Printed on: April 22, 2013

Boise startup takes new approach to divorce

BILL ROBERTS
The Idaho Statesman

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Michelle Crosby was 9 years old when she was put on the witness stand in a custody hearing between her divorced parents.

"The question posed to me was, 'If you were stranded on a desert island, which parent would you choose to live with?'" Crosby recalls.

She was crushed. She loved them both.

"At 9, you know the system is broken if you have to answer that question," she said.

In that moment, Crosby says, she decided to be lawyer. That journey led her to seek a better way for couples to divorce that would ease pain and emotional wreckage.

The result, 28 years later, is Wevorce, a Boise startup Crosby co-founded in December with Boisean Jeff Reynolds that combines technology and professionals like counselors and accountants for mediated-divorce settlements aimed at keeping people out of protracted, expensive and bitter courtroom fights.

The cost: an average flat rate of $7,500.

Last fall, Crosby and Reynolds put their idea in front of Y Combinator, a venture capital firm recognized by Forbes magazine in 2012 as the country's top business incubator. Y Combinator put up $100,000 to help the company grow. From Y Combinator's offices in Mountain View, Calif., Crosby and Reynolds have pushed hard to expand Wevorce beyond its original location in Boise. Within two months, Wevorce had offices in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Asheville, N.C. The Asheville office is meant to plant Wevorce in the eastern half of the United States so it can start growing in that region, Crosby said.

The company has 28 professional independent contractors who help deliver its services.

Crosby won't say how much revenue Wevorce brings in. She set a goal to increase revenue by 10 percent each week, but Wevorce lately has been chalking up 14 percent increases, she said.

On Tuesday, Crosby and Reynolds will go before 400 more venture capitalists in a demonstration day sponsored by Y Combinator to raise money to help Wevorce open in every state. About 80 percent of those who make presentations come away with additional money, said Garry Tan, a Y Combinator partner.

Wevorce was one of 46 startups chosen by Y Combinator - from 3,000 applicants - to receive funding. Wevorce's melding of mediation and technology appealed to the firm, Tan said.

Wevorce's software helps the company establish behaviorial expectations of clients, provides ways for them to fill out legal forms that aren't intimidating and offers tutorial programs on issues facing divorced couples. For example, the software shows Wevorce how each spouse may be at a different stage of grief over the pending divorce.

Wevorce is unique in the tech space where it is operating, Tan said.

"We look for things that change the world," he said.

Crosby struggled with family law at the beginning of her career.

After graduating with a law degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, she tried family law but found that the adversarial system between parties in a divorce - fueled by their lawyers - had not changed since the day she'd been asked that terrible question.

"I can't be part of this problem," she thought.

So she switched to securities law. She married an Idahoan, and they came to Boise seven years ago. They eventually divorced, amicably, Crosby said.

But Crosby couldn't see herself as a securities lawyer for the next 30 years. She dabbled in an approach to divorce that would take dueling lawyers out of the center of the dispute. She opened a business called Family Architects in Boise a couple of years ago that laid the groundwork for what would become Wevorce.

Crosby saw divorces as conflicts with legal implications. "I did not see them as legal problems," she said. "We the lawyers were driving them into legal problems."

At Harvard University, she studied mediation. She created a plan on a napkin at a New Year's Eve party in 2011: Couples would prepare agreements on issues from parenting to finances.

Crosby opened Family Architects using Power Point and other devices to help families get through divorces. She continued refining the system and brought in software.

Reynolds, a co-owner of Rizen Creative, a Boise marketing and public relations firm, came on board in December as a co-founder of Wevorce after advising Crosby for more than a year. He helps run the operation and handles technical work that is leading to increased use of software to make the operation more efficient.

Earlier this month, the Idaho Women Lawyers group presented its first-ever innovation award to Crosby for the work she is doing to mediate divorces and for developing its flat-rate fee structure, as opposed to paying attorneys by the hour.

"I think it is unique in the sense that they provide other expertise in going through the process," said Jennifer Schrack Dempsey, vice president of Idaho Women Lawyers. "It is sort of a package deal."

Collaborative law programs like Wevorce's can be helpful to the judicial system, which is trying to help thousands of couples a year who are ending their marriages, said Michael Dunnard, a retired Ada County magistrate who is an adviser and mentor for Idaho's family court services. Idaho courts have mediation services of their own, but much of their work focuses on legal issues, not financial or emotional ones, he said.

Oh, and about that question Crosby was asked at age 9: How did she answer?

"I didn't," she said. "You can't rip a child in half like that. If you force them to answer you would cause a tear, especially at that age."