Nick Kirby (left) with Least co-founder Leon Ballard
“Who doesn’t like depriving lawyers of revenue?” Nick Kirby says with a laugh when I ask him about Least, the lease automation startup he co-founded. Doesn’t it deny real estate lawyers hours of work they would otherwise do?
Of course, depriving lawyers of revenue isn’t the point. Kirby is a lawyer himself at London-based Mishcon de Reya. It was here he saw first-hand how inefficiently the industry worked. “We were still being sent packs of documents by post to review,” he says, recalling his experience as a junior lawyer 12 years ago.
With a fondness for efficiency (and with Mishcon’s blessing) he developed a piece of software early on that could read and categorise PDFs. He soon followed it up with software that could pull Land Registry data into the firm’s reports.
But it wasn’t until Mishcon hired Nick West as chief strategy officer in 2016 that Kirby truly caught the innovation bug. West helped launch an internal legal tech incubator called MDR Lab, while Kirby was allowed to cut his hours by 20% to focus on tech and get stuck into the incubator.
“I love that process of going into a room trying to solve a problem, which I knew was a problem, and the creative way in which those founders would break the problem down so they can build a product around it,” he says.
But simply going into the room and guiding founders wasn’t enough. Soon he found himself on the other side of the fence as a founder himself.
The details of how Least – which recently raised £1.5m in seed funding, led by Love Ventures with backing from Concrete Ventures – started are hazy. Kirby says they have several origin stories, though the one on Least’s website sets the scene in Las Vegas. “Ultimately, it was sort of born out of an argument between me and an agent about who slows down leasing.
“And we both said to each other, ‘Well, let’s just do something about it.’”
What is Least?
Least digitises parts of the commercial leasing process, focusing on what Kirby refers to as “stage two” (negotiating and agreeing terms with a tenant) and “stage three” (getting lawyers involved).
“We digitise a lot of stage two and some of stage three, so we reduce the amount of email traffic. We help people track where things are at any time. We reduce the amount of time it takes to agree terms between landlord, tenant, the agents, the lawyers,” Kirby says.
The software effectively speeds up those processes by getting everyone on the same page, using the same software. Automation is in and manual processes are out.
Why? “Often, despite the fact that people are doing this day in and day out, the properties that are leasing aren’t as prepared as they could be,” he says.
“I always think about it in the flip side: the deals you do super quickly are the ones where everyone is ready to do a deal as quickly as they can. And, ultimately, what we’re trying to take is some of that secret sauce from the deals that get done really quickly and distil it into something that allows anyone to try and do their deals that quickly.”
Dream of standardisation
Kirby calls the lack of standardisation in leases “one of the big problems” that slow downs real estate transactions. Leases have multiple different standard forms, and lawyers will have their individual preferences. In an effort to reduce manual processes and introduce automation, Least tries to standardise the clauses in an agreement.
“All leases could say completely different things, but if there’s a pre-agreed meaning of what ultimately that clause is driving at, then you do get some element of standardisation,” he says.
He does concede that standardisation only works if you get a critical mass of clients to use your product. In Least’s case, those clients include Shaftesbury, GPE, Capco and Brunswick – big names, especially in the London market. Though nowhere near market saturation, it’s a formidable start.
From office to retail
So far, the startup only works with office leases, but that will soon change. Since its launch on the eve of the pandemic, Least has developed incrementally with feedback from clients. Those with mixed-use portfolios have opened a door for the startup to move into other sectors. Kirby says Least for retail is ready to go with a couple of clients set to sign on in the next few weeks.
Ultimately, all those clients are looking to speed up leasing in large part because that’s what tenants want – especially post-pandemic. Tenants have become more interested in fully fitted out spaces, and they want to move quickly.
“It’s the idea that I want to move into somewhere right now. I want it to be ready. I don’t want to spend any money on fitting it out,” Kirby says. Although those “Cat A plus” deals are still a “thin segment” of the leasing market, they are becoming more common. The result is an ever-growing demand to move quickly.
Ambitions as a founder
Least’s goals don’t stop at speeding up processes or entering new markets. Kirby has a lengthy to-do list for the product. First, there’s standardisation. Then it’s figuring out how to use the data it collects from the leasing process to give users guidance on how to negotiate better deals. And then there’s challenge of creating fully digital, machine-readable leases.
There is a lot to do, but Kirby exudes the kind of enthusiasm a startup needs for its growth. He talks at length about future prospects and how Least has the potential to change the industry for the better. It’s easy to forget that, most of the time, he’s still a lawyer.
How does he balance his two day jobs? “It very much fluctuates from week to week, month to month, but it’s somewhere between 20 and 40% of my week is Least and somewhere between 80 and 60% of the week is Mishcon,” he says,
But when you’re building a business around your passion, it can be hard to stop at the end of the workday. He reflects for a second and says: “Sometimes it’s like 120% total.”