GC Fireside

The Role of Consumer GC

Josh Beser
August 17, 2020

Tell us about Away and your Role as GC.

Away is a global lifestyle brand with a mission to transform the entire travel experience. Right now we make suitcases, bags, and accessories designed to make trips more seamless for our community, but our ambitions lie far beyond just luggage.

I joined the company in late 2017. I was the first lawyer and the job has changed a hundred times since then. I’ve gone from being directly responsible for doing all things legal, to leading and overseeing a team of attorneys that each focus on specific areas of expertise. As the company has grown, I’ve been responsible for establishing teams, hiring leaders, and managing functions outside of legal, such as real estate and IT, and temporarily leading other functions during times of transition, such as HR. The legal landscape has changed too. For example, when I started, tariffs weren’t a thing people talked about; today, they’re top of mind for every company that makes or sells physical products, including ours.

The company has changed significantly too. For example, I was also one of the first parents at Away. Today, we have a thriving Parents ERG (employee resource group), a bring-your-kids-to-work day that surpassed any at any company I’ve ever attended, and so much support and opportunity for people coming from all backgrounds and experiences.

How do keep aware of your compliance obligations and litigation risks?

It’s a really interesting mix of legal issues—in addition to what you name above, there are also really important IP issues that flow through all of our work on the brand and product sides. In addition to reading relevant trade publications, I consistently engage in conversations with people that are working with these issues regularly, learning from them, and then synthesizing the information that is important for our business. I can’t overemphasize the importance of seeking out and building strong relationships with other GCs, with law firm partners who have deep experience in an area you care about, and non-lawyers who work in your space. Like many of your readers, we’re building our legal team while the company is growing and changing incredibly quickly, so having a broad perspective on issues—not just in our business and markets today but in the places we might grow in the next 12-24 months—is really critical.

How do consumer facing brands stay out of legal trouble with customers or regulators?

This is a tough question, but  -and this is not legal advice - legal issues in the consumer space often boil down to misaligned expectations. Are the customers getting what they expect from you? Is what you’re doing safe? Is it fair? Are you putting the customer first? There are obviously legal issues that can arise even when the answers to those questions are yes, but it’s a good start to look at things from the perspective of the customer. Looking at what other similarly situated companies do can also provide useful information, but if you don’t fully understand the business and legal issues that are driving their approach, it’s hard to say whether that approach would make sense for your business.

How do you find good outsite counsel?

My early in-house experience made me a firm believer in hiring lawyers, not law firms. I want to know that the individual doing our work is the best person for the job. Cost matters, too—I want outside counsel spend to be generally proportionate to the risk profile of the work. This means that we’ll have solos or small firms for some commercial agreements, specialists at a few firms for really narrow but important issues, and partners at other firms that we use for IP prosecution, litigation, financing and corporate work.

In high growth companies, legal teams can be deceptively small because there might only be one or two in-house lawyers. In reality I’m also managing a team of sometimes a dozen or more law firms at any given time. In general, I think the highest value-add activity for in-house lawyers is advising, not drafting. So when the in-house team has to make tradeoffs for time, I’m happy to send contract mark-ups to outside counsel (typically to a solo firm or freelance lawyer) so that our lawyers can spend time advising the team.

I always want to know who I’ll call before an issue arises, so I proactively identify specialists and often engage a firm even when we have only a small amount of work for them. As we expand into new product categories and markets, I want to be intentional about making sure the right people are up-to-speed on our business before we have an urgent issue. I use a combination of TechGC referrals, existing relationships, and seeking out go-to firms for certain subject matters. One other piece of advice that I’ve followed recently is trying to get your go-to counsel approved by the carrier for the relevant insurance policy before you have a claim. Carriers are not always flexible enough to accommodate this ask, but we’ve had some success and it made a huge difference when we needed it.

How have you built your legal team?

In general, I tend to look for in-house experience in my hires. We’re moving so fast that it’s tough to teach both the substantive work and how to do it at a high growth company. But I’ve violated that rule a couple of times in the past year for some really excellent hires, and I feel a little less strongly about it than I used to, so long as they have the substantive knowledge needed to own the work they’re responsible for.

I’m looking for people who will best support us both now and in a couple of years. It’s critical that every member of our team has a growth mindset, understands that creative problem-solving is a key part of their job (whether that issue is legal or otherwise), and feels a real sense of ownership in their work. Right now, we’re at 4 lawyers (including me) with one open role (apply here!) and we recently added a Senior Legal Ops Manager, who has been game-changing for us in a short period of time.

How do you act as a strategic business partner?

We focus on always calibrating with our teams on: our business in the next 6-12 months, the market, and the legal landscape. All three of these things are dynamic and it’s our job to partner with other teams to be on top of all of them. Decisions we made a year ago were made by an entirely different company. We have to continuously re-evaluate and make sure things make sense for where we are now and where we’re going.

As a legal team, we really try to emphasize that our goals are the same as the other teams. We all want this company to be successful. If we’re doing our jobs right, we’re talking about balancing risk, making informed decisions about tradeoffs, and taking risks with our eyes open.

This approach isn’t for everyone, but internally, we try to make legal generally feel cost-less financially to the business teams (i.e., we don’t talk about what it costs to use outside counsel), though we will sometimes talk through effort vs. impact analysis for internal work. My view is that I have a really tight handle on our outside counsel spend, so if we’re leveraging that expertise, we’re doing it for a reason that makes sense and roughly fits into a budget that’s already approved. In general, we also make sure that our legal team is working with outside counsel directly to keep both cost and the scope of work under control and make our team the face of legal to the company. One exception is for People Ops, who works directly with an employment group at a firm on a flat monthly fee because I’d rather that team be able to ask any question and not worry about the cost of a one-off question in isolation.

What was the weirdest encounter recently?

It’s not super recent now, but in January 2018, a change in international regulations forced U.S. airlines to change their policies to require any lithium ion batteries, something we included in all of our carry-on suitcases at the time, to be removable. The airlines enforced the rules inconsistently—some airlines required the batteries to actually be removed from the luggage when boarding a flight, even though the rules did not actually require it—and consumer confusion was at a high point. The rule change even put some “smart luggage” companies out of business because their batteries weren’t removable at all.

Fortunately, we designed the bags to allow the power bank to be removed. However, removing the power banks in our early bags required a screwdriver, which didn’t make for a great customer experience.

We took a novel approach to solving the problem: we gave customers three ways to have their bags retrofitted, for free, with a new ejectable battery trolley. They could mail the bag to us in a postage-paid mailer, take it to an Away retail store, or get a replacement trolley in the mail and do the switch themselves. It was an unbelievable effort that came to life (from concept to production) in a couple of weeks and solved this new pain point that was, in part, driven by a change in law. I couldn’t imagine a more customer-obsessed way to handle what was a real challenge to our business and it made me proud to be a part of a company that thinks in this way.