Stacy Stern ’93 isn’t as famous as the Pets.com sock puppet. She never raised billions from venture capitalists or played foosball in the office during the height of the Internet boom. Yet in the annals of Silicon Valley, Stern can boast of a more impressive distinction: success.
FindLaw.com, the legal Web portal she co-founded with her husband, Tim Stanley, eight years ago, is still alive and growing. Some 3.9 million visitors log onto their Internet portal each month while once well-funded competitors like Americounsel.com are nothing more than broken links.
Today, Stern employs corporate and computer jargon with ease: business synergies, customer value on the Web and bootstrapping operations. But her path to the information superhighway’s executive suite was anything but straight.
She arrived at Harvard Law School neither a technophile nor a savvy businesswoman. Sure, she took some classes in corporations and accounting. She even logged onto the Internet for the first time before most at Harvard Law, back in 1992. But that was more the doing of her husband, who earned engineering degrees before attending law school at the University of Michigan and Harvard. Her attention was focused more on the Environmental Law Review.
After graduation, Stern took a few screenwriting classes while doing contract law work. Then she created her first Web site, “The adventures of quitsey dog”–named after a friend’s pet. “It’s very 1997,” she said.
Her next Web site was a bit more practical: the Cyberspace Law Center, designed to make legal resources widely available to the public. It morphed into FindLaw, a site offering everything from free access to a century of Supreme Court decisions to continuing legal education.
Stern says her site’s growth began just as the Internet boomed in Silicon Valley. “There was so much energy and excitement,” she said. “It was like the Renaissance and Gold Rush rolled into one.” But she says she never got caught up in the Internet lifestyle. Instead of throwing lavish launch parties, the company poured any profits back into the site.
Their first office was their two-bedroom apartment, where computers and wires filled nearly every free space. As they grew, they took over other apartments in the building.
In the early years, she did all the sales, marketing and customer relations herself while Stanley focused on the technology. Working together, she believes, actually preserved their marriage. “We wouldn’t have seen each other if we worked for two different dotcoms,” she said. “We were eating, drinking and sleeping FindLaw.”
Eventually they moved into an old warehouse in Mountain View, Calif., with beanbag chairs and workers’ dogs–and furniture bought at bargain rates from dying dotcoms. Today, FindLaw’s 200 employees work in a corporate office building owned by West, which bought the company in 2001.
The site’s focus has shifted toward marketing for law firms, providing directory listings and hosting Web sites. Last year, Stanley left FindLaw, but Stern remains as vice president. Eventually, she would like to do other things in the Internet business, but she isn’t yet sure what. “One of the neat things about the Internet is it’s constantly evolving,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s given in to at least one Silicon Valley temptation: Stern finally bought a foosball table for FindLaw.com’s office.