When Craig Sanford established Sierra Legal, what he had in mind was something very different to the traditional “ivory tower” law firms in the industry. Thus, he created a boutique firm that provides high quality and commercially focused legal services to its clients, using a close-knit team of friendly and highly experienced lawyers who enjoy a technology savvy and truly flexible working environment. For a boutique firm, Sierra Legal has some great clients, including Medibank, BP, Hisense and Chubb Insurance.
The entrepreneurial route was not something Craig contemplated when he began his career. “In fact, if you ask my friends and the people where I worked at the time, they would have said that I was the last person they expected to jump out on his own,” he claimed.
His family does not have any entrepreneurial background. His parents and those of his wife, Katie, were not entrepreneurs. According to this legal adviser-entrepreneur, “Initially, the scary part was being on my own and not having that support network around me. I've been with EO Melbourne now for four or five years. But in the early days, I didn't have those people available to guide me along my way. I had family and friends I could talk to, particularly my father, who's always been a bit of a mentor to me. But it was a challenge not having people around me with entrepreneurial experience to give advice.”
He worked in a big law firm for 19 years, where he was a partner for ten years, but he never imagined himself becoming a business owner. It was until he decided that he was sick of the stuffy corporate environment and wanted to chart his path in the entrepreneurial space. He may not have considered it until around 2009, but he had a taste of the entrepreneurial adventure in his childhood by doing little things to earn some money. “I remember buying a couple of cheap secondhand bikes, doing them up and then selling them for a profit. I also did a letterbox drop in the neighbourhood offering to mow people’s lawns, do some landscaping and other odd jobs, and some people took me up on it. There were little things like that, but nothing in a big way. It wasn't really until 2009 when I suddenly had that big entrepreneurial urge to quit a perfectly stable and well-paying job and start something from scratch,” he recalled.
With almost two decades working in a big corporate, it was a huge leap of faith towards entrepreneurial waters. The stakes were high, and the difference was very apparent. “It was a big shock to the system. The first six months were very hard. I probably underestimated how difficult it is to start up and run a new business.”
Back when he was still working in the corporate world, he had a full-time secretary, a dedicated team of lawyers and infrastructure to back him up. But he had to leave all that behind and be on his own when he opted to start his new venture. As a new business owner, Craig had to look after all aspects of the business, including the financial, human resources and IT side of the business, doing everything in the initial stages of his enterprise.
Cash flow was a real concern in the beginning. Coming from a good-paying job, Craig had to invest in his business and make lots of sacrifices along the way. “I didn't earn anything for the first six months and had two young kids in private schools. Plus, my wife and I foolishly started a home renovation at about the same time as starting the business. There was a lot more money going out than coming in. It was very difficult in those first six to 12 months,” he recalled.
Craig and his wife had to put in place a strict budget for the family in the early days, making sure they didn’t spend beyond their means. He described it like this, “Certainly, we had to start watching the pennies. When we went to the supermarket, we had to stick to our budget. Unlike when I was a partner in a big law firm, we couldn’t just buy something because we wanted to. But there are no regrets. It was time for me to make a change, and I wanted to do something a bit different. Fortunately, I had some savings, so I was able to have a bit of a buffer to get me through those early days. I was also very lucky to have a wife and family who were supportive of me taking the big jump.”
Another challenge he cited for the business was hiring people and getting the right mix of staff with the expected future workload of the business. Craig used to do everything himself. Hiring their first employee in early 2011 was the biggest step in staffing. It was a huge commitment given the cost and time associated with employing someone to take on some of the workloads and in making sure that person was always busy and happy in his role. Fortunately, that first employee is still with the business today, and Craig said he was lucky that he had only lost one lawyer from the business in eight years. “We have now built the business to a stage where we have a fantastic team of dedicated, loyal and highly experienced lawyers. It’s by far the best team I’ve ever had in my 27 years of being in the legal profession,” Craig added.
Craig said that competition within the legal industry is fierce. When he started the business, there weren’t many firms that were similar to Sierra Legal, since most law firms were the typical corporate setup in a traditional law firm office. As time progressed, more businesses similar to theirs seemed to be popping up. The challenge for Craig is to make Sierra Legal stand out by being better than their competitors and focusing on maintaining strong relationships with clients.
But there were a few distractions during his journey. The temptation of getting into other kinds of enterprises outside the legal profession was too strong for Craig to resist. He tried exploring a couple of opportunities that were slightly different from what he had been doing. That took his focus away from the business, a costly learning experience for him. “I’ve come to realise that my area of expertise is being a commercial lawyer that focuses on buying and selling businesses, IPOs and other corporate and commercial legal work. For me, I’ve learnt that it’s better to stick with your strengths and not get distracted with other business ideas that take your mind away from the main game,” Craig concluded.
Apart from learning from his experiences, Craig has drawn a lot of lessons through EO Melbourne. Having EO has given him something that is close to an advisory board. “My forum buddies are a lot more interesting than a bunch of lawyers sitting around a partnership table in a big law firm,” he laughingly said. He has also taken a lot of tips and advice from the EO events he has attended, and these have helped him get ahead of the game. In fact, his staff often tease him whenever he returns from an EO event saying, “what new idea will Craig bring back to the business this time?” But he loves all the positive energy, new ideas and tools he gets from EO that can help improve his venture.
Among these EO tools, what he has found most beneficial is the financial and accounting type of sessions, particularly after not having had any formal education in this area. He has also benefitted from topics that are HR-related, including those relating to staff review processes and remuneration strategies. “One of the things that resonated with me was Alan Miltz's presentation at EO, particularly his catch line ‘revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is king’. In other words, don't get too carried away with always wanting to grow your revenue. It's more about your profit and, even more importantly, the cash that your business is generating,” Craig shared.
Based on his experience and encounters with other entrepreneurs, Craig believes there are a few important qualities that can help move a business forward. Hard work, self-discipline, positive attitude and humility are among the characteristics he cited. He also made an interesting point, “I think the problem with entrepreneurs sometimes is that they can be focused too much on the big picture and generate revenue and grow the business. They sometimes lose sight of the detail and doing the best possible job for clients. It’s important to still get that balance right between growing the business and looking ahead, while at the same time having a level of focus on the detail and service delivery to your clients so that the clients come back to you.”
Strong relationships with people, particularly customers and staff, is also an important thing to Craig. To help retain great staff, Craig has a reward system in place and celebrates with them whenever they have victories, “At the end of each year, if the business does well, all the staff share in that. We don’t have individual budgets, but rather focus on achieving an agreed collection of team goals,” he stated.
Nonetheless, Craig still encountered difficulties throughout his entrepreneurial journey. One of those has always been finding the right work-life balance. Craig thinks that he still works too hard. He would often be online late at night doing work or looking for the next deal. But that’s because he loves what he’s doing, and no longer thinks of it as work.
On the other hand, he loves the flexibility of his business as it allows him to enjoy dinners and other activities with his family. He also tries to fit other activities in his schedule. He remembers a time when his children competed in little athletics when they were much younger, and Craig managed to win a “parents’ race”. That introduced him to a new passion, which is athletics. Since founding Sierra Legal, he won several national titles in athletics, including a silver medal in the 800m at the World Masters Athletics Championships in 2016. He will also be heading to Spain in September this year to compete again for Australia in the 400m, 800m and 1500m at the World Masters Athletics Championships. His work flexibility enables him to maintain a proper athletics training schedule and indulge in his other interests, such as share trading, gardening, surfing and kiteboarding.
Craig’s children are now in university, with his son taking a business course and his daughter studying a law commerce degree. Either way, there’s a possibility that they may take after their dad. If ever they would, his advice to his children, which future entrepreneurs can also ponder, are these, “Follow your dreams. If you want to give entrepreneurship a go, then go for it. Having said that, before starting an entrepreneurial journey, I'd still encourage my kids to get out there and join the workforce or work with bigger teams of people to get some experience. In those early years, I think you gain valuable experience by being around different people in a typical work environment. To get some grounding in a traditional kind of job is important, maybe not for 19 years like me, but for at least a few years before you jump out on your own.”
Looking at his journey, Craig recognises that having the courage to take risks enabled him to make that leap of faith towards becoming an entrepreneur. He believes that it takes a positive attitude and mentality to prepare oneself for the role, and it requires a lot of hard work. He hopes to continue to grow his business and add more people to his team. “Going forward, I would still like to be involved in the day-to-day work. But maybe over time, I will transition to a more strategic, higher level role in the business. It would be great to see all of the team that I have now, continuing to progress through the business and getting to director or partner level as well. I don't ever want to go back to where I came from, becoming another ivory tower firm. I still want to maintain that boutique firm environment at Sierra Legal, with flexible work practices. I also want to keep the business going in its current direction, continuing to act for great clients and doing high-quality, rewarding and profitable work,” he declared.
Craig doesn’t want to get carried away with growth for growth’s sake by focusing only on revenue and billing clients at all costs. By providing top-quality service to his clients and retaining great staff, and trying to do things differently and better than his competitors, he believes that the rest will follow and the business will go from strength to strength.