Though they serve wildly different markets, the tech companies Brian Lee has co-founded – LegalZoom, ShoeDazzle, and Honest Co. – share a reliance on celebrity cachet, a branding strategy that has become Lee’s calling card. After itching to get away from his work as a lawyer – he was a partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom – Lee formed LegalZoom in 1999 with attorney Robert Shapiro. The company sold a controlling stake to private equity firm Permira in 2014 for $200 million in a deal that valued the provider of online legal documents at $425 million. Lee then formed shoe-subscription service ShoeDazzle, later acquired by JustFab for $30 million, with Kim Kardashian. But Lee’s biggest breakthrough has been Honest Co., an e-retailer co-founded with actress Jessica Alba. The company, which sells eco-friendly household products, has raised more than $220 million and is valued at about $1.7 billion.
NAME: Brian Lee
HOMETOWN: Huntington Beach
COMPANY: Honest Co.
TITLE: Founder and chief executive
How did celebrity branding become your hallmark?
For LegalZoom, it was really a matter of bringing trust to the forefront. (After the O.J. Simpson trial), Robert Shapiro was the most recognized attorney in the world. Every time he went onto CNN or the “Today” show and talked about LegalZoom we would get orders. So I knew that the influencer model, celebrity model, worked in terms of getting traction.
And the same celebrity branding strategy worked with ShoeDazzle?
You saw the same thing with Kim tweeting about it, talking to her social media fans about it. We gained instant traction.
You give these celebrity partners equity in the businesses. Do they understand what it takes to build a company?
There is definitely an education process in terms of starting a business. It is very different than starring in a TV show or a film, but I tend to choose partners that are very smart. Jessica Alba was no exception; neither was Kim or Robert Shapiro.
Do you enjoy letting someone else be the star of the show?
Yeah, it’s pretty natural for me. I’ve never enjoyed the limelight. I like operating. I like executing. I like building businesses.
Honest Co. just opened its first retail location. Why do a brick-and-mortar store?
Beauty is a product women like to touch, like to feel. They like to sample, which is why if you walk into a department store the beauty counters are on the first-floor entrance. The exciting part is that north of 30 percent of the transactions at that store are subscribing to the service.