There's the traditional way to start a business, and there's the way Kevin Christopher started his.
"I did what every business-school professor will tell you not to do," he says. "I opened a business where there was no demand."
The business was Rockridge Venture Law, which Christopher, a Nashville native, launched in 2017. He hung out his shingle in Cookeville, Tennessee, where he and his wife, who had family there, moved after a decade in and around San Francisco.
"We started having kids, and the Bay Area is not a kid-friendly space," he says. "So I'm a registered patent attorney offering intellectual-property services in a pretty rural area of the Upper Cumberland. It took us a while to get going."
Christopher took a key step toward solving his problem by looking 100 miles to the south.
"We set up in Chattanooga because it was a hotbed of technology and entrepreneurship," he says. "We have kind of a distributed model in that we're in places that have companies scaling technologies and growing through private-equity investments."
Today, Rockridge has offices in Chattanooga, Durham, North Carolina, and its original location of Cookeville. Christopher says Rockridge was also Tennessee's first law firm to earn a B Corporation certification. There are only two such firms in Tennessee, according to the online directory at B Lab Standards Advisory Council, which administers the designation.
B Corporations are "legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment," according to information at bcorporations.net. The website claims 3,500 companies spanning 150 industries and 74 countries have earned B Corp designations from the B Lab Standards Advisory Council.
"You don't have to be a B Corp to do great things," Christopher says, "but I wanted our firm to earn this certification – and it is something you have to earn. You're audited based on at least a year's worth of operating data.
"How do we purchase supplies for our business? How do we champion the people who work for us? How can we give back to our communities? [Being a B Corp] helps consumers understand something particular about you, and third-party validation speaks to trustworthiness," he says.
Rockridge has not only earned its own B Corp seal, but partnered with another Chattanooga-based B Corp called Whiteboard, a media/branding strategy firm, to form B Tennessee. Christopher says B Tennessee's aim is to "host events and educational series promoting corporate social responsibility."
That attitude was what drew Shayn Fernandez to Rockridge. The Lee University graduate joined the firm this past summer as lead corporate attorney.
"We're mission-oriented, so we look for clients who are mission-oriented," he says. "We deal with lots of startups, from seed to scale – we'll work with them on raising money.
"Then, once they start to grow, help them scale in terms of things like trademark branding, patent matters and regulatory issues," Fernandez says.
Anyone dealing in intellectual property should be, or have at hand, an expert in privacy. Rockridge has Lauren McClanahan, a Milan, Tennessee, native who recently cleared her first hurdle on the way to earning a privacy-law specialist certification.
"Instead of litigating, I try to steer and guide clients," McClanahan says. "So if I get a client in health care or the financial sector, where there's likely to be sharing of personal information, a client comes to me and says they've developed an app for kids designed to prevent bullying, I scope out whether they might have a privacy issue on their hands."
As have many businesses, Rockridge has had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. Christopher says business slowed as the economy did last spring, but the firm has been "able to rebound really strongly."
"Everybody's trying to figure out how to do the virtual thing," he says. "We're getting pretty comfortable in that space. We're small, dynamic and we can react."
Taking geography out of the equations levels the playing field a bit for smaller firms, he says.
"In some ways, we're more on a par [with larger firms] in places like New York City and San Francisco," Christopher says. "We're half to one-third their price, but they're just as virtual as we are, so that opens a lot of opportunities for us."