Killing the Fox

5 reasons why my startup never started


I only ever wear a hoodie when I’m running. I don’t drink beer. I’ve never been to a hackathon and I’ll probably never be on first-name terms with Alexia Tsotsis.

I have, however, written a Java debugger (10 years ago before geek was cool), managed multiple distributed development teams, and seen the product I manage in my day job grow from 100k to a million monthly users in the space of a year.

Plus, I have an English accent like the super-smart supervillains on American TV, a fact that would no doubt please the scions of Silicon Valley.

And, thus, like any other self-respecting techie, I decided to start my own startup, Lokfox. I did everything right: I read Eric Reis, Steve Blank and Paul Graham. I validated my proposition with customer surveys and user interviews. I enlisted an amazing programmer, commissioned designs, and drafted the site editorial and business plan. I started the Lokfox productivity blog to grow our pre-launch link authority and posted fresh content every week. I even created a lo-fi promo video complete with placeholder narration, soon to be replaced by a professional I had already chosen.

Most importantly, I kept my expectations real. There were no proclamations that I was building a billion-dollar company; all I wanted was a small but solid user base. I knew that startups defaulted to death and I was fully prepared for it. What I didn’t expect is that I’d be killing my startup before it even started. It was only when I took a step back to assess the value of continuing that I realised I should never have started in the first place. Here are 5 reasons why.

If you’re starting a startup in a similar situation, I’d advise that you kill your fox too.

1. Seduced by the Scene

From Paul Graham’s pearls of wisdom to Dave McClure’s pugnacious spats, Twitter was a window into Silicon Valley and I was irresistibly drawn to it. Its scrappiness, its pay-it-forward culture, its value on makers over managers and the pithy bon mots of its company slogans were antithetical to my process-driven FTSE 100 company. And I really wanted to be part of it. Not primarily because I wanted to solve an interesting problem, not even because I wanted to get rich quick, but because I wanted to be a part of the scene. Basically, I wanted to be a Plastic, an anointed member of an exclusive clique – rarely a good reason to do anything.

2. The Co-founder Conundrum

It’s near impossible to create a successful startup without a co-founder, and so I approached the best programmer I have ever known. Ali wasn’t amazing on a Mark Zuckerberg level; he was amazing on a Jeff Dean, Adam D’Angelo level. I had met him at university a decade before where he took to programming like some sort of savant, and thus I was delighted when he agreed to work on Lokfox.

Agreed is the operative word here. Lokfox was my baby and even though we split it 50-50, it would always be mine first. Ali had a family and a job and when the time pressure became too much, he had to bow out. For months, I tried to replace him, but finding a co-founder is not only like finding an amazing husband, it’s like finding an amazing father for a kid that’s not his. I believe that building an idea with someone gives it a greater chance of success; getting someone to adopt yours is far less ideal.

3. Lone Ranger

The UK tech press calls London the Silicon Valley of Europe but I found very little entrepreneurial spirit here. Perhaps it’s because I’m outside the startup ecosystem, but I can’t think of any London-based experts I could have approached for advice or introductions. There are no Mark Susters or Hunter Walks and certainly no Niniane Wangs or Jessica Livingstons. If you’re going to found a startup, make sure you have access to a strong and supportive tech ecosystem. Isolation is a killer.

4. Parallel Passions

I follow 63 people on Twitter. Twenty two of those are related to tech and 24 are writers. Writing and tech have always competed for my affections. Post-graduation, I worked in tech for three years before becoming a full-time writer. Since then, I have flipped between the two several times. When deciding the fate of Lokfox, I asked myself one question: what’s the most important thing to me (aside from things that breathe)? I looked through my ‘Aims 2014' list and realised that the most important thing was to finish my third novel. Starting a startup should be the most important thing to you. If it’s not, then the game’s not for you.

5. No Need to Succeed

I live a comfortable life. It’s not a wealthy one by any means but my needs are met with some left over. Lokfox was never my one shot at success. I wasn’t sharing a flat with four other people. I didn’t need to be ramen profitable if I wanted to eat. There was no genuine hunger; no genuine need to succeed. I would never advise anyone to quit their day job but without a deep-level hunger, a startup has little chance of success. My efforts to replace my co-founder were driven not by need, but by pride and the sunk-cost fallacy: I had come this far, I couldn’t give up without even launching. And yet here I am: giving up.

If I’m honest, I’ll most likely try again some day. I may have started Lokfox for less than noble reasons but I enjoyed every step of the way and am just as enamoured with the culture of startups. Until then, I’m going swallow my pride and kill my beloved fox.