Ben has been incredibly successful as an entrepreneur, having sold his first startup for $110M. He talks about his previous experience at business school and LinkedIn, and advice for other Veterans thinking of starting their own company.
Ben Faw is the Co-Founder and COO of BestReviews, a technology startup that has helped over 180M users by simplifying their purchasing decisions. BestReviews was recently acquired by tronc (formerly known as Tribune Publishing) for $110M. He started out at West Point, and served in the US Army for 4.5 years as a Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, and Aide-De-Camp. After his military service he got his MBA from Harvard Business School and worked at LinkedIn as a Marketing Solutions Account Executive.
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from San Francisco, CA is Benjamin Faw. Ben Faw is the co-founder and COO of BestReviews, a technology startup that has helped over 180M users by simplifying their purchasing decisions. BestReviews was recently acquired by Tronc(formerly known as Tribune Publishing) for $110M. He started out at West Point, and served in the US Army for 4.5 years as a Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, and Aide-De-Camp. After his military service he got his MBA from Harvard Business School and worked at LinkedIn as a Marketing Solutions Account Executive.
How would you explain BestReviews?
You may be familiar with Consumer Reports. It’s a print publication that has advice and recommendations for purchases such as household products or cars. We tried to re-think that in a for-profit digital model. Before you make a purchasing decision, you can go to BestReviews to view reviews on that product.
Where did the idea come from?
There’s three co-founders. One prefers to remain anonymous. He wanted to buy a power drill but didn’t feel that there were enough resources available to find reviews and information about various drills. Through that experience, he realized that there should be a website that brought together this information. The second co-founder saw not only the business opportunity but that many goods get returned each year. He believed that a lot of this came from people buying products and not really knowing what they were getting. And then for me, it stemmed from my familiarity with Consumer Reports and realizing that nothing existed like that online.
How did you meet your co-founders?
I was really fortunate. I met one of my co-founders prior to business school at a social function for admitted students. And he knew our third co-founder. They had worked together at Google. I’ve been given some advice about the process of meeting co-founders. Matthew Prince, who is now the CEO of Cloudflare, said that you have to be excellent to everyone you come in contact with. If you treat everyone you come across with respect, you’re going to be sought out and and sought after. So I would advise you to go out and meet people and gain an expertise in a particular area.
You knew one of your co-founders for several years before starting the company together. If someone has identified a co-founder, is there any way to test that relationship before fully going into business together?
Working on projects with different people is a great way to understand how you function together. Fortunately for me, I was able to get involved in BestReviews before I joined full time. This gave me ample experience with both co-founders before I stepped in full time. During that time before I was hired full-time, I was working for free. But the experience I gained was invaluable.
I would also say that you shouldn’t start a business just to start a business. For me, I knew that I wanted to be in entrepreneurship but the right opportunity hadn’t come about for me. So right after business school, I joined LinkedIn while also working on side projects. In this way, by the time I joined BestReviews full-time, I had gained more experience and more competencies.
What are some of the more challenging aspects of owning your own company?
More than 90% of it is not very fun. It’s a lot of roller coasters and challenges. And there’s a lot of work that has to get done. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding entrepreneurship but there’s a lot of work and non-glorious moments that go into it. And far more likely than not, the end result might not be super successful. You have to enter with your eyes wide open. I’ve been involved in five different projects. Only one turned into a real business.
You had a great job at LinkedIn. What finally pushed you over the edge where you wanted to leave and go into entrepreneurship full-time?
There’s a model called Black Scholes that is used to price stock options. The basic premise is that as you increase volatility, in most cases you also increase value. So if you go with something with low uncertainty, the chances that you’ll make a lot of money is almost zero. But if you get early equity, you’re likely to end up with zero. But there’s also a small chance that you’ll make millions of dollars.
What’s it like to be the CEO of a startup?
Everyday has its idiosyncratic elements. I get around 1500 emails a day and I send 200. I get about 2000 Slack messages and send 250. I do some exercising in the morning. I get up at 6:15 and make it into the office by 8:30. I catch up on the most important of my emails. My first meeting is around 9 to discuss various projects we’re working on. I also often have guests coming to the office throughout the day to discuss various partnerships and tours. In the afternoon, I meet with our senior executive team to discuss projects and the direction to company is going in. Later on, I have other meetings with members of our various teams. I also use that time to catch up on emails. I usually go home around 6ish. I eat dinner, and then I check in with our CEO to review the day.
How do you manage that many emails?
We have one an executive administrator here and without him it would not be possible. He’s very good at multitasking and handling a large number of tasks that need to get done.
What advice would you give to someone that wants to start their own company?
I would encourage people to find a 50/50 balance between learning and doing. This way, you’re able to learn while doing. For me, I found that to be successful. My entire time at Harvard Business School, I was heavily engaged with multiple startups. That really helped me understand what works and what doesn't. I was also able to learn about various functional roles and figure out what I wanted to do.
I imagine you had to give up a lot of opportunities in business school to really focus on entrepreneurship.
Absolutely. I don’t know one entrepreneur that hasn’t had to sacrifice to get where they’re at. You get there by hanging in there through the highs and lows. I think in business school, I went to a total of three parties. There’s many people that did more than that in a given week. And I’m not here to point fingers. It was just that I wanted to put my head down and really learn and grow.
Would you advise other aspiring entrepreneurs to also go to business school?
For me, it made a lot of sense. I knew I had a long-term interest in being in entrepreneurship. Business school provided me a moment to pivot out of the military and into business. But it’s different for every person. For people that know that this is what they want to do for the long term, business school could be the right move. If you can see how it will be helpful for you, it’s a worthwhile life investment. You will meet other people that are like-minded. Being around people that are fired up about things creates long-term friendship. I’m still in touch with my business school classmates on a daily business.
For those that don’t like being in an academic setting, you don’t have to go to business school. Many of the most successful people I know did not go to business school. So it’s case by case and you just have to figure out what is the right path for you.
How did you like having the experience at LinkedIn prior to going into your startup?
For me, it was wonderful. I have yet to cross paths with many entrepreneurs that went straight into entrepreneurship without prior business experience. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there are 20 or 30 successful entrepreneurs that start their business when they’re 40 or 50.
It’s not like I became a business genius working at LinkedIn for a year but I did understand a lot more about the marketing and business ecosystem. That experience helped me from Day 0 at BestReviews. It also helped with branding. Brands matter. Because I had worked at Tesla and LinkedIn, I was given credibility in the business world. My military experience didn’t necessarily allow for this because most people have no idea what it means that I went to Ranger School or Airborne School. However, most people in the business world equate LinkedIn and Tesla with high quality brands that are difficult to get into. That brings immediate trust and capability.
I love the point you made about many successful companies being started by people in their 40s and 50s. I completely agree that having that prior business experience can be extremely valuable.
I completely agree. There’s a veteran entrepreneur named Mark Hoffman. After leaving the Army and going to business school, he went to a small tech company for several years. He ended up co-founding a startup that was later sold for two billion dollars. But everything that he was able to accomplish came from those early relationships he was able to build.
I wish that my post-military self was not in such a rush to get somewhere fast and had been more focused on just gaining skills along the way.
I can’t fault you at all for that. If I had had the same passion you had for your project, I would have pursued it to but I’m sure my outcome would have been disastrous.
Do you have any resources you would recommend to veterans
I think every single entrepreneur that I’ve known one some level or another (and maybe on every level), they are just learning machines and growth machines. And so for me it’s less about a certain book or podcast or conference, and more about: if you’re not trying to learn and better yourself every single day, then maybe entrepreneurship isn’t where you need to be. Because I can promise you there is a competitor out there that has more resources, time and money, and they are coming for you. So if you’re not willing to put the time in to be as nimble and agile as you can, it’s going to be extremely difficult to survive.
Personally, I like reading the Wall Street Journal every single day. I like to get as much as I can in the morning. I’m also reading two books at all time. I also like to talk to mentors and other people in the industry. If you just become a knowledge machine, you’re going to start accumulating an incredible amount of knowledge capital. And at that point, it’s only a matter of time until you cash that in for financial capital.
Is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know?
Be resilient. It’s something we used to talk about a lot in the military. It really doesn’t matter what path you choose after the military, you will face incredible setbacks. Built the resilience and remember the successes you’ve had. You can have too much of it. Also, reflect on what you’ve learned. The biggest travesty I’ve seen in the military community is that people rush their transition and they really don’t have the time to reflect on their service and think about where they want to go. I recommend writing these things down as well.
In selling my company, I had to write several hundred pages of documentation. Through this process I really had the time to think about what worked with the company as well as the trajectory of the company over time.
How do you recommend accomplishing this writing?
I put it on my calendar. I section off 30 minutes a couple times a week. In business school, I did it every day. This helps me reflect and remember things more.
Thank you so much for your time today, Ben. I appreciate the example you are of a veteran succeeding in entrepreneurship.