Robin AI founder: Don’t merge your personal and professional lives

Robin AI founder

Dr James Clough is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Robin AI, a startup bringing generative AI to the legal sector.

Founded in 2019, Robin AI uses a machine-learning model to scour millions of legal documents to suggest drafts and edits for contracts.

The London-headquartered company says its technology reduces the time it takes to review contracts by up to 80%.

It has raised more than $16m in funding, including a $10.5m Series A round in February this year.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, Clough reveals what he wishes he’d done differently at launch, recalls his worst pitching experience and shares tips for avoiding burnout.

1. What one thing do you wish you’d done differently when launching your company?

James Clough: When Richard Robinson (CEO and co-founder) and I first started Robin AI, we spent a lot of time talking to potential customers and users. This was hours and hours of useful talking time, before acting and actually creating something, that enabled us to understand what any future customers might want.

I wish we had opened these conversations up to the expanding team in those early days of Robin AI; our first two engineers should’ve been more directly involved in these interviews, rather than Richard and I being a silo of information.

When a company grows and you have a product manager, these larger group conversations aren’t as necessary, but when the company’s still small, it’s best that everyone shares this responsibility and hears directly from potential users.

2. What’s your worst pitching experience?

JC: The earliest pitches are the hardest – both when pitching the company to investors and when pitching the product to potential new clients – and each one feels so important and you have to do them all yourself.

I remember one time when we were trying to close a deal that was very significant at the time, and after weeks of trying, we finally got a meeting with all the key decision-makers who were in three different time zones.

It was a Zoom meeting, and I was halfway through my product demo when the fire alarm went off. It was our office building’s annual fire drill. I had no choice but to try and carry on the conversation while holding my laptop and walking down the stairs to the fire exit, which didn’t work very well at all.

3.  How do you motivate your team?

JC: I’m a first-time founder, and so is Richard, so we have a keen awareness of the fact that we won’t get everything right – sometimes neither do serial entrepreneurs! I think this openness and transparency we have with the team fosters motivation and trust. We’ve learnt from past mistakes that things run smoother, and people work better, when they’re all involved in the process. We have regular all-hands meetings so that we can tell our 100+ strong team what’s going on: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

We don’t believe in keeping secrets, and it’s important that people know what’s happening, as it’s happening, so that no one is blindsided or left in the dark. The team can also provide their own valuable input.

A comfortable environment and honest culture lends itself to motivation – as people want to continue creating the good parts and want to work towards overcoming the bad. Luckily at Robin AI, there’s always usually more good stuff to say than bad.

4. How do you prevent burnout?

JC: Some people believe you should ‘bring your whole self to work’ and merge your personal and professional lives. I disagree. Now I don’t mean to say that your co-workers shouldn’t know anything about you nor should the people in your private life not even know what you do all day. It’s also fun and healthy when the two groups mix.

What I mean is that having a slight separation gives more perspective and creates a better balance; something going wrong at home won’t then necessarily impact work and vice versa. Of course, there are unfortunate instances where this isn’t the case, but for the most part, this can help prevent burnout as your life isn’t all entangled.

5. What’s the most misunderstood technology?

JC: Nuclear fusion. Nuclear energy scares a lot of people, but traditional nuclear power, fission and what’s now on the horizon, fusion, are very different. For a long time, we’ve heard experts say that nuclear fusion is “20 years away”, so there’s a lot of fatigue, as we’ve not seen the results.

How can we understand what we haven’t seen a practical application of? It seems like an unfulfilled promise. However, we are now witnessing a shift in the industry and scientists and new startups are making real headway. Nuclear fusion will be extremely impactful for every sector, especially in fighting climate change.

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative tech startups, scaleups and unicorns – is published every Friday.