21 May 2012 | By Lucy Burton
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Daily deals website LivingSocial is growing fast, and choosing the right team of lawyers to help it develop is a vital part of legal chief Rob Miller’s job
“I’ve always worked for companies that have disrupted their industries,” mulls LivingSocial international legal head Rob Miller. “Skype in communications, eBay in retail, LivingSocial in local e-commerce. There are lawyers who like that environment and lawyers who don’t. I do.”
It’s a good job he does like it, given the phenomenal growth in group buying and the subsequent take-off of LivingSocial. A digital nobody in 2008, the daily deals site now boasts more than 60 million members and operates in more than 20 countries.
One step ahead of the law
“Giving small businesses a large online platform is something new – it’s early days for local, social commerce,” Miller enthuses, explaining how this ‘something new’ has caught the eye of the consumer. According to LivingSocial investor Amazon. com, revenue rose by nearly 170 per cent in the first quarter of 2012. “The challenge is keeping up-to-date with the technologies coming out when laws were written before these were even invented,” says Miller.
It is a challenge that seems fitting for Miller. He was formerly general counsel at Skype, where he expanded the company’s in-house legal and regulatory team from five to 25 at a time of high business growth (Skype grew its user base from 50 to 600 million during the time Miller was general counsel) – growth that was similarly seen years earlier when he was senior director of legal and government affairs at eBay.
“Who I hire, in a way, is the most important part of what I do here,” Miller says, expanding on similarities between eBay, Skype and LivingSocial. “Like eBay and Skype, LivingSocial is a high-growth, entrepreneurial company where the legal team continues to expand.”
That expansion ramped up a notch last year when LivingSocial acquired a majority stake in one of Europe’s first group-buying sites LetsBonus, before taking over one of South Korea’s largest daily deals sites Ticket Monster. The acquisitions brought the number of countries that LivingSocial operates in to 24, with Miller responsible for legal matters in all but North America.
“In all our countries there’s competition, so I need a legal team that has passion for the company and can see where the business is growing,” Miller clarifies, while discussing last year’s expansion in South Korea, where he recently added a new regional legal head. “Hiring the right lawyers is integral to the direction of the business.”
It’s a fair point. As at most fast-growing dotcoms, in-house lawyers at LivingSocial need to prevent legal risk without suffocating innovative business ideas.
“Law is always going to be slower than technology so it’s important for our lawyers to have an acceptance of ambiguity,” he says, returning to the fast, unpredictable growth of the company – this year has already seen the opening of new offices in the UK and Ireland. “We have to have the confidence to take calculated risks – to be compliant but not in a way that harms the business.”
LivingSocial’s famously eccentric editorial is one example of this. Miller needs to make sure that the copy for every deal complies with marketing and advertising rules – a task made difficult when more than 300 are uploaded each day.
“The key is in the training,” says Miller when asked how he keeps the company’s ‘off the wall’ writing style from being considered misleading. “All the copywriters get legal training on how to write copy for, say, an alcohol deal or teeth whitening. You have to be careful not to appear pushy while ensuring flexibility for copywriters to keep deals fun and interesting.”
Understanding that balance, Miller underlines, is the value of a good in-house lawyer.
“They need to understand the needs of a business and know its objectives,” he says, when the subject of consumer protection is broached. “Consumers are the driving force behind our business; they want high-quality merchants, accurate information and the confidence that they are seeing compliant marketing. It pushes the boundaries of legal beyond legal advice – it’s more about offering business advice.”
This has involved advising on product launches, on online travel service Escapes and on the site’s newest feature LivingSocial Shop.
“It’s not just about daily deals,” Miller says, pointing to the newest platform – a feature that sees the site take on the role of retailer. “The challenge, in the end, is keeping up with new ideas.”
Rob Miller: LivingSocial
Position: Head of legal (international)
Reporting to: General counsel and president Jim Bramson
Legal capability, (international): Nine
Catherine Nelson, vice-president legal, Lastminute.com
The downturn has forced online travel agencies (OTAs) to rethink their operating models, investing in organisational and structural change programmes to strip out costs while maintaining or increasing revenue growth.
At the same time, the European online travel market is fragmented and competition is fierce. OTAs must innovate to win. Delivering on strategic projects – product developments, flash sales, mobile and social media – is vital.
In-house legal teams are busier than ever. Change programmes can create a heavy additional burden and legal teams are being asked to do more with less.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Europe are introducing legislation such as the Consumer Rights (or ‘Cookies’) Directive, aimed at strengthening the rights of consumers shopping online.
Staying abreast of upcoming law can be a full-time job, but understanding is only the first step.
Implementing regulatory change in a fast-paced technology business can be complex and costly. Corporate counsel are forced to vie for space in the product release cycle, persuading business and product leaders to divert resources away from innovation and into compliance. It’s not enough to comply with the law, in-house counsel are expected to find solutions that preserve the integrity of the customer experience and let innovation flourish.
Overall, the challenges faced by in-house OTA legal teams have never been steeper, but they reflect the tough economic climate in a fast-paced, innovative and highly competitive sector.
Amy Werner, general counsel, AOL
I have the dream legal job.
Being the general counsel of the European leg of a cutting-edge media and advertising organisation that is rapidly expanding is both challenging and rewarding.
I’ve worked for AOL for 11 years and have seen numerous changes during that time, but our recent acquisition of The Huffington Post is the most exciting.
AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post has not only changed the direction of the company, but has also had a significant impact on how the legal function supports the business. The need to work closely in collaboration with our US legal colleagues is even more important, especially as we expand into more countries in Europe and elsewhere.
Consistency in our policies to ensure that Arianna Huffington’s vision of her company is not lost is key. To achieve this, the legal teams in the US and the UK work closely together to create policies that can be applied globally, instead of simply localising a US policy as we would have done in the past.
This can be a challenge when it comes to the various laws in the countries where The Huffington Post is made available. However, so far I believe that we’re achieving this through teamwork and being flexible in changing the way we work.
It’s an exciting time at AOL and I am extremely privileged to play a role in the expansion of The Huffington Post. Along the way we will continue to improve our processes to ensure consistency and create efficiencies.