This founder quit his 6-figure job to start a business: How he went from making $0 to paying himself $97,000
This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
When Jason Y. Lee was a kid growing up in Kansas, he thought earning $100,000 a year would make him rich. His parents had immigrated from South Korea to the U.S. to attend grad school, and they were still students earning very little for a lot of Lee's childhood.
So when Lee graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and began earning six figures as a consultant at Bain & Company in New York City right after college, he wasn't prepared for the shock of feeling immediately flush with cash.
"To make that much as a 21-year-old was a surprise," Lee, now 33, says. Though he refers to the experience as an immense privilege, especially since his parents paid off his student loans, he also realized earning and spending that much money didn't fulfill him the way he thought it would.
In the decade since, Lee has gone from earning six figures to leaving it all behind in 2012 to launch a nonprofit with his brother and friend, called the Jubilee Project, with zero take-home pay. When the company evolved and its founding members disbanded, Lee launched a new for-profit company called Jubilee Media in 2017.
As Lee raised capital for the new venture, he slowly drew a salary again — first $30,000, then $60,000. Now, after four years of building his start-up, the CEO pays himself $97,000 a year. As he's gradually increased his salary, he's taken into account how much he's able to pay himself without negatively impacting the company's finances.
For Lee, the nonprofit-to-start-up years helped him live and work with purpose while being realistic about using money to grow his business, invest in his future and pay it forward. Personally, it's also put him on more financially stable footing to start a family with his wife, Melody.
Here's how Lee manages his money as a start-up founder and newlywed in L.A.
Six figures to zero income
In 2010, Lee was settling into his high-earning career when, on his 22nd birthday, an earthquake in Haiti killed and displaced millions of people. Feeling the need to do something, Lee went to a New York subway station and recorded himself busking to raise money for charity.
Lee collected just $85 — he admits he's not much of a singer — but after he uploaded the video to YouTube and called for additional support, he ended up raising a total of $700 for humanitarian relief.
Lee seized the opportunity to create videos for social good and, along with his older brother, Eddie, and a friend, Eric Lu, spent nights and weekends building Jubilee Project. After two years treating it as a side hustle, the trio all quit their respective jobs and school plans to focus on it full-time.
While the mission felt right, Lee says going from six figures to zero income was a huge stressor. "The truth was, there wasn't a great business plan when we were starting Jubilee as a nonprofit," Lee says. "There wasn't this great investor or benefactor who was going to support us. I was lucky that I had saved a good amount during my time as a consultant."
Still, Lee says he felt happier working on the nonprofit than he did as a consultant: "I felt like I was learning and growing every day." Trading big paychecks for work he found meaningful "really changed the way that I thought about money and success."
In 2012, the group moved Jubilee Project from New York to L.A. for its digital creators scene. What Jubilee lacked in a robust financial plan, it made up for in a newfound community. At one point, the founders were able to live rent-free by setting up bunk beds in a friend's spare bedroom. Lee says he lived off his savings for the three years he didn't take a salary and invested any earnings back into the nonprofit.
Initially, Lee's parents weren't thrilled to hear their Ivy League-educated sons were quitting their jobs at Bain and the White House to make videos on YouTube. But they've since come around to their sons' decisions.
When Jubilee began to sell apparel, Lee's mom packed the orders. "She would leave little notes in the packages saying, 'Thank you so much for supporting Jubilee,'" Lee recalls. To this day, Lee's dad will call with video ideas.
"These are little ways I know and understand they love and support me," Lee says. "And they've loved me throughout my entire journey, even though I've made decisions that they didn't quite understand."
Becoming the boss
Five years after starting the nonprofit, Lee was at a crossroads. His brother and Lu left Jubilee Project to pursue the next stage of their careers, and the remaining founder had to figure out what was next for himself.
After working through what he considers a "really dark season" learning to separate his identity from his work, Lee focused on the things most important to him: his faith, being part of a community and using his skills to help other people.
In 2017, Lee closed the nonprofit and launched a new for-profit entity called Jubilee Media. He began pitching it to investors and received dozens of rejections before he got his first yes from Laura Huang, a former Wharton professor who helped Lee gain footing in the start-up world.
With her help, Lee raised over $650,000 in venture capital to get Jubilee Media off the ground.
It's not lost on him that some of his strongest supporters are other Asian American business leaders, including Andrew Chau of Boba Guys and Twitch cofounder Kevin Lin — an underrepresented group Lee never imagined he'd be a part of. Investments from NBA star Jeremy Lin and actor Simu Liu pushed Lee's reach even further.
Lee recognized the impact he could make as an Asian American leader. Through Jubilee, he set out to build a company of diverse and talented individuals where people from marginalized communities, like himself, could thrive. In an effort to pay it forward, Lee began to advise and invest in other Asian-led start-ups, including the sparkling water company Sanzo, custom clothing brand Sene and social media platform Fora.
Today, Jubilee Media produces short- and long-form interviews, game shows and unscripted videos about dating and culture for their own channel and through brand partnerships. The company also recently expanded into film and TV. The start-up employs roughly 30 people and reaches more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube.
Bi-coastal dating to pandemic newlyweds
As his company grew, Lee also saw himself putting down roots in his personal life, too.
Lee began dating his now-wife, Melody, in 2016. They met online, but not in the way a lot of couples do now — he saw a Facebook video of her, a financial reporter, interviewing a start-up CEO. He messaged her on Twitter saying he was a fan of her work. The only problem? She was thousands of miles away working in New York City.
But on a subsequent visit to the East coast, Lee met her for coffee and they struck up a bi-coastal relationship that would end in them getting engaged in 2019, moving in together right before the coronavirus pandemic and tying the knot in a small family ceremony in October 2020.
Going from long-distance to spending every moment together in quarantine was an adjustment, but fortunately, money isn't a big source of tension, Lee says. Still, they had to navigate the differences in their earning power, with her being securely employed and him being the boss of his own start-up.
"I think one thing that I'm really proud of is actually that my wife makes more money than I do," Lee says, adding that his wife's support "allows me to dream bigger, save more and believe that the money and time that we might be sacrificing as a start-up will be worth it one day."
The stress of being a founder can put pressure on their relationship, especially when it comes to separating business and life as they both work from home during the pandemic. But Lee is working to set firmer boundaries between professional and personal time.
"That's definitely something that we've talked about — me wanting to be a better partner and husband and supporter for her career as well," Lee says. "There's a lot of sacrifices she's had to make to be a good partner to me, and I want to be able to do that for her."
How he spends his money
Here's a look at how Lee typically spends his money, as of April 2021:
- Savings and investments: $1,840 (including $500 to emergency savings, $500 to angel investing, $500 to a Robinhood account, $240 to a Roth IRA and $100 to cryptocurrency)
- Rent: $1,400 (his half of a one-bedroom apartment)
- Discretionary: $1,050 (including $400 in donations, $300 for travel, $300 for entertainment and hobbies and $50 for their bernedoodle, Remy)
- Food: $380 (his half of the monthly total)
- Car: $350 (including monthly payment and gas)
- Utilities: $150
- Insurance: $85 (for health, dental, vision, renters and pet coverage)
- Phone: $50
- Streaming: $23 (for Spotify and half of a shared HBO Max account)
The newlyweds keep a joint account to split housing expenses and bills down the middle, as well as separate accounts for their own personal spending. They check in with each other for any purchases above $400, such as Lee's recent (and admittedly frivolous) eBay purchase of a 2017 Patrick Mahomes trading card for $1,000.
They both set aside 30% of their income for savings and investments, which they split into further buckets for liquid savings, retirement savings and riskier investments.
Lee grew up watching his parents diligently save their earnings, but they never taught him how to manage his own money. He's learned through school and work how to invest, starting off with a 401(k) as a consultant and now through a Roth IRA, a Robinhood account, and more recently, in cryptocurrency.
Another important part of Lee's budget is money for charitable giving. He puts $400 per month toward his church and other nonprofits that give back to the community, including recent donations to Hate Is a Virus and GoFundMe's Stop Asian Hate efforts.
In the next 10 years, Lee's personal financial goals include buying a home, raising kids and supporting a family with his wife.
Professionally, Lee says success is no longer about the numbers on his paycheck, but about making an impact through his work. He aims to grow Jubilee Media into "the Disney of empathy" through videos that "remind us that we have far more in common than we think."
As for making a career in business and media, "I never thought a lot of these things were accessible or open to me, because I didn't see people who looked like me who did that. Now that I'm starting to do some of these things, I hope that I can be an encouragement to other people."
Part of that includes being transparent about the financial risks and rewards of being a start-up founder. Lee didn't see that when he was starting out, but thinks he would have greatly benefited from it.
"That's one of the reasons I wanted to do [Millennial Money]," he says. "I wanted to be really transparent with how I've learned to make, spend, save my money."
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Check out: The budget breakdown of a teacher earning $58,000 a year who paid off her student loans and bought a house in Dallas
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