Goodbye Toucan, My Old Friend

Nothing lasts forever,

Some things aren’t meant to be,

But you’ll never find the answers

Until you set your old heart free.

– Hello My Old Heart, The Oh Hellos 🎶

It's Mental Health Awareness Week. This year's theme is Movement.

I'm going to use the opportunity to write a post that I've been meaning to write for a while. A post about moving on from a company I started, the mental health struggles that inspired it, and the lessons I learned.

Incidentally, if you want to read more about my post-founder journey and follow my next moves, subscribe to my limited run LinkedIn newsletter, What's Next?

Why I started a business

In August 2018, I started a business. I registered at Companies House: Toucan App Ltd. I was sat in the library cafe, having a coffee. It was a task on my to-do list.

My journey to that point? I'd worked in fintech startups for just over five years, including Monzo and Kriya (then MarketInvoice). I had worked hard, and in 2016/7 I'd burned out. My mental health had been affected, and for a while I couldn't work. I developed a new understanding of how mental health struggles can make it harder to manage your money.

In 2018 I prototyped an app to help people struggling with managing their money focus on the basics. I won a hackathon and the prize money funded further development. By August I was talking to potential partners and applying for grant funding.

I was compelled to solve this problem. I knew that people struggled (I'd been one of them!), and that technology could help.

I felt alive. I got feedback from experts who said I was onto something. I worked with people (mainly women) at the top of their game to design and build the product.

Building a mission-driven company was everything I'd ever wanted to do.

What we achieved together

In 2019 I brought on an amazing team. Evelina Vrabie, then Lilian Tula, then Emily Trant. All fantastically talented humans who I looked up to. I felt so lucky to get to work with them every day on problems that I cared about. Later, in 2020, we brought on Martin Wenisch, Luca Novellis and Nikki Adebiyi, who were brilliant, the best team we could have assembled. Every one of them a star.

We achieved a lot in the couple of years that the business properly thrived.

We were given the opportunity to be a part of a programme called Open Banking for Good, funded by Nationwide Building Society. As part of the programme we received funding and support from charity partners, including Money and Mental Health.

In just six months we built the first version of a mobile app and ran a three month pilot alongside Belen Barros Pena from Northumbria University. Users connected their bank account using Open Banking and created text alerts for spending that could be sent to a trusted family member or friend to help keep them on track. At the end of that project we published a report on our findings, 'Let's talk about money'.


We were chosen as finalists as part of Nesta's Open Up 2020 Challenge, and then got selected for the Barclays Techstars 2020 accelerator.

We started Techstars just weeks before the pandemic started. Over the next few months, we released a new version of our app and prototyped a new prepaid Care Card product with support from Innovate UK.

Even though the company started to splutter and die from summer 2020, I'm still proud of what we achieved:

  • For a time, we had an impact on the users that we supported, even though there were only a handful of them.
  • We ran important research that went on to be referenced by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, as well as two influential academic papers.
  • We inspired other fintechs and banks to up their game. Care Cards and better Third Party Access options are now available on the market.
  • We inspired other social impact tech firms that came after us and continue to work to solve these knotty problems. We inspired firms to use inclusive design practices too.

Why it died

There are a few reasons why the company died.

The commercial opportunities to licence the product to big companies didn't materialise in the way we'd hoped. Part of this could have been foreseen. Banks have lots of power and work slowly. When we got close to signing a contract, we were squeezed. The numbers didn't work, and we'd run out of time and options.

In the first place, the business model was a difficult one. We wanted to sell to big companies who would distribute to their customers. I'm tempted to say that's a flawed business model, but I know that there may be others who can make a B2B2C model work great. For us, it meant we were compromising on the products we wanted to make because our customer was a guy in a suit.

But perhaps most importantly, the company died because I and my co-founders lost our optimism and our energy.

By late 2020 we knew that our initial model was not commercially viable, and we'd had to let our team go, which was heartbreaking. I hope we did a good job helping them during what must have been a really difficult time.

We had ideas, sure. But we'd lost our spark. The months of lockdown had taken their toll, too. I'd had issues to deal with at home. I was exhausted and sad.

As our spirits deteriorated, I found myself unable to step up and be the leader I knew the company needed. My inability to lead made me feel even worse. I was letting the team down.

When the decision finally came to shut down fully, we all knew it was the right one. My co-founders found amazing opportunities elsewhere (those companies are very lucky!), and I was left thinking, 'What's next?'.

Three years later and I think I'm ready to start answering that question properly. But that's for another time.

Some of the lessons

I learned so much from my journey with Toucan.

One obvious thing was that you should check trademarks when registering a company name. A few months after we started, we had to change the name to Touco Lab after a (very polite) email from another Toucan. (You'd think that I would have learned this lesson beforehand, having led the Mondo to Monzo name change, but hey).

Here are some other lessons:

  • You're designing for whoever pays: If you're a social impact company designing for people who can't necessarily pay for your product, consider that you'll need to compromise on great design if your customer/funder wants you to. That compromise can kill your morale over time.
  • Innovation teams at banks are (normally) not that helpful: Yeah, sorry banks. Maybe this has changed since 2020 but I doubt it. Expect to get a lot of introductions to people who aren't motivated to do business with you, but would love you to come in and talk to their team to 'inspire them'.
  • Grant funding is amazing if it aligns with your commercial goals: We were very lucky to get three different grants to help build and launch our products. There are amazing grant funders out there! But don't get distracted by the shiny grants if they won't necessarily make you more commercially viable.
  • Techstars is (mainly) for bros: If you want to hustle and you're ready for very hard nosed investors to pull apart your business model, Techstars is great. Be ready to press pause on product development for a few weeks though. If you're a social impact focused business with people in your team juggling care responsibilities, it's probably not a great fit. I said what I said.
  • Being mission-driven is a magnet: I was able to build an amazing team, work with world-class partners, get grant funding and build innovative products, all because we were clear about the mission. We were different, we were thoughtful, we told previously unheard stories about money management and cognitive impairments. This focus helped us hire fantastic engineers within weeks, when our CTO had worried it would take months. Whatever you do, define your mission and get good at telling the story.

Thanks for reading this far.

It's been a cathartic article to write. The company is now in administration, and I'm getting ready to try something new.

Until then, I'll be writing sporadically about post-founder life over here: What's Next? Subscribe and let me know if there are things you'd like me to write about (no promises!).

RIP Toucan. Thanks for everything.

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