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Homeschooling: Open Up a World of Opportunity: An Interview with Ben Uyeda

April 24–28, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Week 9
Previously aired:   April 11–15, 2016   |   Vol. 126, Programs 51–55

Have you ever tried making a bucket stool out of concrete? Homeschool graduate Ben Uyeda has, and his clever design is achieving worldwide recognition. Tune in to hear Mike Smith chat with this bright young entrepreneur.

This week’s program is a must-hear for parents of budding entrepreneurs. Ben is an award-winning architect, designer, and business owner, and he credits his parents with teaching him to think outside the box—an essential skill if you’re going to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Other topics on this week’s podcast include:

  • How Ben grew up with unlimited options despite limited means
  • Ben’s unique business model
  • Ben’s famous bucket stool design
  • Life as an entrepreneur
  • Balancing boldness with humility

“One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you’re not confined to the traditional ways of thinking.”—Ben Uyeda

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Is your homeschool student a budding entrepreneur? Then you won’t want to miss this week’s program, as host Mike Smith talks with homeschool grad Ben Uyeda about his success as an architect, designer, and business owner. That’s next on Homeschool Heartbeat!

Mike Smith: Today’s guest is Ben Uyeda. He’s a homeschooling graduate and the founder of the HomeMade Modern website. Ben, welcome to the program!

Ben Uyeda: Hi Mike, how are you doing?

Mike: I’m doing great.

Limited means, unlimited options [0:28]

Mike: Why did your parents decide to homeschool you, Ben?

Ben: Well, if I was to speak for them, I think it was just a matter of economic efficiency. There were four of us kids—two boys, two girls. And when you look at the prices for private schools and then the quality of some of the public schools—I’m pretty sure my parents just thought they could do a better job than the public schools, for less money than the private schools.

Mike: Ben, where were you raised?

Ben: Santa Barbara was where I was born. And then when I was about 10 or 11, we moved about 30 miles north to Salinas Valley.

Mike: Ben, in your TED talk, you mentioned that your mother’s resourcefulness was a big inspiration for you. Could you tell us about that?

Ben: Our family had limited means. But it never felt like we had limited options. And I attribute that a lot to my mom’s creativeness, and also just her willingness to try things for the first time. She was inventive with a very restrictive budget for food. She would make a lot of our clothes and furniture.

But more importantly, I think she just was open to whatever we wanted to do. Any time we had a question about anything, she would say, “Well, let’s figure that out! We need to go to the library and check out a book on it, or go to a museum and ask an expert a question about it.”

Commercials you want to watch [1:37]

Mike: Tell us about your business, HomeMade Modern. What is it, how did it start, and why did you start it?

Ben: HomeMade Modern is a website where we share design ideas. And it’s sort of interesting: we use very conventional internet means, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, to publish these ideas. What’s a little bit different is that we’re actually working with brands like Home Depot, Quikrete, and Ryobi—not to show people how to build and make their own furniture and do home improvements, but actually to introduce them to new products. So what’s awesome about it is that we’re basically making commercials that people want to watch and that actually teach them how to do something useful for their home.

Mike: Well, it sounds like a very unique business model. How did you arrive at that?

Ben: So, my background is in architecture. And in architecture, design is a service. So you’re charging people to design something custom. Now that’s a great business and we’ve had a lot of success with it. But we tend to only work with rich people. Now that I’m doing HomeMade Modern and I’m publishing design for free to consumers, I can reach millions of people every month but still not charge for my designs, because I’m making money from the brands that I’m working with.

Mike: Ben, how did the principles you learned from your parents come in handy when you started your own business?

Ben: I don’t know if there were principles, but I think there was just a lack of assumptions. I think one of the advantages of homeschooling is that you’re not confined to the traditional ways of thinking. As long as your parents are homeschooling you as a way of showing you and exposing you to more stimulus, rather than trying to protect you from things, I think you end up becoming very resourceful. And it’s actually a great way to prepare for a career being an entrepreneur.

So I’d say that the wide-openness and the lack of structure actually led to that sort of aggressiveness and simply saying, “Why can’t I start a business?”

The bucket stool [3:25]

Mike: Well that’s fantastic, but can you give us some examples of the projects you’ve worked on as part of HomeMade Modern?

Ben: I’ll give you a few examples of some of my favorites. One of our most popular projects is called the “bucket stool.” And we show how easy it is to take a five-gallon bucket, pour in three inches of concrete, stick in three sticks, and then wait 24 hours and pull it out—and you have a finished stool. And this project—people have watched it hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, and now people on six different continents have built this project. So we’re spreading design all over the world through the internet.

Mike: Well Ben, I’m trying to picture this. How did you think of that?

Ben: I was trying to think: What is the easiest way to make something that involves the least amount of power tools (because that’s one of the things that scares people)? And concrete immediately came to mind; it’s material that’s cheap and available all over the world. I said, “What if I used the concrete actually to hold everything together?” And then the idea just took off from there.

Homeschooled entrepreneur [4:18]

Mike: Ben, besides HomeMade Modern, what other projects are you involved in today?

Ben: Well, I’m still a cofounder and partner in my architecture firm, Zero Energy Design. We design high-performance, sustainable homes. Really incredible work—these zero-energy homes that produce as much energy as they use.

I’m also involved in real estate development, primarily in Boston.

And then I’ve also lately come to investing in tech startups. I’m an advisor for a really cool company called YoShirt. It’s an app that we just have now reached more than a million downloads. You can take a picture and customize your own clothes and things like that. [It’s] a really cool piece of technology that I’m happy to be a part of.

And then I’m also invested in a few other startups. We just did a Kickstarter campaign for an improved X-Acto knife, called Ergo Kiwi—which everyone should check out.

I’m just having a lot of fun traveling around, working with different creative groups, investing time and advice into these startup companies.

Mike: I must say: I’ve been involved in homeschooling for over 30 years, and you’re one of the more creative people I’ve ever met or heard of. I am so proud of you. You’re such a tremendous representative of a homeschool graduate.

Put away the bulldozer [5:34]

Mike: Ben, what do you hope to accomplish in the future with HomeMade Modern or any of your other projects?

Ben: Well Mike, I’m not really that goal-oriented; I’m more process-oriented. So for example, every day if I wake up I always do the bed test. I love sleeping, but if I am more excited to get up even before I feel like I’ve had enough sleep, to get started on whatever project I have scheduled that day, then I know that I’m on the right track and I’m successful.

Now, in terms of specific accomplishments, right now I think our videos have been seen 16 to 18 million times. Yeah, it would be nice to get to a hundred million video views. But I really don’t think that’s as important as having a deep connection between the tasks that you have each day and your own internal motivation. And so I really just focus on that: Am I excited about what I am going to do? Because I know I can be lazy or I can be disciplined, but I know whether or not I really engage with the work is going to determine that.

Mike: Well Ben, we have some budding entrepreneurs out there that would love to hear from you. What should they do? How do they get started?

Ben: The best tip for getting started is to actually get started. But to be a little more specific, I think we you have to balance aggression with humility. And a lot of people mistake that for cockiness. I think learning how to listen, learning how to understand other people. So many entrepreneurs, especially the young ones that I meet, they just want to bulldoze you with their ideas. And they want to convince themselves that it’s going to succeed at the same time that they want to convince potential investors or customers. And I always say, if you’re working really hard and you think your idea is good, but it’s not quite doing what you want it to do, step back and listen. Listen, be humble, be a generous collaborator, and really learn how to share ideas as opposed to trying to inflict ideas on other people.

Mike: Ben, I really appreciate you being with us this week and taking the time to share. It’s been such a tremendous experience for me, and I hope that listeners have experienced the same. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Ben UyedaPhoto of Ben Uyeda

Ben Uyeda surprised everyone when he left both his award-winning architecture firm and an Ivy League teaching position to pursue his dream: delivering affordable design to the masses. As it turns out, they needn’t have been so shocked. In the past 2 years alone, Ben’s design ideas have reached more than 15 million people, the free designs he gives away are currently being built on six different continents, and his work has even been featured in an exhibition and workshop at the Vitra Furniture Museum in Germany.

Ben received both of his degrees, a Bachelor and a Master of Architecture, from Cornell University in upstate New York. After graduating in 2005, Ben was hired as a visiting lecturer at Cornell where he created an original curriculum for teaching sustainable design. This curriculum emphasized the importance of critically understanding contemporary media and popular culture when trying to implement environmentally progressive technologies.

In 2006, Ben founded ZeroEnergy Design (ZED), an architecture firm that specializes in ecologically conscious housing. ZED’s work has been published in numerous publications including Architectural Record, Popular Mechanics, Design New England, and Boston Home. ZED was also named one of the 50 best architecture firms, as well one of the 3 best firms for Sustainable design by Architect Magazine’s Architect 50 List for 2015.

In 2008 Ben founded FreeGreen.com, a web-based media company that distributes green home designs over the Internet. FreeGreen.com was born of the idea that the Internet, and specifically social media, are not just new tools for presenting and advertising a firm’s portfolio; they are paradigm-shifting forces that should challenge almost every conception of architectural practice and critical discourse. Ben’s objectives for FreeGreen.com were verbalized by Jayne Merkel in Radical Post-Modernism: Architectural Design, September 2011, where she referred to FreeGreen.com as a “radical practice” whose “use of the Web takes architecture in a whole new direction.”

By 2009, FreeGreen had become the largest supplier of home designs in the world, and was recognized by I.D. Magazine in its annual I.D. 40 issue as one of the 40 projects or people currently transforming the world. FreeGreen’s innovative business model has also been discussed The New York Times, Architectural Record, and Fast Company. FreeGreen was acquired in 2014.

In 2010, Ben led a team that won the U.S. Green Building Council’s Natural Talent Design Competition by creating affordable green home designs for New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighborhood. Inspired by the work he did on this project, Ben would later return to New Orleans in 2011 as a selected participant of the NolaBound Documentary Film Project; an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

In 2012, Ben launched HomeMade-Modern.com, a creative agency that distributes instructional design content over the Internet and generates revenue by creating product-integrated content. By 2015, the projects launched by HomeMade-Modern have been viewed by more than 15 million people, projects have been built on 6 different continents, and the company’s designs are even being used to start small businesses. Ben encourages people to ”steal” his ideas and is committed to distributing design through media, rather than patenting his ideas and trying to profit through overseas manufacturing and distribution.

This past year, Ben’s first book, HomeMade Modern, was published by Running Press, and Ben gave a talk at TEDx Jamaica Plain titled “Why I Publish My Design Ideas Instead of Patenting Them.”

Ben’s ethos for his business models can be summed up by the following statement; his companies bring progressive design to the masses by creating business models that publish design as free media content for everyone rather than charging for it as a custom service for a few wealthy clients.

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