This time the dragon won.

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?

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.

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.

The website, now frozen.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The takeaway

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.

Self-published novelist, traveler and teacher. Novels, titled A New London Rising, & The Fall of Shanghai, are on Amazon.

Self-published novelist, traveler and teacher. Novels, titled A New London Rising, & The Fall of Shanghai, are on Amazon.