Going With the Flow by David Tollen

David Tollen is the founder and trainer at Tech Contracts Chalkboard

David Tollen is a technology and intellectual property attorney at Adeli & Tollen LLP in San Francisco. He’s also a trainer and the founder of Tech Contracts Chalkboard, which provides training on negotiating and drafting IT contracts. And he’s the author of the American Bar Association’s bestselling manual on IT agreements: THE TECH CONTRACTS HANDBOOK, Software Licenses and Technology Services Agreements for Lawyers and Businesspeople.

David has served as General Counsel of a publicly traded software company, VP of Business Development for a profitable startup, and an attorney in a Silicon Valley practice. He has degrees from Harvard Law School, U.C. Berkeley, and Cambridge University in England.

David and I have had a few conversations over the last few months. One conversation with David is sufficient to to see that David is a true polymath and a person with a great heart. In his own words, he shares his story with a clear message – look for opportunity wherever it may crop up

We were selling training on Drafting and Negotiating IT Contracts

Through Tech Contracts Chalkboard, I train contract managers, salespeople, and other businesspeople, as well as lawyers, on drafting and negotiating IT contracts. The business began with in-person live trainings but is expanding into audio and video downloads and a suite of related products and services.

I began my career at a global law firm, but by 2003, I had moved to a small one. I started providing short trainings to develop business. I liked the trainings, and I was surprised to discover how much I knew about the topic. My sessions served both lawyers and non-lawyers, so I had to make them simple and user-friendly. That made them a hit. But I didn’t realize for some time that they could serve a larger purpose than business development.

In one session, a trainee asked if I knew a good book on IT contracts. I didn’t, and I realized I should write one. I started my own law firm around that time, and I thought a book would help distinguish me from my competitors. So I wrote one and self-published it in 2006. Like the trainings, the book was user-friendly and written to make the topic as simple as possible, for non-lawyers as well as lawyers. Both the book and trainings were popular, and readers and trainees wanted more and more. I came to realize I had something special to offer–a special ability to make a complex topic accessible. I decided to open up a new line of business, providing training.

In 2009, I began planning to launch Tech Contracts Chalkboard. Around the same time, the American Bar Association’s IP section got interested in my book and offered a better and larger platform to distribute it. So the ABA published a new version in 2010. THE TECH CONTRACTS HANDBOOK was an immediate success–the number one seller for the ABA’s IP section–and that helped spread the word.

Around that time, I sold my first training. A large government IT department had retained me as a lawyer, to negotiate a deal with a vendor. I noticed the department’s contracting could us some work, so I offered a training to the attorneys, contract managers, and IT staff. They jumped at it. Tech Contracts Chalkboard was off and running.

The challenges were mainly internal and intellectual. First, I had to realize that training could become a paid service in itself, rather than a business development tool. Second, I had to figure out exactly what I was offering. What sort of trainings could I provide, and to whom, and for how long? Was it an in-person service only, or was there a product to be distributed? What was the product, and who’d want it?

The third challenge is marketing–spreading the word.

I’m not sure I’ve entirely overcome any of the challenges. It’s a permanent process, and a fun one.

For me, the main business lesson is to look for opportunity wherever it may crop up. I began training and writing to distinguish myself from other attorneys providing tech contracts services. I had no idea what a great business it could become.