Dave Menard, who is a partner at the law firm of Murtha Cullina, is deeply committed to the Connecticut entrepreneur community. So much so, his company’s entrepreneur group provides pro bono office hours at reSET, hosts pitch night events and runs a monthly educational series.
Innovation Destination: Hartford met with Menard at the reSET Business Factory to learn what inspired him to start working with entrepreneurs and discuss the inspiration for his latest venture, the CTStartup Podcast.
IDH: How did you become involved the Connecticut entrepreneur community?
MENARD: I’ve been working with entrepreneurs for about 15 years and have been actively involved in the Connecticut community for the last eight years. I started my career in Boston, where I worked for a couple of large international law firms. I was looking to take a different approach to how to work with entrepreneurs.
The entrepreneur community in Hartford and Connecticut as a whole eventually lured me here full time. Over the past three to four years there’s been a huge increase in activity in the entrepreneur community throughout Connecticut, including Hartford, Storrs, New Haven and Stamford. The advent of the CTNext program in its original form was a big change. It really drew entrepreneurs out and I think it’s had a lasting effect on the community as a whole.
My goal is to be very active and supportive in the community. I wanted to start a company-focused practice encouraging entrepreneurs to pursue whatever it is they want to pursue while getting the legal help they need. I also wanted to give back to the entrepreneur community.
IDH: What types of services and resources do you provide to entrepreneurs and startup companies?
MENARD: The entrepreneur group at Murtha Cullina runs an educational series on a monthly basis called the Business Practice Series. We hold that at reSET and The Grove in New Haven. We provide six hours of pro bono meetings a month at reSET and all six hours are booked. We’ve talked about expanding. We may provide office hours at The Grove in the future.
We also run pitch nights about four times a year with reSET where about 70 to 80 people have an opportunity to have their name picked out of a hat to get up on a stage and practice public speaking by pitching their product or service. The goal is for them to try to get across their business idea in a meaningful way in a short amount of time and get some general feedback, which is really helpful.
I teach and work at the Innovation Quest Incubator, which is at the University of Connecticut and also have participated in some of the other entrepreneur groups at UConn.
IDH: What makes your services unique for entrepreneurs and startup companies?
MENARD: The entrepreneur group advices and mentors startups that aren’t yet ready for legal services. We don’t just bring startups on as clients; we would rather advise and mentor them until they’re absolutely ready for legal services. Part of it is that nobody should incur service provider costs until they have to. The other part is that I’m a big believer in fit. If you’re working with a service provider, whether it’s an accountant or a lawyer or anybody else, you need to be able to have a personal relationship that makes you want to talk to them. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to get the best advice.
The whole reason I designed this practice is to work with the kinds of companies I like working with. So, when somebody comes to me and says I want to hire a lawyer, it’s got to be the right fit for both of us.
The entrepreneur group also tries to provide unique services to entrepreneurs who do come on board as clients. For example, we have a special billing package. But I think the important thing is that we don’t charge for communications. We want our entrepreneur clients to be able to call and talk to us about anything, I don’t want to have barriers.
IDH: What types of entrepreneurs do you work with?
MENARD: There is no particular type. As an example, today I met with someone who provides educational programs for non-profits. I meet with some product-oriented companies, mobile software companies doing applications, it’s really the range from software to products, and so forth.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurs?
MENARD: I love working with people who have everything vested in their own companies. When you work with entrepreneurs, everything hinges upon what they’re doing and it creates an exciting environment. And it’s very important to them, which means it’s very important to me.
IDH: Any advice for entrepreneurs or startup business owners?
MENARD: There are plenty of resources out there, more than there’s ever been. Places like reSET can help point people in the right direction. But you also need to look around. There’s a lot of debt financing out there that’s not with banks. For example there’s the Hartford Economic Development Corp. (HEDCO) here in Hartford and the Connecticut Community Foundation in Litchfield Hills. There is also the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Inc. (CCAT) in East Hartford, which manages and administers grant programs funded by the state legislature or the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to assist manufacturing-based companies.”
With respect to startup business owners, I feel it’s important for them to understand they need to get as far as they can on their own. Bootstrapping, friends and family help. But they need to focus on their product and solving the solution the market wants and getting that out there. Financing will come at some point. If you’re too focused on financing at the beginning, then you’re not focused on your product.
If startup business owners try to understand the process of how to build a business and how to build a product and how to run a business around it, they will get much further much faster than they will just rushing to find financing.
Let’s talk about your podcast. You began the CTStartup Podcast in May 2015 along with entrepreneurs Mike Kauffman and Eric Francis, and James McLaughlin, who is an in-house lawyer. How did you come up with the idea for the podcast?
MENARD: When we started, James worked with me at Murtha Cullina. He brought up the idea of doing a podcast at one of our internal meetings. My initial reaction was actually pretty negative, because I was thinking: I don’t want to listen to two lawyers on a podcast.
Mike was a client and I met Eric at one of our events. Mike had mentioned to me that he and Eric were also talking about doing a podcast about entrepreneurs in Connecticut, but they weren’t sure about their commitment. So the four of us got together and discussed the idea. We felt like we had a pretty good mix of personalities that would do pretty well and we committed to it.
IDH: What is the purpose of the podcast? What type of information does it provide?
MENARD: The whole point of the podcast was to help emphasize Connecticut companies; to place a spotlight on them so that Connecticut doesn’t become a way between Boston and New York, it’s a stop. We want people from inside and outside of Connecticut to acknowledge that there’s something special here. That’s gone surprisingly well.
IDH: You’re now 12 episodes in.
MENARD: We decided to commit to it for a year. Right now, we’re getting about 250 downloads an episode with only word of mouth. We haven’t done any advertising. We’re just now starting the advertisement push. Our listeners are from all over. Our first download was from Portland, OR.
IDH: How do you decide the types of people and topics to feature on the podcast?
MENARD: We’re all very active in the startup community in various places, so we look at what’s interesting at that time and who’s ready. Not every company is ready; they may be pre-revenue or they may not have an idea yet. It really depends on where they are and what we think people would be interested in hearing.
The podcast doesn’t just feature companies. For example, one of our interviews was with Rosie Gallant, Director of Programs at reSET. We have other interviews planned with people from the government and with legislators and others who are involved in the Hartford community in one way or another.
We’re talking about doing an event from the Innovation Summit this fall, which would be live, or hosting an event with reSET’s accelerator program, where we would record all the participating companies.
IDH: What do you feel is the best thing about the Greater Hartford region?
MENARD: What’s been great about Hartford is watching how it’s changed. It’s actually improving. Springfield, Worcester and Hartford all had an industrial capacity and when the Industrial Revolution ended, they sort of sank down and never quite fully recovered. Out of those three cities, Hartford is doing the best by far. It’s really regenerating itself. It’s a city that’s pulling itself up.
With regard to the community, if you’re involved in a place like reSET, you get to meet wonderful people who have lived and grown up in Hartford and work in Hartford who are trying to build this community up. They’re coming right out of the neighborhoods and doing that.
IDH: You’re obviously deeply involved in the Connecticut community.
MENARD: There’s something special here in Connecticut. There’s an opportunity to build something. All the resources are here. The state has a lot of money and there are people who can come out of the woodwork and turn it into something really good.
There’s also a chance to acknowledge other types of companies here in Connecticut. It’s great to have technology companies. We all want the next Google, but I would take 100 smaller companies that were going to stay in Connecticut and contribute to cities in towns over the next Google for the impact it will have on the community. If we can support both types of companies—and I think we can—then we have this unique situation in Connecticut where we have a lot of resources spread throughout the state and we can really encourage people to come and do something.