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LegalShield held its annual convention last month in Oklahoma City, and if there was one key message CEO Jeff Bell hoped to convey to Associates, it was that LegalShield is a company whose time has come. The provider of legal and identity theft services has grown to a record 1.6 million members, yet, as Bell points out, there are 160 million households in the U.S. The sales and marketing veteran recently spoke to DSN about the slate of tools and services LegalShield is introducing this year, and why he believes the Oklahoma-based company is nearing a tipping point.
DSN: LegalShield is rolling out several new technology-based products and plans this year. Entering 2017, will this look like a different kind of company?
JB: I think the answer is yes, and I want to take a step back because in one way we’re unique in the direct selling and network marketing arena. I learned just this year that for the longest time the model was summarized by the slogan, “Wear the button, share the sample, show the plan.” I think one of the reasons we struggled to fit in is because we didn’t have a sample. … If you think about, for instance, skincare or food supplements like nutrition bars or powders, those things can be handed out. … What we’ve created is almost an ethereal concept. We tell people, “Hey, don’t pay a lawyer by the hour. Join our community, and with a monthly membership you can talk to a lawyer on any issue, and the meter’s not running. You’re not paying by the hour.” People find it interesting, but still kind of theoretical.
Now, we have the LegalShield App. Our Associates can pull out their phone, tap the app, and there it is—a press of the button will call your law firm. It knows who you are. This last week we added the Snap by LegalShield feature, which handles parking tickets by automatically sending a photo on to the law firm for processing. So now we suddenly have our sample. That’s a huge breakthrough. … That’s probably been the biggest change for us, but in many ways it’s back to the future—we’re becoming more like the direct selling and network marketing industry.
DSN: This evolution dates back at least to LegalShield’s acquisition of tech startup Shake Inc. in April 2015. What was the strategy there, and how has it enhanced the business thus far?
JB: Our first LegalShield App came out in fall 2014, and it was very simple. It made a phone call. It knew who you were as a member and it knew your law firm. Start simple, start small. With the acquisition of Shake Law, we added a really powerful functionality, which is the ability to create forms on your mobile phone or on the web, for free. We have added one significant benefit to what they originally envisioned, in that all the forms are prepared by the law firms in each of our U.S. states or Canadian provinces. Shake by LegalShield first asks you what state or province you’re in, and then the forms presented are specific to those jurisdictions. Additionally, we understand a do-it-yourself approach is taken by many because they think they can’t afford to pay a lawyer by the hour. We let them know the benefit of consulting a lawyer in preparing that form and some of the downside risks of going it alone, and then introduce the concept that they can join our community for as little as $17.95. …
The other thing the Shake team—located in Manhattan’s Little Italy—has done for us is launch an all-new app called Ask by LegalShield, which provides answers to more than 1,500 common legal questions. That app has already generated a lot of memberships for us. … Both Shake and Ask are prospecting tools for our Associates. Whenever they send an invitation to download those apps, they are deep linked. If someone decides to become a member after trying the app, that commission is attributed back to the referring Associate. We feel really good about the potential for these tools to raise awareness and close membership sales. We’ve had more than 200,000 downloads of the app, which in the app business is an awful lot.
DSN: Do you feel that services like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit have primed the market for LegalShield’s new tech offerings?
JB: Yes. I say this with pride, but it might sound kind of funny. We in many ways were one of the founders of the sharing economy, and when I say we, I mean LegalShield—it predates me by 40 years. We’re bringing together a bunch of consumers using a crowd-sharing approach, and with the purchasing power of $20 a month our members retain a law firm. That’s a game changer. You’re not paying a lawyer by the hour; you’re retaining an entire firm. That’s because we have the scale of all our members, now 1.6 million-strong, which is an all-time record for our company.
DSN: How are these new or enhanced products and services translating into revenue growth for the company?
JB: It’s been very positive. This last quarter we grew by 33.2 percent year over year, and that was our strongest quarterly performance in my tenure. In 2015, first quarter growth was 3 percent, then 11 percent. By the third quarter it was 28 percent, and then 26 percent in the fourth quarter—our largest quarter. The first quarter of this year we were worried. We got down to 24 percent growth and thought, oh my gosh, are we slowing down? But then last quarter was great; it exploded to 33 percent.
DSN: You and TidalScale’s Pete Jarvis were recently appointed to the board of directors, and you’ve also expanded the Office of the Chief Executive. How are those changes impacting the company?
JB: I couldn’t be happier to have my friend Pete Jarvis join the board. He and I have worked together in venture capital and angel investing. We’re both former “Microsofties” or Microsoft employees. He is going to help us continue to accelerate our technical development, not only in mobile apps, but also in our core membership, communication and financial management as a company. It’s the second new board appointment in my tenure, following on the heels of the great John Addison, former Co-CEO of Primerica. … I think these additions affirm our financial success, membership growth and Associate success. We’re very excited that the number of ring earners has tripled in the last year as we head into convention, and our monthly commissions paid are approaching an all-time high.
DSN: What was the impetus behind LegalShield’s new profit-sharing plan?
JB: We have a lot of hourly employees, and we want them to be recognized as we succeed and improve our productivity and customer service. At the beginning of the year, we made a change and moved away from seniority bonuses and announced we would end the annual Christmas bonus. … Those things weren’t really tied to individual, department or company performance. We announced we would pay a performance-based bonus, and there were some Doubting Thomases—and that’s okay, by the way. … We were able to pay a profit-sharing bonus in June, and it was a complete surprise. … I think we raised belief that the best is yet to come, but it’s already getting better.
DSN: You came to the direct sales channel from traditional retailers like Chrysler, Microsoft and Ford. Two years in, what has surprised you about the business model?
JB: I love the business model, and interestingly, it has more in common with the automotive franchise model than a lot of people realize. The auto dealers and their employees aren’t employees of the manufacturers. You have to have the appropriate incentives, starting with outstanding products and services, compensation plans, and positive information and human service support. That’s my focus. We’re here to serve our Associates no differently than when I spent 17 years serving the auto dealer. I love that the incentives are all positive and performance-based. That’s what’s so incredible as a business leader about this model—it’s a win-win.
The other thing that excites me is being able to champion entrepreneurship. We’re in an election year, and whoever may be the next president of the United States, there are a lot of people who are unhappy and maybe even a little angry. However you look at that anger, whether it’s socially motivated or politically motivated, I can tell you that ultimately it’s always economically motivated. If people felt they are better off now than they were four or eight years ago, they wouldn’t be so angry. I feel that all of us in direct selling have an obligation to continue to be champions of entrepreneurship, to let everyone know there’s a chance to take control of their lives, feel better about themselves, and earn more money while selling incredible products and services.