Blugold siblings launch app that aims to give more people access to legal system

| Judy Berthiaume

During his six years as a commercial litigation attorney, Jesse Okiror kept running into the same roadblock as he tried to resolve his cases in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

Other lawyers or reluctant witnesses getting in his way? Nope.

It was the slow, expensive, poor-performing case binders used by many attorneys to organize the thousands of documents and other materials they gather for every case that kept slowing down the young lawyer.  

Frustrated, the UW-Eau Claire graduate did what Blugolds often do: He found a way to solve the problem.

"I could not find a one-stop solution for binders but saw pieces of a potential solution in software such as Dropbox and Spotify, so I decided to build the solution,” says Jesse, who earned a degree in political science from UW-Eau Claire in 2004 and a law degree from The George Washington University Law School. "I worked with an app development agency to create a prototype that I demoed for lawyers in my network. Lawyers were not only interested in using the app but many also wanted to invest."

Seeing a potential business opportunity, in November 2017 Jesse left his law firm to work full time on his app, Suprabook.

As he was finding his way forward as a first-time entrepreneur, Jesse turned to his brother, Simon, for advice.

Simon, who had 10 years of marketing and sales experience, helped Jesse vet the marketing firms that he was considering hiring to help him promote his new business venture.

However, once he realized the large scope of the business’s marketing needs and the associated costs, Simon opted to leave his ad agency job in January 2018 to work full time with his brother on Suprabook.

"We never had big dreams of working together," says Simon, who earned a degree in journalism from UW-Eau Claire in 2006 and a master’s degree from the University of Denver. "It just happened that our skills and experience — subject-matter expertise and marketing — are critical to startup success, so we decided to team up.

"We hesitate to call Suprabook a 'family business' because it doesn’t truly reflect what we’re doing with this. We want to make law practice better for everyone and challenge ourselves every day. We’d be doing that even if we weren’t brothers."

Jesse and Simon both say it’s more than making money that is motivating them to work so hard.

"The U.S. is facing civil and criminal justice crises, and a big part of the problem is slow and expensive cases," Jesse says. “A common civil case like an employment or contract dispute, for example, costs about $90,000. In 75% of all civil cases, one or both sides have no legal help due to cost. This includes eviction disputes, divorce and child custody cases.

“In criminal cases, 80% of felony defendants cannot afford lawyers and rely on public defenders who often work more than 500 cases per year, and simply don’t have enough time to fight every case as hard as they would like. This is part of the reason why 95% of all criminal cases end in a plea bargain. And with court backlogs, 60% of people in jail, or about 500,000 people, are simply awaiting trial.”

While these crises affect all Americans, they disproportionately affect low-income individuals and families, and people of color, Jesse says.

"Reducing the cost and time of cases provides greater access to justice for all,” Simon says, noting that their goal is to eventually use automation and artificial intelligence to increase efficiency five-fold.

Some, but not all, lawyers in most areas of law use the binders the Okirors are working to digitize, including civil and criminal lawyers from the largest to solo firms, Simon says. Some, like real estate attorneys and in-house counsel, are less likely to use binders, he says.

This summer the entrepreneurs began a legal tech accelerator program with Duke University School of Law and a diversity founders fellowship with Fueled Collective and Google for Startups.

They completed a private launch of their app in May, followed more recently by a public launch.

So far, they’ve had the most success working with solo and small firms, and individual lawyers or groups within large firms, Simon says, adding that Suprabook is most valuable when lawyers use it with their paralegals or other lawyers because it helps with sharing and working remotely.

"Our biggest challenge is that this is our first startup and there’s no blueprint for success,” Simon says. “We’re figuring a lot of it out as we go. With equal parts luck and apparent potential, we’ve been selected for multiple startup programs like Beta.MN and the Duke Law Tech Lab that help provide mentorship and connections. Also, there’s a ton of startup-focused content including blogs, podcasts and books readily available.”

Their biggest accomplishment to date was launching the app and seeing lawyers use it on actual cases, Simon says.

"With no previous startup experience, most startups don’t get this far,” Simon says. “This is only the beginning but it’s important to recognize how much we’ve accomplished just getting to this point. Lawyers are using our app in actual lawsuits.”

Among the secrets to their success?

Tapping into lessons learned as Blugolds.

First, Simon says, UW-Eau Claire provided the challenging academics that prepared them well for their careers in law and marketing, respectively.

"Second, and equally important, UW-Eau Claire’s liberal arts emphasis provided a broad understanding and curiosity for the world around us,” Simon says. "This gave us the confidence to strike out on our own. And, when you’re running a startup with just a handful of employees, you need to know a little bit about everything.”

While the siblings didn’t expect to find themselves business partners, neither are surprised that they are Blugolds.

Their parents, Linda Nustad Okiror, a native of Milwaukee, and Shadrach Okiror, an exchange student from Uganda, met while both were studying at UW-Eau Claire in the 1960s. Shadrach graduated in 1971 and Linda in 1972, both with degrees in biology.

When Jesse and Simon were young, the Okiror family spent their school years living in Nigeria and Niger, and their summers in Milwaukee. They moved back to the U.S. in 1993, living in Milwaukee for one year before moving to Arkansas.

“With fond childhood memories of Milwaukee, we wanted to consider a college in Wisconsin,” Simon says. “Our parents spoke highly of UWEC but didn’t pressure us to attend. After touring UWEC, we loved the size, college town feel, liberal arts emphasis and beautiful campus. When it was time for me, three years younger than Jesse, to choose a college it was a bonus that Jesse was already at UWEC.”

Though they’ve always known UW-Eau Claire prepares its students well for future success, they are even more impressed with their alma mater given the number of innovative and creative Blugolds they’ve met through their business venture.

“We were surprised to learn about the impact Blugolds are making in the Twin Cities startup community,” Simon says.

Photo caption: Simon (left) and Jesse Okiror have launched a new app that they hope will help more people gain access to lawyers who can help them navigate the legal system. The brothers are both graduates of UW-Eau Claire, as are their parents.