An Interview with Smokeball Founder & CEO Hunter Steele
Smokeball started as a legal technology start-up in Sydney early in the 21st century. Since its founding it’s expanded not just across Australia, but across the United States as well. Our VP of Marketing, Chris Gerben, sat down with Hunter Steele, Smokeball’s Founder and CEO, to trace the roots of the company.
CG: Smokeball is a legal software company focused on providing practice management solutions for small law firms. How did you get interested in the legal industry?
HS: My dad was an Australian small law firm operator with a staff of five. He would go in at 6 in the morning and get home at 8 o’clock at night. He was not just working long hours, but bringing home a fair bit of stress, too: when people go to a small law firm it’s the most stressful time in their lives at that time. And so when people go see a lawyer they’re giving the lawyer the responsibility of helping them through a high-stress, personal situation. And for the lawyer trying to manage that stress and not get to a state of burnout is an important thing to understand.
You’ve identified a common problem that a lot of lawyers experience: bringing stress home. Did you see ways that your dad addressed this problem in effective ways?
I saw my dad implement some software that he thought would help him manage the firm a little bit better and help it be a little bit better at business (and hopefully help him reduce the level of stress he brought home.) I saw from these early days how technology could have a huge impact on a small law firm.
Did this experience lead you to study technology?
Well, yes, but I was initially studying law before getting my IT degree. And it was while studying law that I saw how well they teach future lawyers to implement the law, but not how to run a business. That was my “A-Ha!” moment where I realized that small law firms weren’t just law firms, but small businesses and that most of the lawyers who operate these businesses had zero business training, which creates a gap.
So did you start addressing this gap while studying law?
Not exactly. A few years after university I met someone who had just started their own legal technology company. We had a great conversation and I decided to join him on that quest to help solve these problems.
Was that company what became Smokeball?
No. Fast forward a few years from that initial meeting and I was able to start a new journey on my own along with two other people. That group of three has grown to 100+ employees who now make up Smokeball.
How did Smokeball end up helping small law firms in the United States?
In Australia, where we started, there were about 10,000 small law firms that we could help at the time. But in the United States, there were about 250,000 such firms that we could help, many were still a long way behind in closing the gap of using technology to make their law firms better businesses. We brought Smokeball to the United States to help these law firms better help the communities they serve.
Why the focus on small law firms?
Small law firms are some of the most important parts of our collective communities because they help us solve our problems in our times of need. Small law firms are helping us through divorces, purchasing a home, or recovering from an injury. Small law firms help their communities in real and tangible ways, and we’re proud to produce a software that helps them run better businesses and remain a part of these communities.
You already mentioned the stress that your dad, and other small law firms, experience. Are there other problems that you see lawyers face that you think Smokeball is especially equipped to address?
Small law firms and the areas of law they practice are often very deadline-heavy. This not only takes up a lot of time, it’s also very stressful; I can imagine it leaves many lawyers with a lot of sleepless nights. It’s one reason why many lawyers burn out and jump out of the profession.
What features in Smokeball address this problem for you?
There are many features of Smokeball that come together to dramatically reduce the stress that comes with operating and working in a small law firm. One that comes to mind is the Next Step feature. Smokeball allows you to ensure every matter has a next activity/task recorded so that before you move on from the current task you have a plan for the next one. This important step then lands in your inbox first thing in the morning so you know what is due to be complete today.
Obviously you have a personal history with the legal profession. How do you imbue that sense of experience in a company of over 100 employees?
Part of it is just telling our story and listening to lawyer’s stories. But part of it is also in hiring. Over 50% of the staff who work at Smokeball in some way have either worked in or been involved in small law firms. We make sure we spend lots of time with our clients, lots of time with them online and on the phone, and lots of time in their offices.
Would it be safe to say, then, that Smokeball clients drive a lot of the features in the product and the future of the software itself?
One of our most important core values at Smokeball is “We innovate for the client, not the press release.” We are very proud of the fact that we are in front of small law firms listening to feedback literally hundreds of times a day, and it is this feedback that allows us to build Smokeball through the eyes of those using it.