By Thomas Herd | June 29, 2018 | Lifestyle
Rootstrap cofounder Ben Lee speaks about modern growth hacking strategies at the LA-based Stack Growth Conference.
Ben Lee has an unconventional job title.
On the surface, he’s the cofounder of the digital agency Rootstrap, which provides remote dev talent for major brands like Epson, Spotify, and even celebrities such as Snoop Dogg. Normal enough. But ask him what his role is, and he’ll tell you something you don’t hear every day:
“At this point, I’m our in-house influencer.”
Lee has spent the better part of the past year building up his online presence as a tech influencer. In the process, he’s amassed tens of thousands of combined followers and hundreds of millions of views on his content.
This is rather unconventional activity for a tech CEO. So why’d he do it?
To answer that question, we have to travel 6,000 miles south to Montevideo, the small but economically robust capital of Uruguay.
It all started when Lee visited Buenos Aires on a company retreat for an agency he’d worked for previously.
“Yeah, admittedly that was a little awkward,” he confesses. “I had been fired but the retreat was already paid for so I convinced them to let me tag along. I ended up spending most of my time taking the ferry across the Rio Plata to Montevideo, and I was pleasantly surprised by the thriving tech scene there.”
Lee had recently founded his development agency, Neon Roots, and he wasn’t content to be just a tourist. He saw an opportunity in Uruguay’s growing startup scene, and with tech sector unemployment at -15% in the capital, he knew this was a market he needed to enter. After shaking a few new hands, he met Fernando Colman and Anthony Figueroa, cofounders of TopTier, one of the top digital brands in Uruguay.
Fernando and Lee hit it off. A partnership was formed—and soon enough, Lee’s agency merged with TopTier, eventually consolidating both Neon Roots and TopTier under a new brand: Rootstrap.
Very quickly, business started booming. Software is one of Uruguay’s top 3 exports, and Lee’s agency found plenty of talent there. A brand new development team boasting 60+ engineers provided plenty of extra firepower to take on new projects at home, and with the time zone only an hour ahead of the east coast, it was easy to work with clients in NYC or Miami. All the growth quickly positioned Rootstrap to become a major player in the Uruguayan tech space.
That’s when Lee started to notice a pattern.
“The thing is, Uruguay has a relatively large market for tech, but it’s still tiny compared to the US. So it didn’t take long for us to establish ourselves in a pretty big way,” he explains.
This led to him getting significant offers for speaking engagements—offers he rarely received at home. Lee was invited to prestigious universities, major nonprofits, and the biggest tech conferences in South America. Soon enough, he had built himself into something of an influencer in the South American tech scene. But what struck him wasn’t the fame: it was the new business.
“Public speaking is cool, sometimes it’s an ego stroke, whatever. But as my profile got larger, we started to get interest and leads for new projects as a direct result of that presence. These were super high-quality leads that we normally had to work hard for, but they were just rolling in,” he says. “That’s when it hit me: this is like influencer marketing, but in-house. It works just as well but you don’t have to pay.”
For Lee, the next step was obvious.
“I just thought, ‘oh my God, I’ve got to do this back home.’”
Lee at the Wave House, the former mansion-turned-headquarters of Rootstrap
After seeing the concept proven in Uruguay, Lee set his sights on Los Angeles. In his quest for influencer domination, he met a crop of other up-and-coming tech and business influencers. Among them was Josh Fechter, now one of the preeminent B2B marketing influencers on the Internet.
“At first, I was on Instagram, and I built up my profile to around 150K followers, but it wasn’t translating into business,” he explains. “Josh cued me into the best market: LinkedIn.”
Lee, along with Fechter and a slew of other up-and-coming LinkedIn influencers, crafted a unique style of content that blended emotional vulnerability, personal anecdotes, inspirational business advice, and short paragraphs for mobile-optimized formatting.
At the time, LinkedIn was essentially dry from a content perspective. Their format caught on like wildfire, and within months, Lee and his crew were owning the network. They even jokingly called themselves the “LinkedIn Mafia.”
Lee’s growth on LinkedIn was meteoric. In a matter of months, he grew his profile from a few hundred connections to nearly 40,000 followers. His posts regularly received millions of views and thousands of engagements. All told, he’s racked up well over 100 million views on the network. He was a bona fide tech influencer—only this time, it was in the US.
And, just like in Uruguay, the business rolled in.
“I can say confidently that the whole influencer effort brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in new revenue for Rootstrap, and we saved equal amounts because we didn’t have to pay for any advertising. It was all organic,” he explains.
Lee’s public persona generated a flood of inbound leads for the company, bringing in clients they would normally have to spend thousands of marketing dollars for. In fact, Lee asserts that one single post led to more than 200 leads and 5 new customers—which represents tens of thousands of dollars of revenue for Rootstrap. All from a LinkedIn status.
Lee’s plan had worked. He’d seen the possibility in Uruguay, but implementing it in the states showed him just how powerful the strategy was. As an influencer, Lee’s personal brand has become one of Rootstrap’s highest-return marketing channels—so much so that now, Lee is encouraging every member of his team to replicate the strategy. He’s even changed his role at Rootstrap: he’s now Chief Revenue Officer instead of CEO, reflecting his new role of bringing in new business and promoting the brand through initiatives like a new podcast and new books he’s working on.
But for Lee, what’s significant about this isn’t just his own story—it’s what this says about the nature of marketing as a whole. The advent of the in-house influencer was only possible because, as Lee sees it, the nature of how business gets done is changing.
“Across the board, personal brands convert better than business brands,” he explains. “It’s been true for a century, but it’s just a lot more obvious now because of social media.”
As Lee sees it, his success is proof that no matter how digitized the industry, people identify with people. Despite the resources poured into building up corporate brands, there’s still something irreplaceable about a human face—and professionals would rather do business with a real person than a logo.
“People identify with Warren Buffett, not Berkshire Hathaway,” Lee highlights.
As we draw ever-closer to the new decade, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the endless march of technology and digitization. But in a world that can feel increasingly isolating and alienating, maybe there’s some hope in the idea of the in-house influencer.
Because despite how advanced our tech, how pervasive our networks, or how far we go down the digital rabbit hole, we’ll always have an innate desire for connection. People will always identify with people.
And if you want to succeed in a digital world, it’s those person-to-person connections—not metrics and marketing optimization—that will help you do it.