aunching a start-up wasn't high on the list of career priorities for Lynn Leegard, who for decades was the top lawyer for several leading Twin Cities real estate companies.
But at an age when many accomplished executives are already dreaming about retirement and formulating an exit strategy, Leegard launched a Twin Cities-based company that closed the last virtual gap in the homebuying process.
"I was very committed to solving what is [seen] as a real problem in the industry," she said.
Even though inventor and entrepreneur weren't anywhere on Leegard's list of career objectives, that's what she became in 2013 when she launched TrustFunds, a Twin Cities tech company that enables home buyers to submit their earnest money electronically rather than via paper check.
Because of her deep expertise at the corporate level and her familiarity with the many state and federal laws that govern the industry, Leegard knew that real estate executives don't easily embrace radical innovations.
Still, international tech companies pump billions of dollars into ideas that will transform the buying and selling process — and give them a toehold in it.
Leegard's goals were much less ambitious. She simply wanted to make things more secure for the buyers who were writing the checks and the agents and brokers who were responsible for handling them.
Typically, the buyer wrote a check and gave it to their agent, who took the check to the listing agent. The listing agent delivered that check to the trust account holder, who deposited the check and waited for the funds to clear the buyer's bank. TrustFunds does all of that electronically.
"I said, 'That's ridiculous, we're going backwards,'" she said. "I said, 'We need to find a way to do it faster; this is not the way we should be doing business.'"
Leegard was intimately familiar with the risks of handling paper checks. For decades, she was corporate counsel for one of the biggest brokers in the Twin Cities. She also served as president of the Minnesota Association of Realtors.
"The idea for TrustFunds really came from my passion of risk management for the industry," she said.
Though Leegard had little experience in the tech world, she was confident her idea was unique. Internet searches confirmed that belief.
She tapped partners who were familiar with the electronic payment business to help with the technical work and assembled a team with the kinds of skills she didn't have.
"I brought together their expertise with my expertise," she said.
There were many lessons to be learned along the way. Because she was the first to offer such a service, Leegard had little guidance on how much to charge. Based on the reaction of her earliest would-be clients, she said, she was charging too much, so she quickly revamped her pricing.
"When you're a brand-new concept and a brand-new idea it's hard to figure out tolerance for pricing in the market," she said. "For us, it was always having to be very nimble and flexible and pivot when we needed."
She also learned that one should never assume the most obvious innovations and the most logical business solutions have already been attempted.
Today, the company is being used by more than 440 brokers in nine states and Leegard is still trying to sell the idea to more brokers.
Often, when she presents the idea to brokers and leaders of the local multiple listing services, her sales pitch is often met with enthusiasm and bewilderment.
Potential customers, she said, sometimes tell her they couldn't believe that electronic transfer wasn't already an option for buyers and their agents.
"It made so much sense, they thought somebody was already doing it," she said. "But on the other hand it was paradigm shift."