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The CEO Who Made Tinned Fish a Girl-Dinner Staple

The CEO Who Made Tinned Fish a Girl-Dinner Staple

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo:Evangeline Barrosse

Slow-smoked mackerel with chili flakes. Albacore tuna in spicy olive oil. Smoked salmon with Sichuan chili crisps. These once-sneered-at snacks have become trendy in recent years thanks in part to Becca Millstein and her buzzy company, Fishwife. What started as an idea that came to her on a walk during the height of the pandemic has quickly evolved into a cultural touchpoint, with Fishwife’s chic sardines becoming a mainstay for girl dinners, snack plates, and protein-packed lunches.

The 30-year-old co-founder and CEO says her work ethic and commitment were instilled at an early age. With her mom working as the medical director at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, Millstein and her siblings attended the school for free. Classes were in session six days a week, Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. “My brain was wired to think you are basically working all the time,” she says of the experience.

Millstein now dedicates even her Sundays to growing Fishwife. (And if you’re curious about that co-founder breakup with TV writer Caroline Goldfarb that surfaced earlier this year, Goldfarb’s no longer involved with the company; Millstein politely tells me she “can’t say too much about it.”) When she isn’t working from a Pasadena WeWork location surrounded by “super calming and beautiful mountains,” she focuses on spending quality time with her fiancé, Peter, at home, a self-described “treehouse” in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood. Here’s how she gets it done.

On the inspiration behind Fishwife:
When I lived in Granada in college, they served free tapas — bread, cheese, olives, and sardines — with every drink. It was casual and simple, but it felt elevated. Now it’s called a “girl dinner,” snacking on delicious things that compose a whole meal. That’s when the seed was planted.

During COVID, I lived with my brother and his girlfriend. We went on a hike, bounced around business ideas, and started talking about tinned fish. We had a lightbulb moment and realized there wasn’t any innovation with tinned fish premiumization. It’s a big category in the U.S., about $3 billion, and we knew there was excitement around it. People like Anthony Bourdain, Alison Roman, David Chang, and Molly Baz had all indoctrinated their millions of followers into the idea of higher-quality tinned fish, and no company was coalescing the energy around this segment.

On her morning routine:
I wake up at 7 a.m., shower in a minute or less, and spend zero time getting ready. The night before, I lay out a very basic uniform: a T-shirt, jeans, and a sweater. I put on my mascara in the car and do a little foundation if I’m feeling fancy, but I don’t dress up for Zoom. I try to get to WeWork in Pasadena by 7:45 a.m. every day during the week, and that never changes, unless I’m traveling.

On her exercise routine:
I’m a long-distance runner — which really helps clear my mind — and I run after work. I don’t track my pace, but I go about seven and a half miles and listen to a podcast. Right now, I’m listening to Masters of Scale, a podcast about leading, founding, and scaling companies. In the winter, I do hot yoga to keep things balanced, but in the summer, I focus on running. It’s my time for meditation, processing, and idea generation.

On living with other business owners:
We live in a very sweet craftsman house that’s owned by a young couple that has a specialty-food shop called Bucatini in L.A. They live on one floor and I live with my fiancé, Pete, on another floor. It looks like a little tree house. We’re throwing a party together in July. We’re very much inhabiting the same world of trendy food stuff and European imports. I think all founders and business owners have so much to talk about because we’re all navigating the same challenges.

On unwinding at the end of the day:
I leave around five or six, go for a run, then head home to cook dinner. After dinner, I work for an hour or two then wind down. There was a time when I worked straight until I would go to bed at 11 o’clock, which is not good. Pete instituted a rule that we have to wind down before sleeping. Now, we either hang out on the couch or watch something. We just finished The Bear. 

On working Sundays:
Unless something crazy is happening, I will be completely offline on Saturdays. But I work ten-hour days every Sunday. It’s a hangover from the first eight months of Fishwife. I still worked at my other job, and the only time I had to work on Fishwife was at night or on Sundays. That’s been the vibe since starting the company. I finish up loose threads and plan for the week ahead to make sure I’m in really good shape. I don’t know what I would do without that extra day.

On celebrating big wins:
We have a “wins” Slack channel. Anyone on the team can throw in any type of win — selling to a 300-store chain or sharing meaningful customer feedback. I’m a big fan of giving as much positive feedback as you want, as long as it’s specific.

On talking about money:
It’s good for women, specifically, to be open about fundraising and their experiences. When you’re figuring things out as a founder, you have to constantly talk to other founders about money. But people have to be honest about their privilege; all founders have some level, it’s just about how much. It can be befuddling to folks who have student loans or didn’t have access to the kind of the community I had access to. They wonder why it’s hard to raise money or get their business off the ground, and I don’t think it’s a secret. It is a privileged position to be a founder. It means you’re able to take a salary and compensation risk, which is not a risk most people can take.

I paid myself $30,000 to $45,000 the first few years of Fishwife, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had student loans. At my first job out of college, I made $26,000, and the most I’ve gotten paid is what I make now. I’m not comfortable sharing my current salary, but it’s more than $65,000.

On the people who helped along the way: 
My mom invested $5,000, and I really appreciated that. I also brought my sister in for Q4, a peak period for us, in 2021 to do customer service. She ended up doing it for two and a half years. We established a really friendly rapport with our customer base during that time, and she was an amazing sounding board. I also went to Brown, and Brown has a ton of entrepreneurial graduates, like the founders of Imperfect Foods, Casper, and Dig Inn. I learned why people go to these institutions and brought in amazing investors and advisers early on.

On treating yourself:
My guilty pleasure is ordering food. I grew up in a very frugal household, so the idea of ordering food and paying a delivery fee is something I couldn’t deal with for a long time. But sometimes you need it when you don’t have time to meal prep. Rice and Nori in Pasadena is my favorite right now. I’ve been getting it frequently — a salmon yuzu mayo onigiri, a salmon hand roll, and miso soup.

On getting bad advice from a man:
I had an adviser — a young, successful founder — who told me to raise a very small amount of money to get the company off the ground. If I was trying to run a bootstrap business, bring in maybe $50,000 from friends and family and not grow quickly, the amount he suggested probably would have been fine. But I had ambitions to build a big, formidable company and a national brand. I ended up raising about three times what he suggested.

On what it’s like to go on Shark Tank:
They reached out at the launch of the company, but the timing didn’t feel right. We didn’t have real distribution or a solid supply chain, so we would have sold out of everything. Candidly, I probably wouldn’t have known how to talk about my business when I started this company. I eventually filmed in September 2023. At that point, we had a solid supply chain, we were aiming to be in 2,000 stores by the time it aired, and I was raising a round of capital. I have no regrets. It was awesome.

On dealing with self-doubt:
If you’re a first-time founder and CEO, especially if you’re young and you don’t have self-doubt and imposter syndrome, you’re probably a narcissist. You inherently don’t deserve to be in the position you’re in. But I’m not going to waste time feeling like I don’t deserve this. I’m here. I might as well do the very best I can and work hard to lessen that feeling of self-doubt. I ask questions and don’t try to pretend to know something I don’t.

On ambition:
I love working, and my education primed me to love working. I love the process of working with people to create something. I feel grateful to have a job that is so rich and gratifying, and I would do anything to keep it. The jobs I had before didn’t feel intellectually or creatively stimulating. When I worked at a record label, it wasn’t scratching the itch, so I worked at a magazine for free to feel a sense of fulfillment. Now, to be in a position where I’m building something from the ground up is amazing.

On dealing with criticism:
The whole project of the founder is to get over your ego. You and your ego have no value. It’s about getting better, serving a team, and growing a company. I deal with criticism by taking a minute to make sure I don’t have a reactionary response. If I do, I take time to interrogate it after the fact.

On her relationship to her work:
Fishwife is my entire existence and has been for four years. It’s inextricable from my life, and I pour my whole self into it. Working really hard in high school instilled the sense of working a lot of the time. You can call it healthy or unhealthy; I think it’s ultimately fine.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Alexis Benveniste , 2024-07-01 11:00:47

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