MT Business Lifeforms: The dot.bomber - Emma Browne, co-founder of urbkit.com

At 32, Emma Browne is already a woman living in the shadow of her former working self. In a whitewashed house perched on the North Devon coast, she lives a life pared down to the essentials. Looking after a few animals, a nascent relationship with the local organic farmer and enough work to keep her spare moments occupied: a bit of consultancy here, a little writing there. Once again, £1,000 is a tidy sum of money.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Back in 1993 and fresh out of Cambridge, a younger, more idealistic Emma was working for a small and unsuccessful publishing company. She'd just met a Dutch bloke called Willem and they'd hit it off - new city, new boyfriend. Although they shared a love of literature, he worked in IT and was always babbling on about something called 'the internet', which (he reiterated ad tedium) 'was going to change all our lives'. Emma was falling in love, so she indulged him, even going as far as getting herself an 'e-mail address'. Quite what the point of this was, she wasn't sure - why not just use the phone?

Two happy years later, Willem announced that he wanted to start an 'online retailer', selling cutting-edge clobber to hipsters; did she want to get involved? She said she knew nothing about the internet. No problem, he replied: we'll need someone with an eye for design, an ear for how copy reads and, 'y'know, a spokesperson - you're perfect. You can be CEO, I'll be MD'. Publishing was looking sketchy, so she took the e.

Operating with a skeleton staff from a dingy office off Ladbroke Grove, urbkit.com scraped by on VC cash and nibbled away at Willem's savings.

Occasionally, uninterested moneymen would drop in and Willem would talk earnestly about 'page-impressions', 'click-thrus' and 'monetarised eyeballs'.

She soon picked up the lingo too, realising that this was the sort of modular argot you could speak without ever understanding.

Two years in, poverty had replaced novelty. Then a national newspaper came calling. They were running a piece on the next big thing and apparently Emma and Willem were it. Urbkit opened up its offices to the journalists and photographers. A fortnight later, they were on the cover of the paper's Sunday mag. There are few industries as me-too as the British media - and once the duo had been anointed as the pulchritudinous face of online retail, everyone wanted a piece of them. The year before, Emma had spoken to the press twice; the week after, she fielded 50 enquiries and the week after that appointed a 'specialist' PR agency. The venture capitalists that had been so grudging now breezed through, trailing zeroes in their wake.

Emma's 'notional' wealth climbed to six figures, then seven, then eight.

By early 1999, she was that peculiar dot.com amalgam: part entrepreneur, part model, part celeb. She appeared on chat shows and in gossip columns, and she sat on august panels with real captains of industry whose real companies made real money. But she was the one everyone wanted to talk to. The others (centuries of experience between them) were derided as dinosaurs.

Browne's personal life was moving in new directions. The Golden Couple of the new economy were no longer an item, together for the media and urbkit investors only. He'd been sleeping with a German model; she was seeing an actor from a Cool Britannia gangster flick. Their west London social life had been usurped by the self-congratulatory transatlantic media 'elite' they now hung out with. And there was cocaine, lots of it.

Then it all went wrong. For the first time in four years, people started asking questions. Old-fashioned questions like: will your company ever make any money? The answer was that the empress had no clothes, not even hip urban ones. The forecasts were declared a sham by the analysts who'd made them in the first place - and the company's core competence stood revealed for what it was - turning other people's money into private jet hire.

In three months, urbkit.com was a blank holding page. Emma and Willem did OK out of it, emerging with enough to keep them going for a few years each, thanks to the property boom, a book deal and two years' worth of bonuses based on their ability to waste cash. He returned to Amsterdam; she sold up and downshifted via a stint in the Priory. Neither has any pressing desire to start another business, largely because, as they both freely admit, they should never have been doing it in the first place.

BROWNE: THE LOWDOWN

1972: Born 18 April 1972, Exeter. Educated Blundells, Churchill College,

Cambridge

1993-95: Editorial assistant, Erinyes Books

1996: Co-founder and CEO, urbkit.com

1998: As above, with two FTSE-100 non-executive directorships

1999: As above, plus special e-adviser to Cabinet

May 2001: Unemployed/the Priory

Jul 2001: Paid £140,000 for a book about her experiences

Dec 2002: Sells Notting Hill flat, moves back to Devon

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