Canadian lawyer opens Seattle office catering to those getting their own business off the ground
Alykhan Sunderji remembers when Amazon was so small, “the legal department actually shared a bathroom” with the retail behemoth’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos. “I don’t know if that would happen today, or if he [Bezos] even comes to Seattle much,” he says with a chuckle.
The Canadian-born lawyer and former in-house counsel for Amazon’s Canadian business left the company just over 16 months ago. However, the lessons he learned while the company was on its upward trajectory have proved valuable as Sunderji strikes out on his own with a law firm catering to startups and entrepreneurs.
“I was fortunate to start at the company when it was mainly known as a bookstore,” says the principal lawyer and founder of Seattle-based Sunder Legal from his hotel room while on a recent ski vacation in Whistler, BC. “I credit Amazon so much for teaching me how to be a good practical business lawyer. That is something demanded not just by a big company, but by smaller companies that need to grow and scale up.”
It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that Sunderji wants to flourish in his clients, many of whom are Canadians living in Silicon Valley who have worked for FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google).
He has noticed lately how much of this tech talent is yearning to build their own business, whether in the United States or, for Canadian ex-pats, back at home. The risks compared to the potential benefits of creating a startup in Canada are comparatively low, says Sunderji. Fledgling entrepreneurs can work remotely, there is a lot of home-grown talent to draw on, and they can avoid the high cost of healthcare that comes with living in the U.S.
From Vancouver to New York, then back to the West Coast
Sunderji grew up in Vancouver and attended McGill University for undergraduate studies, Queen’s University for a Masters in industrial relations, and the University of Toronto for law before heading south in 2009 to start his career at New York-based Paul, Weiss Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. During this time, Sunderji worked closely with the investment teams at Apollo Global Management.
After four years there, he was recruited by Amazon in 2013, working his way up from general counsel to head of legal at Amazon.ca and, later, head of legal for Amazon Fashion.
Of his time at Amazon Canada, Sunderji says he “is very proud of that time because of all the investments we made in Canada.
“I think I think we made the market in Canada more competitive by building out the Canadian business when I led the legal team.”
Learned from Amazon
He adds that Amazon taught him the importance of being able to learn and “deep dive” into a new area of business. “At Amazon, we were often inventing the future,” he says, noting that there were many times he was working in an area that hadn’t been looked at much before from a legal perspective. “So, you had to work with regulators or anticipate what regulators would think.”
Sunderji notices that many Canadians who always thought they’d have to head to Silicon Valley to make their fame and fortune are now choosing to say in Canada. “Post-pandemic, this seems to have become acceptable as so many of us are working remotely anyway.”
One of the other things Sunderji has observed, and what he hopes his new firm can capitalize on, is that many of these tech entrepreneurs who have returned to Canada (or maybe never left) are seeking out U.S. counsel - with Canadian sensibilities – to increase their chances of success.
Sharp elbows needed when heading south of the border
He also finds that Sunder Legal is increasingly getting more business through lawyers he and his co-founder (and fellow Canadian) Matt Glick have met during their careers. “A lot of them will refer work to us, or bring us in on deals,” he says.
For example, one of the deals that Sunderji’s firm has worked on thanks to a referral involved veteran financier and Dragons’ Den star Arlene Dickinson merging her marketing and communications firm with five other agencies into a larger company with international reach. Backed partly by the Canadian Business Growth Fund, the new company is called Believeco:Partners.
Sunderji says his clients have told him they feel like they were “trading up, not down” by hiring his firm. “They immediately see that we have the sharp elbows to negotiate south of the border.”
He notes “the feedback we consistently get is that when they were working with Silicon Valley law firms, they just felt like a number on the revenue ledger. They did not feel like their lawyers were personally invested in their success.”
Sunderji understands that many clients, Canadian or not, are nervous about leaving successful careers at a big tech company to start their own businesses. And with recent layoffs at many FAANG companies, many who might not have thought proactively about becoming an entrepreneur before losing their job are considering their options.
“What I say to reassure them is that if they were successful in corporate America or corporate Canada, they will likely be successful in their own venture,” he says, adding that the risk-reward math has changed.
“Working at a big tech company may not be as stable a career as it once was. So maybe betting on [yourself] is safer than betting on Mark Zuckerberg.”