How and why our business failed. The story of Fictuary.
A reflection on the nature of entrepreneurship and a now defunct digital publishing startup.
Two years ago, three friends were sitting in the Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai, downing drinks of blood-red ale brewed with Sichuan peppercorns. The night got on. Around the third drink, I was complaining about the difficulty of being a self-published author. I had just written my first novel and put it up on Amazon (where it’s still collecting dust). I complained and kvetched, bleated, grumbled and moaned. How was anyone going to read it? Was I just supposed to spend every waking moment shamelessly promoting myself to apathetic strangers?
My two friends were perhaps more sympathetic than I really deserved. And out of their sympathy, an idea was born. It was an idea that would eventually become a business that would eventually become a failure. I honestly can’t remember who suggested it first (perhaps one too many beers). The business model was essentially this: under the platform of an app, we could market self-published authors in return for free reading content.
“Genius!” we said.
The problem, the idea
That was the beginning, that glorious phase where ideas are unencumbered by money and reality’s fickle limitations. At the time Adam and myself were teachers at an international school in Shanghai, and Chris, a former teacher himself, was in the thick of getting his MBA. Adam and I would often visit Chris at his campus, and the three of us came up with a name and a plan of action. We would call ourselves Fictuary, a portmanteau of fiction and sanctuary. We would be your everyday escapism, your digital portal to realms of fantasy.
Here we come to our first major and perhaps fatal flaw: a misunderstanding of customer behavior, not to mention the general state of the world. We knew, as nearly everyone does, that people read on their smartphones. A lot. A lot a lot. You are probably saying to yourself: well, even I know that the vast majority of that time is not spent reading fiction. Indeed! And yet, the key misnomer was: we thought we could change that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had grand designs. We wanted a beautiful app that would gamify and glorify fiction, make it both accessible and egalitarian and high quality. More than that, we wanted to tell stories in different ways and we wanted to encourage reading. This app would lead to the discovery of an entire generation of great authors who had not yet broken through the glass ceiling of traditional publishing. We drew up schematics. We made plans.
The pull of different lives
And though life took us in different directions, we three stuck to our guns. Chris had left to finish the second part of his MBA in San Franscico. After getting married, Adam was staying another year in Shanghai. After living in China for five years, I wanted a taste of somewhere new, and after a few brief months back home in the US and in the UK visiting my fiancé’s family, I went to Taipei, where I lived in the red light district, eked a living teaching part time, and wrote a destined to lay undiscovered sequel novel.
Throughout all this Chris, Adam, and I met often. We Skyped. We worked. We planned. We began by cultivating a website and taking open submissions, and received some good stories.
We talked with app creation companies and tried to meet freelance programmers. In the end, our limited finances pushed us to a half-measure solution.
Going halfway, all the way
This could be termed as our second big mistake. We talked with a company that shall not be named. For a pittance, they built us a mediocre app. It was riddled with little problems, little malfunctions.
And yet, we rejoiced. We iterated. We began generating content to push out to our legion of imaginary readers. We held monthly writing contests, with the promise of promoting winners and runners up and encouraging readers to purchase any paid work that the writers might have.
Motes of success, followed swiftly by the downturn
Oddly, we were successful in building a community, at least for a time. We read. We edited. We judged. And before we even realized what was happening, our idea had changed. We were not an app, not a platform, not exactly. We were a fiction magazine with an app. But we swept this seemingly major detail under the rug because we were getting thousands of people to our website every month, because hundreds were submitting their fiction to us, because we hoped in the end that we might make a little money.
Alas, that did not happen. For every hundred people who wanted to be recognized as the next Stephen King, the next J.K. Rowling, the next George R.R. Martin, one person wanted to read what others had written. So our magazine (called Feed Me Fiction) languished in the dull swamps of consumer ennui.
We went on for months, eventually publishing twelve volumes of short stories (p.s. as a last effort to preserve them, we’re making them all available for free on Apple News. Search “Feed Me Fiction” if you feel like reading them).
You know, most of them are pretty damn good, too. They aren’t the short works of Borges, Lovecraft, Poe, or Hemingway. But their authors certainly put their hearts and souls into them, and we really did like them.
Eventually the continuing of the contests just became too much. Sorting through hundreds of stories, even if they are all amazing literary masterpieces, is not an easy task. Although it was made manageable by splitting the work between the three of us, we still had other things to do, and the business wasn’t making enough money to actually pay us for our time — meaning we all had other jobs.
Our travels and life changes did not slow down through all this. I got married back in the UK, honeymooned, and then jetted off to work in Japan with my wife. Adam went on a gargantuan trip spanning the US, South America, and Europe. Chris graduated, found life in the States unpalatable and now lives in China again.
The beginning of the end
And through all this we kept working, but cracks were beginning to show. We began to complain to our significant others (who by the way were always supportive, understanding, and helpful). We began to put off work to the last minute. We frowned when we thought of Fictuary.
Still, as a sort of last ditch effort to shore up what was a flawed business model, we tried to do a Kickstarter campaign. This failed in epic fashion. It seemed that whatever skills we possessed, crowdfunding was not among them.
There came a point when it was clear the campaign would fail, on yet another three-time-zone-call, when one of us paused and with a big sigh of relief said, “Well, looks like that’s it.”
It wasn’t until that time that I realized just how much pressure and unwanted work had piled up behind this project, how the purity of the original idea had been lost — and not, as most successful business people might say, pivoted, evolved, or refined.
Now, it has become easier to second guess our actions. We did plenty wrong: we sometimes missed meetings. We set our prices too high. We didn’t learn enough. There were points when one of us was burnt out or unavailable. We compromised our original and much better idea because we were too lazy to figure out how to actually build it.
And yet, through all that, we did plenty right as well. We ran a bare-bones business and collaborated over three time zones — not always an easy task. In a sense, we proved that the world is flat.
We also stayed friends, though there were times of annoyance to be sure. We still talk often, and as paradoxical as it may sound I think the three of us will always feel a certain kinship that was forged in this time.
We also learned a hell of a lot (though not enough). Because when you’re responsible for the direction of a project, especially one with no money, there’s no one else to turn to. You either learn it, pay someone else who knows it, or you fail.
Now, sitting in the dusty ruin of the venture that was called Fictuary, I feel glad. I’m not exactly glad it failed. I’m certainly not glad that it didn’t make enough money to remain solvent. But I do feel a sense of accomplishment when looking back on what was made and what was learned.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained — or so the saying goes.
I’m not in a position to give advice to anyone thinking of starting their own business, but I’m going to give you a little anyway. Try not to do it in half measures like we did. Do it if you can eat, sleep, and breath it. Do it if it's something you feel passionate about. Do it if you’re willing to learn constantly.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Take it from someone who did, it's not the worst thing in the world.
Hell, if it works out, maybe you can give me a job one day. Did I mention that I’m recently out of work?