Starting up: An intro


Almost exactly a year ago, I decided to leave the Guardian. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d been travel writing for them (and others) since my final year of university and had moved in house as a writer and digital producer in 2009. A good stint, but time to go.

I spent a few weeks shouting at the moon, did a few freelance gigs, and then signed up to a General Assembly front end development course. I knew I wanted to work with developers, but didn’t know that I would actually become one. I loved it. I found myself waking up at three in the morning to move a <div> four pixels to the right. The thing that surprised me the most: I found writing code just as – if not more – creative than writing words.

I completed that course and released my final project – The Reddit Edit – into the wild. It did nicely, and was featured by The Atlantic, Mashable, TheNextWeb, and others. I used it to flog my next project, Interactive Stories – essentially pitching myself as a freelance interactive news designer. This has done well too, and has been commissioned by The Guardian and Rough Guides. Together with other writing gigs and a bit of consultancy, it paid the bills. I even got a few job offers from some notable meedja houses, but I knew it wasn’t right for me to go back.

Then I did a Ruby on Rails course – the back end to my front end (non-devs: this is the database building stuff, it’s fucking hard). I’d been sitting on a startup idea for a few years, and this meant I could actually start building it. After the Ruby course, I was incredibly proud to say I was a bad-to-OK developer, but that wasn’t enough. I did a deal with my horrifically-talented friend Rik Lomas who had taught the GA course: he would tutor me in Ruby and fix my bugs once a week in return for copy-writing help and marketing advice for his code-learning startup Steer (they’re great, give them all your money).

I am now dangerously close to having a startup. So I thought it would be cathartic and mildly interesting for others to start writing about the process. The rules: I will spend no longer than 30 mins writing these posts, I will not guarantee their frequency, and I will not apologise for humblebrags or flagrant self-promotion.

What is the startup?

It’s a search engine for brass instruments called Boogle. Not really. I’m not going to tell you yet. But, a few clues: it’s based around images, and money. It’s borrowing a model previously used to wake up a very old reeling industry, which I aim to apply to another very old reeling industry. It isn’t porn.

Does it exist?

Almost. I’ve built most of it – the back end in Ruby, the front end in HTML, CSS & Javascript. I’ve drafted the licenses and built marketing databases. The only cash I’ve spent is on a logo (that’s it, above, tiled, for no particular reason) and a little branding. I’d say I’m 90% there.

What am I doing now?

I’m steadily approaching my technical ceiling. Well, that’s maybe a bit unfair. I’ve found that pretty much every technical hurdle I’ve been faced with is surmountable, with a little help from Rik and StackOverflow. However, I’ve realised that I’m just not technically good enough to maintain the code, while managing the business, flogging the crap out of it, chasing potential clients and the like, and doing all the other stuff you need to as a startup founder. I know that an hour of my time is better spent as a marketeer than fixing a filthy CDN API-parsing RegEx bug that would take a better developer five minutes to solve.

So, I’m looking for a lead Ruby developer / CTO / Technical Co-Founder type person. I know that I can’t do this with equity, as 20% of nothing is nothing. So I’m simultaneously looking for  investment.

These are two things I’ve never done before – hiring someone, and raising money. I’ve just started, here’s my current progress:

Finding a CTO-shaped person

Due to the age-old shitness of computer education in the UK, there is a dramatic imbalance in the supply and demand of good computer programmers. Really good devs cost a lot of money, are rarely available, and – this is a good problem – usually have ideas of their own. The kind of Ruby dev I’m looking for can comfortably charge a bank £500 a day for their services. While I am offering them the chance to change the world and make loads of money, these kind of offers are magic beans to the savvy dev, offered to them on a daily basis. So I need to offer them cash too. If my startup fails, at least they’ve been able to feed their kids during the process.

I’m stalking Ruby forums and email lists, chasing contacts and reading dev blogs, and will begin my assault soon. I did get one fantastic Ruby dev very drunk last Wednesday, and pitched him after the fourth beer. I failed, as I knew I would, because he’s setting up his own business, but he agreed to be my adviser and help me with my dev hunting, which is very handy indeed. Onwards. If you are a very talented Ruby dev with itchy feet, I will know who you are within the month. You can email me too, if you like.

Finding investment

Now this really was something I knew fuck all about. I’ve spent the last little while reading as much as I can about how it works, and talking to lots of people who know more than I do. I honestly didn’t know what “seed funding” was until about a month ago. A handy guide: Friends and family funding (up to £20k) >> Seed Funding (£50k-£300k ish, from “angels” or seed funds) >> Series A (up to around £2m, usually from Venture Capitalist (VC) funds >> Series B/C (shit loads, from rich aliens). This is probably wrong.

Anyway, turns out I’m looking for “seed funding”. I’ve scoured old TechCrunch posts and Angellist and have made a list potential seed funds and angels in London. I have met a few other very nice startuppers like George from Rentify who is pointing me in a few directions too. I’ve made my business plan, my deck (this is a word I don’t like but it’s basically a presentation), and have got lots of friends to ask me lots ­of questions that might come up.

I made my first pitch to a seed fund person last week and I was pleased with it – I didn’t puke or accidentally headbutt them, and they didn’t laugh me out of the building. I have some more meetings lined up.


That’s my blog. I already broke one of my rules, as this has taken about 45 minutes. I’ll update you all soon, probably.

6 responses to “Starting up: An intro

  1. Sounds good, interesting and refreshingly honest! Best of luck and I’ll point any suitable developers I come across (and that we don’t hire!) your way

  2. Good luck, go all the way and enjoy the ride!
    In the same boat here.

  3. Best of luck!

  4. Pingback: #Podcast – Snow Fall and beyond: A look at long-form online storytelling | Editors Blog |

  5. Good luck Benji – will certainly be interesting to watch your progress!

  6. Like the project Benji, I used istockphoto in the early days before price hikes and buyout by Getty. Your logo did look a little familiar to me, not sure if you have seen the protest one? Google protest logo if not. Assume you will spend some time trawling flickr trying to get those will a good collection to come and upload them to your site?

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