In the first of our weekly interview series, Wise Words, we will be speaking to Ben Wiener.
In the first of our weekly interview series, Wise Words, we will be speaking to Ben Wiener. Based in Pennsylvania, Ben was formerly a corporate lawyer in New York, before leaving to co-found two software companies. He is now working as a private equity executive and social entrepreneur.
Ben helped to create two businesses recently featured on Springwise. The first of these, ReMakes, creates unique dining placemats from repurposed advertising billboards. This saves a considerable amount of waste from landfill, and consumers are given further insight via embedded QR codes, which link to a website with news and details of the production process. The second, Tees at Risk works with organizations around the world to create t-shirts designed by artistic teens at risk. These shirts are available through the company’s site, where 10 per cent of the purchase price is donated to youth nonprofits. Each shirt also features the story of the young artist that designed it — information that is also available via a QR code embedded on the shirt.
1. Where did the ideas for Remakes and Tees at Risk come from?
ReMakes presented itself as my partners and I were meeting with designers of products made from recycled materials at the same time that we were speaking with retailers of consumer goods. We met a designer who was working with billboards, and a few months later I was talking to a distributor who told me he was looking for new types of eco-friendly placemats. It occurred to me that the billboard material would be ideal for placemats and we started to work on design and production. Tees at Risk was the brainchild of my partner Richard Kligman, who has experience in the promotional products space and also spends time volunteering with organizations that assist kids at risk. We developed a unique business model and brand where the artistic kids not only use art as outlets for their creativity, but also as a way to drive funding back to at-risk youth nonprofits based on sales of our t-shirts.
2. Do you think QR codes have the potential to capture the imagination of consumers worldwide?
Definitely – I don’t think it’s even a question of potential, I think it’s already happening. I am seeing QR codes more and more every day in store windows, in printed advertisements and on products and our use of QR in both of these companies has sparked a lot of interest and excitement. In both cases QR transforms our product from an “object” into something that communicates and stimulates conversation and awareness on an ongoing basis.
3. Can you describe a typical working day?
When my kids ask me what I do “for work” I tell them I get emails and send emails. I am a partner in a number of different ventures and companies, some of which are early-stage, so there’s not a formal structure to any given work day. My day involves a lot of strategizing and brainstorming with my different partners, coordinating our suppliers and service providers, lots of guerilla marketing, monitoring our social media and communicating with our expanding base of followers and friends, and lots and lots and lots of emails.
4. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on Remakes/Tees at Risk?
I love to hang out with my kids, and catch up on Phillies highlights with my son.
5. What’s the secret ingredient to success as an entrepreneur?
I think passion and messaging are two of the key things you need to have nailed down in a new venture. You need to be passionate about what it is you’re setting out to do. And you have to find a way to communicate the passion behind your idea and its purpose or benefits, very quickly and effectively to the outside world so that others will catch that passion and be able to pass it on to others.
6. What drove you crazy when building your business?
The truth is the launch of both ReMakes and Tees at Risk have been very positive experiences. I have great partners and we set them up and planned them out really well so there haven’t been too many hiccups. I guess the most frustrating part of launching a product-oriented business is that week or two, between the time that you’ve finalized the design and handed it off to production, and you get the first products into your hands. All you want to do is touch and feel the product that you’ve conceptualized and discussed for so long, and to paraphrase Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.
7. What motivates you to keep going?
I tend to get emotionally involved in ventures I believe in. If you really believe in what you’re doing, whatever it is – your venture’s benefit to society, or your value proposition – it’s real easy to jump out of bed in the morning. The hard part is actually shutting down the laptop and going to sleep….
8. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Again, very few regrets or hiccups so far with either company and both have kind of exceeded our initial expectations. I think if anything, in both cases, we could have planned out even more ideas in case things really took off out of the gate, so that we didn’t have to figure them out “on the fly” when they did. But I have great partners and I think we’ve been able to jump right on the opportunities and hopefully we’ll be able to scale up well as we continue to grow.
9. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?
I hope that Tees at Risk grows into a cool new kind of fashion label with a social benefit and social conscious – fantastic designs “crowd-sourced” from at-risk youth, driving tons of money back to many different youth nonprofits. And I think we can build ReMakes into a consumer brand with multiple products – we are already developing our next innovative products made from billboards, as well as planning other eco-friendly products that are made from billboards or other reclaimed materials.
10. If you weren’t working on these projects, what would you be doing?
I started off my professional career as a corporate lawyer at a large New York law firm and if I hadn’t left law to pursue entrepreneurial pastures I’d probably still be strapped to a desk drafting documents. I am very grateful for my law school education and my legal experience and I draw upon them daily, but I also think the entrepreneurial arena, particularly the social/entrepreneurial space better suits my personality.
11. Tell Springwise a secret…
I am addicted to chocolate.
12. Any final words for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Try to use your venture not just to do well, but to do good – familiarize yourself with the emerging “B Corp” movement and see if you can infuse your new idea or venture with a social benefit or purpose. You’ll find your daily grind and hopefully your success even more fulfilling when it helps others in the process.
2nd May 2011