Ben Gross, Chief Strategy Officer, Genius

Wearing a number of different hats for Genius, chief strategy officer (and still leading the legal function) Ben Gross extols the value a legal state of mind can bring to business.

After I finished law school, I got very interested in cities and urban policy and I started working for the City of New Haven. There was a large, environmentally contaminated, abandoned site in my neighborhood and I got interested in trying to develop it. I worked on the site for about three years – first while I was working for the City of New Haven and then when I was a fellow at NYU School of Law, at the Furman Center, which is an urban policy think-tank. But really, I knew that this real estate project was the kind of entrepreneurial project I wanted to do.

I had known the founders of Genius through friends, and then after a couple of years, they were basically like, ‘Hey! We’ve got a million problems, want to come work here?’ It was a much smaller company at that point, about 15 people. We were also just beginning the process of liaising with the music publishers who administer the rights for songwriters – and who are our core strategic partners. That was not anything I had experience with at the time, but the founders and I knew each other well, we trusted each other and we liked working with each other, and they wanted me to give it a shot.

But of course, at the time, I knew very little about the music industry, or what really running a company looked like, and so there was a ton to learn. I joined right as the NMPA [National Music Publishers’ Association] was (rightfully) cracking down on copyright violations with lyrics. We were in the process of formalizing our licensing relationships and introducing ourselves to critical partners like music publishers and songwriters, so it was important to get out there and really let everyone know that we were trying do the right thing, that we wanted to be collaborators, that we wanted to be creative together and make what we do good for everybody in the equation.

The experience I had doing the development project in New Haven was some of the most valuable experience I had coming in to Genius. There were a ton of legal dimensions – environmental clean-ups, deals with the state, zoning negotiations, etc – but I always had to have the bigger picture in mind as well, which gave me a sense of what it meant to make a whole project work.

I think it’s definitely possible to wear many hats responsibly.

I learnt the importance of real relationships and talking and meeting – getting to know your counterparties. It just can’t be underestimated how important that is and how valuable and satisfying it is to realise that you’re dealing with interesting, talented people on the other end and that you can hopefully work together to do cool stuff.

My first title was actually general counsel, but my role immediately went beyond the job description because a company of 15 people doesn’t traditionally have a general counsel. So at the beginning, I was also running finance, HR and facilities operations. Over the years, and as the company has grown, I’ve helped establish key roles at the company, like managing our sales organization. I no longer oversee these departments – we’ve got much more talented folks managing HR, finance, facilities, and sales now! Now I focus on our core general strategic relationships – with our board, investors, music industry publishers and labels, and streaming services like Spotify. It had become all-consuming, so recently we hired a terrific director of business and legal affairs, reporting to me – and so legal is back in my orbit.

It’s important to me that I’m not the only person reviewing deals that I’ve been instrumental in creating, because that means that I’m too close to them. I definitely want other eyes on them and it’s always been that way; it’s always a collaborative process. But I think it’s definitely possible to wear many hats responsibly. I don’t think it’s wise to have a lawyer in an ivory tower who is in some world of abstraction, weighing in. We’re all realists to the point where we know that there isn’t just an answer that exists in an abstract space for questions of risk – you need more information and you need to trust your team to be able to handle that kind of complexity, and not fear that if your lawyer is too involved in the business side of things that they’ll somehow be compromised. I think it’s really the contrary – they will be better informed and will be able to make better decisions.

We have a company value here, which is to be skeptical of experts – and really don’t devalue your own ability to figure stuff out, and think there’s a monopoly on special knowledge. The way we operate here is really not attaching any mystery to the law or to contracts – when somebody wants to get a contract signed at Genius, they read it and they negotiate it and a lawyer doesn’t touch it until the point person at Genius feels that they understand it and feels good about it. The person who is trying to make a deal knows the most about what’s important to them and the company as a whole, and there’s no reason they can’t understand what they’re agreeing to, what they’re trying to get out of it and what the scope should be. I think it’s important that folks who have specialized training ultimately backstop this stuff but, at least in my world, there’s a trend towards the broadening of engagement with things that people typically think of as the work of lawyers.

The most important thing has always been to really be connected to the company’s mission.

In my mind, the most important thing has always been to really be connected to the company’s mission. When you’re trying to build your company and your business and establish what you’re going to be in the world, I think it’s really important that everybody – especially the folks who are empowered to say no to things and who are trying to manage risk – really understand what the company is trying to do and value that, and are not just taking the standard nervous lawyer approach.

At Genius, we’re always trying to innovate in the products we’re creating – we’re creating new formats. Annotating lyrics was new and, more recently, we have our Song Stories product, which tells you a story about a song as you’re listening to it. The experience is inspired by the Instagram or Snapchat story experience, but is built around a song. We’re super-excited about bringing the Genius experience to streaming services and all the places people listen to music. Trying to figure out the partners and the right structure of a deal, and making it scalable, takes some amount of thinking and creativity from all sides. Our legal team is constantly forced to be creative and think about products that have never been done before.

In the digital space, so much of the innovation that’s going on is around collaboration and the creative use of content that might be coming from lots of different sources. That inevitably means figuring out how to work together with other creative people and other creative companies, and that is going to require legal organizations that are built for that, and are part of that beyond simply being lawyers reviewing contracts – it’s going to take creativity.

For a lawyer that wants to be a creative and productive presence in an in-house role, I think the more aspects of the business you can expose yourself to – for us, that means technology, music, video production – the more useful you’re going to be. For folks who are interested in emerging companies, the more entrepreneurial activities you can engage in, the more you really get a sense of what it means to try to build something from scratch, which is an invaluable experience for a lawyer.