Dave Ugelow Innovates in Tech by Focusing on People

Dave Ugelow applies what he has learned about scaling businesses to drive growth and legal support for employees at Group Nine Media

Dave Ugelow, VP of Legal & Business Affairs, Group Nine Media Photo by Samantha Rayward

Dave Ugelow has long been drawn to the push and pull between tech innovation and the law. Because of that, after he cut his teeth in intellectual property law at a few monolithic fashion houses in New York, he took a job at Facebook in Austin, Texas, just around the time the social media giant surpassed one billion users.

“We needed to figure out how to build the policies and the legal logic on the platform to scale globally for this huge user base,” Ugelow explains. “I learned a lot about growing a business and all the little decisions that go into scaling tech. It was really a formative experience in that sense, because it was sort of in contrast to the training that I had just gone through at law school. Now, I was going through sort of a Business 101 training and learning how to quickly make legal decisions as we grew.”

That experience was invaluable for Ugelow, who returned to his hometown of New York in 2013 and joined Thrillist Media Group as its first attorney. He promptly began building out the legal department so that in 2016, when the company formed Group Nine Media along with other media companies The Dodo, NowThis, and Seeker, he was ready to apply what he had learned at Facebook as well as learnings from his pro bono and advisory work.

“It can be really challenging to build the plane while you’re flying the plane,” he says. “The business has transformed a lot over the years, so I’ve had to adjust my approach in response to that, which can also be challenging because you don’t want to make too many knee-jerk reactions and get stuck in a place where you’re constantly changing things that people are confused about.”

Ironically, to harmonize his department with the business’s breakneck pace, Ugelow found that relaxing the hiring process actually made it easier for the overall team to adapt to changes. “I’ve made an effort to really slow down and look for the best candidate, which can be challenging because you want to move fast to do all the things that the business is demanding of you,” he explains.

“It’s really important to me that people have a clear path for growth and development, and that they understand that they’re not just a cog in the wheel.”

“It can be difficult to get the information you need out of an interview that lasts only thirty minutes,” Ugelow adds. “If you take the time to properly vet that person, you start to build a strong team culture and give yourself room to breathe as you continue growing.”

Having room to breathe was especially important in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic tossed the entire media industry into a furious upheaval. With a strong team of now fourteen attorneys in place, Group Nine and Ugelow were able to easily pivot on a few objectives without losing much steam.

For example, the PopSugar vertical launched a subscription fitness app in March of that year, which was initially planned to be a paid service. The company changed course and rolled out the app for free in order to help consumers, many underemployed due to the pandemic, stay fit while in quarantine. It paid off. After one week, users increased by more than 200 percent—and the app now boasts more than one hundred thousand subscribers and fifty thousand active monthly users. “It’s cool to see that response to something that we put out into the market and that followed just a little shift in strategy,” says the VP.

Given the recent success, Ugelow says that he plans to stick with his people-first approach to tech innovation. “I believe in hiring people who are smarter and better than me,” he says. “I think if you surround yourself with great people, then it becomes really easy to accomplish all the things you want to accomplish.”

He goes on to explain how his management mentality plays off that forward-thinking attitude. “I try to be thoughtful and authentic with the team and prioritize conversations about career growth and where they want to be in the next few years. It’s important to me that people have a clear path for growth and development, and that they understand that they’re not just a cog in the wheel.”

Dedicated to Pro Bono

Since earning his law degree, Dave Ugelow has remained dedicated to pro bono work and serving as a mentor for budding entrepreneurs through his work with the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic as well as through advising early-stage ventures. Along with helping law students with interview prep and résumé review, he has taught lectures on start-up law and plans to launch a course to share how to support larger growth-stage companies. Essentially, he’s providing the Business 101 training he received at Facebook and Group Nine Media as well as the experience he has gained by working with entrepreneurs.

“I think often, in the legal industry, the focus is on getting that prestigious job—and there’s an ugly, competitive undercurrent, especially when you’re in law school and especially when it’s a tough economy,” he says. “When I talk to students, I try to shift the focus to doing what makes you happy and what keeps you engaged. I tell them to think about topics they’re naturally drawn toward and to spend time building connections and experiences in those fields.”

Ugelow also devotes time to serving on the board of directors as legal chair for Garbo, a nonprofit that is creating a platform for users to look up individuals they’ve met online to find available criminal records related to gender-based violence and domestic abuse.

“The hope is that people can better protect themselves against this type of violence when interacting with strangers either online or in person,” he explains. “The work really draws upon the fields in which I’ve trained, so it’s been fulfilling to work on a project with a passionate entrepreneur who’s building something that I think could be really great for society at large.”

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Davis Wright Tremaine:

“It has been a great pleasure to work with Dave and to have a front-row seat to watching him grow in his ever-expanding role with ease while also building out a first-class team at Group Nine.”

Rachel Strom, Partner

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NFP:

“Working with David over the past six years has been a pleasure. During this time, David has proven to be wise, dedicated, and nimble in overseeing various changes to— and acquisitions made by—Group Nine Media. David has always impressed me with his ability to simultaneously lead his team and collaborate with ours.” 

–Brian Wilkins, Managing Director

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Proskauer Rose LLP:

“As vice president of legal and business affairs for Group Nine Media, Dave provides valued legal insights regarding myriad issues in the digital media space. His judgment and legal aptitude are truly exceptional.”

–Harris M. Mufson, Partner