Ben's simple action from an extraordinary experience created a huge impact on people’s lives. It pushed the button of his fervour to take the journey towards creating something good and powerful. From a high-energy point that propelled him forward on his entrepreneurial voyage, he moves towards a high-passion position where he can strengthen the social enterprise element of his business.
Describing himself as a tech geek, Project Lab owner and Managing Director Ben Cashman admits that what defines him, which frustrates a lot of people, is his desire to challenge archaic things that are present in societies. But what he truly wants is to make a positive influence in communities through the things he does, and that includes injecting social good into his endeavours.
Ben looks back at that time in 2009 when he and Kate, his wife now, travelled to Africa for a year together. During their climb up Mount Kenya, they met this amazing guide who was only earning much as a low-paying sub-contractor of another company. What they did was set him up an email address and made him a website, uploaded the site and published it. A few months after they did all of that, they received emails from the guide informing them he got 10 clients that contacted him and would pay him directly.
“For him, that was 10 years worth of client base and income in a space of a couple of months. That's just insane from a simple website that we did when we climbed that mountain. So, that was probably the first real business that felt like we were making a massive impact out of something really small to us,” Ben enthusiastically recounts his amazement out of that experience.
This further reinforced his passion for sustainability. You can feel the fire burning within him when he articulated this, “For me, it's leaving a world in a better place when I go. I'm passionate about sustainability and reducing waste. It’s not just waste in an environmental form but waste in everything we do: from corporate waste, like time and money and lost opportunities, to lack of knowledge and resources. You can probably relate this to our Mount Kenya website experience with the guide. Just the lack of knowledge and ability to create a website and set up an email address was stopping him from gaining that personal opportunity and basically moving his family and his community out of poverty. So, that was the trigger in that African trip, wherein my passion point really drives home to me that I can implement that in business. Business is not about purely being corporate. It can have that pillar of social good, a social enterprise to it. And for me, that is more important than the corporate side.”
Prior to that Mount Kenya occurrence, Ben dabbled with business earlier on. Even in his childhood, the desire to trade and generate something from little things already exhibited in his character. He warmheartedly narrated when he was about 12 years old where he would tell his two younger brothers to pick some wild ferns and different things. “We would sell some cul-de-sacs – blackberries and blueberries – to the streets. That was probably the start of my entrepreneurial endeavour. Or slave-driver, if you want to put it that way with my brothers,” he chuckles.
When he hit university, he already started a business by importing performance car parts from Asia. Since he had to make a website for that car parts import business, he moved very quickly to establish a website business. He ran this website development for companies for about 3 years doing small websites to 40 or 50 clients. As a tech geek, it felt right for him.
At that time when he and Kate decided to embark on an adventure to Africa, they sold everything they had as they also planned to move to Melbourne afterwards. But when they returned after that trip, they decided to stay local and Ben went into a project management job for a big company. “I was doing that for another two years, until about 2012. Then I felt this is where the social enterprise and corporate part of me really clashed. I really didn’t agree with the way big businesses are just in it for profit. I didn’t see it as fair or for the right reasons.”
As this conviction within him intensified, he decided to jump out and go into independent contracting. In this newfound track, he found that he enjoyed the flexibility of this line of work. It gave him more focus on the project he was delivering, as well as more income from those projects. The drawback of this setup though was that he was working entirely on his own. Not only was it lonely for him, but it was exhausting as well. Ben thought there might be countless other independent contractors who are also in the same boat as he is. With that, he came up with an idea of putting up a community of like-minded individuals where they could work together for more projects. Then he chanced upon another person who became his business partner as they co-founded Project Lab, a niche project delivery company.
Having a co-founder to bounce ideas with and someone to work with until the wee hours of the morning brought so much vigour and excitement during the early phase of the business. However, the honeymoon period, as Ben would call it, only lasted for nine months. As they were nearing their one-year mark, they had a break-up that led to them parting ways. With no partnership agreement in place and with 50/50 ownership, the exit was met with difficulty. It cost Ben a significant amount of money for the buyout to take place.
What’s more, since the organization is flat wherein the consultants work independently, Ben didn’t have a big employee-base to support him through it all. “It was hard for about a year. Looking back, the reason it was difficult is that we didn't have any processes in place. We didn't have clear ways of doing things better. We didn't have clear work because everything was really transactional,” he explains.
From a high-energy juncture to that point, he suddenly found himself all alone. It was a profound realization for him. “My biggest mistake was not surrounding myself with a team better than I am. In hindsight, I should have gotten a team of advisors around me who have been on that path before,” Ben ponders.
Learning from that experience, he now has an advisory team from legal, accounting, finance, and other fields of expertise. But it was in EO Melbourne where he found a space for him to look deeper into his issues. “With EO, I get a massive amount of value from our peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing. These are peers coming from different industries, businesses, stages in business, demographics, ages and life experiences. I come away from every forum learning from a powerful get-together of people that are similar in traits but widely different in various ways.”
Rather than getting himself distracted by the challenges, he learned to focus his sight on the small victories in order to keep him going. “Without those little snippets of hope, you get dragged down by the day's work. Sometimes, you can't see the wood from the trees, so to speak,” he states. These wins are: landing on their first million-dollar contract; getting Project Lab itself as a brand by securing big preferred suppliers for government and big private companies; and increasing the percentage of people who want to stay and work with them by motivating them and leading them.
Through those years, Ben has honed his leadership style, which is to lead from the front. With a team of three staff that includes him plus about 32 consultants, who are mostly independent, confident and type-A personalities, he found that the successful way of leading them was to be open and honest by communicating early and getting them involved in the planning.
Ben believes that surrounding oneself with the right team is a smart way of running a business. Apart from Project Lab, he also runs other companies, one of which builds electric vehicle charging around Tasmania. Yet, he is able to manage his time and responsibilities well. He does not subscribe to the perception that one has to work 24 hours a day to be a real entrepreneur, which often scares off those who want to embark on the same journey. Otherwise, a business owner runs the risk of burning himself out. In fact, Ben works four days a week and he devotes a daddy day to his little ones: Spencer who is four years old and Poppy who is two.
In 2024, Ben plans to go back to Africa with the entire family. He hopes to travel to Africa and Europe for 9 to 12 months and come back rejuvenated. By that time, he will take his business to the next phase, bolster its social enterprise component, and go global. “One thing we don't have at the moment is a really strong social enterprise element in the business. So, I feel that in 5 years, that social enterprise component of what I wanted to, like the Mount Kenya website experience, will be stronger. That will be more dominant in my business,” Ben says thoughtfully.
For now, Ben prepares to celebrate with his team of independent contractors, which he meets every month, as Project Lab turns four years this month. He is thankful that in November last year, three years after they started the business, another director was brought in to the company. “Having someone on the outside want to buy in, no matter how much it is, it feels really good because you know you built something that someone else values. And, I guess, as an entrepreneur, that's the linchpin to why we do this. We want to build something out of our own minds that other people will find valuable.”
And with that, Ben continues on his quest to build something good and sustainable that can impact more lives and communities.