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Ben Fischman, CEO of Smartbargains.com

by Rachel Levitt

Ben Fischman
University: Boston University
Major: Communications
Grad Year: 1994

Company: SmartBargains, Inc.
Title: President & CEO
Industry: Internet Retail
Year founded: 1999
Type of company: Retail (venture-backed, privately held)
Location: Boston, MA
Number of employees: approx. 106
Website: www.smartbargains.com

Ben Fischman is a very happy guy.

It seems all his life he's done exactly what he wanted to do - starting up companies that Harvard Business School students would be wise to study. And the best part is, he's having fun doing it.

Early Days

Fischman was always a risk-taker, always an entrepreneur, and never too strong academically. He also "wore baseball caps from the earliest pictures that you see of me." That's why in 1993, as a junior at Boston University, Fischman seized on a business opportunity that would make him a millionaire. His basic motivation was simple: he loved baseball caps. He'd go everywhere looking for new headgear with his pals but could never sate his urge to collect. Fischman figured there were lots of others like him out there - kids who wanted one-stop shopping for all their helmet needs. So he and his friend (whose father owned an upscale mall) bought a Model-T Ford and set it up as a hat-selling kiosk in the shopping center. "Don't worry - we paid rent like everyone else," Fischman said. His hunch was right: in six years, Lids grew from this single kiosk to over 800 retail outlets. He sold the company in 2001 to Hatworld.

Next, Fischman took a job as entrepreneur-in-residence at a business venture firm. It was there that that he read about a proposal to sell overruns, closeouts, and canceled orders of brand-name goods over the Internet. This was a new idea, never tried before, but as usual, Fischman jumped in with both feet. The result was SmartBargains.com, an internet bargain adventure which now boasts over $92.2 million in sales. SmartBargains bills itself as "your personal bargain hunter," where expert buyers dig through the bargain bins of cancelled orders, overruns and manufacturer closeouts to find great deals on men's dress shirts, fleece pullovers for kids, jersey sheet sets, and many other retail items. Fischman was named CEO of the company in 2005.

A Simple Idea

He says that one of the things he loves about the business is that it takes what appears to be a simple idea and figures out a way to do it better: "People have been selling off-priced products forever, but no one had done it online, no one had taken it to the next level. Same thing with hats. There was nothing confusing or innovative about selling hats. What we did was we came up with an innovative way to do it. To me it's those simple ideas that you can really take advantage of that offer the best opportunities."

"To me it's those simple ideas that you can really take advantage of that offer the best opportunities."

As a little boy, Fischman was "too busy being little and getting into trouble" to think about what he wanted to be when he grew up, but when pressed, he admits to harboring a fantasy of becoming "left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, fielding balls off the Green Monster." It seems that the same thing holds true today; he's simply too busy running around to think much about twenty years in the future: "That's the thing about me," he says, "I enjoy the now a lot."

People Power

Fischman, now 34, grew up in the western suburbs of Boston. His parents were always supportive of his ventures because, he says, "They had to be. I always go after things with such aggressiveness and passion that either you go with me or you sort of have to move out of the way. My wife, who is my high school sweetheart, knew what she was getting into and was always supportive of me and the crazy life I lead professionally."

"I love the risk, taking big swings of the bat and hopefully hitting a homerun."

While business is risky, he says, "I love the risk, taking big swings of the bat and hopefully hitting a homerun." How does he do it? "I surround myself with great people, people who know a lot about things that I don't. There are intangibles that I bring to the company, but I surround myself with phenomenal teams. If it were just me, the risk would be maybe even too high to take. I work with people who know what they're doing and how to do it, who complement my knowledge and skills."

"Surround yourself with people who challenge you, who think entirely differently."

One of his most important roles is finding those people. Fischman says, "I'm incredibly involved in hiring, recruiting, and retaining the best team possible. I try to surround myself with great people, and get those people great support." Hiring, recruiting and training are vital to the success of the business.

Jumping In

When asked about the value of an MBA in a job like his, Fischman says, "Getting more education is only good. If I'd been a good student, I'd have done it." But his own preference is for learning by doing. "Sitting in a classroom was agony for me. I was not a particularly good student; I found very creative ways of getting out of doing the work. It probably would have been easier just to do the work... but I came up with some pretty good schemes." Instead, Fischman says he has "just jumped in" by working hard and surrounding himself with people who do have MBA backgrounds.

"Sitting in a classroom was agony for me. I was not a particularly good student."

Fischman is a big-picture guy, a visionary. He's the one who makes sure that the company's concept and strategies are the right ones and that "we're staying on track."

He's easy to talk to, an instant friend, and his charisma makes clear why he's been so successful. A natural extrovert, Fischman says his most intense enjoyment at work comes from collaborating with others creatively: "The best part of the job is brainstorming with smart people and thinking about things together differently from the way we thought about them before."

His advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? Find good partners, and strike a balance between frenetic energy and inertia. "Surround yourself with people who challenge you, who think entirely differently. One of my challenges is patience, not jumping around too much, but not being so patient that you miss the opportunity. Sitting on the sidelines and waiting for something to happen - that's not for me."
SmartBargains, Inc.
SmartBargains, Inc.
SmartBargains, Inc.
 
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