Ben Harris is a CO:founder of theCO and COO at PopVox, a civic engagement platform that allows constituents to communicate directly with policymakers about policymaking. Whether it has been in the aero, tech, or culinary industry, Ben has championed the art of problem-solving everywhere he has worked and continues to do so.
To begin, you’ve been at theCO since day one as a CO:founder. What has the experience of building a community here over the past couple of years been like for you? It’s been fun! It’s been interesting to see the process of coming up with an idea and putting it into place on a hope and a prayer. (laughing) It’s one of those risks I probably wouldn’t have taken if it had been my dollar on the line, so it was a little less stressful than if I had been doing it for my own business. It’s been really rewarding to see it take flight on its own. You know initially, each of the cofounders took a meetup of their own to take charge of, and now all of the co-members run the meetups–which was always the hope–but we knew we wanted that to be an instance where people would take the reigns themselves when they were ready. Seeing people own it and be as enthusiastic about it now as we were at the beginning has been really cool.
What has been the most surprising aspect of theCO’s trajectory in your opinion? One thing that surprises me is that people still seem mystified by it or surprised by what we’re doing at theCO even though we’ve been here for almost two years. The hope was that we would be able to de-mystify it for people and make the technology here more approachable, and I think for the members and those that come to the meetups that has happened, but for the general public there’s a whole lot more we can show them.
Can you talk about your company, PopVox, and how that got started? PopVox was started in October in 2010, and at the time I was still in the restaurant business, so I was mostly handling the day-to-day financials just to help them out. I was really interested in, but was really just helping them out. After I sold the restaurant I started working on PopVox more and more and it sort of rolled into a full-time thing seamlessly.
How did you get involved at PopVox initially? So Marci, my sister, would talk about the idea and brainstorm with me a couple of years before she helped start the company. We talked a lot about it before it actually launched, so I have kind of been involved since the very beginning, but at the same time I was running my own restaurant in the process.
You were in the restaurant business for how long? Almost five years. My wife and I owned Dumpling’s Restaurant, and it was my intention to go in at the beginning and get if off to the start it needed before backing off, but every time I tried to hire a manager or someone who could take over those managerial duties I never felt like I could just walk away from it. Finally I realized I would never be able to take a step back from it, so we decided to sell and be done with it. It did really well, but was a lot of work and not accomplishing what we ultimately wanted to do in the restaurant industry.
Ah. You went to school for aero-engineering, right? Where exactly does that come into play? Well I originally went to aircraft mechanic school after high school, completed that eighteen months, and realized that I probably needed to go to college and finish my undergraduate degree. So I decided on Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach because they would transfer my credits earned in technical school and apply them to my bachelor’s degree in aviation technology.
Did you start doing something with that degree immediately after graduating? I graduated from school in January of 2001 and my wife and I got married and moved to Nashville directly after that so that I could get my flight instructor’s license and ultimately go on to be a commercial pilot. As we were beginning to work our way towards that 9/11 happened, and I decided that I needed go in a different direction. I worked in aircraft maintenance for a few years for an outfit in Trenton, TN, actually, that built experimental aircraft. After that I got more into business-oriented projects and haven’t done much aviation work since other than having it as a hobby.
Even though you’re removed formally from the aviation industry, how do you still exercise that skill-set or interest? The air craft maintenance school has probably benefitted me more than any other education because it taught me how to go about trouble-shooting. If you’ve got a problem, the best way how to figure how to fix something is to figure out how it works first, then you can worry about fixing it later. Once you understand the system, you’re able to fix it a whole lot easier than only looking at the problem itself. I think that’s been really valuable for me in developing troubleshooting skills. I kind of enjoy being in a position to solve problems, whether that be with PopVox, theCO, or any other projects. I always seem to fall into the “fix-it” role, and love the adrenaline rush of putting out the fires, so to speak.
It’s funny, I had originally planned to do work with my hands for a living, but now I’ve found to do work with my hands as a hobby it’s more therapeutic now.
I’d think that prevents you from burning out on something that you love, too. Yeah, I had kind of gotten burned out on aviation, and there was a time where I wasn’t working on any projects and didn’t want any. As business stuff got going, it was nice being able to have personal projects to fall back on.
To return to your current role – do you see your role at PopVox being cemented at this point, or is there opportunity for that to expand? Early on when resources were slim I was working on some code and development work, but now that resources are a little better we have much smarter people who are able to do that developmental work. I do a lot of different things from week to week in finances and operations, and over the past five years my role has changed quite a bit because I’m constantly trying to answer the question of, “What’s needed now?” Ultimately, I just want to be where I’m feeling like I will be most effective and meeting needs that are the most immediate so that we can be more efficient.
Written and Transcribed by Joseph Smith.