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Young Australian entrepreneur Nikki Durkin speaks out on start-up failure as 99dresses closes

Dream's up: Nikki Durkin will close 99dresses.

Dream's up: Nikki Durkin will close 99dresses.

San Francisco: A young Australian technology entrepreneur who moved to New York to pursue the start-up dream has opened her heart on failing as she prepares to close her 99dresses fashion app.

I’ve survived being stabbed in the back by co-founders, investment rounds falling through, massive technology f---ups ... and everything else in between 

Nikki Durkin, 22

Nikki Durkin, 22, has been an entrepreneur since she was 15, when she was pulling in around $500 a week designing and selling T-shirts online. She went on to create 99dresses – an "infinite wardrobe" allowing people to trade clothes with each other – at 18.

Now she has revealed what it’s like to succeed, then fail, and be a female in a male-dominated industry – along the way exposing sexism she says exists mostly in New York and not Australia or Silicon Valley. She is speaking out to get other founders to share their failed start-up experiences.

Durkin will be moving back to her family home in Berry, a small town 145 kilometres south of Sydney on the NSW south coast. She says many reasons contributed to the closure of 99dresses, but in the end the company ran out of cash. The venture raised $US595,000 ($635,000) over its lifetime and employed five people at its peak.

The 99dresses mobile app will be removed from the Apple App Store on July 8 and the last time its thousands of users will be able to use it will be Wednesday June 25, New York time.

In a blog post that has been viewed more than 150,000 times and attracted hundreds of comments on the website of start-up accelerator Ycombinator, Durkin shines a light on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.

“I’ve survived being stabbed in the back by co-founders, investment rounds falling through, massive technology f---ups that brought sales to a halt, [US] visa problems, lack of money, lack of traction, lack of a team, hiring the wrong people, firing people I didn’t want to fire, lack of product-market fit, and everything else in between,” Ms Durkin wrote.

Durkin also said the media glorified hardship and rarely talked about failure.

“You rarely hear the raw stories of start-ups that persevered but ultimately failed — the emotional roller coaster of the founders, and why their start-ups didn’t work out.”

She also said her poster-child presence in the media was difficult to deal with at times.

“The fact that I was a teenage girl working on a start-up in a male dominated industry seemed to garner a lot of attention, and I’d take the interviews that came my way because that was my job," she said.

“It was my job to be positive and paint a happy picture for the media, who seemed to talk about me as if I was some kind of entrepreneurial wunderkind because of my age and the fact that I had breasts.

"[...] this didn’t help my impostor syndrome — the constant feeling that everybody was always giving me way too much credit ... I was just waiting for the day when everyone would figure out that I’m not that extraordinary.”

She also said failure wasn’t discussed from an emotional perspective because most start-ups were founded by men who “don’t like talking about their feelings”.

Fairfax Media has been hearing this from other start-up founders in recent weeks, who are worried that many people may be under the impression that most succeed when this is not the case.

It's a point not lost on Durkin, who said that the majority of them failed.

“Failing is lonely and isolating,” she wrote. “Every time I’d scroll through my Facebook feed all my start-up friends were launching new products on [popular start-up news website] TechCrunch, announcing their new fundraising rounds or acquisition, and posting photos of their happy teams. Ask any founder how they’re doing, and you’ll hear something positive.

“Whether that’s the truth or not, that’s what we’re trained to say.”

Notable Australian start-ups that had promise but ultimately shut down include innovative online video start-up Switchcam and email start-up Fluent.io. In both instances the founders went on to work for other technology companies.

Durkin said she experienced sexism a number of times.

“Once or twice I’d have an investor asking if I knew what an angel was, or if I also modelled because of my height, or some other unintentionally patronising comment that I doubt any guy would be subjected to,” she wrote. “I learned to take it all in my ... stride.”

“It’s wrong to be belittled because you are a woman,” she said on Wednesday. “But as a founder I can either waste time trying to fix a huge problem with the way men see women, or I can just learn to work around it.”

She said the post, which has since gone viral, had resulted in her email inbox being inundated with numerous job offers and tech start-up failure stories.

“I have 400 emails from people who are saying ‘thank you’ and who are going through the exact same thing. And other people are sharing their stories of failure,” she said.

Would she recommend people pursue the start-up dream?

It would be “worth trying at least once and trying really hard”, especially at a young age, she said.

“It’s amazing and at times it’s terrible. But I’d say it’s very character building. And the other reason to do it is you are seriously not aware of what you are capable of, until you do it.”

Founder of Australian start-up Freelancer, Matt Barrie, who mentored Durkin, said building a start-up despite it failing was “an incredible experience for her to have at the age of 22”.

He commended Durkin as “incredibly mature to talk so openly” about the failure.

“It's an incredibly painful thing to go through. She can consider it her million dollar [master's degree] and she's incredibly lucky to experienced it so early in her career."

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8 comments so far

  • To have achieved so much at such a young age is amazing. I wish her well for the future, I'm sure she'll go far.
    “Failure is success in progress” ― Albert Einstein

    Commenter
    Kate
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    June 26, 2014, 1:47AM
    • freelancer... gross.

      Commenter
      man cuddles
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      June 26, 2014, 6:29AM
      • There aren't even as many successful startups in Australia as there are startup experts in this comments section.

        Commenter
        Andrew
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        June 26, 2014, 12:19PM
        • +1

          The comments on here are a joke and quite pathetic.

          To all of you thinking this is a blame game, please go and read the full article *in Nikki's words* rather than this piece by Ben Grubb before making a comment.

          Australia is a beautiful country ... full of small minded people.

          Quite incredible the way insecure people tear others down.

          Commenter
          B
          Location
          USA
          Date and time
          June 26, 2014, 11:33PM
      • I thought she was a coder and I was surprised the business even got funding in the first place.

        Second hand clothes? Clothes are cheap and are getting cheaper as they are made in Bangladesh.

        Seems to me a lot of "sexism" means that male coders won't work for peanuts whilst women get paid $200k a year making pretty graphs in excel.

        Very concerning. It drives me straight over to 2GB, News Ltd and the Liberal Party.

        Commenter
        Meh
        Date and time
        June 26, 2014, 1:55PM
        • " There aren't even as many successful startups in Australia as there are startup experts in this comments section."

          Couldn't agree more!

          Commenter
          autopi
          Location
          vic
          Date and time
          June 26, 2014, 1:55PM
          • “Once or twice I’d have an investor asking if I knew what an angel was"

            The fact that she regarded that as a "sexist" question suggests that she doesn't know what an angel is.

            Otherwise, just a Gen Y variation on the typical "everyone's fault but mine" excuses trotted out by a large number of failed small businesses.

            Commenter
            Stephen
            Date and time
            June 26, 2014, 3:50PM
            • Good on her for taking a risk, even though it ultimately didn't work, she dared to dream, which so few people do nowadays. If more people acted upon their dreams we wouldn't have so many young people on unemployment benefits. Sure all dreams mightn't come true, but even if she just a few do, then those people's lives (& those around them) would be so much richer.

              Commenter
              Mum of 6
              Date and time
              June 28, 2014, 6:20AM

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