To build a personal brand…or to not build a personal brand…or to build a company brand…or to build both? Ben Lee joins us to debate the merits of investing in your personal brand versus your company brand.
A tech influencer, one of Inc.’s 30 Under 30, and cofounder of Rootstrap, Ben is also a partner and investor in Kitchen 24, and has been featured in Forbes, NPR and AdWeek. He has 40K+ followers on LinkedIn, and his posts regularly generate millions of views, thousands of engagements, as well as leads and conversions.
18 months ago, Ben wasn’t doing much with social media. Then he gamed the LinkedIn algorithm to generate 85 million views. Tune in for his take on whether personal brands are built to last, and strategies to leverage social media, email and more.
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Carl Smith: Hey everybody, welcome to The Bureau Briefing. It is my pleasure today, to have coming by the studio, one of Inc's 30 under 30 most brilliant young entrepreneurs. Somebody that Forbes says is a top 15 influencer that you gotta follow. And featured on NPR and AdWeek, founder for Rootstrap, among other companies that are super successful, it's my good friend Mr. Ben Lee. How you doing Ben?
Ben Lee: Thank you so much Carl. That's a great intro. I appreciate it. I know we're gonna be talking about some fun stuff today and namely the personal brand stuff, so thanks for having me on.
Carl Smith: You're welcome. We've talked about this before a little bit. The whole personal brand thing, I just, I don't get it. I've been watching Linkedin and there's so many Talking Head videos, so many people that it always starts like this, "I was talking to a client today, and you won't believe what they", and you're just like, oh come on. Why are you doing that? The thing that gets me about you, is you're super successful. You've done so many great thing, and I'm not blowing smoke. I mean, this is true. But you are such a proponent of personal brand, and if anybody's gonna turn me around, I think it's gonna be you, Ben.
Ben Lee: I know I'm supposed to probably convince you to get on the personal brand bandwagon but I don't know if I will. I throttle with it on and off and a lot of it is bullshit and I think you already know that.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Ben Lee: I don't believe in this omnipresent, omnichannel approach. I think that's complete horseshit. You hear it from Gary Vee and you hear it from all these influencers and they're repurposing the same thing and they're not gonna be relevant in five years. That's something that most creators aren't really considering is, what is the life cycle for a personal brand or an influencer? And will you achieve bigger, or while you're investing that time into your company brand.
Ben Lee: So, I don't really know if I can. I mean, I'll tell you how I approach it and some of the things that I believe about it and how I've seen it work successfully. But it's something that I struggle with, probably every single week because there's so much of it that I'm not getting an ROI from and as an entrepreneur, as a founder that has to defend his time in every possible category, I do waste a lot of time on this stuff. It can get very expensive. It can be a distraction.
Ben Lee: So, let's see if I'm gonna be successful [inaudible 00:02:46] we'll see.
Carl Smith: I'm bringing you to the other side, man.
Ben Lee: I'm flipping the script on you a little, I like it.
Carl Smith: This is one of the things, because I follow you on Instagram, I see a lot of your Linkedin stuff.
Ben Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: And on Instagram, a couple of weeks ago, you had something where you didn't believe in personal brand anymore.
Ben Lee: Right.
Carl Smith: But it was personal branding of you saying you didn't believe in personal brand.
Ben Lee: Yeah. There's lots of irony I think in what I'm doing. That's why I started this with, I'm very confused, like you are, with respect to a lot of the platforms I'm doing. For me, it's where can I measure it. Linkedin, I can measure it. I've taken this content machine approach to making sure that all of our writers and sales people are developing a personal brand, at least on Linkedin.
Carl Smith: Right.
Ben Lee: We see the numbers, we see the conversions and it works. I would say, Instagram is very ego-driven. There's so much noise. I got into the personal brand for ego. Saw some of the benefits, but mind you, I wasn't on social media for like four or five years.
Carl Smith: Really?
Ben Lee: Yeah, so I was never on, up until like 18 months ago, I was never on Facebook, Instagram is completely new. Had a Linkedin account that had just basic upkeep. Twitter was just for lead generation but I wasn't even running it. I had a service running it for me. So, I really did not like the idea of putting myself out there. I didn't like the overexposure. I think there's a lot and it will backfire with a lot of these creators and I think it's the cool thing now, but it's not gonna be the cool thing in the next couple years. It's just a fad.
Ben Lee: So how do you position it so it works for you and not against you? Instagram particularly, you're not gonna get the right demographic there. I know your audience won't. So, use it for personal, use it to keep your audience engaged and just drive traffic to new things you're doing. That's what I do, it's the hijack element of the traffic from Instagram because everybody is so on there and they're consuming content all day.
Ben Lee: I don't really go into that platform with the expectation of getting too much business. It's how can I be as lazy of a creator as possible? I use schedulers for a lot of things, so I wanna spend as little of money as possible on this stuff. I think that there is a way you can do it too. Because you are a former agency owner, you're resourceful, you're a growth hacker, there's a lot of these things that you can automate.
Carl Smith: Okay, 18 months ago, you weren't on social at all?
Ben Lee: Correct.
Carl Smith: I have no idea what your following is, but I've always had this sense that you've got 100,000 plus.
Ben Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: In 18 months, I guess this is part of it for me. I think because all of the things that you've accomplished, like you've got that kick ass restaurant, right? The 24 Hour Diner.
Ben Lee: Yep.
Carl Smith: You know, Rootstrap obviously. All of the accomplishments have nothing to do, as far as I can tell, with personal brand. They have to do with intelligence, and savvy, and hard work.
Ben Lee: Correct, busting my ass and not every worrying about taking credit for things, it's putting as much hustle and energy into all these businesses to make them do what they do. That was never-
Carl Smith: So-
Ben Lee: Go ahead.
Carl Smith: So then you get on social and you gain this amazing following.
Ben Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: When you have the number of followers that you have, or say Jeffery Zeldman, or somebody like that, like we had Jeffery re-Tweet one of our podcasts once and we saw the spike. He is an influencer. That is a real thing.
Ben Lee: Yep.
Carl Smith: You are influencer, that is a real thing. When you say stuff, a bunch of people hear it. How they feel about it, what they do, all that stuff, there's an impact. But it's the people, and I would even say like me. Right? I can't imagine spending time trying to build a personal brand. It just feels so fake. It was funny, I was online, this guy who was an authenticity coach. He's gonna teach you how to be authentic. What the hell does that even mean, right? You're gonna tell me how to be me?
Ben Lee: So let's back up for a sec. I think the struggle you're having is because you are an OG influencer and you didn't really even know it. The truth is, when I followed you, and I told you this when we went to the [inaudible 00:07:59], I knew of you when I was just starting out in this business and I had one of my main guys, followed Engine Works, he never knew what Engine Works was, he always knew who Carl was. You created a personal brand, and you were the top of the funnel for your business because most people who would write in, they probably would start with, "Carl, I wanna work with you." And that's exactly what I've reproduced with Rootstrap, where I have become the top of the funnel. Where most of the inbounds, especially from Linkedin is, man I wanna work with you and your firm.
Carl Smith: Yeah, no you're right. It was Richard Banfield once called it brand of personality.
Ben Lee: Totally.
Carl Smith: Right? And it's that, your company is a secondary brand to you. Which, for me, became a huge cultural issue. But, it was really profitable to travel around the world and get on stages. Okay, I will give you that, Ben Lee. I will acknowledge that. I had a personal brand with Engine. Which is funny, because we purposefully called it Engine Works, because it was nobody's name.
Ben Lee: Right.
Carl Smith: Because we could walk away one day. But then we built it around who we were. So, do you see with all of the, I know you're saying you're trying to spend as little money, you've got really nice professionally produced stuff. It comes out really well. Even if you're doing it on your own, or you're doing it simply, you can tell there's a polish to it.
Ben Lee: I would say in the past, we've invested thousands into original content. Now, almost none. We're repurposing stuff from, we've shot previously.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Ben Lee: That, to me is how you win in this game. Slow and steady, doing the channels that make the most sense. You don't have to take the path of selling info products and looking like Ty Lopez. I feel like that's the, it makes everybody look bad. The starter kit. Get a gold watch, make sure you take pictures in front of the beach with a Lamborghini or Ferrari, make sure that you tell everybody how many millions you have. The [inaudible 00:10:10] been around forever, it's nothing new, it's just a new medium that people are communicating through.
Ben Lee: I do believe that if you build a community that is engaged, at your pace, the channels that you want. Seth Godine for example, one of the kings of personal branding, he isn't promoting every channel. You gotta be on his email list. And he tells you, I'm only putting content out here, obviously in his books, but you gotta figure out how to engage with me and what channel. I think that's way smarter. I had Brennan Dunn, I don't know if you're familiar with Brennan Dunn, Double Your Freelance?
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Ben Lee: I had him on a podcast yesterday. I think Brennan is an amazing role model in terms of how he's built his personal brand. I've launched courses with him and we've done six figures just from an email list. I've never seen a more engaged group of like, 60, 70 thousand people. 20-30% engagement is very normal on his email list and he's selling six figure launches all the time. He only uses social media as the social proof, promoting speakers, blah, blah, blah. Stuff that he does on the side.
Ben Lee: The meat of what he's really talking about or promoting in terms of his businesses, it's all going through email. I don't know if you're on my email list, that's something that I've really, really been getting more actively involved in. And it's for the reasons of, you're in control. These other platforms, I agree with you. It's bullshit. I've been shadow banned by Linkedin because I got too popular. Literally. They shadow banned almost eight or nine months of my content. Buzzfeed called it broatry, which is the one line break style that seem to really work with the algorithm and would push it in front of millions of people.
Ben Lee: You're not in control of your traffic there. Same with any other platform. Whereas email, you are and more people should be building engagement and just a following there. It doesn't have to be like a newsletter. For my email list, I'm repurposing stories that I wrote nine months ago. And I have the next 16 weeks planned for. So, you'd be surprised how little I'm actually allocating to my personal brand right now. You'd be very surprised because I think it's under ten hours a week. I refuse to ever let it become something where I'm interviewing every day because I'm the chief rain maker. And you are too. If we're not making it rain, we're investing in stuff that should be for our personal self, not our personal brand or our families.
Ben Lee: I hear you loud and clear. I really do.
Carl Smith: The thing that gets difficult for me, and I don't think is generational, I don't think it's down any cultural lines, I don't think it's anything like that. I like getting on stage. I like being the center of attention. I do have an ego. I have all of these things. But the idea of positioning myself or promoting myself is something that may not be real. I won't even use the word authentic anymore. I'm so tired of that word, right? And prescriptive and all these things that just bubble to the top.
Carl Smith: For me, tomorrow I am gonna go back to doing a Talking Head video. I used to do them all the time when I ran Engine and I'm not gonna fix my hair and I'm not gonna be walking down the street. And I'm not gonna make sure that I have on a cool jacket. It's strictly gonna be, hey these are things we learned in the Bureau this week.
Ben Lee: Right.
Carl Smith: Just gonna be a wrap up. I guess that could be considered, I mean, it's personal delivery, right? But my personal brand used to be flip flops. People used to say, oh my God, he doesn't wear shoes on stage. But it wasn't intentional. I guess that's what I get confused about is, is it that you're trying to fit a mold that you think will sell? Or is it that you're putting yourself out there so that the audience that cares about you will find you?
Ben Lee: Maybe a little bit of both. For me, I've seen the reach with the personal brand over the company brand. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that I can build funnels independent of my core business, should I want to monetize off my personal brand one day. Do I want to? No, I don't. Who's gonna crash the hardest when the economy crashes? It's people who are overly dependent on their personal brand and monetizing it through products and courses. They're selling to people who've got disposable incomes.
Ben Lee: So, in two years, that may or may not be the case. In one way, I'm hedging my bets, in another, I'm just doing what gets my business the most leads. That's it.
Carl Smith: There you go. That to me, feels different.
Ben Lee: We get so much more sales volume. I'm gonna tell you a funny story. We're obviously on this path to becoming a really high performance company that operates in multiple countries with sales strategy in LA, New York, and then delivery happening in Uruguay. I hired two amazing bad asses in Uruguay. One used to work, he was running IBM in the 80s. He built the concept of distributed teams in Latin America. And the other owned all the McDonald's franchises in Uruguay then sold it back to McDonald's corporation in the 90s. Now is on the board.
Ben Lee: So these are the Ray Dalvios of Uruguay. They coach the entire leadership team. They're super hardcore. They're in your face, always getting feedback, but that's what you want out of a mentor or coach. So when he first met me, he thought I was bullshit. He thought the personal branding was bullshit. This is a 68 year old, really OG high performance type of guy before those terms were even existed. He's just the real deal. He understands business probably better than anyone I've ever met.
Ben Lee: He was really calling me out on a lot of this stuff. Over the course of developing a relationship for a month, I'm getting texts from him being like, "You need to do more of the personal brand stuff." Then I see him engaging in all of our sales people's Linkedin content. So he's writing comments, he's liking, he's putting all this time there, see him writing content on Linkedin. So I'm like wow, he's like truly living vicariously through my experience and he told me straight up, he said this was available to me. These tools were available. It would be another story in terms of how you can scale. Especially for a country that is very much isolated from other parts of the world. Three and a half million people so, they don't have an interior market that's big enough.
Ben Lee: So they have to proof of concept or use Uruguay as a sandbox and then move to Argentina or Chile. But with the tools now, somebody in Uruguay can get 100 million views, that just was never possible before. So I think he saw the potential of it and he's like, wow you're not this egotistical maniac. You have a real strategy behind this and the strategy is working. Now, so I take a little bit of advice from him, I take advice from a lot of people and I council people regularly about this stuff. My most important mentor telling me to stop the personal branding and saying it's complete bullshit and nobody ever wins from this, it brings in too much exposure.
Ben Lee: So, you're not the only person. You're really not. But, I have it structured in such a way that if I wanna shut it down, it'll be fairly painless. I haven't built companies around it like so many other of these creators where you think they're the ones managing their selfies and DIY videos. They have crews of like 25 people.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Ben Lee: One of them is gonna hire me to help on his Linkedin. I won't say who, but he's a big course guy and I was looking at their trouble board and they had almost 35 people managing his social media account across all platforms. I was like, holy crap. These guys have a couple hundred thousand dollar a month run rates on this stuff.
Carl Smith: God.
Ben Lee: That's too much for me. I think that it's only normal that you get a little wiggy after doing it for so much because you're seeing yourself constantly. How you can not become a narcissist? It's all about you, you, you, you, you. People taking pictures. Selfie vlogs. So, there's some things that I just will not do. I won't really do the vlogging thing. I've tried it, I've thought about it, I fucking won't do it. I will not look like a jackass. And I travel too much to other parts of the world where if I'm vlogging, I'm gonna get my ass robbed. I can't be vlogging worldwide.
Ben Lee: That's the other thing to consider from a security standpoint.
Carl Smith: Let's think about this for a second. I had a friend of mine, he was a former client, we never actually got to meet, his name's Marty Bell. I don't know if you've ever heard of Marty or not.
Ben Lee: I've heard the name.
Carl Smith: Marty, I wanna say he was in Scotland, I think he's Scottish. I don't know we originally, he found Engine though because he thought we were an attitude brand. For example, so he basically was part of the whole EDM culture.
Ben Lee: Yep.
Carl Smith: Raves, putting on all these, and so they would travel around putting on these parties, making a bunch of money, and Marty looked like he was 16. I mean, he was probably a little bit older. Always around beautiful people. Beautiful men, beautiful women, always acting inappropriately. This was the brand of his organization and of himself. I'm to the point where, he made some comment about we were working on some web work for him, and I changed his job number from whatever it was to FUCK-and the number.
Carl Smith: I told him, I was like hey, if you're gonna act that way, we're just gonna make sure that we change this. And he loved it, right? He thought it was great. So, eventually he gets to a point I think where he's growing up and this culture that he's branded himself as being this crazy out there person, drunk every night, getting crazy, all this kind of stuff, I think it started to wear on him.
Ben Lee: Yeah.
Carl Smith: So somehow he gets hooked up with these sunglasses.
Ben Lee: Okay.
Ben Lee: And he starts selling these sunglasses to this following that he build and then frickin', I can't believe I'm blocking out his name now, from Virgin, Richard...
Ben Lee: Branson.
Carl Smith: Branson, thank you. He finds out about it and goes in with Marty. He had somehow connected up. So, it's funny I think about that journey because that was personal brand but that was also true. That's who Marty was, right? Then you think about, like the Dalai Lama, I mean he's got a personal brand, right? If follow him, I think he's amazing. But it feels real. [crosstalk 00:22:25].
Ben Lee: I think also because you probably, you're the type of individual, and I think this is true of most agency owners, but especially you, because you were the key guy for your agency for so many years. You can qualify people probably better than any of your peers. Complex, you know, the selling software is such a freakin' complex sell, you really, you'd be on the phone constantly all day and you can only have so many hours in the day to do sales calls. You need to know if somebody can spend $1500-$1000 and sometimes it's very difficult because people walk the walk, but they don't necessarily talk the talk.
Ben Lee: For you, you're seeing all these bullshit artists build personal brands and it pisses you off, like it pisses me off. Because I know a lot of them. They come from MLM scams, some of them have done porn, most of them completely inflate their wealth and their numbers and this stuff. It makes me cringe. So, you can't really take it too personal because it's the world we're living whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, with our president, he is creating this framework to truly growth hack your way into becoming a president for anybody.
Ben Lee: People are using that. It could be the ultimate cautionary tale or maybe not. It could be the ultimate success story for a kid in Venezuela who's tuning in and going oh, wow. That could be me one day.
Carl Smith: So it's like any tool, it's like any strategy.
Ben Lee: Absolutely.
Carl Smith: It can be used for good, it can be used for evil. Alright. I need to take a breath and realize there's always gonna be people selling snake [crosstalk 00:24:19].
Ben Lee: Always, and I think even if it is rooted in bullshit, the story with Marty, it got him a meeting with Richard Bransen because of his personal brand. He does that a lot because a lot of people on the other side may not necessarily know it's bullshit. Everybody wants a shiny new object. I get a lot of leads of people who are very, very qualified corporate types, who are like, why do you wanna get on a call with me? What are you doing in the Midwest? What are you doing in Minnesota? Why are you here? They get giddy when, I'm not famous at all and I don't really wanna become famous but I have some clout as the kids call it.
Ben Lee: That clout, if I can use it effectively to close business, fuck I'm gonna use it. I'm gonna teach other people how to use it. My new thing is, I know how to develop it, and that's something that might actually interest you more now than ever is, I have the tools, I have a lot of the playbook to help people develop their personal brand if that's what they want. I get as a result, I get to meet a lot of interesting people just because they wanna hear, what are you doing? What should I be doing? With me, I'm gonna be fully transparent about what my intentions are, what my beliefs are about it, because I've seen it for good and as we said, there's a lot of evil and bullshit but it's here to stay. Dalai Lama's gonna continue to promote his.
Carl Smith: The Dalai Lama's great. I gotta say, Dwayne Johnson, I tried to watch one of his movies, it was so bad. But I can watch his Instagram videos all day long.
Ben Lee: Totally.
Carl Smith: It's so amazing. I'm gonna get off my soapbox with this. You do an amazing job of showing yourself and through the little bit of time we've got to spend together, the few conversations we've had, I've never felt like the you I talk to one on one, was different than the one, the you I see on videos. Or the things that have been written. I have had experiences where I hung out with people who are weblebrities, right?
Ben Lee: Right.
Carl Smith: If that term's ever used anymore. I mean, hell, even YouTubers. Like some people who, I mean, they're just raking it in. And knew them probably as well as I knew you. But, the second it was just the two of us having a conversation, it was the weirdest thing because they were more themselves and it had nothing to do with their on screen persona. So there was this gap.
Ben Lee: In order to become an influencer you have to hang out with other influencers. The anomaly with how I'm building my personal brand is, I hate influencers. I truly do. I can't deal with them. We've hired them for campaigns, they're flakey, they don't show up, extremely high expectations of everything, they're totally difficult to deal with. We tried to really only work with their managers or agents when we do bring them on for work. But I refuse to waste my time with these people. Outside of work or being engaged by a client for them.
Ben Lee: So, I'm really not taking the traditional approach of hanging out or collaborating with a lot of influencers to piggy back off their social clout. I don't like them.
Carl Smith: Right.
Ben Lee: I don't like them and I don't wanna be around them.
Carl Smith: When at that point, it's just about raw numbers versus the quality of the people that are following you, right?
Ben Lee: These guys are not running real businesses. None of them. They're not running real businesses. The way to really see what's going on over there, look up a couple of them on Glass Door. And see what the people inside say. They all say smoke and mirrors, there's no real organization. How can you be a CEO of a company and truly dedicate what you can, all these hours. I thought I was gonna do that. That was the main driver for me in terms of stepping down as CEO. I said, oh I'm gonna become chief revenue officer, I'm gonna create this whole new category, become [inaudible 00:28:54] influencer, blah, blah, blah.
Ben Lee: To some effect, I've done that successfully, but I'm also very, very, very conscious of letting that get out of control and becoming way too much time I'm dedicating and not allocating for the business. These guys are just, they're interviewing and they're doing collaborations and shout outs, all day long. That's their business. I'm not trying to sell t-shirts. I'm not a magician. I'm not a comedian.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Ben Lee: I don't necessarily play by their rules either, which is completely commoditized. I get a spread sheet every time clients wanna do influencer engagements broken down into categories. Influencer ABC, one million followers, five million, and the prices next to them to promote them. It's a commodity. It's a total commodity. We know about that all too much coming from the software side.
Carl Smith: It's just another radio channel, right? It's just another cable channel. It's just another flavor of how to get your message out. At which point, that person becomes programming. That person becomes just a way to reach a certain type of person.
Ben Lee: With that said, I've gotten meetings with the head curation team from TED. Press that I've parlayed into business. Obviously leads and opportunities, free travel, I'm speaking at a conference in Australia, I've never been to Australia, I'm going in February.
Carl Smith: Wow, how fun.
Ben Lee: Thank you, there's some great lifestyle perks to it, but I'm not gonna do promotional stuff. I think I've done one or two my entire career of a pseudo influencer. And it was just like, thanks for the free luggage, stuff like that. I have no intention of building a personal brand to try to fully monetize it ever. If anything, that's my exit strategy frankly and I don't even think that's a good one right now. Just again, with the state of the economy and my doubts of how much longer things can keep up like this, including the dollar. Not to turn to politics, but they're the first to go. They really are. So I just don't think it's a smart business decision for you to make a lot of investment on it.
Ben Lee: But, again, the growth hacker in you, I know can do it for pretty cheap and rely on people from Upwork or interns to just make it work for you.
Carl Smith: Yep. That's the way it goes. Well, Ben, I just wanna say thanks for being on the show. I wanna say thanks for acknowledging that you still have to run your company. That you still have to work hard.
Ben Lee: Yep.
Carl Smith: That this idea of personal brand, and maybe there's just a different way to look at it, which is you know what? Just promoting what you believe and making sure people know what it is you represent and what you can get done and that's it. You're the face of the company.
Ben Lee: Check out Neil Patel's blog on why I wish I never built a personal brand. I think he addresses some really good stuff. The other really important thing to consider if you are an agency owner out there, business owner, wanting to build a personal brand, there's this myth that it's going to increase your valuation. It's harder to value in the event of a liquidity event.
Carl Smith: Good point.
Ben Lee: You know, I wanna sell my agency, and they're not gonna be valuate, put a valuation on me as my personal brand and the amount of business. So that may be true, but they're gonna lock you up to a much longer earn out as a result because they're gonna want that personal brand going with the company that's buying it.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Ben Lee: So, I would not do it for those reasons. I do believe there are a lot of people out there who are living with that as their main goal.
Carl Smith: Yeah. I'm with you, and I think it is. I think when the ego gets out of control of the strategy, when that gets out of balance, or when the snake oil comes before the ability to actually deliver. Those are what give it the worst of the names, right?
Ben Lee: Exactly.
Carl Smith: So, well I do appreciate you being on the show today and I know you said you got some travel coming up, an Australia trip, good luck with all of that.
Ben Lee: Thanks so much Carl.
Carl Smith: If you ever need anything, you know we're here.
Ben Lee: I appreciate it.
Carl Smith: Alright, everybody listening, we'll talk to you next week. Thanks for showing up. Bye.
Image via Rootstrap