Wayne Law speaker series highlights nontraditional law careers
By Steve Thorpe
A law degree can lead to something other than a law career. That was the message of Alex Patterson, chief creative officer for Tough Mudder LLC, as he spoke to law students, faculty and guests at Wayne State University Law School on March 4.
Patterson, a graduate in economics and political science at Harvard and with a law degree from the University of Virginia, followed a traditional path to tax law before realizing that his real home was in the entrepreneurial world.
Interim Dean Jocelyn Benson introduced Patterson and extolled his personal qualities as well as his business expertise.
“Alex is an old friend of mine. I’ve known him for many years,” she said.
Patterson was the second speaker in an ongoing three-part series highlighting non-traditional law careers. The next event will be Wednesday, April 3, and features speakers Aisa Villarosa-Berg, co-founder of the nonprofit organization The 313 Project, and Jeff Aronoff, executive director of D:hive.
Patterson’s departure from tax law was mostly involuntary, but he now considers it to be a stroke of luck.
“In 2009, the market absolutely tanked,” he said. “The work totally dried up. One of the partners called me in and said, ‘Hey, Alex, do you have a minute?’ Basically, they broke up with me. Surprisingly, I was OK with it. It was earlier than I expected, but I knew I wanted to go in a different direction. I saw it as an opportunity to decide what I really wanted to do.”
Then it became a matter of deciding what “really wanted” was.
“I stood back and looked at the things I liked doing and how I spent my spare time,” Patterson said. “Those are the things you’ll eventually be successful at. For me, it was working out, being a lifeguard, and I’d actually run a ‘mud run’ in California in 2008. I’d actually flown across the country to do something like Tough Mudder.”
It took one final nudge from an old friend to push Patterson in the right direction.
A lifeguard buddy sent me an article about Tough Mudder. He said, “They put people under barbed wire. They probably need a lawyer.”
After an interview that Patterson says was as tough as one of their obstacle courses, Tough Mudder took him on as in-house counsel.
“My first task was to register in all the states that they were going to do business in the next year,” he said. “Then they wanted me to take a look at the liability waiver and compare it to what may or may not be enforceable in different states. That was a coincidence, because one of the first papers I did at UVA was on the enforceability of a liability waiver.”
Pretty soon Patterson was handling partnership sales as well, trying to get companies to pony up money in return for having their name and products associated with an event. He stressed to the law students that, if they want to be associated with a start up company, they can’t expect to be narrow and limited in their responsibilities.
“New companies start out with talented generalists who are wearing a bunch of hats and doing a bunch of jobs,” he said. “But as the company grows there just aren’t enough hours in the day for one person to do multiple things, so then the jobs split.”
After becoming chief marketing officer, Patterson continued to juggle multiple responsibilities, even becoming the start line announcer.
“It was a bit serendipitous,” he said. “The start line is pretty much the last time you can give someone the reminder that if they have a history of heart trouble, they should tell someone, that sort of thing. So I had written a speech and included some humor. We had hired a wedding emcee to do the speech and run the music and I kept insisting, ‘You should say it like this!’ He got tired of that and said, ‘You do it!’ So I did.”
And as far as how he was chosen as chief marketing officer, he says the process was … informal, to say the least.
“Can everyone here raise their hand?” Patterson asked the Wayne Law audience. “That’s how I became the chief marketing officer, by raising my hand. Literally just like that. I transitioned to what I thought was a more valuable role.”
Patterson said that growth is the key for start-up ventures and that Tough Mudder LLC so far is right on track with their most optimistic projections.
“We went from three events in 2010 to 14 in 2011 to 35 in 2012,” he said. “We have 53 planned for 2013 and more than 80 the year after this. We went international in 2012 with events in Canada, Australia and the UK. The goal is to make Tough Mudder a worldwide brand name.”
Now Patterson’s title is chief creative officer, although he still has a hand in each of his earlier roles. He currently is responsible for designing challenging obstacles and generally keeping the events “fresh.”
In addition to having fun, the employees and participants in Tough Mudder try to do some good. Every event diverts a percentage of the revenue to charity.
“We raise a lot of money for the Wounded Warrior Project,” Patterson said. “We’ve raised more than $5 million to date. As much as we play ‘make believe,’ we know there are people out there who do this as a job. We support those who volunteer for military service and are then wounded.”
At this point in his career, Patterson believes that his law background has made him a better businessman and entrepreneur.
“It sounds like a cliché, but it’s just so true,” he said. “Lawyers do one fundamental thing that all good business do, and that’s that they ask why. Something goes wrong? Why? We don’t accept assumptions. Cross examination is the best tool a business can have.”