Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
I’m currently in India so this was put together before I left, though I forgot to schedule it and had no wifi fast enough to do so until now. ANYHOW. My India trip is, as expected, fabulous and delicious. You can follow along primarily on my Instagram feed as most of my photos are uploaded there.
Back to Doug. He is one of the unfortunate few who spent just about every day eating soup with me in Saigon. Regardless of when we last ate, I knew that I could count on him for meal #2 or #5, as the case may be, when others failed. In addition to his fondness for bun rieu he is also the co-founder of Minaal, a company that he started with his friend Jimmy and that designs and sells non-creasing travel shirts, merino wool travel socks and — most recently — are Kickstarting the first manufacturing run for the only carry-on bag most of you will ever need.
When I was in Saigon, Doug and Jimmy would come over with prototypes of the ProTravel bag in tow, spending endless hours measuring, redesigning and modifying the bag until they were satisfied that it was worth unleashing on the world. After I left, their diligent whittling toward a prototype continued, and they finally posted their Kickstarter campaign in mid September. And then it raised almost 200% of its initial goal in the first few days alone, and as I write this intro it is nearing $190,000 for a $30,000 goal. A well-deserved feat for two of the funniest, hardest-working Kiwis I know.
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What made you decide to leave private practice? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
On my first day as a lawyer the alarm woke me at sparrow fart** and I made the mistake of looking at a reflective surface. The face in that reflection seemed a lot less stoked than if I’d just awoken for a surf.
** Translation: before 7am, a time period referred to in my native New Zealand as ‘sparrow fart’.
Harbingers aside, there was actually a lot I did like about the practice of law. I met and worked with great people; there was a lot of good food. And okay — you got me — the beverages. There was also a generous helping of challenging, interesting work.
Despite the good, I never lost sight of the two things that burned inside me for most of my life: the entrepreneur’s desire to create and grow a revolutionary business, and the traveller’s urge to explore the world. Time as a lawyer did nothing to extinguish either of those fires, and a few years later I was off to do my best to combine the building of a successful business with travel.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
No alarm: I wake up excited, without an alarm, almost every single day. Others might have realised that one can be a morning person for things they are really passionate about, but I did not know it until recently.
Locational and situational variation: One day I might be presenting to businesspeople in New York City, the next visiting a manufacturer in a small Asian country town where the driver sent to pick me up is holding a huge piece of paper handwritten with the letters D-R-U-G. Really wish I had taken that photo.
Working with a good mate: Getting to collaborate on something like this with one of your best mates in theory sounds like it would be pretty cool. And it really is. However, the results of others may vary. I would recommend extended travel in very close proximity as a good initial test for a potential co-founder. Jimmy and I undertook a 27,000km (17,000 mile) 52-day road trip around North America with 3 other Kiwis. At least 7 of these nights consisted of all 5 of us sleeping inside a Plymouth Grand Voyager.
Flexibility to do what we wanna: If there is something me or my co-founder really want to do, we can fit the company’s plans around it. It certainly helps to have a co-founder who shares a lot of my interests and goals. So, occasional naps in the middle of the day? You bet. Relocating the “office” to Bali on a moment’s notice for a few days of strategy planning? Sure. But most helpful for business: we have the ability to relocate to be close to wherever the best people in the world are for our current project, for as long as we need.
The melding of work and pleasure: I genuinely find it hard to distinguish between the two. That’s not for everyone, but I’m a big fan.
Designing cool shit: As a kid I was obsessed with campervans and yachts. I still am, actually. The main appeal was that I could put everything I owned in one, and drive/sail it to wherever I wanted to be at the time. So I would sign-up for free campervan brochures and when they arrived I would mark my own design changes on them — creating for myself the ultimate dream mobile home.
Fast forward a couple of decades of technological innovation coupled with my experiences and misadventures on the road, and my essentials now fit in a smallish bag, a mobile home of its own. So it was a natural progression to think about building a better and different “ultimate mobile home” in the form of a better backpack.
With a legal background but nothing that actually qualifies me as a designer, I got to nonetheless play a part in designing my dream “home” on the road in the form of our new product, the Minaal ProTravel Carry-on. We tested them on the road, we sat on the ground in piles of material and buckles and designs, and we are finally getting it out into the world. Getting samples into the hands of our test group of fellow travellers to make their travels faster, happier and more productive was also even more satisfying than I expected.
Testing said cool shit: We make travel gear. There’s only one way to test it. Life’s such a bitch sometimes.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional practice but concerned about what is out there?
Don’t be concerned if you can’t see any existing role for you on the “outside”. There probably isn’t one. You’re going to have to create it, and that’s the fun part. I’m going to assume if you made it through law school and are surviving in the profession, you’ve got smarts, a bit of bulldog, and maybe even trace amounts of creativity. Put them to use.
Once you’ve come up with an idea that:
1) really excites you,
2) utilises skills that you already possess and enjoy using and/or skills you would enjoy learning and performing, and
3) is in a large enough market to sustain you,
in whatever spare time you have while still working at your current job, find ways to test what people would pay for that idea – or pay someone to do that research for you.
You may need to tone down/drastically reduce your current spending. To aid you in this, for your next vacation go somewhere where only basic accommodation exists, where there is nothing even resembling luxury. Try to experience how little you actually need to be happy. When you’ve figured all that out and built up enough of a nest egg to sustain you at your newly modest standard of living – you’re ready to “branch out”.
Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?
I definitely identify more as a entrepreneur than a lawyer now. And just look at me these days, who’s gonna believe that guy is/was a corporate lawyer?
That said, I use the skills I developed in my legal training every day. I don’t regret for a moment studying law, or the time I spent in a big law firm. Methods of analysing problems, negotiation, and contract drafting are just a few of the skills I still use on a regular basis that come direct from my legal training. In my current role I wear many hats, one of which is Head of Legal.
Part of my legal training — for which I am truly thankful — included eating astronomic quantities of good food. I may or may not have been successfully campaigned by colleagues to eat an approximately 1kg block of blue cheese in one sitting. I cannot stand the thought of good food ending up in the trash. It makes me cry. In my efforts to stay cry-free I will gladly put my body on the line. I use this skill daily in Vietnam as well.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
Many of the lawyers I know are certainly capable of it, but sometimes I have to work quite hard to get their arses out of the office. Much like I often had be literally dragged out of bed in the morning to get to the office. And by this I mean literally in its now archaic sense, not the more recent synonymous-with-figuratively definition.
Working long hours though generally strips the fun from most people, but there is certainly a subset of lawyers who truly embody the work-hard-play-hard ethos. Respect.
Doug Barber grew up on an avocado orchard in Northland, New Zealand. He’s a graduate of the University of Otago Law School, and University of British Columbia alumnus: Sauder School of Business and the Faculty of Law. He began his career at a “Big Three” law firm in New Zealand before co-founding high-end travel gear company, Minaal. Its flagship product, a lightweight carry-on bag, recently launched on Kickstarter. Minaal is on twitter at @minaal and on Facebook here.