February 13, 2009 6:27 PM
Drop in the Cup: Associate Leaves Am Law for Beer Pong
Posted by Brian Baxter
Thursday's pre-St. Valentine's Day Massacre in the big-firm market likely has many Am Law associates pondering a new career.
Meet William "Billy" Gaines II, a former intellectual property associate who gave up practicing law on December 31 to pursue his passion. When asked what firm he used to work for, Gaines demurred. But thanks to the glory of the Internet, the answer was a few clicks away: Vedder Price in Chicago.
As for his passion, well, it's beer pong. But Gaines doesn't just play what's been the college drinking game of choice since the late 1990s--he aims to make a business out of it. And given that the University of Dayton law school graduate is the founder of the World Series of Beer Pong (the fourth one took place last month in Las Vegas), we'd say he's off to a pretty good start.
We caught up with Gaines and talked to the budding entrepreneur about launching a business, and, of course, re-racking.
Billy, thanks for taking the time today. Let's talk beer pong.
That's the good thing about working on a project like this--people actually want to talk about things with you! Do you play?
It's actually two LLC's that [my partners and I] run. The first is BPONG.com, which is focused on the Web presence and building up the brand in the online community and our merchandising lines. And then we have Beer Pong Events, LLC, which is more associated with the World Series of Beer Pong (WSOBP) and the events side of the business.
When did you set up these entities?
When I was in law school. Once we started putting the events together, we started looking at corporate structures. [The business] started out as a partnership between my partner Duncan Carroll and I when we were sophomores at Carnegie Mellon in 2001. Later we brought in our friend Ben "Skinny" Solnik. We all swam together in college. And it's kind of just evolved from there.
So how is business?
We're not really making much money on what we're doing, but a lot of opportunities are presenting themselves. These next six to eight months are going to be really tight financially, but if we can figure out how to make it work hopefully that will make it worth us quitting our jobs. We have some people loaning us small amounts to live off of and start pulling things together.
I can't believe someone would want to give up patent law for beer pong.
Just to clarify, I actually have not taken and passed the patent bar. Every firm is different. When I got [to Vedder] they said I should get a couple years' experience under my belt and then worry about the patent bar. So I was at that point where they were telling me I should start thinking about taking it, but I never did. I was doing patent work, but I couldn't sign off on anything, which for the clients we had wasn't a big deal because it was the partners who needed to sign off.
What's your primary focus right now? Please tell me you guys play beer pong all day.
It's funny, we actually don't even play anymore. I did play a couple weeks ago at a tournament in Milwaukee with my girlfriend, and in the summer here in Chicago it's fun to play on the rooftop. But right now we really don't have the time. One main focus right now is planning the fifth World Series of Beer Pong.
In the past it's been something we've pulled together in the six months prior, but now we're really trying to get a jump on it. And we've always taken a loss on the event, so this year we're trying to plan things so we can come out ahead and pay off some of the debt that we've accumulated over the years.
Does your IP background help in trying to work out licensing deals or sponsorships?
Well, I've always been about building the brand...maybe that's why I fell into trademark and patent law. They complement each other very well. Before we were just trying to establish ourselves as a brand and get recognized, but not necessarily capitalize off of it. There are a million different versions of the game, so who are we, five years ago, to come out and say, "This is how you play the game?" We didn't want to do that until we made a name for ourselves.
Rules in any sport can be a tricky thing. How did you streamline all the different variations?
We had to figure out rules that were fair and minimized disputes. The best example is the 'elbow rule.' People sometimes play the game where your elbow cannot cross the end of the table. Well that's incredibly quasi-subjective. And every time I've seen that rule used, I've always seen verbal confrontations--sometimes jokingly and other times serious. So we didn't want vocal disagreements escalating into physical altercations....We tried to develop a set of rules that are not our own, but are kind of a collaboration between a lot of different people. We are not trying to define the game of beer pong, we are trying to define the medium by which the game can define itself.
That's quite profound. Now is it true that you don't have to play [in the WSOBP] with alcohol?
That's correct, no one has to drink the beer. Our rules state that when a cup is sunk, you have to remove it from the game. And there are certainly some teams that just set the beer aside. And in fact everybody plays with four cups filled with water and six cups partially filled with beer. We also try to space the games out so that no person in the competition will play more than one game per hour--thus no person consumes more than one beer per hour as a direct result of the competition.
I take it there are legal reasons for all of this? I know there's been some blowback against the game's increased popularity.
We're trying to take this out of the college fraternity basement atmosphere and focus on the positive attributes of the game. And that's mainly the competition. Americans by nature are competitive. I've seen grandmothers play this game, little kids with water, all because it's so easy to play. Almost anybody can pick up a table tennis ball and toss it across a table. But it takes a great deal of practice to really be good at it.
It's about the fun of the game, right?
Seriously, whether you're the most skilled player or a beginner just learning the game, it's fun for everybody. The social aspect [of the game] is also very cool. It's kind of like when I swam in college, it's the camaraderie of being together with people from different backgrounds. I've seen bodybuilder-types become good friends with the computer science nerd over this game. And it was all because of a common interest in the game of beer pong. And it's also fun to play!
Do you guys use outside counsel to set up events?
We have various counsel that we use for various things, including my old firm for some stuff. Right now we're primarily focused on IP and brand protection. And we have other attorneys on the entertainment side working on some TV and film deals for us. We haven't really settled on one firm, we usually just go to different places depending upon the need that we've had.
How do you take things to the next level in this horrific economy? I imagine it has to be a tough time to be an entrepreneur.
My favorite quote of all time is, "I refuse to participate in this recession," by Ross Shafer. I think we're going to have explosive growth this year....There's a decent chance that you'll see us on TV in the next few months and we're working on some retail deals through other channels besides our Web site.
Where do you see yourself a year from now?
We've taken some risks in the past and we're taking bigger risks now by quitting our jobs. Worst case scenario, we go back to what we were doing beforehand.
Don't be so sure!
All interviews are edited and condensed for style and grammar.