Interview: Drew Oliver: From Law to Stuffed Microbes
Despite following his father into the law, Drew Oliver had always harbored an entrepreneurial streak. During his second year of law school, Oliver hit upon the idea of manufacturing plush dolls that look like real germs and viruses, only a million times their actual size. He decided to research whether he could launch a company around the concept.
Putting his legal sleuthing skills to the test, Oliver used online resources like Google and offline organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to research sourcing products in Asia, warehousing and distribution, and regulations governing the fireproofing and chemical content of stuffed dolls.
By the time he graduated from law school in 2002 and had started work as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis, Oliver had already placed his first order for 10,000 stuffed microbes from a factory in Asia. Fast forward to the present, and the product line of Oliver's company has grown to include common microbes like the kind that cause the common cold and the flu to more exotic germs such as those responsible for black death and ebola. Distribution has likewise expanded to hundreds of retailers, including drug stores, hospital gift shops, science museums and educational catalogs. The company also sells directly through its website at http://www.giantmicrobes.com.
As to why he switched from law to business, Oliver says "Being a service provider is not really what I enjoy personally – my real interest is in making tangible products. And I just like being my own boss. If you are interested in creating a business of your own, your skills as a lawyer are an excellent tool, since research is key – and most of the lawyers I know are terrific at research! If you work on your idea as hard as you do at being a good lawyer, you will almost certainly succeed."
Click below for our interview with Oliver.
JD Bliss (JDB): Just two years ago you were counseling startup companies as a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis. Now you run your own company, Giantmicrobes, Inc., selling stuffed animals that look like germs and viruses. Did you enter the law ever thinking that you would become an entrepreneur?
Oliver: My father is an attorney and I had grown up with an awareness of what a career in the law was like. I had thought that to train as an attorney would be useful for a business career, which was my real interest. Being a service provider is not really what I enjoy personally – my real interest is in making tangible products. So after I graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 2002 and went to Kirkland & Ellis, I liked the idea of helping growing companies that make things. But I was even more intrigued with the idea of making things myself and thought it would be fun to see if I could do it.
JDB: Your company makes GIANTmicrobes® – what are they and where did the idea for them come from?
Oliver: They’re comical plush dolls that look like real microbes, only a million times their actual size – which makes them about the size of a softball. We make them in a variety of categories such as Health (microbes like the kind that cause the common cold and the flu), Critters (such as dust mites), Calamites, (such as those that are responsible for black death and ebola), and Exotics (such as a doll that represents the purported “Mars microbe” found in a meteor a few years back). They were originally intended as educational products to help children understand diseases. Each one comes with information about and illustrations of the real microbes. Of course, they also appeal to anyone with a sense of humor – which, as a former Harvard Lampoon editor, I am happy to see. Finally, since everybody gets sick, they make a nice sympathy gift as well.
JDB: Did you have any background in the toy industry, and if not how did you go about developing the distribution and manufacturing contacts you needed?
Oliver: A business like this is relatively simple to start since it doesn’t require a lot of capital. Basically I approached it just as I would any legal research project. It involved a lot of online research and correspondence to learn about sourcing products in Asia, and discussions with various local chambers of commerce here in the U.S. to learn about warehousing and distribution. The toy industry has minimal regulation: the laws of three states in effect dictate national standards for things like fireproofing and chemical content. Everything I learned was basically from scratch, by talking with regulators and factory people and doing a lot of Google research. I learned as I went along.
JDB: What has been the timeline for the company’s development – were you following the steps of a business plan?
Oliver: There was no formal business plan for the company. My objective was to see whether starting a company to make these plush toys was feasible on a small budget. I learned what it should cost to do it, so in that sense I had a target to work against. But there was no formal step-by-step plan for capital raising, organization and so on. As for the timeline, I began doing research on the idea during my second year of law school and the company got off the ground in my third year. We incorporated Giantmicrobes, Inc. in Delaware early in 2002 and placed the first order for 10,000 toys later that year. The production-to-delivery time was about eight weeks.
The web site (www.giantmicrobes.com) was launched immediately, but it didn’t start getting national publicity until about a year later, in mid- 2003. In addition to the web, we secured initial distribution through places like drug stores, hospital gift shops, science museums and educational catalogs. By the end of 2003 I was ready to leave the full-time practice of law. Our sales have continued to increase and we have now moved our offices from Chicago to New York, though we remain largely a virtual company. Our production facility is in China, our warehouse is in California, and our design work is done across the country, with everything tied together by email and the phone to a few key marketing and finance people in New York.
JDB: What about financing for the business – did you involve outside sources, banks, family and friends, or other alternatives?
Oliver: Again, our startup was a simple one. We weren’t trying to get venture capitalists or private equity groups interested, and I really wasn’t trying to convince anybody but myself about the viability. I continued to work at Kirkland throughout the startup process, and had that as a source of income. When the business really started to take off, the firm gave me a leave of absence so I could focus my attention on the company. Friends and family members did invest in the company, but on the whole the capital requirements were minimal.
JDB: Were there difficulties in the startup process that you overcame by using your skills as a lawyer?
Oliver: Other than doing all the investigation and research, there wasn’t a whole lot of legal work involved. I did do things like non-disclosure agreements for the creative people, and the distribution contracts. It was an enjoyable part of the startup, and it was important that I was working on something that really mattered to me.
JDB: How about next steps for the business – where do you stand now, and where do you see yourself going?
Oliver: Right now the plush toy business is going strong. We’re being sold by hundreds of retailers that are supplied by a distributor network, and our products are available in up to 20 different countries. The plush toys will stay prominent for us, but we’re moving in three related new areas. First is non-technical health supplies, things like sponges. The second is a larger number of educational products, including books and teaching aids. And third is additional entertainment products, such as a games.
JDB: Has being an entrepreneur been as satisfying as you expected? If so, what advice would you give other attorneys who dream of starting their own business?
Oliver: It has been very satisfying, because it always takes me in new directions and I like the sense of the unknown. Although practicing law was very interesting – and I was honored to work with such talented colleagues at Kirkland & Ellis – I was afraid that in the long term I would find the issues becoming more and more repetitive. I also just like being my own boss. If you are interested in creating a business of your own, your skills as a lawyer are an excellent tool, since research is key – and most of the lawyers I know are terrific at research! If you work on your idea as hard as you do at being a good lawyer, you will almost certainly succeed.