In the middle of Soho in London, along Shaftsberry Avenue (the road with all the West End Theatres), there is a nondescript large metal door. One step above the pavement, there is nothing particularly unusual about this door, in fact, you almost certainly would never know it was there in unless you were specifically looking for it.
As it happens, in this story, we are looking for this door because behind it is our destination, one of the many private members’ clubs in Soho. This specific club has the claim to fame of the largest roof terrace in that part of London. Up the six flights of stairs and you’re standing nearly as high as you can get in the West End while still being in, or I guess technically, now on, a building that was build in the early 1900s.
It is surprisingly quiet this high up. As there are only a few places of a similar height, the sound cannot ricochet off these other walls, and thus carry to the ears of the two gentlemen sitting at one of the tables in the, far more regular than it should be, British April sunshine.
I was leaning back in my chair, beer bottle in hand, taking a deep breath. We had just come to a conclusion to shutter our startup. Justin was slumped forward, making quick work of detaching the label from his beer. For such a sunny day, it was remarkably gloomy.
To understand how we had arrived at this point it would be worth going back a few years and performing a blitz speed rundown of Currikula (our startup) and how a couple of things had led us to this decision.
Summer after leaving university, Justin and I were working on multiple projects across a range of areas trying to see what would stick. One of these projects was an app called Nightway that we were trying to push to university students as the best thing since sliced bread. In a nutshell, it would let you check-in to where you were going on a night out so your friends could see.
The end goal was to work with the bars and clubs to offer promotions to students that checked in beforehand, thus letting the venues know how many people they could expect and giving the students different deals to hunt. As we all know, and some might remember, students love a good deal.
After stumbling across our first experience of the chicken and egg problem and our initial investor never following through with his original promise, this idea fell by the wayside.
This was our first failure.
It was in this vacuum that the other project we had been working grew to take its place. Currikula or as it was known back then ‘ProClass’.
The first idea was to assist students with referencing. Justin had had a bare bone automated referencing website built where you could upload an essay, and it would scout the web to find references that you might have used. Then it would compile a bibliography from those references.
From that initial idea, we nurtured it into a platform where students could get machine-based assistance on their coursework to eventually a complete essay writing solution. Now I’ll say it early and firmly, there was never an intention to write a students essay for them. Nor was there a desire to impact the students grade in a way that would be deemed ‘academically corrupt’ or some other menacingly sounding set of words.
We’d help them with referencing and incorporate analytics based on the standard model of an essay. Using Natural Language Programming (NLP), we could help analyse arguments and statements to determine how effective they were at communicating their ideas. We even built a unique piece of authorisation detection technology based on phonemes rather than words. This allowed us to conduct our own plagiarism checks, but across multiple pieces of work and between students and also determine stylistically similar content and use grades provided by the students to predict their future grades.
Anyway, I digress. This was meant to be a blitz overview.
After bouncing around with this idea and engaging the help of a consultant to work on the more advanced technical elements, we spent a year designing the product and trying to graduate from the wantrepreneur category into actual entrepreneurs. Long story short here, we didn’t manage it.
Here are some highlights in that time though: started a biotech company, pitched to a Chinese billionaire with a term sheet for £1M pounds, fell out with our consultant, set up companies in Barbados and Malta, attended The Next Web conference in Amsterdam (with a booth — the cover photo of this post), lived in Malta for 3 months, moved to London, partied too much, started an outsourcing company, interviewed offshore development houses in India in India, and squandered money on offices in Berkeley Square.
That was the second time we failed.
The Third Hurdle
Due to falling out with our consultant, the resulting legal jeopardy and question of intellectual property and the general feeling of betrayal left us in basically the same position we had been when we left university almost 18 months prior.
We had the initial tech that Justin had gotten built in his third year, a domain, a trademark for the startup name, and that was about it. So we set to work. After all, many would argue that we had only gotten in the car, and probably correctly concluded we never took off the handbrake.
We engaged a team in India that we had been using for some clients with our outsourcing business and started the process of converting the skeleton tech into a functional minimum viable product with the intent to launch to students in September of that year.
We made it, barely.
Launching with a stripped-down referencing platform that sourced references from the internet. I wrote a post about it, and at the time of writing, this is the only other post on this blog.
Jumping the first hurdle & making it to launch
This is a photo of me and my fellow founder Justin, taken shortly after we finished our degrees at Exeter university.
We started using Google and Facebook ads to get some users on board, or at least get some people to use the platform and test how well it was working. Along with prodding all our friends to sign up, even though most of them had long left university. But we did get signups. The first person that signed up who we both didn’t know prompted a solid high five and created an addictive feeling.
Someone wanted to use something we had made.
That first month was exciting, watching our user count slowly tick up and seeing the different projects uploaded as essays started to mount up during term time. The site didn’t even have a way to make money at this point, we hadn’t added google ads or put in any kind of payment gateway. But it was ours and out there.
We started putting feelers out for raising a seed round, reaching out first to people we knew that might be interested, then to people that were more focused on EdTech. I’ll be honest, there were barely any bites. With Justin coming from North America, we were addicts to the stories of founders of raising large seed rounds with little more than ideas. Naturally, you can never know what you don’t know, and we lived in relative ignorance for a few months till a friend of ours looked over our pitch deck and exclaimed…
“You’re raising how much? At what valuation? With no revenue? F*uck off”.
So we changed our tune and started looking at incubators or accelerators to help us get the ball rolling. The thinking was that having graduated from an accelerator, we’d be in a strong position to move forward and raise a proper seed round.
I’ll leave the story of Ignite for another time, but it was, enlightening in ways that perhaps it hadn’t intended. We ‘graduated’ from Ignite, having written a book (The Ultimate Essay Guide ) as a tool to help students with essay writing and to act as lead generation and help with SEO. We also had just launched the latest version of our platform that included an analytics platform, and direct essay feedback features that broke the essay down paragraph by paragraph to give students information on how they might improve their coursework.
Over the next few months, we reached the milestone of having over 10,000 registered users on the platform, a number that we proudly touted in all our meetings, showing how we were growing slowly but steadily. We also had our first revenue, from book sales and from paying users. Admittedly, not many, but enough to show that a whole single-digit percentage point of our user base was buying from us. Quite the pitch. I know.
It was also at this time that we started working on the next stage of the system. We were still using the legacy code from the original project and had built different things on top of it. It was a mess. If we were going to be serious about scaling and providing a modern, user-friendly experience, we needed to up our game. Further, the next stage in our plan was to start allowing students to write and edit their essays on the system. Back then, our system couldn’t even handle that.
Working with freelancers and contractors that I knew, I was in charge of getting the new version off the ground, while Justin was in command of raising the full seed round. I designed and architecture the entire system along with the help of some close friends — some paid in money and others, beers.
We had been courting an investor from Monaco for nearly a year by this point. He had been following our journey, and we had been keeping him abreast of our progress as time went on. When he said he was in for half our seed round, my fist pump was so aggressive I nearly smashed the TV with the backwards plunge of my elbow.
Between him and a set of friends and family, we had two-thirds of our round. We were hunting for the last third. It came from the most surprising of places… the guy down the end of the corridor… A wealthy family from Dubai had bought two flats at the end of the hallway where we lived at the time. And they were interested in investing in the company.
We had it. We had it secured.
That feeling, that high, was incomparable back then. It was so close we could almost taste success.
Raising a full round of funding, with multiple investors changes the feeling and perspective of your company in your own mind. And, rightly or wrongly, it makes you feel like it changes the perspective of those around you as well. Wantrepreneurs becoming entrepreneurs.
Back to the rooftop
So we come back to that abnormally quiet rooftop in Soho, on that hot April day. We were there to end the company and close it all down. Why? Because a couple of small things caused the whole house of cards to collapse.
Brexit had been going on for over 2 years by this point. The level of uncertainty about the future of the British economy was higher than even its usual standard. This resulted in part of the reason our Monaco investor pulling out of the deal. He could no longer take that risk.
Dubai, as it turns out, had also decided that at that moment, it would be a great time to go through a property crisis. Our other investor’s wealth? Primarily tied up in UAE property. Perfect.
Having 5/6ths of your round stripped away from you is an experience that I’d imagine is more common than I felt like it should be at the time. Survivor bias is a powerful phenomenon in the startup world. You rarely hear about failures, and you rarely hear about small shortcomings because they don’t even warrant the attention.
As the final bit of the label on Justin’s bottle came away, we had agreed that it was time to call it a day. In all honesty, I was tired, he was tired. He had a bunch of family things he needed to attend to, and I wasn’t swimming in clear waters in that department either. Everything just seemed to add up to just enough to not make it worth it to continue. We’d been giving it our best shot by this point in various ways, across multiple projects, for nearly 4 years.
While we might have called it a day at Currikula, we had quite a few more beers before calling it a day on that rooftop.
This post originally appeared on my blog. Check it out if you’re interested. I only post select articles on medium, whereas all my content can be found on my blog.