Co-founder of Neon Roots, columnist at Forbes, Huffington Post, Inc. & Business.com, Ben Lee has been featured in Inc.’s 2016 list of “30 Under 30, the Most Brilliant Young Entrepreneurs”.
After a brief correspondence with Fidel Castro at age nine, Ben decided to start doing things his own way, going from busboy to club manager at a world-class nightclub before he turned 18, with properties grossing over $20 million. Since then, Ben has founded or taken a lead role in five businesses, everything from software development to food and entertainment. Ben founded Neon Roots and Rootstrap in Los Angeles six years ago, and since then, it’s grown to more than 85 employees with a presence in Los Angeles, New York, Uruguay, and Berlin, with hundreds of successful projects under its belt.
Tell me about your early career.
The first tech startup I founded was Attack Sheets, a digital product for law students taking the bar exam, which became the #1 downloaded bar exam supplement on the Internet. I was then courted into working at a large digital agency where I met my co-founder, Drew Harding. We both shared similar ideologies and felt the current agency model was flawed – incentives were not aligned between the client and the vendor. We felt we had to change that when we founded Neon Roots in 2011. Rootstrap was born in 2012 and became a “product discovery” tool. It allowed startups, media companies, and public figures to roadmap their ideas before building the actual tech. We became known as the guys to help make your app idea work.
How did the concept for Neon Roots come about?
The app world was heating up, but it seemed really unsystematic to me. I wanted to create a company that would be able to answer the needs of customers and also be able to create on its own. I wanted to be systematically, methodically creative while also serving customers.
How was the first year in business?
My first year in business was a learning experience, and a really good one. I found out what I didn’t know, how to find out what I needed to know, who the other players were, and what I would need to do to get ahead.
What was your marketing strategy?
My marketing strategy was simple: value. I was determined that my customers would feel that they got real value for their money.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Almost exactly as fast as anticipated, perhaps a little faster. I was ambitious. I set strong goals and I stuck to my strategy, so I grew as much as I expected, which was much faster than others thought I would.
How do you define success?
I have never borrowed a dime. Today, I have a payroll of dozens and I am not yet thirty. My customers, my employees, and my partners are all doing better because of my efforts. That’s success.
What is the key to success?
Knowing your strengths, organizing yourself to maximize them, and recognizing your limitations.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Don’t mind being underestimated. It’s an advantage.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“I would rather face a hundred lions led by a sheep than one hundred sheep led by a lion” and “Never underestimate the other guy’s greed.”
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I discovered that someone I thought was trustworthy was not, only after the fact. Without going into details, the toughest days are always about personnel.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The fact that I have overcome skepticism, setbacks, and criticism in the past has shown me that the only way forward when faced with adversity is to have faith in yourself, in your team, in your system, and in your work. Obstacles are lessons. Learning those lessons is vital to survival. I have learned from my mistakes and I have never repeated them.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
A friend of mine once said advice is usually best for the one giving it. Despite this, there is one thing I think all young entrepreneurs face. There is always someone willing to tell you that what you want is impossible. Pay attention to who says that, when, and in what circumstances. They will be a very valuable resource in the future when you remember them: they will be gone, but you will remain.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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