Stefan Ciesla and Gordon McKenzie are the co-founders of legaltech start-up Ayora, the company behind the Smart Lockup Assistant, a system for improving revenue outcomes at law firms. Smart Lockup Assistant empowers fee earners to drastically improve realisation and working capital on their cases. It harnesses the power of data science to bring actionable insights to fee earners, in real time – straight to their inbox.
Before co-founding Ayora Stefan spent almost a decade in corporate finance and start-ups, as a fresh graduate, Stefan joined the British Business Bank before working with RBC and then Bridgepoint and Inflexion in various investment related roles. After several years in M&A Stefan joined Bankable, a fintech pioneer backed by Visa and LocalGlobe as their chief of staff.
Gordon is an NHS surgeon/academic turned technologist after working in health technology at another start-up during his PhD in digital health, decision science and machine learning, where he built a system to aid decision-making in cancer care. Following these roles, he had the bug for being a founder and joined a DeepTech University of Cambridge spin-out as Senior Engineer/Head of Product.
What motivated you to start Ayora?
We initially set out to help company finance teams manage cash more efficiently, an often-under-invested area, which has since gained more prominence with raising interest rates.
In other words, we were building a piece of technology to help people achieve part of their “core mission”. However, during our entrepreneurial journey we came across an epiphany – the best way to help professionals achieve that core mission is to help them stay focused on it. After all, knowledge workers seldom have only one job – a banker is also a first-line risk manager, an accounting adviser doing business development and a doctor must take care of clinical governance in addition to healing patients. In the same vein, a lawyer moonlights as a finance manager of their client matters.
Interestingly, there are few tech solutions to support those “second jobs”. In part, that’s because knowledge workers’ secondary responsibilities often don’t really yield themselves to pure automation – there are relationship, fiduciary and even regulatory considerations at play. In other words, this is less about business process management and more about case management.
In our view, that calls for a decision support system, i.e. technology capable of guiding its users towards an optimal outcome but preserving their ultimate control and autonomy. That’s where we decided to focus our efforts! We built a smart decision assistant that knows when a user needs to shift gears to their second job (based on an analytical layer that scans enterprise datasets for relevant signals) and then alerts them, e.g. via email. The assistant has been designed to reduce friction – it subtly removes barriers through controlled automation features and learns its users’ preferences over time.
How do you see your product fitting in within the legal industry?
Daily, senior solicitors are responsible for making a series of decisions that ultimately impact working capital and revenue conversion. However, time constraints and data accessibility often prevent lawyers from focusing on those topics at the right time – after all, client service takes precedence. That’s where our system comes in, our Smart Lockup Assistant monitors cases in the background, and lets the lawyers know when they reach an inflection point. The assistant can streamline various tasks, including pre-drafting emails to clients and liaising with a firms billing team. Our goal is to ultimately save people time, whilst improving working capital and revenue outcomes for the firm.
How has your product evolved since you started?
We started off as a point-solution in the treasury management space and are now building a decision support system. However, that was, to an extent, an evolutionary process. We continue to draw important lessons from our earliest fact-finding mission; for example, we are responding to general demand for increasingly embedded solutions (that “reside” inside existing systems, such as email or communicators like Teams) and remain deeply committed to ultimately helping organisations do more, with less.
What is your long-term goal for Ayora?
First and foremost, we want to nail the legal use case of our product, we have exciting plans for further enhancing the Smart Lockup Assistant. In the future, we will explore how our underlying tech can help solve other problems that share commonalities with matter management. These might include risk management, compliance, and business development. Our ambition is to, down the line, serve the broader professional services community, and ultimately other knowledge sectors such as finance and healthcare.
What achievements and challenges have you seen for far?
We’re pretty early stage, we launched Ayora late last year, and altered our direction thereafter. That said, we’ve been on an incredible journey so far, from obtaining our ISO27001 certification (no mean feat and making great progress on the product and deep customer discovery (MDR Lab being an incredible boost in that respect). We are now beta testing our product with Mishcon De Reya and engaging in increasingly advanced discussions with several other prominent law firms. That positive response from the industry is highly encouraging.
Our biggest challenge right now is to find time to take a little bit of rest! We’ve built the product in record time and are in a fortunate position of having to juggle real customer feedback with broader development plans.
What advice would you give to those starting out in the legal tech industry?
- Make sure you surround yourself with people smarter than you – its all about the team.
- Everyone at law firms are really smart – you will do well if you help them maximise their potential
- Law firms are increasing investment into practice management, recognising that strong operating performance gives them an edge in an increasingly competitive marketing – get ahead of the curve!