Dana Denis-Smith; from journalist to lawyer to two-time entrepreneur. Interview by Donata Huggins (first published on 21 November 2011)
Dana Denis-Smith is accustomed to starting new careers. She began professional life as a journalist, before changing tack and training as a solicitor with Linklaters in 2005. Just three years later she left to set up her own business, and then three years after that she set up another.
“I left journalism because I often felt that I wanted in-depth specialist knowledge in the topics I was writing about.”
Her problem with law was quite similar.
“I found myself fascinated by the deals themselves, not the document. Plus, I wanted to leave before the money tempted me to stay. Lots of City workers talk about wanting to start their own business, but all too often the comfortable stream of income holds them back.”
Denis-Smith’s business idea for what became Marker Global was a fusion of her past employment.
“I had noticed that there weren’t any political risk research firms that catered to the middle-sized business market. One or two big players dominated the market and they tended to be run by ex-security guys. I didn’t see why I couldn’t set up some competition that focused on using information received from the ground.”
It was to be a medley of the Economist Intelligence Unit, that she had worked for, and the big political risk players already in the market.
“It began in the same boring way that every entrepreneur seems to start: I bought a laptop with my last pay check and then sat in my room and started working.
Luckily her friends gave her a few small commissions to get started. They really were the low hanging fruit. It was no easy ride though. It took her a year to recruit all of the people she needed.
“I did so many interviews that in the evenings I wanted to be mute.”
If not busy enough, Denis-Smith hatched another idea three years later: Obelisk Legal Support. She realised that there were large numbers of ex-magic circle firm lawyers all over the world that were no longer working for personal reasons (usually having children), and their skills could still be used to do ad hoc, flexible work for their former employers on a more cost-efficient basis for the company.
“I just thought why can’t these firms give the work they would usually give to a paralegal for six months to these women and get it done just as well at a cheaper rate.”
Setting her heart on the idea, she set up a website, sought out the lawyers and walked into her old firm to pitch it.
“They asked me to apply to do the job in-house, but I explained that it was something I wanted to do myself. They weren’t interested in having a contractor – it’s very complicated and bureaucratic for large firms to employ small subcontractors, so I decided to aim at the mid-market. Thankfully, it worked.”
Two businesses in and a seven-month baby in arm, Denis-Smith has set her sights high.
“They’re both just start-ups and doing them both alongside looking after the baby can sometimes leave me feeling like a zombie, but I’m from Transylvania, so I think that’s fine.”
CV | Dana Denis-Smith:
Company name: Marker Global and Obelisk Legal Support
Founded: Marker Global: October 2007 Obelisk Legal Support: July 2010
Born: Transylvania, Romania
Studied: London School of Economics, undergraduate in international history, masters in political economy and BPP law school
Drinking: Red wine, mostly French
Reading: “I have a very mixed pile by my bedside: mainly politics, history, fiction and psychology.”
Idol: Catherine the Great
Talents: “Loyal, happy taking decisions and energetic.”
Favourite business book: “I read the Harvard Business Review because I don’t really have the time to read business books.”
Awards: Complinet’s Best Consulting Firm of the Year, 2009 for Marker Global; Management Today’s “35 under 35” list, 2010.
Motto: “To infinity and beyond.”
First ambition: “To be a cosmonaut; a Soviet-style astronaut.”
Work history: Solicitor at Linklaters, writer and analyst for The Economist Group.