed at how much people appreciate a lawyer who’s interesting, dresses differently, and has unique ideas. I am a far better business owner and lawyer, now that I have stopped shaming myself for being a creative-musician-expressive-type-guy. I think that men especially have issues with this — it’s difficult, if not terrifying, to “be seen,” unless we’re seen as repeating someone else’s life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Instagram @sparkslawye
- Twitter @sparkslawyer
- Facebook — Sparks Law
- YouTube — Sparks Law