This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: ‘Legal incubator’ aims to catapult green entrepreneurs to success

Tom Stevens, an attorney who owns a law firm in the Loop, is helping green entrepreneurs and other start-up mavericks beyond the typical pro bono work that many lawyers do.

A former Illinois state tax prosecutor, Mr. Stevens hung up that hat 20 years ago to pursue a legal career in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. He specializes in advising small to mid-sized businesses about finance, company formation and governance. He always liked to offer a bit of free advice that’s typical of many lawyers, but about four years ago he established a separate program within his firm — called Trebuchet — to formalize some of the free or reduced-fee mentoring he was keen to provide to worthy startups.

Tom Stevens

Mr. Stevens, 46, views his own work in a small law firm of five attorneys as entrepreneurial. The goal of the Trebuchet program within his firm is to share his entrepreneurial expertise with early-stage companies that may not have the financial means to get this kind of help.

Mr. Stevens has worked with about 20 to 30 startups since the program’s inception. He’s recently expanded into the green sector. He heard a lot of green-minded start-up stories during the annual FamilyFarmed Expo last month in Chicago.

Crain’s met with Mr. Stevens to talk more about Trebuchet.

Crain’s: OK, so what does Trebuchet mean and how does it relate to the work you’re taking on in that program?

Mr. Stevens: I’m a fan of really old technology. Trebuchet (pronounced “tre-bushay”) is a Medieval catapult. At the time, it was fearsome because the technology was beyond what anyone else had. It was absurdly accurate compared to anything else. The metaphor for helping startups, obviously, is that a catapult springs things forward.

Originally, we just gave it the nickname Trebuchet, but it stuck. Now we even have a blog. We want this program to be a destination for people who could benefit from our help that otherwise might not be able to afford it at that point in their company’s formation.

Crain’s: What type of companies would be good candidates for assistance in your program?

Mr. Stevens: There are so many entrepreneurs with young ventures or ventures that have been around for a while that are suddenly faced with start-up-like activity. Oftentimes they don’t have the fiscal ability to secure help of attorneys, accountants or other mentors, especially in regulated industries, like the food industry. I met a lot of people at FamilyFarmed who need help.

Most of these people are intelligent and really motivated, and they can get a lot of information online. But some stumble a bit and many professionals look at this as billing opportunities, and that’s appropriate. At this point in my legal career, I don’t need to earn money for every single thing that I do. I formed this program to waive those attorney fees. We don’t even take an equity stake in these firms we advise. I don’t think it’s ethical.

Crain’s: What kinds of services do you provide to the selective companies you assist?

Mr. Stevens: We look to give legal services for complete projects. If someone was entertaining angel or venture-capital financing, we’d represent them in the transaction. We might help come up with agreements among co-owners when the company is being formed. Sometimes disputes arise later when the company suddenly starts making money so it’s important to get the right ownership structures in place early on. We also might advise them to be careful of regulatory violations or structural problems.

After 20 years, I’ve owned my own company and worked with many clients who own their own companies. Some have become wildly successful, and some have failed. So we want to provide mentoring and share our insight through what we’ve learned over time. Sometimes we help them identify opportunities to cultivate or corroborate their ideas to assure them they’re on the right track — or not.

I spend about 10% of my time on these activities. Part of it is hands-on, and I’m on some of their boards, which helps me look at companies at a higher altitude as well.

Crain’s: Have you worked with any local companies that you’d consider part of the emerging green economy?

Mr. Stevens: At the FamilyFarmed Expo I met a lot of owners who are on a mission to have a company that is good for their family, but one that’s also good for other people’s health, their communities and the world. I really got a sense of that passion when I was there. Since the Expo, we’re having dialogues with about six new companies involved in urban agriculture.

We’ve got a local client that’s come up with a lubricant for machinery that’s not petroleum-based, it’s a bio-based lubricant. I’ve also worked with a local renewable energy company working on wind turbine technology.

What I really hope for is that there will be a confluence of technology entrepreneurs merging with green entrepreneurs. For example, there are lots of companies trying to go paperless, which is green, and technology entrepreneurs are developing Internet-based business models to help companies achieve hose goals. Lots of tech companies are now being perceived as green. The green space is an area where we strongly want to continue.

Crain’s: What motivated you to start this program, and what kinds of rewards are you getting out of it?

Mr. Stevens: When I came out of the government as a prosecutor in 1992, there were no mentors. You either swam or sank on your own, so now I want to help others that may not have the ability pay for it.

I like the electric atmosphere of working with entrepreneurs, and I still see myself as one of them. Having a small company the way we do always gives us opportunities to innovate as well since we’re always learning from others. It keeps us agile, too.

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