Ben Lee – Co-founder and CEO of Neon Roots

One of the biggest things I do to make my days productive is the sheer volume of work, and a lot of that work is communication.

Ben Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Neon Roots, a digital development agency with a mission to destroy the development model and rebuild it from the ground up. 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. Since then, Ben has founded or taken a leading role in 5 businesses in everything from software development to food and entertainment. Ben founded Neon Roots in Los Angeles 5 years ago, and since then it’s grown to more than 30 employees with a presence in LA, Uruguay, and Berlin with hundreds of successful projects under its belt.
Neon Roots’ flagship product development workshop, Rootstrap, focuses on defining and validating a business concept before writing a single line of code, helping clients raise millions in funding and touch millions of users. Alumni include Snoop Dogg, who Rootstrapped his cannabis culture site Merry Jane to a premier on TechCrunch Disrupt; Tony Robbins, who Rootstrapped his Breakthrough University app to hundreds of thousands in monthly revenue; and even the LA Public Library, which revamped its exhibits into an AR experience through a partnership with Neon Roots and USC.
Ben was recently chosen as one of Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Top CEOs and is passionate about creating value in the world and helping digital entrepreneurs sharpen their focus and maximize their potential

Where did the idea for Neon Roots come from?

I started Neon Roots because I used to work in one of the big agencies that we tell our clients about. A lot of the projects there would suffer from scope creep, which keeps clients in the development cycle way longer than they should be there and ends up making a product that doesn’t meet user needs – but only after hundreds of thousands have already been sunk into development. I was making more than I should have, gained 20 lbs, became depressed, anxious, and knew I was just another “resource” that was easily replaceable within my organization. I did not feel like I was contributing any real value at all – to anyone.

I wanted to create an organization that helped its clients succeed instead of trying to build the “perfect” app and spending way too much time in development, which is a huge recipe for failure. That’s why we started Rootstrap, which is our product development workshop. The idea is we work with clients – most of them who just have a vague idea for an app, many of them first-time entrepreneurs – and take them through the process of defining their concept and key value proposition, testing and validating that in the marketplace, then building out an MVP (minimum viable product; in our case that’s usually a clickable wireframe prototype) and product backlog (basically step-by-step instructions for a developer to build the complete product). The beauty of it is that you align incentives to eliminate the potential for scope creep. The whole process takes two weeks and the goal is always to create an MVP that’s founded on a market-tested concept.

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

I’m not someone who has a lot of work/life balance – really my life revolves around my business and I can’t separate the two out. One of the biggest things I do to make my days productive is the sheer volume of work, and a lot of that work is communication. My team in UY is 5 hours ahead of CA, so when I get up at 5 or 6 they’ve already been at work for several hours. I’ll spend a lot of time in the mornings on the phone or in Google Hangouts catching up with them and making sure everything’s on track, then I’ll head to the gym for a workout. From there, my days really depend on what’s on the docket.

If I’m not traveling, I’ll head into the Playa Vista or West Hollywood office and start working on the projects we’ve got going on at the moment. We recently launched two big tech properties for some major marquee clients, so that’s been taking up a lot of attention recently, plus we always have Rootstraps going on. I may also be heading to San Diego to work with clients, going to Vegas for tech conventions, and I’m flying to UY next week to make some headway on a new contract we have in the works. Through all of it, I’d say the common thread is communication. Our team is global, so I’m constantly online, communicating through Slack, Google Hangouts, email, phone, whatever. I try to be the hub that keeps the whole operation rolling forward.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m a big believer in Agile development, and I think those methodologies can apply to everyday life very well. A central tenet in Agile is to iterate fast and iterate often – ship it as soon as you can, get it to the customers, even if it sucks. That’s the only way to learn. I think the same is true for ideas in life. To me, the process of bringing an idea into reality isn’t spending years crafting this thing until it’s perfect and glorious. It’s about doing anything you can to get it started, put it into the world, get some feedback about it. That way you can learn, make it better, and move it forward. This is a lesson both me and my company are still learning, every day.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Machine learning. For starters, the tech that goes into it is just fascinating to me. See, there are two ways to tell an algorithm how to do something. One is literal – you actually tell it what to do, meaning code out every step. This takes a lot of time and effort. The other is to show it examples of certain things, tell it which ones are right and which are wrong, and let it figure out how to achieve “right” by itself, using its own methods.

What they’re doing now with this tech is amazing – Clara comes to mind, which is an AI email assistant that literally emails people and schedules your meetings for you. Programs are learning how to read, write, see, and speak, and they’re only going to get smarter. That presents the potential for an almost boundless increase in human (or, rather, human-machine) productivity, which is exciting – but it could easily make our current economic system break down.

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

A long time ago I read a book called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. One of his central theses is that in the knowledge (or now, connection) economy, we ask our brains to remind us of exactly what we need to do, exactly when we need to do it. This is something our brains are terrible at. Allen lays out a whole method for creating a system that does all the work of reminding you what you need to do right when and where you need to do it, and those principles have really made me a more effective leader. When you don’t have to sink your brain into the mundanity of remembering all the little loose ends, you free yourself up to think about the things that matter.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Bus boy at a French restaurant. They treated their employees like shit, the pay was awful… just the whole things was terrible. Maybe that’s where I got the entrepreneur bug; I hated working for some awful boss so much.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

It turns out it’s really important to practice what you preach, and the whole Neon Roots team is still really trying to learn that lesson. One of our biggest ideals is to iterate fast, iterate often, and then learn from that, but we’ve often gotten stuck in the mire of trying to create the perfect v1.0 – perfect by the Product Owner’s standards, that is. If I could start over I would try to make sure that we followed all the rules we gave to our clients. That’s an important one, I think; you really have to do the things that you say are important.

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

Meditate. Even just 10 minutes a day. It makes an incredible difference in smoothing out the highs and lows – and trust me, the highs and lows of running your own business are very very high and very very low. It’s important to keep a cool head, and it helps with that; plus taking 10 minutes every day that is just for me is a way of protecting my own space, however hectic or chaotic my life may be.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I could give you nitty gritty tips about optimizing your conversion funnel or things like that, but I think the reason we’ve grown as much as we have is purely because we offer real, legitimate value to our customers and clients. It’s important to do all the marketing, the outreach, the optimization; but at the end of the day, your business lives or dies on the value it creates in the lives of its customers. That’s the thing to focus on. We grew because we were offering a product that was different from our competitors and our customers wanted what we had. Simple as that.

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

We (mistakenly) agreed to a fixed scope agreement for a project (and in my opinion the whole idea of fixed scope agreements and RFPs is completely contrary to agile principles) and got totally screwed, almost went bankrupt. Thankfully, Rootstrap came into being and started to take off right around that time, which was really a saving grace. I guess that’s an example of innovating your way out of a very gnarly position.

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

Cybersecurity for the Internet of Things. That is a big, juicy market if there ever was one.

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

TSA Precheck. Honestly, who has the time?

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Slack, which I really love and want to use more to get rid of email clutter. We rely pretty heavily on Google Hangouts, and both Trello and Wunderlist are integral to our working process.

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

Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact. It’s part of the 99U book series and it’s really phenomenal. It’s one of those books that you can keep on the shelf and read one chapter from at random every day and it’ll make you a better person. That or Richard Branson’s book.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others? is an awesome productivity blog, that book is an offshoot of it. is another cool blog. Seth Godin is also an incredible thinker, and his blog – – is worthwhile.


Ben Lee on Twitter: @benleeNR
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