Ben Johnson

Founder of Spruce

Ben Johnson is the Founder & CEO of Spruce, the leading provider of home services to apartment residents. Residents living in a Spruce-powered building can easily book more than 40 different chore-like services, ranging from full housekeeping to just washing the dishes to a dog walk. After launching in April 2016, Spruce has grown to service over 300,000 units in 12 markets.

Prior to Spruce, Ben worked for ING Capital in the Corporate and Investment Banking Division. Working with clients in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, Ben led transactions in project finance, asset-based lending, and export credit agency (ECA) finance. Ben is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin (BBA) and the University of Chicago – Booth School of Business (MBA, with Honors).

Where did the idea for Spruce come from?

Working as an investment banker in Houston, TX, I was spending many hours in the office. After getting a puppy, I needed to find a dog walker. I noticed that there were more than 15 dog walkers that came to my apartment community every day. This inefficiency made zero sense to me — from my perspective, there should only be one dog walker per property, and that walker should be the best walker available. So, I went to the dog park to try to convince my neighbors into organizing. “If we could just combine our purchasing power, we could negotiate much better terms. Why are we paying double when we need a last-minute walk? If the same person comes to walk everyone’s dog, there will be no need for extra charges. So we can get the best walker and better prices.” My community organization failed; however, I saw an opportunity to reinvent how home services were delivered by partnering with the property manager. Spruce was born.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

In the early days at Spruce, it seemed like nothing happened unless I was driving it. That was very stressful. But once we raised venture capital, I hired a top-notch leadership team with a combination of experienced executives and ambitious up-and-comers with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. With six ambitious people driving projects forward, my role changed drastically. I would break my day into phases:
– Phase 1: (7 am) Coffee. The very first thing I do is make coffee for my partner and me. I don’t cook, but I am a hell of a barista. And the act of giving, even something small like coffee, starts me off on the right foot.
– Phase 2: (7:15 – 9 am) Thought organization and life admin. After coffee, I go straight to my desk. I have a 9 am meeting almost every day, so the time before that is spent creating priorities for the day. This process is fluid, not rigid. My to-do list is a simple Google Doc. I read relevant publications: the Austin Business Journal, the WSJ, my LinkedIn feed, and several thought-leadership blogs. I also pay my bills and take care of anything that might disrupt my day.
– Phase 3: (9 am to 5 pm) Context Switching. No one day is the same, but my day is typically full of internal metrics meetings, 1-on-1’s with my direct reports, investor meetings (existing or prospective)
– Phase 4: (5-7 pm) Work out. Run or bike. Go hard; make it hurt.
– Phase 5: (7 pm) Eat dinner and get upset at the news. I almost always watch about 5 minutes of CNN and then 5 minutes of Fox News. I can’t stand any more than 5 minutes of either. Honestly, I am not sure why I do this every day. Perhaps I just need to ensure that they are both still toxic. (They are.)
– Phase 6: (8-9:30 pm) Close loops. Answer emails, help a direct report if they have a key problem, and review legal docs.
– Phase 7: 10 pm-12 am) Wind Down. When I was younger, I would lay in bed for hours without falling asleep. I use these last 2 hours to break away from work entirely. For me, I need to fully occupy my mind to do this. Often, I simultaneously play a game called Hearthstone and watch TV, or I talk to my partner about her day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I start talking about them. I am an extrovert, and I tend to think out loud. As a litmus test, if I can convince someone else that my idea is a good idea, then it might be worth pursuing. But I have learned that I need to be careful with ideas: I once had an idea about how dog walkers could be more efficient, and six years later, it still consumes about 80 hours of my week. When I think of something new and exciting, I first think about the dream state — I visualize the optimal outcome of that idea. From there, I jump all the way back to the beginning and think about what is the first thing to do. Then, I do that thing. Then, I do the next thing. And then the next thing.
And while I do love to “do,” I have had to give a lot of individual contribution up in my current role. Now, I specialize in the first 10% and the last 10%. At Spruce, there are lots of people who are WAY better than me at the middle 80%, and those people are super important. But after the middle 80% is done, it is my job to make sure that the final product fits into our broader vision at Spruce.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Seamlessness. I immensely enjoy trying something for the first time and having it work perfectly. For instance, Apple has made setting up a new iPhone an incredibly simple experience. It just works. But whether it is software or hardware, a good or a service, ordering food at a restaurant or booking a flight online – I love when the designer of the software or experience has thought about exactly what the end-user is experiencing at that moment. And even better, I love when two different applications work well together: Like being able to instantly cast the show I was watching in the living room to the display top of the sink (so I can continue watching while I do the dishes). And it is not about design; although, well-functioning products are often also atheistically pleasing.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My inability to not confront problems immediately. If you have ever taken the TKI conflicts assessment, the test will tell you which of 5 conflict resolution styles you tend to default towards (Collaborating, Competing, Compromising, accommodating, or avoiding). I have the lowest possible score for avoiding, which is not necessarily a good thing. When I see a problem, I tend to take it head-on.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Sometimes, head-on is not the best way to approach a problem.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

People in the US buy WAY too much insurance. Whether it is Apple Care on your iPhone, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on a house that you won’t own in 10 years, or the free-replacement warranty on your new tires, insurance is embedded in almost every transaction we make. People should only buy insurance on what they can’t afford to lose, and we need to do a better job of educating our population on personal finance decisions. I also think that we should regulate predatory warranties and insurance products. Even very financially savvy people are putting a 30-year fixed-rate loan on a house they know they will sell in a few years.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Say WTF. I would say “ask why,” but that cliche is so overdone that people glaze over it. There is nothing like a well-timed f-bomb to get someone’s attention. I expect that people, businesses, and software work like they “should.” How “should” they work? Well, that is my own moral construct of efficiency. Unhinge yourself from what something is and think about what it should be. And when it falls short, say WTF.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Focus on what is working. If you have a high-performing product and an underperforming product, it is often a better use of resources to get more out of the thing that is working than the thing that is broken.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

How can I choose just one? Entrepreneurship is about screwing up. It is about operating in and being comfortable with uncertainty. Spruce was not one of those companies that managed to catch lightning in a bottle right out of the gate. It took us a while to hit our stride; but, I truly believe that my struggles have made me a better professional, more so than my victories. Most of my greatest failures are people-related.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A bionic temperature regulating system for your body.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I bought some wifi-enabled smart plugs that work with Google Assistant. So when I’m going to sleep at night, I can just say, “Hey, Google, turn the sound machine on,” and I don’t have to get out of bed to turn it on.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Calendly — it saves an incredible amount of time scheduling meetings.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz. It’s the no-sugar-coating survival guide to being an entrepreneur.

What is your favorite quote?

There are a couple of Steve Jobs quotes that I like: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” and “Without death, there would be very little progress.”
I also like to think about Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is noise before defeat.”

Key Learnings:

  • When you think of something new and exciting, first visualize what the optimal outcome idea is. From there, jump all the way back to the beginning and think about the first thing to do. Do that, then do the next thing, then the next thing.
  • People in the US buy WAY too much insurance.
  • Don’t just ask why. Ask WTF. There is nothing like a well-timed f-bomb to get someone’s attention.
  • Entrepreneurship is about screwing up. It is about operating in and being comfortable with uncertainty.