Brian Lee heads both ShoeDazzle.com Inc., a subscription e-commerce company he co-founded in 2009, and Honest Co., an online retailer that sells nontoxic baby products. Lee is back at ShoeDazzle after a year’s hiatus and has reinstated the company’s subscription model, which was eliminated during his absence. Although Lee is now one of the most prominent tech entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, he started out as a lawyer. He made the switch to tech in 1999 when he co-founded LegalZoom.com Inc., which lets people create their own legal documents online. With LegalZoom, Lee hit upon a successful business model: find a famous co-founder to help market the brand. His first partnership was with famed attorney Robert Shapiro. Lee has also formed partnerships with TV personality Kim Kardashian for ShoeDazzle and actress Jessica Alba for Honest Co. He recently sat down with the Business Journal at ShoeDazzle’s design offices in Santa Monica to discuss the challenges of running two companies at once and how his father inspired his entrepreneurial career – which began when he turned his Halloween trick-or-treat candy into a commodity.
Question: Why did you start your career as a lawyer?
Answer: I went to law school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I always call myself the accidental lawyer. I figured law school would give me three more years to decide my career path. And what happened was after graduating law school, I ended up working for law firms and accounting firms. It was then that I decided that I truly wanted to start my own company.
What made you decide that?
I always sat across the street with my best friend. His name is also Brian, Brian Liu. We were roommates in law school, too. Every day we were, like, there’s got to be something else that we can do besides working at these firms. I truly enjoyed working for the partners at the firms but I wanted to control my own destiny.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I think I was always meant to be an entrepreneur. My father was an entrepreneur. I’d go to his office and watch him work. I think I learned a lot from watching my father grow his business. Even as a child I always had that hustle. I was always dreaming up ways to sell something. My first entrepreneurial venture happened when I was 8 years old.
What was it?
I would plan out my Halloween route for trick or treating. I would be the first one out on the block with a big pillowcase. By the end of the night, I’d have a big bag of candy. At night, I’d put four candies in a Ziploc bag and sell them at school for 25 cents. I remember one time my father came to me and asked what I was doing. My dad thought it was so fun that he’d sit with me and we’d fill these Ziploc bags.
He didn’t get mad at you for reselling the candy?
No, he thought it was awesome. The cost of goods was zero. Take out my labor, which was nothing, and it was a good business.
Are you always looking for new businesses to start?
I think of ideas all the time. I’m constantly thinking about new businesses, which is why I’ve started three of them now. I think I’d be happiest going to my grave knowing that I’ve tried everything I wanted to try.
What’s your goal for ShoeDazzle now that you’re back?
When we started the business, we set out to accomplish a vision for ShoeDazzle. I feel like it’s in my hands again and that I can move the company forward toward the vision.
Was it a mistake to get rid of ShoeDazzle’s subscriptions?
It was a strategic decision that was made, but right now we’re much more focused on bringing back that engagement, so we’re launching membership programs again.
What will that new subscription look like?
It’s not going to be the same program as before. It’s tough to get a woman to sign up for $39.95 once, let alone have her sign up again. We are taking a very different approach. It’s more of a hybrid. They can choose to subscribe or they can buy at the regular price.
Why did you first introduce the subscription – which was already popular with CDs, books and wines – to e-commerce in 2009?
For subscription models to work, there has to be a need for that product or a very strong desire for that product. That’s why it worked in music. That’s why it worked for wine. That’s why it works for shoes. At the right price point, women could purchase shoes on a monthly basis with no qualms. Coming from LegalZoom, where most of our revenue was one-off transactions, I knew that I wanted a company that has a lot more repeat purchasing.
What led you to start LegalZoom?
One day one of my partners wanted me to form a corporation for one of our clients. And it took me all but 15 minutes to do. The charge to that client was north of $2,000. The partner told me that was our standard fee for forming a corporation. I started thinking with Brian Liu that especially with the growth of the Internet, there had to be a way that you could automate this process and really harness the power of technology to bring affordable services online to the consumer.
Why did you decide that you needed Robert Shapiro to help with LegalZoom?
A lot has changed in 12 years. But back then people were, like, “I don’t want to give my credit card number to a company I’ve never heard of.” With LegalZoom, we’re asking for a lot of personal information. The No. 1 factor for LegalZoom at the beginning was trust. So we thought, OK, let’s bring in a celebrity attorney that everyone at least recognizes and knows he’s a very great attorney. At the top of that list was Robert Shapiro.
How’d you get in touch with him?
We asked everyone we knew if they knew Robert Shapiro. We didn’t have as strong of a network back then and no one we knew knew him.
So what’d you do?
So I called 411 and asked for Robert Shapiro the attorney in Century City. I got this phone number and it was about 10 o’clock at night. I didn’t know he was a workaholic back then. I called this number and I had my voice message written out. And he picked up the phone.
What did you do when he answered?
I said I was calling for Robert Shapiro. He said he was Robert Shapiro. I said, “Robert Shapiro the attorney? My name is Brian Lee and I have a business idea I’d like to run by you.” His first words were, “I’m not interested.”
What did you say then?
I asked, “How did you know you’re not interested in me if you haven’t heard me out?” He basically said, “You’ve got two minutes.” In those two minutes I went off. I told him the whole idea. At the end of it he said, “You know I hear ideas all the time but I really like this one. I’ve been thinking of something similar. Why don’t you call at a normal hour and we’ll have a lunch meeting.”
How helpful was it to have him as a co-founder?
When we started LegalZoom we didn’t have any money to market. Bringing Robert Shapiro on board showed me the tremendous ability of celebrities to get you initial traction. We would have had to spend millions of dollars to get the type of traction that he gave us. He would pick up the phone and be on “Today” show or Larry King, talking about LegalZoom. That was invaluable back then.
How did you transition from the legal world to shoes?
My wife loves shoes. She went shopping once at this boutique she likes and I saw the price of the shoes and I freaked out. I asked why she didn’t just go to DSW or Shoe Pavilion. She basically told me that it’s not the same feeling. She said, “The woman at this boutique really understands my style. I go in and we talk about fashion. I drink coffee with her. We talk and she brings out stuff for me to try on. I walk out and I feel beautiful. I feel pampered.” I knew that that was nonexistent online. That was the genesis of ShoeDazzle.
Why did you leave ShoeDazzle to start Honest Co.?
ShoeDazzle was on a great path. We’d just recruited that CEO. I felt that I had the time to go and start something new. Jessica Alba probably approached me about three years ago and I didn’t have the time back then. But I felt like my time was freeing up and I wanted to go do something new. And so I got back together with Jessica to discuss the business idea in more detail. To her credit, she had done a lot of work already. But what she needed help with was organizing everything she had been working on and making it a real business.
You’re one of the rare chief executives of two companies. What’s that like?
I have a great team at Honest Co., too. Without that, there’s no way I could do both. It’s fun. I don’t consider it work. I love coming into the office. I love working with these teams.
What’s a typical day like?
My workday starts at 7 a.m. when I get to Honest Co. I have my coffee meetings and I meet with the team to discuss strategy. Then I go to ShoeDazzle. Luckily they’re right down the road from each other. I’m there until about 3 or 4 p.m. Then I go back to Honest Co. and I’m there until 8 or 9 p.m. It’s a long workday for me. But, again, I don’t consider it a workday.
Will you continue to start new companies?
I told my wife that I’m stopping for now in terms of starting new businesses. I really want to see ShoeDazzle through. I want to see Honest Co. through. What happens after that? I’m not sure. But I know that I love what I do. I really do. My father’s DNA is in me because I can’t imagine doing anything different.
Tell me about your father.
He was in the stainless steel business. He was the largest provider in the United States of stainless steel utensils to restaurants.
Is he still part of that company?
My brother-in-law runs that company now. My father wanted me to step into that business and run it, but I just wasn’t that passionate about stainless steel utensils. So I went off and did my own thing.
Did he give you advice when you were first starting out?
He gives me advice every day. He teaches me the true definition of gross margins versus net margins every day. He’s been an inspiration for me. He came to this country with nothing.
How old were you when you moved to the United States?
I was a baby. He came in 1971 with me, with my older sister, two pieces of luggage and $500. He was educated in Korea and studied at university there, but he didn’t speak fluent English. If he could do that, why can’t I do more?
What was your childhood like?
It was a household filled with love. There was a strong emphasis on education and work ethic. My father always taught us, work hard because there are tons of smart people out there, but it’s the hardest worker that’s going to get it done. That’s definitely where I get my work ethic from. He’s just been an inspiration. I’ve always looked up to him.
Who are some of your other influences?
Walt Disney is definitely one of them. He was one of the greatest innovators of our history. The creativity that he instilled in people was amazing. He was a tough leader. People feared him. I don’t think people fear me. I would love the same types of innovation to happen at my companies.
What do you do for fun?
One of my biggest things, I love watching documentaries about people. I love to learn about their lives and how they tick.
What’s the last interesting documentary you watched?
I saw one on Valentino recently. They asked him in this documentary, “How have you been at the top of the fashion game for over 40 years?” His answer was so simple. He said, “I know what women want. They just want to feel beautiful.” It really struck a chord with me because that’s what we’re trying to do here at ShoeDazzle, make women feel beautiful – hopefully every month.
What are your other hobbies?
Most of my time is spent with my children and my wife. I don’t really have time for too many hobbies, but I love art. So anytime we travel I’ll try to go to the museum in the city. I used to be very passionate about cars, but I’ve stopped following up on that. I used to love going to auto shows.
Do you drive a cool car?
I do have a 1957 Corvette that I love. That’s my only splurge.
What’s something that your employees don’t know about you?
I love graffiti. I’ll often stop while I’m driving and take pictures of graffiti.
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