Ben Fisher is co-founder, CTO and head of product at CartHook, a startup in New York City that helps online retailers convert abandoned online shopping carts into sales.
He’s also a Mainer, having grown up in Rockport (Camden Hills Regional High School, class of ’04).
Ben will be in Portland next week to participate in Maine Startup and Create Week. He’ll be leading a crash course in developing a successful e-commerce company on Friday.
I spoke with Ben via email about his background, growing up in Maine, and his experiences as an entrepreneur.
First, here’s a bit more about his background. Ben began coding in 5th grade. By 8th grade he was an intern at a tech startup in Rockland owned by Reade Brower (now the owner of the Portland Press Herald). It was a website development company called CPWebMedia, later renamed Targetect.
“It was a significant force in the Maine tech eco-system at the time,” Fisher says.
Ben followed the 90’s dotcom boom like most people his age were following sports.
“I obsessed over the agencies, the influencers, etc.,” he says. “Several people in the space achieved a bit of a rockstar status, and they were a huge influence; and, funny enough, I know several of them as an adult now.”
In high school, he built his own website design firm with a childhood friend. They called it EKO and grew it to the point where they had Walt Disney’s record label as a client.
Ben left Maine for college — attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — and hasn’t been back except to visit.
CartHook is not Fisher’s first startup. In 2010, he co-founded Lean Startup Machine, which hosts three-day intensive events that teach people lean startup methodology. (For those interested, Ben and his co-founders created LSM before Eric Ries’ book “The Lean Startup” popularized the term.) And Ben was CEO and co-founder of Alchemy, which was acquired in 2013.
I’ve edited our back-and-forth slightly for clarity and length.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?
The initial transition from a salaried art director and Flash developer at an ad agency in NYC was tough. I had just graduated from college (class of 2008), junior-level pay for a “Creative” role in advertising was pretty low, so I didn’t have much for savings.
I was also worried/scared/aware that although I had done a lot of “entrepreneurial things” growing up, including growing EKO, that the biz model of my companies traded “time” for “money,” which I feel requires a very different mindset from building a startup (and I don’t just think it’s semantics). A SMB/“small business” is *not* a “startup.”
So the initial challenge was navigating that transition financially — I accomplished that by freelancing with ad agencies, rather than working at one full-time — so that I could work for a bit and then try a business idea and then return to freelancing in order to make more money. The logistics and money-side were hard — and I had several close calls and even split a bedroom with a friend (and sublet out my second bedroom) for nearly a year to help bootstrap those early years.
Once I had a bit of financial success, the challenge was less about financial logistics and more psychological: “Do I *really* have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?” “Do I have the personality to succeed when competing with entrepreneurs like Travis Kalanick (the notorious founder/CEO of Uber)?” The reasons behind that fear are complicated and way beyond the scope of this — but the gist of it is that.
What is one thing about the lean startup movement that’s important, but most people probably don’t grasp right away?
I’d say there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what constitutes a “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP).
I love this illustration, which illustrates what a MVP is and what it is not:
An MVP is not a “partially built thing.” It takes whatever form is the least amount “created” to in/validate the core thesis of the idea.
You left Maine to pursue your career and have worked in several places — San Francisco, Los Angeles, NYC. What types of regional differences exist when it comes to supporting entrepreneurship and startups?
I actually wrote a blog post a while back detailing what I perceive the differences to be.
I boiled it down to “like attracts like.” Some entrepreneurs move to SF because they want to build “world changing” companies around other other entrepreneurs with similar values/goals, etc., which attracts money, etc.
Each region has its own qualities — and here is my opinion:
- Work/Life Balance: 60 percent work, 40 percent play
- General Ethos: Work hard, make money
- End Game: Get rich
- Work/Life Balance: 40 percent work, 60 percent play
- General Ethos: Think big, change the world
- End Game: Legacy
- Work Life Balance: 35 percent work, 65 percent play
- General Ethos: Live a unique life, pursue your “art”
- End Game: Fame
What has been the importance of the startup community in those places you’ve worked and built your own startups?
Early in my “career,” being a part of the tech community and with kids around my own age quelled some of my fears/doubts about whether I could *make it* as an entrepreneur. Although there’s always some sub-set of people who believe in “fake it till you make it” and didn’t let you in about their own fears or insecurities, overall I found people were transparent and supportive. That has helped me shake off — and learn from — my successes and failures and to indirectly learn from others’. And proximity/geography really is an important ingredient; it’s simply not the same to “remotely” know people, albeit there ARE ways to make it work (e.g., my biz partner is apart of a weekly mastermind group of ~7 entrepreneurs located around the world and they speak for ~1.5 hours each week AND have an active Slack Channel).
Do you have any desire to return to Maine?
I’ve honestly never considered living in Maine; my parents moved there when I was 6 months old — and they love it — and although I love snowboarding and I’m sure benefited from opportunities unique to our area, etc. — it just wasn’t what I wanted. As I get older (I’m 31 now), I find myself enjoying longer and longer stints to visit my parents. I think it’s pretty natural for people to dislike where they grew up. I have several friends who lived elsewhere after high school or college and have since moved back, but I’m honestly not sure whether that’d ever be for me.
What is your advice for entrepreneurs from Maine in 2016? Is it necessary to move to Silicon Valley or New York to experience “big time tech,” or can they stay here and be just as successful?
I’d never say it’s a “requirement” — there are a million roads to success — but it definitely helps. I’d at least encourage people to regularly spend time in each of those hubs in order to get a feel of the culture, to build and cultivate a network, and to be exposed to ideas and people there. Information and ideas move freely there and that, along with connections/relationships, are key ingredients to success; so much of your business/fate is out of your hands but where you live and who you spend time with *is* one thing that you can control and it’s a powerful fulcrum.