Michelle Kennedy, head of legal at social networking site Badoo, thrives on the legislative and global challenges of the growing business. By Caroline Butcher
Michelle Kennedy may have been in her post as head of legal at Badoo for only seven months, but that’s almost a lifetime in social networking terms.
Since starting as sole counsel she has watched the global social website surge in popularity from 85 million to 123 million users. It might not yet be a household name in the UK, but the site – which is distinct from Facebook by focusing on meeting new people rather than connecting with existing friends – has exploded into the European and South American markets, with around 115,000 new users signing up each day.
“The growth is really exciting but we need to keep a bit of a handle on it,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy began her legal career as a trainee at Newcastle firm Dickinson Dees. She moved south to work as a corporate associate at Mishcon de Reya from 2007-2010 before switching to an in-house role as group counsel at Quotient Bioresearch.
She was then tipped off about an opening at Badoo from a contact at her old firm Mishcons – which is the website’s main external counsel – and became the burgeoning company’s first in-house lawyer in February.
Kennedy admits the fast pace, ever-changing legislation and vibrant industry are all attractive features in her new role. “You never know what’s going to hit you when you come in,” she says. “We’re on the boundary of new legislation and it’s different and exciting. It’s also an industry I can relate to and get excited about.”
While a much-mooted IPO listing and acquisitive growth might be further down the track for the Soho-headquartered company, Kennedy’s current challenges include keeping up with rapidly changing legislation and advising on the website’s activities in multiple jurisdictions.
“Data protection and privacy is something we take seriously. We’re dealing with people’s personal data and we spend a lot of time keeping up to date with guidelines,” she says.
“Over the next six to 12 months the changes in cookies will be big for us, and we’ve also had a geo-location facility set up. Facebook did a check-in facility which allowed you to work out people’s behavioural patterns, but we’re more concerned about the safety of our users.
“Because the law is changing all the time, the information and services we can provide our users are also changing. But we’re thinking about the safety aspect as well as the commercial.”
This rate of change mirrors rapid advancements in technology, and a large part of Kennedy’s role involves working with developers to help them reflect on new ideas and projects in a legal sense. “I cannot be seen to be a business blocker, but at the same time I have to make the business aware of risk,” she says.
The website’s geographical network also poses a legal challenge for Kennedy, with its 123 million users spread across 180 countries.
“Our terms and conditions are governed by English laws but before anything goes on our site we take local law advice,” she says. “We’re huge in South America, particularly Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, and that brings challenges because it’s not your usual bread and butter. For example, with things like domain name registration, it’s a very different regime over there and you need to build relationships. It’s about understanding the differences.”
An expanding network also means an increasing workload for Kennedy, leading her to take on a newly qualified lawyer as the second member of the legal team in July.
“The plan is to recruit further but we need to take it slowly,” she says.
Kennedy uses Mishcons as her regular external adviser, particularly for corporate and employment advice, but also turns to Reed Smith for privacy work and old employer Dickinson Dees for lower-level employment and IP work.
But she firmly believes in ’horses for courses’, and is adamant that a formal panel would not suit the nature of her work.”I don’t like panels,” she admits. “I don’t see it working for us because I operate on a gut-instinct basis. I’ll generally have a gut feeling for the kind of firm we need, and a panel can be restrictive because you need to use certain firms that are sometimes not the best suited.”
Name: Michelle Kennedy
Post: head of legal
Industry: Social networking/online meeting place
Reporting to: Andrew Parker, CFO
Company turnover: Approx $100m (£62.63m)
Total number of employees: 120
Total legal capability: Two
Main external firms: Dickinson Dees, Mishcon de Reya, Reed Smith