How Wendy Tan White survived the dotcom crash and built a $40m business

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS: The tech entrepreneur on bouncing back, joining Entrepreneur First and the future of AI.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 08 Mar 2017

Photography by Julian Dodd

My parents were both migrants. My mum got on a boat because her dad wouldn't pay for her to go to university, and she ended up working for a [Silicon] Valley company. Her boss in England was a woman. And her boss in the Valley was a woman. So I never felt there was any issue as a woman going into tech.

My dad was almost a refugee - his dad was in the Burmese government before it switched to a military dictatorship. He left him here at 16 on his own because he knew what was going to happen. And then he never saw him again.

It was tough being at a Protestant school in Cumbernauld in Scotland – they still used to strap you for making mistakes. I was a bit unusual. People used to call me ‘Paki’ because they didn't know any different. But I loved to read, which was probably my saving grace. I came out of grammar school in the Thatcherite period. As much as I'm more left-leaning myself, the one good thing was that you felt very much that women could make a difference.

Because my parents were in tech it was almost so normal that I just didn't want to do it, like a classic teenager. But I started a computer science degree at Imperial College in 1989. London was amazing. I went from a girls' school to a college with 20% women, so that was a bit of a shock. I spent my first year probably partying too much and trying to learn how to handle London on my own but knuckled down later on.

When I graduated in 1992, jobs were not easy to come by. I'd been sponsored by Ford through university, and worked there in the summers doing assembly line programming. But I ended up taking a job at Arthur Andersen. It was paid well and very glamorous but I didn't enjoy the accountancy part of it.

I later worked at Egg, the first internet bank in Europe, which was set up by Prudential. That was quite exciting. Part of my team was looking at the idea of community online. In those days there was no social media or blogging. So I got together with my best friend at Imperial, Eirik Petterson, and my now-husband Joe White to start Moonfruit, an online website building tool.

I cobbled together a bit of money from friends and family, maxed my credit cards and tried to remortgage my flat, and we later raised money from Macromedia (now Adobe) and LVMH and eventually grew to sixty people and 200,000 users. But we were making a tiny amount of revenue. In those days it was all about ‘collect the eyeballs and we'll work out how to monetise through advertising later’. So the dotcom crash hit us hard.

At the time I was quite hurt personally. I felt quite depressed about it. We had to go from 60 people back to two. By then Joe and I had got together, but he had to go and work for McKinsey to earn a living and support us. Eirik and I were working in an attic, trying to work out what to do. We convinced 10% of our users to pay. It was enough to keep us going, and we grew the business the old fashioned way - everything we got in we invested back into the product, and then improved it and got more customers.

By the time I went on maternity in 2004 we were back to 10 of us and we were sustainable - because we had to be. At that point Joe said, ‘I've not had enough of Moonfruit either’, so he tagged back in. It was a tough choice because we were about to have a new baby and cut our salaries as well.

By 2012 we had grown the business to 150 people. We potentially could have been bought by a company in The Valley or Arizona, but we chose to sell to Yell Group for $40m so we could stay here with our family.

It was a difficult decision. Joe and I had grown up together through our 12 years at Moonfruit, but we felt that to keep growing we might need to move on. The thing I felt the saddest about was leaving the team behind; many of them carried on and are still there. At the same time I felt free - because it was my first company, my identity was so tied up in it.

We almost tried to start a new business, but it was too early. Then I nearly ended up in the cabinet office when they created a new chief digital officer role. But Peter Mandelson said it would be like driving an oil tanker after driving a speedboat and I decided I wasn’t ready for that. But I ended up on the government's digital advisory board instead, and I was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last year. 

The tech ecosystem is changing in the UK because there are more and more exited entrepreneurs supporting different levels of investment. If you don't have that depth of mentoring at every stage, it's not easy to build a Google or Facebook. Now you've got Skype’s Niklas Zennström, Brent [Hoberman] and Martha [Lane Fox] from LastMinute, Saul [Klein] and Simon Calver and Simon Franks - the ‘Lovefilm Mafia’ almost. And us at Moonfruit.

Last year Joe and I became general partners in Entrepreneur First, a deep tech company builder and fund, to mentor the next generation of UK entrepreneurs. EF takes in the best tech talent in Europe and helps them find a co-founder and build a company. One of our portfolio, the AI start-up Magic Pony, recently exited to Twitter for $150m.

Machine learning and AI is going to underpin everything, eventually all applications will have it. If you take a utopian view, somehow we will work in sync with AI, it becomes a new type of being and we will have policy and rules around that. And then there's the dystopian view - we go either all Matrix or Brave New World and get wiped out. History has shown we usually end up between dystopia and utopia.

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