Meet Ben Lee, the App Entrepreneur Who’s Bringing Innovation Beyond the App Store

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The mobile app industry has grown to a staggering $100+ billion size since its birth a little over a decade ago, and if experts are to be believed, it’s set for even more growth in the years to come: market analysts predict the industry will quadruple in size to $407 billion by 2026.

What began as a novelty for games, calculators, and flashlights has grown into a bona fide industry – and while games still make up the majority of the mobile app space, there are now diverse applications for everything ranging from enterprise businesses to cybersecurity.

Many companies have risen and fallen within the App Store alone, but for one mobile app entrepreneur, the most exciting thing about the app industry isn’t the apps themselves. It’s the process that they’ve helped shape. 

Ben Lee, Chief Revenue Officer and cofounder of Rootstrap, has overseen the launch of more than 1,000 mobile apps and digital products. He’s been called “Mr. Ideas” by his clients, constantly shaking up the status quo by offering new ways to reinvent his projects, his brand, and his business. Today, his agency’s client list includes Fortune 100 companies like Disney as well as celebrities like Chelsea Handler, and with a recent spot on Inc.’s list of the Top 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies, it’s clear that they’re nowhere near the top of their trajectory. 

But for Lee, the most exciting thing about Rootstrap isn’t the apps or the clients. It’s the process and approach they’ve developed to succeed in the app industry – and what it might mean for the future of the company. 

From Scrappy Beginnings

Today, Rootstrap is dual headquartered on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and in an expansive full-floor suite in the center of Montevideo, Uruguay, next to the Office of the President. They also recently opened a new 15-person office in neighboring Buenos Aires, Argentina. But the agency has much more humble beginnings. 

“We started out as three engineers with a couple of Mac Minis,” Lee remembers. “On my first sales calls, I would tell a story of how we were at full capacity when we were barely making payroll.”

Slowly, though, the agency started to gain clients and experience. But it wasn’t until a bad deal nearly bankrupted them that Rootstrap created the service offering that would come to define them.

Building a Better Mousetrap

“The thing that really got us off the ground was a product development workshop; kind of the v1.0 of what’s now our Discovery service,” says Lee. “It was a standalone workshop where we’d take someone’s idea for an app, validate it against the marketplace, and create a roadmap for the app designed to maximize ROI.”

At the time, the service was a breakthrough. With so many entrepreneurs building mobile apps, most of them never saw a penny of return on investment. Rootstrap’s workshop gave app founders a way to test and refine their idea before shelling out big money for development. 

It was also remarkably effective. 23% of apps that went through the workshop went on to raise more than $250,000 in seed funding, with 8% raising $1 million or more. Their clients went on to achieve exits in the tens of millions of dollars. 

From Entrepreneur to Enterprise

But looking back at the agency’s trajectory, Lee thinks the real value of the product workshop wasn’t so much the client successes as the way it taught them to think. 

“Working the way we did, we really learned to think in terms of ‘ok, is this really a viable product in the current market, and how do I expect to get a return here,’” he says. “And critically, to always base that on real data and user testing.”

Essentially, it turned Rootstrap from a development shop into an ROI-focused consultant – and that opened doors they had previously never dreamed of. 

“That approach is what got us in with Google, with Masterclass, with Emeritus,” says Lee. “Because we wouldn’t say ‘oh, we write great code.’ Instead we’d say, ‘We do outcome-driven development. We’re going to build you a product that we know will make you your money back.’”

Looking at their track record, Rootstrap’s development really did drive outcomes. Working with MasterClass, they restructured the client site’s underlying code in a way that enabled the company to grow from $50 million to $100 million in annual revenue. For Emeritus, a Sequoia Ventures-backed e-learning company worth more than $1 billion, they provided dev talent to help modernize a legacy web system and future-proof the product. 

It’s also triggered massive growth for the agency. Rootstrap is currently at 130 employees, but Lee predicts they’ll be pushing 260 by the end of 2020. 

“We’re really putting the pedal on the floor with growth right now,” he says. 

But when asked about the future, Lee is most excited about the possibilities he sees for taking Rootstrap’s approach beyond app development. 

“The principles we’ve developed to write good software are actually more about business than anything technical,” he explains. “So now, I think there’s a huge opportunity to apply them to other parts of a business. We’ve done it with the software product, now I want to do it with the business itself.”

The Business Development Agency

Rootstrap has a number of current projects that Lee is excited about. One of them is with the popular social networking app TikTok. 

“We’re working with TikTok to teach them how to do design and innovation sprints for their HR process,” Lee says. 

In layman’s terms? 

“We’re training TikTok’s HR department to use an iterative, sprint-based approach to their talent acquisition and hiring process,” he explains. “It’s like doing UX design, but instead of their mobile app, we’re tweaking the experience of their prospective hires and new employees.”

It’s a project that involves all the same basic principles that Lee has perfected in app development, but applies them to an aspect of the business that’s completely divorced from coding. They’ve done similar corporate innovation and upskill workshops with Google and other companies, and for his part, Lee sees a bright future here. 

“We’re working with TikTok for an upcoming event in February, but we’ve got several projects like this in the works,” he says. “It’s a broader trend we’re seeing with companies looking to upskill their workers in this way, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity in shifting our model to apply beyond app development.”

By expanding beyond app development, Lee and his agency are innovating more than ever. But he’s not one to forget his roots.

“Development is still our bread and butter, but to keep from getting commoditized, we’re needing to become more of a product-led organization,” says Lee. “It’s about being business strategists, data engineers, smart consultants instead of just button pushers.”

Whether the future leads his agency towards app development, corporate innovation training, or something else entirely is anyone’s guess. But whatever the future demands, Lee’s past makes one thing clear: he’s more than ready to meet the challenge. 

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