Read. Read biographies. Read great literature. For Pete’s sake, don’t just read business books.
Ben Miller is Co-Founder and CEO of Fundrise. Ben’s responsibilities involve day-to-day management, product planning, deal underwriting, marketing, public relations as well as setting the long-term strategy and goals for the company.
Ben co-founded Fundrise with the goal of making direct private investments available to all investors in the United States. Fundrise began creating investment opportunities locally in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. With the implementation of the JOBS Act in 2015, Fundrise expanded offering investment opportunities to all investors nationwide. Under his leadership, Fundrise investors have invested in over 90 real estate projects across the United States and hold over $1 billion total value of real estate under management. Fundrise was also named to the Forbes’ Fintech 50 List in both 2015 and 2016.
Ben has over 17 years of experience in real estate and finance. Ben has acquired, developed, and financed more than $500 million of property in his time as Managing Partner of WestMill Capital Partners and President of Western Development Corporation.
Ben also started U.S. Nordic Ventures, a cross-Atlantic private equity and operating company. Ben has worked as an analyst for Lubert-Adler, a private equity real estate fund. Ben was part of the founding staff of Democracy Alliance, a progressive investment collaborative.
Where did the idea for Fundrise come from?
After spending years working as a real estate developer, I was fed up with how broken the investment system was and I wanted to do something to change it. I wanted to give individuals the ability to own real estate without needing to put down millions of dollars. The first real estate crowdfunding in the US was a mixed-use retail and restaurant space, Maketto, on H Street in Washington, D.C. We raised $325,000 from 175 investors, many investing as little as $100. Now that Maketto is developed, investors can visit a thriving business that they own a part of – a business that was named one of the 100 Best Men’s Stores in America by GQ.
We then expanded nationwide offering real estate investments to all investors across the U.S. Our goal from the very beginning has been to open up the once-unattainable world of direct private investing to everyone in U.S. and now we do!
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
With a team of almost 50 people, there are always many projects underway at once. I spend a lot of time making sure people are thinking through problems the right way. Many people have a tendency to be overly-conservative in their plans and bring their domain bias to solutions (e.g. attorneys usually look for legal solutions, marketing folks for communication solutions, etc.). As one of the few members of the team working across departments, I can help team members think more broadly and coordinate their efforts. So, my day is usually spent meeting with different teams to move bottlenecks for them, encourage their growth, and allocate resources. All of my own work I have to do after hours.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I am lucky enough to work with some sensational people who together can do almost anything. Usually, we start by getting together to imagine the solution to some problem and debate the various pros and cons. It might seem overly simple, but with the right team assembled, once we decide what we want to do, we just get to work. One learning I have from years of entrepreuring is that you learn more from doing the work than planning or analyzing it. Lots of consultants and writers tell stories about what made a company or product successful. Those who did the work will tell you that they figured things out along the way that they never could have imagined at the beginning. All of those clever stories come from looking back at success in retrospect.
What’s one trend that excites you?
There is a growing housing crisis for first-time home buyers (aka millennials). For a generation who’s worked hard and played by the rules, not only are they saddled with student debt, now they also won’t be able to afford the home they want, where they want it. There is a major housing under supply, and existing NIMBY housing regulations are preventing new homes from getting built.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I read a lot of biographies. You can short circuit a lot of mistakes by reading about other people’s lives. Someone in history has already dealt with every challenge that you have… and probably in circumstances more dire than yours. The lives, character, and circumstances of past heroes create a hidden map for those who wish to discover it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
It’s going to be way harder than you expect, but that’s just part of growth.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
Billy Joel is an underappreciated artist.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Read. Read biographies. Read great literature. For Pete’s sake, don’t just read business books. There are a few that are good, but real learning is not found in the pages of some HBR journal or business theory book.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Focus on the synapse – the nexus of different industries. For Fundrise, it’s been consumer technology, securities regulations, and real estate. The new big ideas exist at the fault lines.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
The first real estate crowdfunded deal ever failed before it eventually succeeded. Before we launched Maketto @ 1351 H Street, we had to acquire the building, sign the restaurant team up, get the public offering cleared by the SEC, and create a web platform. It took more than a year and when we finally launched it, at first no one showed up to buy a piece. We then spent the next four months getting people to pay attention. At the time, I thought it had failed because it took us four months to raise $325,000. We kept after it and have been rolling the snowball down the hill for 5 years. Now it takes us less than 30 seconds. It is the surprising, nonlinear power of technology businesses.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
The first eUnion – a free, online union, where network effect meets worker bargaining power. Apply open source software principles to organizing. Create the platform to distribute the power and decision-making. I think that everyone in the nation would want to join it. It’s ironic, because I am more of a Progressive Libertarian, but the country needs to do something about labor’s stagnant incomes. Unless we address this growth imbalance, we are all at risk of extremism in various forms.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I invested $100 in 1351 H Street NE — Maketto — which became the first crowdfunded property in the nation.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I love Bill.com. We use it to manage all our accounts payable (AP) — work, which most organizations eschew. Bill.com makes it very easy. Plus, it creates an audit trail we can store and search easily.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Everything Store – it is a great story of an entrepreneur focused on a long-term vision.
What is your favorite quote?
To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. – Winston Churchill
Key Learnings :
– Learn lessons from the experience of others – from books, classes, conversations – wherever you can find it. If you can take away lessons from the experiences of others, you are better prepared for the future.
– For better or for worse, the people on your team make all the difference in the world.
– The Millennial generation faces a monstrous problem of student debt, stagnant incomes, and a growing housing crisis. I think that there are opportunities for technology to help solve these problems.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.