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Men in cheaply made gorilla suits: How Avvo used the internet to disrupt the legal business

Mark BrittonDuring his introduction at the November Leaders to Legends Breakfast Series, Dean Jiambalvo jokingly referred to Mark Britton as having “the most dangerous job in the world.” Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a lawyer rating and legal Q&A forum website founded in 2006.

A lawyer with the firm Preston Gates & Ellis, Britton began working with major area clients like Microsoft and its then budding travel spinoff, Expedia. After experiencing what he dubbed the “meteoric growth” of Expedia while serving as their executive vice president of Worldwide Corporate Affairs, Britton decided the travel associated with the position was too much and moved to Italy with his family to teach finance for his undergrad alma matter, Gonzaga. Interestingly, he found that even though he was no longer practicing law, friends and family were still calling him for legal advice. It made him wonder, “Why are all of these smart people lost when it comes to the legal system?” At that time, Britton notes, there was no “Expedia like resource where people could go to get their questions answered.” Thus, Avvo–short for avoocato, the Italian word for lawyer–was born.

Like EBay, Amazon and TripAdvisor, Avvo is rooted in an internet culture where the “expectation has been built where you can converse with your friends [online] about a product and rate it.” And with the advent of Google, Britton adds, we have become accustomed to asking for, receiving and discussing information with zero cost to the consumer. A practice Avvo continues, providing their rating system and Q&A forum to customers for free.

Besides ratings and forums, Avvo provides advertising for lawyers. During his presentation, Britton referred to the “yellow page mode” of advertising. He found that even as recently as nine years ago, lawyers were spending $1 billion dollars in outdated phone book advertising. And to add insult to injury, the advertisements themselves were not good. To the amusement of the audience, Britton included some of the worst offenders, including ads that featured scantily-clad women, men in cheaply made gorilla suits and tricked out cars straight from a ‘Pimp my Ride’ rerun. Jokes aside, Avvo definitely hasn’t gone without controversy.

Towards the end of the lecture, Britton touched on some of the challenges Avvo has faced, including a lawsuit filed against Britton and Avvo a mere nine days after the company launch. Although it was later thrown out, the suit, paired with a year-long stagnation in online traffic and negative press, took a toll on the young CEO. However, Britton believes that the uphill battles built mental fortitude, stating, “The risk of failure, when you’re trying to cut something out of nothing, is approximate.” He also reiterated the importance of self-assurance and steadfastness, saying, “You need to believe and that’s the key. You have to be obsessed with something.”

Avvo currently has six million monthly visits, 160,000 lawyers listed, 10,000 advertisers and 117 employees. When asked about Avvo’s future, Britton stated, “We have a company trying to buy us but we’re not spending a lot time thinking about it…we know we can double our business.”

Mark Britton was one of UW Foster School of Business Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the annual Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.