Fife was born in Fairlie, North Ayrshire on the Firth of Clyde. His father William Fife Sr. (1821–1902) 
and grandfather William Fyfe (1785–1865) had also been designers and boat builders in Fairlie. 
The family business operated from a shipyard on the beach in the village. 
Fife began building yachts in 1890 and soon surpassed the achievements of his father 
and grandfather and became known as one of the premier yacht designers of the day.