Ben Lee is the founder and CEO of LA-based app development agency, Neon Roots. When it comes to the current mobile app development landscape, Neon Roots is a major disruptor. As opposed to shoving the world’s best developers and designers into high-rise cubicles, Neon Roots’ Los Angeles team operates out of a three story, 4,500-square foot artwork-filled creative studio in the heart of West Hollywood called the Wave House.
With a client list ranging from Tony Robbins to Snoop Dogg, it’s clear that Neon Roots isn’t your typical app development agency. The mastermind behind this organization is also, of course, not your typical CEO.
After getting underpaid and under-appreciated as a busboy at a French restaurant in high school, Ben realized two things: working for other people sucks and with the right mindset, you can do it better yourself. While still a teenager, Ben caught the entrepreneurial bug early and was well on his way to running his own business. Before turning 18, Ben worked his way up to become the manager of a world-class nightclub and two restaurants. In college, Ben saw a small exit from his first startup, Attack Sheets, the #1 downloaded bar outline product on the internet.
Ben started Neon Roots because he knew something was wrong with the way most development agencies work with their clients. The current system incentivizes feature creep and unnecessarily long development cycles—something that halts overall production, adds useless features, and significantly increases cost for clients. On top of that, developers and designers at massive agencies are treated more like computers than integral parts of the team—they are essentially an expendable resource. Taking his prior experience trailblazing in high school and college, Ben decided it was time to make his own app development agency. In 2011, Ben went on to found Neon Roots with his friend and colleague, Drew Harding. Together, they knew that the current app development model could be improved upon by connecting clients to the team throughout the entire project—an Agile technique to increase iterations and decrease time spent circling in development.
For Ben, the term ‘Agile’ refers to a lot more than a business strategy to organize his team. Not only is Agile methodology at the heart of workflow at Neon Roots, it is also the founding principle that caused Ben to start his own app agency in the first place. At Neon Roots, having an Agile workflow means getting ideas out there fast and continuously iterating as a team.
What Makes Working with Neon Roots so Special?
I think that what really sets us apart from other app development agencies is our connection to the client throughout the entire project. Really connecting with our clients throughout the course of a project was crucial to our initial success as a straight-ahead dev shop, and that really came into its own with the development and launch of our premiere product workshop, Rootstrap. We built this after nearly going bankrupt on a large, fixed-scope project. Rootstrap is perfect for people that have an idea and want to take it to the next step without gambling on development before knowing the market validity of their product.
Aside from being a source of success for alumni, Rootstraps have been integral in bringing the team together and helping us learn to solve new problems. The client list isn’t too horrible either–Snoop Dogg and Tony Robbins are just two from the list of alums that have gone on to develop with us.
Rootstrap isn’t really that different from any of the other products we work on at Neon Roots. We faced a problem, and came up with an innovative solution to disrupt the market–the only difference is the client we were building it for was us.
What’s It like to Be a Part of the Team?
Working at Neon Roots, every day is different. Being based in Los Angeles, we do a lot of work with influencers and celebrities to generate internal and external content from the Wave House. Having the freedom to work from the breakfast bar or couch is also a pretty unique experience. We try to keep things as creative as possible, and having the Wave House as our working space is really great for that. The house is lined pretty much wall to wall with gorgeous custom artwork from David Choe, Alec Monopoly, Mr. Brainwash, and our own Franky Aguilar.
As far as employment is concerned, we have an unusually high retention rate for an app development agency. Typically, app development agencies work on a project for 6 months to a year. Through Rootstrap, we get to work on a different project with a different team every 3-4 weeks.
The other thing that makes working at Neon Roots so special is the sheer exposure to information that everyone on the team gets. The volume of apps coming through Rootstrap gives us insight and data before anyone else–something we can use to identify consumer trends and where entrepreneurs should be going before the market makes it really obvious.
What’s the Story Behind the Wave House?
The Wave House came after years of realizing that offices just don’t make that much sense for what we’re doing. We originally had a floor in Snoop Dogg’s office in Playa Vista, and eventually outgrew to a duplex where I lived in the residence portion and had an office in the other unit. We knew we wanted a space in West Hollywood, and with the exorbitant office prices, it just made way more sense to buy a house for me to live in with Franky. We wanted a space that reflects the culture of Neon Roots, so we kept coming up with all these ideas – open floor plan, work from local artists, a custom wall-wrapping piece. The thing just snowballed, and at this point I think we’ve done a pretty good job of putting our culture into a physical space.
Some Advice for Starting and Running Your Own Business?
Communication is key. There’s just no way around that–whether you’re all sitting in the same conference room or working on different continents, internal and external communication is essential to the success of your business. I spend a lot of my time on Slack and Google Hangouts communicating between teams to make sure everyone is in sync. Being a fully distributed team, developing communication skills has been integral in Neon Roots’ growth.
Also, meditation is a staple of my morning routine. Even if it’s just for 15-20 minutes a day, setting aside that block of time for guided meditation is extremely beneficial to the rest of your day. It clears the head and allows me to approach the day from a cleaner slate every morning.
Do You Pay Attention to Fashion?
Yes–growing up in LA, I have a lot of respect for people in the fashion world and how they shape the language of our cultural aesthetic. Fashion is really difficult to operate in, but I’m always fascinated by designers and how they think. It really is an art form. I also think there’s a feedback element to it – when you dress a certain way, you’re communicating something to yourself. There are subtle changes in the way you speak, the way you hold yourself. At Neon Roots, we need to be ahead of the curve to survive. I try to dress fashion-forward because it helps me feel like I’m already one step ahead, which is something of a psychological advantage, if that makes sense.
How Does Your Image Influence Your Business Interactions?
I think people pay a lot more attention to the image of Neon Roots as a brand than my personal image. That being said, a lot of my personal image is reflected in Neon Roots and the way we present ourselves and our products to others.
When it comes to running a big company, the details are still the most important. I oversee production of every onboarding kit and piece of merchandise associated with our brand. I think all these little details coming together make up the quality of a brand’s image. While I take a lot of care in the way I present myself, I think most people perceive me based on the inherent quality in everything with the name Neon Roots on it. But that sense of quality is meticulously crafted – it really is true that every piece of communication coming from your brand is important. It all matters.
Where is Neon Roots Headed from Here?
That’s tough to say because of how fickle the industry is, but we’re definitely going to continue building innovative internal products and come up with new solutions for clients. We have been growing our social media presence and work with influencers, so we’ll be ramping up our content production in the future. Essentially, we are trying to create a complete lifestyle brand surrounding Neon Roots comprised of creators, influencers, entrepreneurs, designers, and general disruptors. We want to take this culture we’ve created and make it bigger, make it better. It’s hard to know exactly what form that’ll take, but that’s where we’re going.