Podcast Transcript – Series FOUR, Episode 57
melissa brogdon, fourthparty April 2023
[00:00:00] Melissa Brogdon: So we were already seeing this bottleneck in our courts, and then it just really exploded because there weren’t enough service providers, there wasn’t enough digital infrastructure to support all of the disputes that were happening, and our courts continued to be in crisis as a result of that. And so it was really the opportunity to say, how can we respond to this?
[00:00:27] There’s more here. And so we started to [00:00:30] stop thinking about FourthParty as just the solution for this small group of individuals who, you know, wanted to grow a business and started to think about it as a way for courts to think more broadly about how they served their constituents. And so you started to see this momentum and end appetite for more innovation because people didn’t have a choice.
[00:00:52] Dan: What is up on Found Nation? Dan Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out another episode of Founders Unfound. That was [00:01:00] Melissa Brogdon, Co-founder and CEO of FourthParty, a justice technology company that increases access to mediation services so that people can resolve legal conflicts outside of court.
[00:01:10] Proud to hail from Oakland, melissa was raised by an incredible role model. Her great-grandmother, despite opportunities to stay local for college at Berkeley. She followed the urging of a mentor and went to Spelman, a premier HBCU in Atlanta, emerging from undergrad with confidence and curiosity.
[00:01:28] Melissa was initially a teacher, [00:01:30] but ultimately pursued a successful career in the nonprofit sector, but then came the opportunity to work with her partner and husband to build out his law practice. And it was there that Melissa saw firsthand the impact of mediation and the clear needs mediators had, and so FourthParty was born.
[00:01:47] Melissa has a great story you’ll wanna listen in.
[00:01:50] Our episode is sponsored by Founders Live, a global platform built to inspire, educate, and entertain the modern entrepreneur. Founders Live continues its traditional events [00:02:00] that center on five startups giving 99 second pitches, and there are now events monthly somewhere in the 90 plus cities that are part of the Founders Live Global network.
[00:02:09] To find out more about Founders Live, be sure to visit founderslive.com or check for a link in the show notes. Before we continue, please make sure to like and subscribe to Founders Unfound. We’re available anywhere you get your podcasts, even YouTube. Of course you can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn @foundersunfound. And if you like what you hear, please drop us a [00:02:30] review on Apple or at podchaser.com.
[00:02:32] Now on with the episode. Stay safe and hope you enjoy.
[00:02:51] Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound, spotlighting the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and [00:03:00] underestimated backgrounds. This is the latest episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent. I’m your host, Dan Kihanya.
[00:03:07] Let’s get on it.
[00:03:08] Today we have Melissa Brogdon, Co-founder and CEO of FourthParty, a justice technology company that increases access to mediation services so that people can resolve legal conflicts outside of the court. Welcome to the show, Melissa. We’re super excited to have you on. Thanks for making the time.
[00:03:24] Melissa Brogdon: Thank you so much, Dan. It’s wonderful to be here. I really appreciate the opportunity to share more.
[00:03:29] Dan: [00:03:30] Terrific. So I gave a brief introduction to the company, but maybe you could tell us exactly what is FourthParty trying to solve.
[00:03:36] Melissa Brogdon: Absolutely. I’d like to, to contextualize what FourthParty is with the story. When I think about our justice system, I very quickly think about my great-grandmother who raised me.
[00:03:49] She was an entrepreneur and she was a property manager, and when she found herself in a legal dispute, she having had, uh, an eighth grade education, took us down to [00:04:00] the law library and tried to figure out how she could represent herself because she couldn’t afford an attorney. What she actually needed was a mediator.
[00:04:08] So mediators are really exceptional negotiators that are so good at their job that even attorneys use them to help solve conflicts, but they’re hard to find. People like my great-grandmother had no idea that they were accessible to her. And so FourthParty is really on a mission to connect the people who are in need of affordable legal [00:04:30] services with the people who can provide alternatives to dispute resolution.
[00:04:35] And so that’s really what we’re about.
[00:04:37] Dan: I love it and it’s such a important aspect in one of these industries that has these leaps and transformation. It’s, you know, probably less so of the continuous, what’s next? What’s next? But they have these big leaps that really transform it, and you’re a part of that story.
[00:04:54] But before we talk more about FourthParty, why don’t we dig into a little bit about you. I mean, [00:05:00] you just gave the perfect tea up with the idea or the nod to your great-grandmother helping raise you. Tell us more about where you grew up and tell us more about that story. That sounds really fascinating.
[00:05:12] Melissa Brogdon: So I am a proud Oakland, California native. I grew up in Oakland. It certainly in the nineties, which it certainly isn’t, uh, sort of the tech hub that it is today. But I grew up in a community called West Oakland, which you know, wasn’t short on ambition, but maybe short [00:05:30] on resources, and my great-grandmother raised me there, and so I really got a lot of my formative experiences around resilience and just being tenacious.
[00:05:41] From that background and you know, I took a leap when it was time for college. I came down to Atlanta to attend Spelman College, one of the best decisions that I have made in my short life, and really found myself looking for a pathway to really pay back [00:06:00] all the investment that had been put into me as a child.
[00:06:03] You know, when I think about where I grew up, a lot of the kids from that neighborhood did not get the opportunities that I had to attend college on a full scholarship and really be able to expand my opportunities. And so I give full credit to my great-grandmother. I was very, very lucky to, even though it was an intergenerational household, I was very lucky to have a retired parent who could be really engaged in my educational journey and [00:06:30] invest in that.
[00:06:30] So, Came to Spelman pursued…
[00:06:33] Dan: well, hang on, hang on. We’re not ready for Spelman yet. We still wanna hear more about this story with your great-grandmother. So was she born in the 20th century?
[00:06:41] Melissa Brogdon: She was born in 1928. Wow. 1928 actually from, and I love the opportunity to share this story, so thank you for making me dig a little bit further in a small town called Montrose, Arkansas.
[00:06:54] And she came to California in her early twenties and really [00:07:00] started our sort of family lineage there and, you know, raised four generations of her family. I feel very lucky to have been the last of her, uh, great-grand that, that had that opportunity to grow under her. She was an incredible woman. Hard.
[00:07:14] Hard based on the experience that she’s had. As you know, on a sharecroppers farm, being a child who picked cotton, I feel really, really lucky to have just grown under her and I absolutely credit her with [00:07:30] my just work ethic, grit and you know, can get it done attitude for sure.
[00:07:35] Dan: What an amazing person and it recalls for me, you know, I’m kind of a history person, and when you think about a story like yours, People always wanna talk about things being in the past, and that was so long ago, you know, and so you grew up with somebody who experienced life as an African American.
[00:07:57] That was very, very different [00:08:00] than what we experienced today. And that’s a part of your story. It’s not this ancient history, right? That’s like 15 generations ago. So thank you for sharing that. I’m curious, when you were growing up, Did having somebody like that in your life, did that feel like this is just my life, or did you recognize Yeah, my friends, my classmates, the people in our neighborhood, they don’t have the same thing that I do. They don’t have this.
[00:08:25] Melissa Brogdon: Yeah, I hated it. My grandmother was a strict [00:08:30] disciplinarian. She was like, don’t go off of this porch. And so I really felt like, oh man, I’ve got this person who’s like always on my back and on my bud, and I can’t quite run the street. It’s like I had hope, wanted to, it’s kind of saw my peers doing and you know, only age has helped me to understand how much that set me on a different path.
[00:08:55] But at that time I was like, do we have to eat greens and cornbread again? [00:09:00] Like, I just was like, I’m on McDonald’s. Right. Um, and now it’s, it’s so interesting because, you know, when I think about how much energy I put into work, I’ve had to really think about how I can. Be creative and cooking is one of those things that I did all the time with my great-grandmother, and now is a real creative outlet for me.
[00:09:20] Yes, it’s a part of, you know, me maintaining my home and caring for my family, but it’s a beautiful tradition that I get to pull on now, and there were certainly times when I [00:09:30] wanted to use the quick. Chopper and I had to do it by hand, and now that tradition is something that I really treasure. I take the long route now because it really gives me that opportunity to feel connected to her and truly connected to her lineage, to the women who taught her those traditions.
[00:09:45] So no, as a child I thought it was terrible, but now as an adult, it is one of my treasured memories and I really appreciate the opportunity to bring her into spaces Now that I have that chance.
[00:09:58] Dan: That’s terrific, and thank you for sharing [00:10:00] so much about her. She sounds like somebody that I wish I could have met. Yeah. So tell us more, like we started to talk about Spelman. Well, how did that come on your radar? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do or was it more like, this is the environment I want to be in? Or how did Spelman end up being part of your journey?
[00:10:17] Melissa Brogdon: Again, I talked about my great-grandmother not being able to finish school on her primary journey, but one of the things that was super important to her was making sure that I was connected with lots of women who had [00:10:30] had other paths and experiences and.
[00:10:33] You know, on Saturdays I’d have a woman I didn’t know come pick me up and I’d just spend the day with her and I got the opportunity to go take your daughter to Workday. And I always had a lot of exposure to really accomplished women who were giving me the opportunity to think broadly about what my future could look like.
[00:10:50] But I think I still had some limitations. I still thought, you know, you can be a doctor, a lawyer, a firefighter. Like I didn’t have a real perspective on the kind of breadth [00:11:00] of careers that I could follow. So I decided, I picked Doctor cuz it sounded good. And so, um, and I had a mentor at the time who had attended Spelman and.
[00:11:10] I had totally planned to stay local for school. I had been accepted to uc, Berkeley. That was the plan. It was a great accomplishment and she encouraged me to think about Spelman and so I had the opportunity to visit on a new student weekend, and I got bit with the Atlanta bug, and it was really beautiful In a lot of [00:11:30] ways, I talk about my H B C U experiences being really freeing in that.
[00:11:36] Culturally, I had the opportunity to interact with such a range of women thinking about what it means to be black. I had a very sort of singular perspective on what that meant, and Spelman absolutely confronted and challenged that. But it was also really freeing because it was the first environment I had ever been in where everyone looks like me or some version of me, [00:12:00] and I could kind of have a confirmation and the opportunity to investigate more about my identity outside of my race.
[00:12:07] So in a lot of ways, you know, if something bad happened, it wasn’t cause I was black, right? There may have been some other factor in, in being at an H B C U gave me the opportunity to explore that, and I think that that’s a experience that I haven’t had since those four years. On campus, but having the experience that I had education wise, from a primary perspective, I was [00:12:30] used to being first and being on top and being number one.
[00:12:33] And I got to Spelman and everybody was number one. Everyone had been an All-American, everyone had been valedictorian. And so it was really scary for me and I really struggled initially to find my way. And I think that that’s something that. You know, it took me a long time to then try to find the courage to investigate a new career path.
[00:12:55] Coming from, you know, I had a previous career in nonprofit and now I’m in [00:13:00] technology. I had a lot of fear, so in, in some ways, Spelman gave me some freedom, and in other ways it’s scared me. Those girls scare me. But it’s been a beautiful relationship and I’m a very proud HBCU grad.
[00:13:11] Dan: That’s awesome. It is truly a special place. My own daughter actually considered it. And so I’ve heard this from several folks already who went to HBCUs. This idea of liberation like in these formative years where at least your race is not the issue, and so you can really thrive [00:13:30] and succeed and stumble and all of that as who you are. And in an all woman’s college is really a fascinating opportunity for women to have this additional liberation of, you know, we’re not dealing with that aspect of things as well. So you come outta Spelman, you’re not a doctor. So obviously that path sort of ended at some point, but what drew you into sort of the nonprofit space or what, what you decided to do when you were coming outta Spelman?
[00:13:58] Melissa Brogdon: Yeah, so I [00:14:00] came into Spelman guns blazing. I’m gonna be a doctor.
[00:14:09] I went to the first week of Bio one 11 and was like, no way. I was undecided for a while, but I was always a good writer and and loved reading, and eventually found my place as an English major and really had a lot of support from that department to be curious about what other [00:14:30] kinds of work I could do and apply my talent.
[00:14:32] So I did get an education minor and I went on to the University of Pennsylvania to earn a master’s degree in education, and it really was, The degree that I earned was sort of operated at this nexus of anthropology in, in education. So it was looking at the societal factors that impact an individual’s educational experience.
[00:14:54] And I wrote my thesis around girls, black girls experience in middle school and how [00:15:00] the variables that they bring to the environment and, and how mentors impact their experience. So that was a very personal. Story for me and an opportunity to do some research around that. I got bit by the research bug and uh, started working with an education research company back in California.
[00:15:18] It felt a little too disconnected from the core work for me, and to be perfectly honest, I really wasn’t that good at the job. But it inspired me to consider teaching, and [00:15:30] so I ended up being a part of a fellowship program that allowed me to be a first year teacher in New Orleans a few years after Katrina, which was its own challenge.
[00:15:39] And I wasn’t a very good teacher either. What I realized was the emotional fortitude that it requires for an individual to come into a classroom every day, and the risk that we take when we don’t have the right people in place. That was heavy for me, but I had a principal who saw some potential with me [00:16:00] and it was, you know, maybe you’re not with children, but you certainly are for children.
[00:16:04] And she helped me leverage my writing skills to start working on grant writing for the school that launched me into a 10 year career as a nonprofit fundraiser, helping people with assets. Align their interests and passions with the, you know, vast wealth that they had. And it was a really great experience for me to help to connect people to [00:16:30] causes that they really cared about and continue to feed into my identity around giving back, resourcing vulnerable communities, and really being able to tell that story so that it would inspire people to take action.
[00:16:44] Dan: I love that journey. And I’m sure like coming outta Spelman, you have a little bit of confidence and so you can take on things like teaching. I mean, much respect to teachers. My mom was a teacher, my mother-in-law was a teacher and I don’t know that I could do it. I don’t know that I [00:17:00] have the patience. It is a gift.
[00:17:02] Every single person who, who steps for that. But probably some of the things that you’ve done, you know, it’s, I’m a firm believer that it’s all part of the journey and sometimes it’s not gonna be the way you continue to go and you’ll pivot left or right. Well, we’re gonna take a short break and we’ll be right back with Melissa Brogdon from FourthParty.
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[00:18:09] Dan: So we’re back with Melissa from FourthParty.
[00:18:11] So Melissa, awesome career, like you said, puts you into this place where you found a way to sort of leverage your skills and passions and the experiences that you had had. How does FourthParty pop onto the radar from all this?
[00:18:26] Melissa Brogdon: So as you could hear from my story, I am not a [00:18:30] lawyer, nor am I mediator really.
[00:18:32] How I got obsessed with this space was through my husband, who is a lawyer. He launched a firm in 2014, and we worked hand in hand to build that company. And as it began to grow and expand, he asked for my help to continue to grow that business, which was a hard decision because I had a path and. It was going really, really well and I had just kind of reached some [00:19:00] milestones in my career with awards and certifications, but it was a really a family decision to think about how we might be able to grow this business together.
[00:19:09] And I came in really just. Trying to figure out how to streamline operations at the firm. And through that process, he started investigating potentially a new revenue stream through mediation and offering this mediation services, which I thought was a terrible idea. I just got here, we’ve got this [00:19:30] thing going, it’s working with the law.
[00:19:31] I have figured out how to, you know, saw, operationalize everything. Now you wanna add something else to it. So it was definitely one of those, uh, okay. I guess we’ll try to figure this out. But over the course of about three or four years, mediation really took off for him. It was a really great fit for him, lifestyle-wise.
[00:19:51] It really took him out of this role from being this zealous advocate and more aggressive in his everyday work to being [00:20:00] a middle man who really was a peacemaker and was trying to help people find middle ground. And what we found as he did that work, even though it was incredibly fulfilling during those negotiations, there was a still a considerable workload administratively.
[00:20:18] And so trying to manage all of the aspects of now not just having one client, but at least two people on either side or two parties, as we call them, on either [00:20:30] side, that you have to manage, and sometimes it would be six and seven and eight parties. The admin load really exploded and so. That was happening at the exact same time.
[00:20:40] March, 2020 hits and his completely in-person practice turns into a virtual practice, and we’ve gotta really figure out how to maintain the same kind of client experience that we were able to do when he was in person now in this virtual environment. And we don’t know how long this is [00:21:00] gonna last, and so.
[00:21:01] FourthParty really was born out of necessity for us to figure out how to sustain this business that we had built together. And at first it was just solving his problem. How can we create a tool that communicates with his customers? How can we manage now that he’s not moving from room to room, but now virtual rooms and how do we document and help him take notes and do that in a digital capacity so that he could reference it later?
[00:21:28] We started just building [00:21:30] those practical tools. Over time, we started having more conversations with other mediators who were struggling to make this transition, and we started to realize that there was a real need for independent mediators who hadn’t quite reached the level of success that he had to be able to start managing their business operations in a much more advanced way.
[00:21:53] Things, you know, the law is. Incredibly antiquated. And so this, you know, mediation was not [00:22:00] unique in that way, and it really struggled to transition all of its legacy paper-based systems into a digital environment. And so we started having those conversations with mediators and I just got really curious about the fact that, you know, I told the story about my great-grandmother and, and her struggles trying to represent herself that more people didn’t even know that mediation existed.
[00:22:23] This was my first time. I’m 33 years old at this point, and this is my first time really hearing about this concept. Of [00:22:30] course my nonprofit hat saw that there had to mean that there was a disparity out there for people and a gap between the people who needed the services and, and the people who could provide the services.
[00:22:41] And I just went into research mode and started really looking into why there weren’t more young people, young black people like my husband, Gino, doing this work. What were the challenges? Why didn’t more people opt for mediation? I read a research paper, and it referred to the [00:23:00] concept of technology as a FourthParty, that there were two parties in conflict, that the mediator was a third party, and that we really needed to figure out how to bring technology to the table to make this career accessible, to make it the service available to the everyday person.
[00:23:18] And that was where the spark happened.
[00:23:20] Dan: That’s cool. That makes a ton of sense and it’s really interesting to me cuz you honed in on something early in the discussion about mediation and how that’s the [00:23:30] role of a peacemaker. When I think of a lawyer, it’s kind of a zero sum game. We win, are they win? There’s only one way to win, right? Whereas from a, just an approach and an an emotional aspect of the job, it must feel so different.
[00:23:47] Melissa Brogdon: Totally different philosophy.
[00:23:49] Dan: So that was a big decision for you to go from, you know, the track you were on and say, Hey, we’re gonna build this firm. Do you recall the time when [00:24:00] FourthParty had its own? Sort of lift off velocity where you said, you know, we’ve done this for ourselves. We have a bunch of people interested in this. There’s a business here, we need to go and build this. Do you recall the moment when you said, let’s go build this company separate from the firm?
[00:24:16] Melissa Brogdon: I think that it really came, uh, several months into the pandemic.
[00:24:26] You know, as non-technical founders, we had. To [00:24:30] outsource the development of our tool. And so we’re working with a small team based out of Jackson, Mississippi, and. They really helped us to kind of challenge some of the assumptions we were making about whether or not that this was a viable tool because we really were working initially just from the context of Geno’s work.
[00:24:49] And so as we started to develop features and they were challenging us, why? Why that feature? Why that? It really helped us to have [00:25:00] to one, take a step back, but also do customer discovery and start talking to people about what they really needed. I will admit that initially we had a little confirmation bias, which I think happens for a lot of founders, which is, I’ve already found the solution to the problem.
[00:25:17] I’m not really investing the problem. I’ve got the solution. And so we spent several months just building towards the solution and, and asking the wrong questions. Asking those questions that just confirm what you already wanted kind of [00:25:30] thing. So what really struck us was when war research started to come out.
[00:25:35] About the courts and the unprecedented case backlog that the pandemic had exacerbated. So we were already seeing this bottleneck in our courts and then it just really exploded because there weren’t enough service providers, there wasn’t enough digital infrastructure to support all of the disputes that were happening and our courts are, are, continue to be in crisis [00:26:00] as a result of that.
[00:26:01] And so it was really the opportunity to say, how can we respond to this, that there’s more here. And so we started to stop thinking about FourthParty as just the solution for this small group of individuals who, you know, wanted to grow a business and started to think about it as a way for courts to think more broadly about how they served their constituents.
[00:26:24] And so you started to see this momentum and appetite for more innovation because people didn’t [00:26:30] have a choice. And so you’re seeing mediation programs growing at the law school level, and so that was one signal like, okay, there’s more investment in entrepreneurial education. What does that mean? Courts were investing more in mediation, diversion programs, so they were saying, Hey, we need to figure out a new way to solve this.
[00:26:50] And so I think that that was really the moment for us that said, okay, let’s start asking more about the problem and getting to know it better than being [00:27:00] so invested in our solution from that point, a 18 month process to really get to an answer and a real response to that problem, which is, yes, people need tools to stay organized and run their business efficiently, and that’s all good and well.
[00:27:16] But if we can’t connect those people, To the people in need. We have not solved the true crisis. And so pivoting in that way and letting the feedback be our fuel was a hard thing [00:27:30] to have to deal with because it meant, you know, sometimes we weren’t getting it right, but it definitely has paid off for us.
[00:27:36] Dan: Well, that’s a healthy evolution in thinking. I mean, there’s a lot of founders who come to things, especially first time founders, very much like you’re talking about, right? Like, I’m smart, I’m informed. I can figure out what I can put two and two together and see, okay, this is what I think the problem is, and this is what I think the solution is.
[00:27:53] But without involving those feedback loops and those questions, I can’t remember if I brought this up on this podcast, but I [00:28:00] know from my last company, The first time we launched our M V P and we were like, this is revolutionary and this is gonna be so great. And we made an assumption about just being able to do one thing at a time in our app.
[00:28:16] And like within minutes putting it out, the customer’s like, why can’t I do more than one thing at a time? And we’re like, okay, that maybe we should have thought about that. So let’s unpack FourthParty a little bit more so people understand. [00:28:30] Exactly. So what does it do exactly? What are the features of the tools?
[00:28:33] Who are the actual users? Tell us a little bit more about that.
[00:28:36] Melissa Brogdon: Yeah, so FourthParty is built by mediators for people. I mean, the reason we say it that way is because we know that the mediator is sort of connector to all of the sides, and so we have zeroed in on being sure that we have built the absolute best tools for mediators to schedule, communicate, and get paid.
[00:28:57] And then finally, we want to [00:29:00] improve their capacity to serve. And so we are building suggestive technology that helps mediators to make smarter decisions during their negotiations to speed up the process. And again, that is all. In service of our mission to increase access to the tool, but really democratize the delivery of legal services.
[00:29:22] And so we have built the largest database of mediators nationally with a slant towards making sure that [00:29:30] there’s price transparency that people can identify, the mediator that they wanna work with based on the demographic. Features that are important to them based on their industry knowledge. And so it’s really about bringing mediators closer to their customers.
[00:29:46] And when we think about our identity as a company, we really are invested in pleasing our customers customer because we know that that means that we will always have that momentum. To bring in new [00:30:00] business to us. So at our core, we are a B2B SaaS company. We provide the most holistic digital infrastructure for mediators to manage their businesses online.
[00:30:12] We sort of build a mode around ourselves in terms of a competitive advantage by making sure that we are helping mediators to actually do their job better through that suggestive technology.
[00:30:22] Dan: And how do you think about the market? Do you think, is there like a certain number of mediators out there in the world? Is there an amount of [00:30:30] engagements or negotiations or like, how do you think about the market.
[00:30:33] Melissa Brogdon: Dispute Resolution is the second oldest career next to sales. Um, so we are not sort of doing something or investing in a space that’s new. It’s just so common that people almost don’t notice it, and it’s been buried in.
[00:30:50] Legal bloats and, and our system has made it difficult for people to access it, but it is certainly not a new service. And so mediation is [00:31:00] incredibly common across the globe. Actually see more mediations happening in lower developed countries who have smaller justice systems, less access to judges, and they’ve been investing in mediation for a very long time.
[00:31:16] In the context of the United States, we are incredibly litigious. Over 40 million lawsuits are filed every year in the United States, and it is estimated that about 80% of those go through the [00:31:30] alternative dispute resolution process. So they may never, ever go to a court. Or they may go through some part of the resolution process and the traditional way that we think about it, but then ultimately be settled.
[00:31:43] And so when you think about that volume of disputes and how much mediation touches it, there are many mediators who are registered on the statewide level to provide this service. And there are many more mediators doing it independently, [00:32:00] uncertified in a community context. Whether it’s a court diversion program or just a part of a neighborhood support system.
[00:32:09] So we’re seeing conflict management happening in a lot of context, and so we’re really about, again, bringing it to the forefront and reminding people, yes, this has traditionally been the alternative, but could it be your first choice as opposed to going through our courts.
[00:32:28] Dan: That’s amazing. I didn’t realize [00:32:30] 80% are resolved through alternative means. It makes sense because the courts would be just swamped.
[00:32:37] Melissa Brogdon: I mean they’re, the courts are still swamped, but it eventually gets back. It goes through a circle and then kind of comes back.
[00:32:43] Dan: Yeah, exactly. So you’ve tapped into something that’s important, and you just described for us the opportunity there. Let’s say it’s seven and a half years from now. FourthParty is super successful. Dan and Melissa bump into each [00:33:00] other. I say, how did it go? And you say, we crushed it. We are successful. What does that mean to you? Like, what’s your vision for success for this company?
[00:33:10] Melissa Brogdon: So there’s kind of twofold, given my background and how I grew up. I definitely want it to be a financial success. This is seven years from now. You know, if I had my pitch deck in front of me, I’d be saying, we have the [00:33:30] opportunity to capture a 488 million market opportunity and other verticals. There’d be a. 1 billion would be in sight.
[00:33:37] So I certainly would be thrilled to be able to offer people an opportunity to come on board to a company and drive towards that financial vision. But if FourthParty is really successful, it will be because people, when they find themselves in conflict and they think about how they’re going to approach resolving it, they will [00:34:00] reach first for a mediator rather than an attorney or rather than, Our small claims court and that people will start to see the opportunity to resolve their conflicts with the support of a third party as opposed to escalating to means that can be incredibly costly and that don’t always get them what they need, which is to be heard a lot of the time.
[00:34:23] A lot of our conflict and our frustration and our pain when we, we. Feel like we’ve been hurt [00:34:30] or have been hurt. A lot of the time people are looking for an opportunity to be hurt, and that’s why they go down to the courthouse and and file a small claim and they wanna be validated. And mediators are specifically trained to understand what is important to you and how can we.
[00:34:47] Provide you with that so that you can move on with your life. And so I see FourthParty, yes, being a financial success and absolutely democratizing the way people access legal [00:35:00] services. But I hope that we are also a part of creating a more peaceful society where people feel like they can find the people that they need to help them communicate and resolve conflicts more quickly.
[00:35:13] Dan: I gotta say I love that vision for our society, you know, for us to think about what are the things that can address the underlying issues of conflict as opposed to saying, let’s jump to this remedy. I haven’t seen the show yet, but I just watched the trailer for the [00:35:30] show Beef. Have you seen this on Netflix?
[00:35:32] Melissa Brogdon: I’ve only seen the trailer or two.
[00:35:35] Dan: And it’s basically like this chance encounter, which was a little contentious, turns into. Essentially a, you know, a 10 episode series of these two people escalating into the Hatfields and McCoys, and to me, that kind of sums up what you’re talking about. Can we move away from that escalation and move into that resolution stage? I love that vision and I’d love to hear that you want to be a part of that. Well, we’re gonna take another short [00:36:00] break and we’ll be right back with Melissa Brogdon from FourthParty.
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[00:36:52] Dan: So we’re back with Melissa from FourthParty. So Melissa, as I mentioned before the break, great vision for the company. Let’s switch [00:37:00] gears a little bit. Let’s talk about the journey of how do you figure out how to resource a company like this raising money? How do you find the right kind of early partners? I watched the video. You were part of the Google Fund for Startups for Black founders, and I saw you get emotional when they were telling you.
[00:37:18] Why was that so profound? First of all, why did that impact you that way?
[00:37:23] Melissa Brogdon: I think I had a lot of insecurity initially transitioning from, you know, my nonprofit [00:37:30] work and then I’m building this family business. But you know, I’m, I’m the firm administrator, so I’m not quite in the fancy role. And then I have this audacity to announce myself as the c e o of a tech company having no background in technology or in the law.
[00:37:49] And so I think I was really scared and I’ve had to continue to confront fear and and challenge that in myself. And so when we applied and were accepted [00:38:00] to the Google for Startups program, it was really a validator for us and for myself personally, that we were onto something and that I had something of value to share, even with all the limitations that I had already talked about.
[00:38:14] We were really onto something, and so we participated in the Founders Academy program and then applied for the Black Founders Fund, which awarded us a hundred thousand dollars, and the way that they set up the announcement of the award, they set it up as if it was a second interview. [00:38:30] So I was so nervous going into this second interview.
[00:38:34] So I, you know, I’m prepping for a week for it. And they get in there and they ask the question about, you know, what would it mean for you to be accepted? And I kind of fumbled over it cuz I was just really anxious. And then they said, well, we’re really glad that that was your answer because we’ve already made the decision and you know, you’re gonna be the recipient of this a hundred thousand dollars and.
[00:38:57] I was just shocked, but I also was just like [00:39:00] incredibly grateful. I’ve talked about my great-grandmother at that point. We had been just a year from losing her during the pandemic, and there were some times where I wasn’t sure that I had made the right decision. Again, I had this path and it was working and now I’ve created all this difficulty in my life and like was that the right decision?
[00:39:18] And to hear an organization as prominent as Google say Yes, keep trying because that’s really what the Black Founders Fund is about. It’s about the runway and the opportunity and the [00:39:30] investment, the true capital investment to say, keep trying. They don’t have the expectation that everybody’s going to win, but that encouragement.
[00:39:38] Meant so much to me and continues to fuel us, empower us, and it continues to be a validator. When I say we’re back by Google, I mean people really do listen to us and respond to us. So yeah, those tears were completely genuine. Pure shock and real gratitude.
[00:39:54] Dan: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a really incredible program and it was great to see all the people’s reactions. I didn’t [00:40:00] know that backstory about how they set it up though. That’s interesting. I guess what can you say like, Hey, we’re gonna call you and tell you you got in. I was like, well, Keith just told me you got got in. But I wanna pick up on a couple of things though that I hear as themes also. Right? So you had trepidation, right?
[00:40:15] Use the word audacity. I would challenge somebody from a more advantaged background and a more traditional majority based background, would not look at it as audacity. They would look at it [00:40:30] as I’m as good as anybody else. Yeah, why not me? Right. It often frustrates me. When people talk about, well, it’s a level playing field and everybody can just rise up by their own bootstraps, if you don’t even have the lens to say, yeah, I can look that far.
[00:40:45] Right. And I think you also talked about this when you’re talking about going to college or your careers, like you didn’t even think about other careers, right? Because it’s like, it’s not even in your consideration set. Right? I don’t know what else is there? These are the ones that I think are like aspirational [00:41:00] and would mean something.
[00:41:00] So. I think it’s really interesting for us to acknowledge and honor the fact that yes, we are moving forward and we’re taking those leaps. Those are big leaps for us. Right. So I’m curious, I mean, you’ve been a part of a number of programs. You’ve won a bunch of stuff and competitions and pitch things and so forth.
[00:41:20] As a black woman founder, have there been specific mentors, allies, organizations that were just sort of. Catalysts [00:41:30] for helping you move forward in a way that is not obvious or is not prevalent.
[00:41:36] Melissa Brogdon: Yeah, absolutely. The first person who comes to mind, and it is in connection with Google for Startups, but it’s Jewel Burke Solomon, who is the head of the US Google for Startups, but also has a fund called Collab Capital here in Atlanta, and Jewel is several years younger than me and but I have followed her journey and been an admirer of hers and over [00:42:00] the years and seeing someone.
[00:42:03] From a comparable background, make that and not having a technical background make that decision, that audacious decision. You know, even though I talk about that trepidation, she was absolutely, and is among several figures who made it very clear that it was possible, and I think that that was what allowed me to go ahead and say yes and try.
[00:42:26] Because the great opportunity that [00:42:30] is set out for us is learning from the experiences of those who have come before us. And some of that is like ancient history, right? But some of it is very real. 20 13, 20 14, 20 20, where you know, The first hundred black women to raise over a million dollars. Like those are people who many times we may be able to reach out to on LinkedIn and who in my experience are very responsive and excited to [00:43:00] support people, especially black women, on their next stage of their journey.
[00:43:05] Now, it doesn’t mean that they’re always gonna say nice things and say that they’re going to be challenging, but it’s been incredible to be able to access individuals like Jewel, who will give you honest feedback and will also say, why not you and ask that question. And she has a kind of confidence that I really admire and, and look forward to living into myself.
[00:43:28] But I think of her, I think of [00:43:30] Sonya Ebra with Courtroom five, who really made me feel really confident that there was space for me in the Justice Technologies area. She’s been on the show? Yes, yes. Who’s spent time with me? So those two, and I’ll also mention Goody Nation. So it’s led by Joey Womack here in Atlanta.
[00:43:48] It’s a founder network and it’s all about the power of connectivity. And Joey’s a really hands-on. Director who you know is invested in resourcing people, [00:44:00] in saying underrepresented founders, making sure that we have equal access to the relationships that are going to catapult us to the next level. Yes, we may be qualified.
[00:44:10] Yes, we may have a good product, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have the relationships to talk to those investors, to the angels, get the coaching that you need to be effective. Make warm introductions. You’re not likely to really be able to succeed unless you have that significant capital to self-fund. [00:44:30] So, and most of us tend to not have that. So those are the folks that come to mind for me.
[00:44:34] Dan: Yeah, both amazing people for sure. Here’s a question I like to ask. How does the world remind you that you’re a black founder? Either positively or in a challenging way?
[00:44:46] Melissa Brogdon: The world reminds me that I’m a black founder in a positive way because our work truly is mission driven. When I think [00:45:00] about who, I mean when I say underrepresented or historically disenfranchised or under-resourced, I’m thinking about people in my family, people who are from my community, people who look like me, and while there are many other people who fall into that vulnerable category, I know that I am really lucky to be where I am and have the.
[00:45:27] Opportunity to use my skills [00:45:30] and talents to build something of impact. And so I think that I can’t disconnect my blackness and my, my specific background from the way that I build my company. And that is why, you know, we offer access to our solution at no cost. So there are versions of our products that do have a premium, but we know that people are doing this work in vulnerable communities, in communities of color, and they should have [00:46:00] access to high quality tools as well to do the peacekeeping that they do.
[00:46:04] And so, I think that I’m reminded about my blackness as I build the mission of FourthParty because it absolutely cannot be disconnected from the fact that we want vulnerable people to have access to high quality legal services.
[00:46:20] Dan: Yeah, it’s really interesting. In my day job, I work with founders in the outdoor space who are black and brown, and in some cases they very much lean into the heritage.
[00:46:29] [00:46:30] My culture, my background informs how I’m trying to deliver value to the marketplace. And other times they just say, Hey, you know, I’m just trying to build a better mouse trap. I’m proud of my heritage and I lean into it, but that isn’t necessarily as connected. But I love what you’re talking about, this idea that there’s a vulnerability that you can identify with, and so that’s material for how you’re thinking about making impact and growing the company.
[00:46:58] In terms of fundraising, how [00:47:00] do you think about that experience? I mean, most people look at it as a, you know, it’s just kind of a necessary thing. What has been your experience so far?
[00:47:09] Melissa Brogdon: Yeah, so I am actively raising our pree round and you know, it’s painful. Um, but it’s not so much because of the noses. I expect the noses when I talk about the people who I’m looking up to.
[00:47:23] Jewel has said she’s gotten 90 something nos before she got it yet, so I anticipate that is going to be [00:47:30] a journey towards that first. Yes. But I think the painful part of it is the feedback and having to decide what to do with it. Because some of it is consequential and you’ve gotta see if it makes sense to engage it and incorporate it and make a decision about it.
[00:47:49] And some of it you have to let go and be so focused, hyper-focused on the mission at hand and what you know to be true about your [00:48:00] product. As you talk with people who may or may not have any concept about the market and are just taking your word for it. And so I think being resilient around that, but also making decisions really quickly is really harrowing and exhausting.
[00:48:16] And so that’s the part that that is painful, that I recognize. There’s still 120, 160, maybe six months of me constantly taking in feedback, making really smart decisions about what I do [00:48:30] with it. And hoping that the next conversation, that I can take something from that to inform the next conversation and make it productive.
[00:48:38] And so that’s been my experience so far.
[00:48:40] Dan: Wow. For somebody who’s been in the startup world for such a short time, you have such a profoundly mature view of this. Thank you. Thank you. And, and you’re right, that is part of the cognitive challenge that we fa one of the many you face as a founder, which is, when do I take input, synthesize it in?
[00:48:59] [00:49:00] When do I stop everything and say, Hmm. When do I say, Hmm, that wasn’t really that informed and yeah, let’s put that aside. Maybe we’ll bring it back and figuring out which falls into which category.
[00:49:12] Melissa Brogdon: And Dan, my first career was in fundraising. Right? So I’m used to hearing the no. And what we really had to really engage around was that the right donors, you really don’t have to sell too hard to them if you’re speaking their language and they are the right donor.
[00:49:29] [00:49:30] People donate and they don’t really get anything back. It’s all the intrinsic benefits, right? And so if you can be effective in storytelling and helping people to feel that alignment to a mission where it’s not even transactional, it really has lent itself to being really resilient around that feedback.
[00:49:50] When someone says, you know, I just really don’t get it, or I don’t believe the market size, or, yeah, it sounds like you got a great story, but I just don’t think you’re a fit. Taking [00:50:00] that in and it, it hurts sometimes. It hurts every time. But taking that in and recognizing that you are right, the right an investor, it’s not a donor in this case, but the right investor gets it, is a mission aligned, is ready to work with you, is believes who you are, and we’re looking for those people.
[00:50:20] Dan: I had somebody on the show once say, it’s like, I don’t make believers outta non-believers. I’m looking for believers. So the last question I have is the quintessential, this is a retrospective. [00:50:30] If you can go back in time to maybe where you’re still building the firm, not quite into the startup world, and you can go talk to that Melissa and say, here’s my advice, Melissa, for what you’re about to experience. Here’s some things to look out for. Here’s some things to lean into. What advice would you give her?
[00:50:49] Melissa Brogdon: I think I would say it is okay to be last. So I was a kid who liked being first. I wanted to be the line leader. I wanted my name at the top of the [00:51:00] list. I was, you know, trying to be teachers fed. I got the scholarship, I did the thing.
[00:51:05] Give me my gold star. And so first, you know, we’re capitalistic society. We’re very obsessed with first place. And it’s very hard for us to find value when we don’t end up in that first place. But over the course of building FourthParty, there have been other companies who have set out on a similar mission to ours who are no longer here.
[00:51:27] And so really what [00:51:30] I would say to myself is that you don’t need to be first, just be the last man standing. There’s so much wisdom in last place. You kind of have the perspective and freedom to make really smart decisions and learn from the mistakes of other people. And I think I got distracted about not being first and being older and you know, not making a decision fast enough.
[00:51:52] And I spent a lot of emotional energy with that. When I probably could have directed it towards [00:52:00] figuring out how to be the last man on the podium. And so now we have really invested in how do we endure? You know, the pandemic happened, we’re looking down at a recession. There’s all kinds of things that are happening that are saying, This is a terrible time to raise.
[00:52:16] It’s a terrible time to be a founder. It’s a terrible time to be a black founder and we are thinking about endurance. So it’s okay to come in last sis. I think that’s what I would say, say to her.
[00:52:27] Dan: I love that we do get obsessed [00:52:30] about the first, again, I’m a history person and it’s like I often bring up like, do you know who, who’s the first person to invent tv?
[00:52:36] And most people don’t know. And it was a farm boy named Filo Farnsworth from the Midwest that, you know, died penniless and no benefit from that. But you know, so. Well, this has been an awesome conversation. Melissa. We always like to end with a call to action for Unfound Nation. What ways can we be helpful to you or to FourthParty?
[00:52:55] Melissa Brogdon: We are always looking to work with smart [00:53:00] people who are invested in growing mission driven organizations. So I would love to connect with you on LinkedIn. Please do follow FourthParty for updates on LinkedIn. While we are a justice technology company, we are invested in helping people to learn more about mediation and alternative resolution overall.
[00:53:20] So even if you don’t find yourself in a conflict, there may be some useful information there. If you wanna get in touch with us, I am accessible at [00:53:30] firstname.lastname@example.org and that’s all written out. F O U R T H P A R T y.app. So we’d love to get connected with you. As I’ve mentioned, we are actively raising around, so if you’d like to give me some feedback on my pitch, I’d love the opportunity to do that. And really thank you for listening to us today.
[00:53:51] Dan: Awesome. Well, Melissa, I’ve really, really enjoyed the conversation. Lots of great nuggets you’ve dropped, and I’m excited for when this comes out. [00:54:00] So thank you again for making the time.
[00:54:02] Melissa Brogdon: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity, Dan.
[00:54:04] Dan: We’d like to thank our guest, Melissa, and our sponsor Founders Live.
[00:54:08] This podcast was produced by me, Dan Kihanya, with audio editing and production by We Edit Podcasts.
[00:54:14] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, or simply go to foundersunfound.com/listento. That’s listen T-O. And follow us on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn @foundersunfound. And make sure to tell your friends about us. [00:54:30] We so appreciate every new listener.
[00:54:32] Thanks so much for tuning in.
[00:54:34] I am Dan Kihanya, and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.