Alice Kahrmann interviews Johan Attby and Moha Bensofia of FishBrain.

It used to be a slightly exaggerated aphorism to say everyone had a startup, everyone had an app, an oblique generalisation endemic of the digitalisation of modern culture, and then somehow somewhere, it became true, sitting in a bar pinioned between a Gin and Tonic and another bright young man in finance describing the ‘project’ with the glaringly derivative ‘USP.’ Yes, startup fatigue… It’s a veritable syndrome. One that only execution can challenge, differentiating the success stories from the middling trend for ‘good’ (note not great) ideas, thrown like spaghetti onto the app store wall. Which brings me to FishBrain, the social network for anglers that eschews the ‘see if it sticks’ mentality, the app that goes where others just don’t.

It’s a journey that began for founder, serial entrepreneur and angel investor Johan Attby in the US, working on Tific, a ‘highly profitable’ software company he founded in Sweden which provided the hot-house training ground for his current venture. A challenging few years competing with US brands who had recently IPO’d to the tune of $100 million, the experience (after much grit and determination) topped off by the winning of a major contract with Symantec, Microsoft swiftly following suit; ‘It was super easy to raise money the first time in 99 because that’s when things were really hot. It was super hard to raise money in 2001 when the bubble burst.’ After several years competing with US giants, Attby decided to sell, remaining on the board of Tific for the requisite interim handover period, in this case a year and a half. ‘All of a sudden I was on the executive team for a medium sized American company. I thought ‘Oh my God what am I doing here?’ Getting anything done was almost impossible because it was all about operational efficiency and zero innovation. I like it when things move fast.’



And move fast Attby did, using the downtime to consider his next move, zoning in on the world’s premier hobby via an article in Forbes, because who knew? Sport fishing as it turns out, is top of the list, with three times the dollar vote of the global music industry. ‘If you have a hobby in many cases it’s binary; a serious commitment, so you spend a lot of time and money. When you get it, it’s a life long thing.’ Cue: light bulb moment. What if there was a high performing network linking all the anglers of the world, crowd sourcing their data, providing in depth weather analysis; wind speed, humidity, even air temperature? All in service of a spectacular end goal, the location centric logging of the catch (yes they like to brag), followed swiftly by the celebratory ‘Which Fish are You?’ quiz (Stickleback in case you were wondering). All this (bait suggestions aside) housed behind a sharp consumer facing interface, developed by a twelve strong team, off the back of a ‘hobby project that already existed’ (whereby Attby swiftly joined the board and became their first investor), add to that a healthy $2.4 million round of investment, and what do you have? A project that executes quite frankly.

So that’s how I find myself sitting in a conference room with Attby, CEO and VP Business Development Moha Bensofia (previously ‘One of the top forty business men in Costa Rica aged 24’ - El Financiero), bang in the industrious hub of efficiency that is SUP46 (Start-up People of Sweden, the ridiculously hip accelerator in the centre of Stockholm), nursing a coffee, pondering the requisite graffiti art, the foosball table, the decidedly laid back decor, but most of all how and where and why FishBrain has already (in just under two years) accrued almost 600,000 users across the globe.

I have to say it’s exciting to be in Attby and Bensofia’s company. Why? Because there’s a seriously charismatic vibe quite frankly, and interviewing entrepreneurs, ironically it doesn’t come around all that often; Attby’s vernacular peppered with tech centric trivia, Bensofia (charm personified) finishing his sentences with a healthy dose of galvanising rhetoric; ‘I honestly want FishBrain to become the next Spotify... It's entirely possible.’ ‘Tequila shots’, ‘The Swedish hype around entrepreneurship’, ‘The Israeli model’ (Attby: ‘where you bring management to the States and raise money but you keep all the R & D and most functions in Israel, I like to call it the Swedish model too because there are quite a few companies here that do the same’). One topic segways into another, the conversation bungee jumping off tangents, verticals: the investor’s ‘FOMO’ - ‘know your metrics, your numbers, or they will crush you’, the owning of a windmill (Attby has his own on the farm where he grew up ‘Let’s call it diversification of investments’), Pike, Perch, eating muffins, Attby’s PhD supervisor Mats Nordahl (more of him later), basically there’s way too much to fit into a 2000 word article.

‘I am a huge believer in niche social networks,’ Attby says, ‘because if you have a passion, it could be gardening, it could be bird watching, it could be soccer, that’s an experience you want to share with peers and not with friends.’ Seeing an opportunity to go after this group, Attby wrote an article for Pando Daily in Silicon Valley. After a decidedly positive response, he looked at the competition, ‘basically no competition… Golf for example - super crowded, there’s at least 1000 golf apps. If you go to fishing there’s not a single one that is good, there are fifteen different ones, but they are small, really crappy,’ (said in a delightfully lilting Swedish accent).

Bensofia’s story is equally riveting, arriving in Sweden at the recommendation of close friend Daniel Ek (yes he of Spotify fame), ‘There’s all this energy, all this good stuff coming out of Sweden so I wanted to see what was happening.’ Swiftly he set about sizing up several companies, just as quickly zoning in on FishBrain’s hugely scalable potential; ‘Every single person who fishes has a profile picture with a fish,’ he says. ‘Their pride revolves around it. Each of them spends $1500 a month. it’s not even a hobby, it’s an obsession.’

Bensofia brings forward momentum, growth opportunity, and the skill of the salesman to the venture; a serious fitness enthusiast (notably basketball and Jujitsu), he’s all about doing things in a ‘creative way’; PR, sponsorship, deals with Nike and Coke Zero behind him, lateral thinking are the buzzwords. ‘I do things through partnerships, through friendships, through Tequila shots,’ he laughs. ‘It’s exciting to attract people in different ways, to say, listen this is my product, try it, no commitment. And you find people are very grateful for that. Not doing things expecting a result, just because it’s the right thing to do. I’m very much about the karma and being a good person and I think FishBrain’s going to be absolutely no exception. The potential is limitless.’

Monetising will come through ‘growing the network,’ he says. ‘If you have a ton of people who are hooked on your app who are not going to leave you, that’s worth a lot of money. You’re talking about the data, the number of users, the networks, ads in the feed, which we’re just starting to play around with. But we’ve got all the biggest players right now coming towards us.’

Future strategy is strongly allied to the US market, ‘for a number of reasons,’ Attby says, ‘not just because I lived there, but because 40 million people fish in the States, spending 45 billion dollars a year.’ In six months users of FishBrain, ‘should reach a million’. Upgrades are coming thick and fast; ‘What we’ve really focused on is simplifying,’ Bensofia explains. ‘The average angler is not super techie and nerdy. This is something that the seventy year old angler can use, you go in, you log your catch, it’s super easy.’ Increased speed (x30), better design, the pair are innovation focused to the extreme, with as much effort going into android as IOS. As Bensofia says, ‘It’s all about bringing that extra thing that we do.’

But what of Stockholm itself? Much has been made in the press about the ludicrous number of Scandi start-ups carving out a global market share. ‘It’s been evolving for a time,’ Attby says, ‘it’s vastly different than it was. When I raised money the first time in the early 2000’s, everything was so shitty; the entire eco-system, a lot of the corporate companies started their venture investments, but they didn’t know what they were doing, corporate people thought they could do venture capital, it was all a disaster. I think we were the only company (Tific) that made it. All the entrepreneurs were first time with zero experience. It was super eye opening coming to Silicon Valley and seeing how professional everything was; the VC’s you meet there, they’re super smart, definitely not corporate people. Most of them are entrepreneurs. They run not just one company but two, three four. They have crazy good exits behind them.’

With a marked change in the air; ‘Everything is so much more professional,’ Attby says. ‘Sweden is not a huge country but we have now reached a less critical mass of available capital. We got money from Northzone; they are super professional, Creandum, you have the London based ones like Index Ventures, like BaldertonDN Capital, they are getting more and more focused on Stockholm. It means a little bit of competition to the two incumbents. Also it made a huge difference having a few successes; Spotify, Klarna, Skype as role models.’

Which brings us back to Attby’s role as an ‘angel’, well placed to offer advice to those seeking investment; ‘You should have your shit together,’ he says, ‘and don’t expect to get anything done for a period of three months, just focus on that. Your business needs to be growing at the same time so it needs to be a period where you basically don’t sleep.’ The biggest mistake Attby sees is start-ups speaking with a single venture capitalist at a time, ‘It’s completely the wrong strategy, speak with everyone. Get the momentum so they feel there is competition for this deal. All the VCs hate that because they want to think about things for six months and see how they develop.’

Advice extends into all areas of entrepreneurship: ‘Focus on one thing,’ Bensofia says, 'do it well. Don't create things that already exist. In Costa Rica they say it's like experimenting with hot water; hot water is hot water.' ‘I really like a guy in Silicon Valley called Dave McClure,' Attby adds, 'he says that you should only be unique in one percent of what you are doing. The other 99% just copy. We’re building an app, look at the ones that work, Foursquare’s new one is brilliant. The things where you are unique, make sure you are truly unique. Focus the energy on that, everything else steal with pride. Speak with companies, ask them: how did you build your back end? Make features not good but awesome. A lot of start ups fail on that, especially with this focus on the ‘lean start-up.’ Ultimately the pair agree on one thing: ‘You cannot create an app that users like. You need to create an app that they love. And only then can you spread.’

Which brings us back to Mats Nordahl (soon to be working at FishBrain as an adviser on the upcoming fishing predictions). ‘He was my supervisor,' [at Chalmers University of Technology, a world leader at the time]. ‘I think he’s the smartest person on Earth,’ Attby says. ‘Because he can speak about virtually anything,’ ditto both Attby and his VP; for the latter, movingly a key influencer, his high school teacher Miss Lynch, who taught him English, and of course ‘close friend and mentor’ Ek.

‘If you don’t have the stamina you will never make it,’ Attby says as the interview draws to a close, ‘so first choose something you have a deep knowledge about; it’s an uphill battle, very few make it…. Why risk it for eating noodles for a year?’ Bensofia, naturally self deprecating, chimes in: ‘We’re just a bunch of guys sitting at this big table at SUP46 eating muffins together every day,’ but I beg to differ, because they’re not, they’re really not, and it all comes back to one word, yes you guessed it, ‘execution' - above all else.

Alice Kahrmann, 2014