Aalok Subedi met Santosh Giri in the United States in 2011 through a mutual friend. Giri is an advocate specialising in commercial law and immigration law and has been practicing law since 2001. Later, they also met Sanjaya Singh who has years of experience in the technology domain working with global companies including Hewlett Packard, Thompson Reuters and Macy’s.
Subedi and Giri used to work in the legal services sector in the US. According to Subedi, there were no tech-enabled inbuilt tools for providing professional services. "Most of the processes were carried out manually which made the legal compliance procedure cumbersome," he says.
Realising the problem, they thought of working on legal technology and registered SiliconHire Pvt Ltd in 2012 in the US. The company developed a couple of compliance tools. One of those tools received the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) trademark which motivated the team to work further in the sector. The company was registered in Nepal in 2015.
As legal technology itself is in a nascent stage the world over, the trio wanted to contribute to the development of this sector. After working for a few years in the US, they decided to conduct a market research on the feasibility of tech-enabled services in the legal domain in Nepal. In the process, they found that the area had some big potential and decided to utilise their learning in Nepal. In 2017, Subedi returned to Nepal and started working on designing the platform, meeting people from the legal domain alongside increasing knowledge about laws, rules and practices of the country. It was in September 2019 the portal www.meroadda.com was officially launched.
MeroAdda is a brand of SiliconHire Pvt Ltd. People in Nepal are familiar with the word adda-adalat (which refers to court and government offices) when it comes to any legal work. “MeroAdda has become an established brand name in a relatively short time in the legal services sector. We have decided to move forward by registering our trademark in the country,” he says.
The startup provides legal process outsourcing, professional services such as company registration and renewal, obtaining value added tax (VAT) and permanant account number (PAN), along with legal compliance related advisory, annual reporting, and services related to trademark, copyright, intellectual property and patents, among many others. In addition, they also work to promote legal literacy and legal technology in the country. For this, they interpret different laws every day through their social media pages and help the general public understand the law via videos and different types of designs. Likewise, the company is also developing different tools for legal technology.
MeroAdda helps connect the general people and the lawyers through a free Q&A service. Service seekers can ask any legal question anonymously on this platform and any lawyer can answer voluntarily according to their field of expertise. People can also search for lawyers according to their area of expertise or the district.
According to Subedi, both the public and lawyers can benefit from this platform. As per the code of conduct of the Nepal Bar Council, lawyers are not allowed to advertise themselves. So, this platform also increases the possibility of lawyers getting public reach and more cases. Subedi informs that as per last year's analytics, more than 500 case leads were generated for different lawyers through MeroAdda.
He says that in the next few months, MeroAdda will launch new paid features as well.
Investment and Revenue Model
The founders have been consistently investing in the company since its establishment. In the last six years, they have already invested more than Rs 10 million. They have been investing in training people in a bid to develop a strong team and the investment has yielded good returns for the company. Subedi claims that in the last two years, MeroAdda has grown by 300 percent.
At the moment, they have three lawyers on their payroll who supervise the professional legal services. They have almost 20 staff including part-time, full-time and those on contracts. “The future is promising, and we want more companies to work in the legal technology sector,” he says.
Currently, legal process outsourcing is the main source of revenue for MeroAdda. A department of the company completely caters to corporate clients and law firms in the US. Subedi says that most of this work comes through their US entity. Another source of revenue is providing professional services. In order to make it easier for people and to be able to provide services from one door, they have also partnered with some chartered accountancy firms.
Having worked for many years in the US, Subedi says that Nepal was an entirely new market for the company's founders when they returned to their home country.
Registering a firm was not easy here. “There is no need to visit government offices in the US. There is a mail-in service and payments to all government offices can be done online,” says Subedi, adding, "But, here, we had to wait for at least 15 days for approval of the firm's name and were required to physically visit the government offices many times for registering a company." As they did not have a proper understanding of the registration process in Nepal, it was challenging for them in the initial phase.
“We realised that there were many bureaucratic red tapes,” he says. After a business is registered, there are many restrictions for a company. Subedi thinks that if a company is legally registered, is paying taxes, then it should not be restricted in doing business.
“I feel we are still 100 years behind the advanced world in terms of policies,” he expresses.
He gives an example of the absence of international payment gateways in Nepal. He also questions why home-grown businesses like Sastodeal are not allowed to invest in other countries while foreign companies like Alibaba can invest and operate a business in Nepal.
Like other startups, the low availability of human resources was also a challenge for the founders of MeroAdda and even harder was retaining the workforce. Nonetheless, they managed to develop a team comprising of energetic individuals. “We want our company to be as inclusive and young as possible,” says Subedi. He mentions that priority is given to women candidates while hiring.
As the concept of using an online platform in Nepal is new, it was initially difficult for them to get their message across, even to fellow lawyers. In addition, tech literacy is also low in the country. So, the lawyers were quite hesitant to adopt technology which is still a big challenge for them, they say. According to Subedi, apart from a couple of multinational companies, no other company, not even law firms use automation or technological tools. "We have done a survey and found that about 75 percent of lawyers still use manual calendar scheduling instead of digital calendar and reminders,” shares Subedi.
The MeroAdda team aspires to work on achieving the company's vision to increase access to law and justice through technology.
Subedi says that they want to launch more tech-enabled services in the coming days. They also have plans to promote legal literacy and expand their presence across the country through the use of technology and digital platforms.