We have to talk. This thing you’ve been doing, it has to stop. When I ask you for a recommendation for an app, or a restaurant, or a new brand of toothpaste, I do not need to know that the CEO is a personal friend of yours. We all have impressive-sounding address books because this industry is the size of a postage stamp. So cut it out.
Seriously. It’s like a sickness. (Before I go on, let me just get one thing out of the way: it’s an illness I have periodic and obnoxious bouts of too. This post is partly an attempt to shame myself out of bad habits.)
It impresses no one. It adds nothing to the meaning of a sentence and it just makes me think the speakers are cocks who locate way too much self-esteem in utterly fucking unimportant things. And that makes me sad, because I know they’re not cocks. That’s why they’re my friends.
Is there any industry as pathologically addicted to name-dropping as the start-up world? I only ask because this particular epidemic seems to be spiralling way out of control. You see, I was talking about this last night to two dear friends of mine who are chief executives of two of the most successful British internet start-ups. I won’t name names but you’ve probably heard of them.
There are always outliers and eccentrics: blow-hards who swank and bullshit their way through, fibbing and flirting to get what they want. Like Julie Meyer. She’s kind of a big deal. (I can introduce you, if you want.) But seriously: when did “Oh, and she’s a really good friend of mine” become as necessary to the end of a sentence as a full stop?
I don’t need to know who people know - if they even actually really do – at every possible opportunity. When I ask how they are, I don’t need to know the name of the hotel they’ve just checked out of, as if that’s somehow relevant, or which class they flew home in. (Don’t even get me started on airport lounge bragging.) I don’t need to know that they were speaking at a conference; that they were there is all the information I need. Even that is often unnecessary.
At it’s simplest, this behaviour is a class giveaway. These are working class-nerds on the make – or, in some cases, achingly nouveau wide-boys desperate to show off because they’re so insecure about their newly acquired social standing. Beta males to a man and hating every minute of it. We get it, you had no friends at school. My friend Anthony, who used to be Mark Cuban’s PA, and I were laughing about this with Tim Ferriss at a dinner in San Francisco in 2010. Ferriss picked up the check.
At times it can seem as though the technology industry is one big happy family. Except, as we all know, it isn’t.
The problem with all this constant public back-slapping, self-congratulation and obsequiousness is two-fold: first, that you forget the almost preternatural power of a subtle, private endorsement from someone with serious clout. Like that time the president of a huge American foundation who’s on the board of like seven multinational corporations, and who is now a friend and fan, put in a good word for me with some conference I wanted to speak at.
Or that time I was at a dinner with Steve Ballmer opposite. He probably doesn’t remember me, but I know Larry Ellison does because his office got in touch to invite me to lunch in Redwood City. I don’t think I ever got back to them because I was invited to a private island for a meditation retreat with the cast of a US TV show. That was a fun summer.
Second, when everyone’s being nice to each other and praising everyone else, no one is really saying anything, are they? It’s a bit like politics, where the rows are all basically bollocks because the whole Establishment is run by a tiny elite who all went to the same schools and who don’t really disagree on anything. I’ll bring this up when I have dinner again with the leader of the UK’s third largest political party. He’s a hoot!
If it’s not a pat on the back or a bit of self-aggrandisement, no one wants to know. You see, the tech industry has inherited oppressive thought police culture without the style or substance even of politics. (That’s a good line, actually; I might mention it the next time I’m in the House of Commons. I dated an MP, you know.) Nor does it have the effete charm of the fashionista who air-kisses and daaaaaahlinks! her way through a cocktail party. Nor, even, of the movie industry, where at least mutual compliments are passable because everyone’s so damned good looking.
This reminds me of the time I was couch-surfing in Beverly Hills in 2008 and at a pool party just off Mulholland I was talking to a really cute guy for about an hour outside by the pool and we nearly made out and it suddenly dawned on me that it was Tobey Maguire. At least I think it was Maguire; it could have been Gyllenhaal. Whoever it was, he offered me coke. I was shocked, and said no.
The tragic irony of all this saccharine sucking-up is of course that the characters at the top of the air-kissing tree are such grim, sociopathic bastards. Except the ones who are my friends, of course, who are really just very misunderstood. I just wish people would be honest, like Aaron Levie from Box. I met him in 2010. He gave me his business card.
I wouldn’t have brought all this up but I thought a touch of comic verisimilitude might help me make my point.
I mean, to drop such things gratuitously would be appallingly gauche.
I’m reading a lot at the moment. I’ll post extracts from time to time that I’ve found helpful or enlightening. In the meantime, though, here’s something that simply made me giggle, from David Brooks’s The Social Animal. (I have always said that white middle class males are the real persecuted minority.)
Popular, good-looking and athletic children are the subjects of relentless abuse. While still young and impressionable, they are force-fed a diet of ugly duckling fables to which they cannot possibly relate. They are compelled to endure endless Disney movies that tell them that true beauty lies inside. In high school, the most interesting teachers favor the brainy students who are rendered ambitious by social resentments and who have time on Saturday nights to sit at home and develop adult-pleasing interests in Miles Davis or Lou Reed. After graduation the popular and good-looking have few role models save for local weathermen and game-show hosts, while the nerds can emulate any number of modern moguls, from Bill Gates to Sergey Brin. For as it is written, the last shall be first and the geek shall inherit the Earth.
On a related and slightly more serious note, Bobo culture, together with the outrageous behaviour of technology companies, are the reason, I think, that the “geek” is becoming the most hated subculture on the planet – among ordinary people, that is.
Don’t be fooled by the tech press: geeks and tech entrepreneurs aren’t, and won’t ever be, cool. They have many virtues, but coolness isn’t one of them.
I have something I need to share with my readers. Even my mother is not aware of this, and I’m sorry she had to find out this way. You see, I’ve been holding it in for way too long and I desperately need to let it out. So here it is. This year, I was not on the press list for F.ounders in Dublin.
I was going to write a post about how unhelpful it is to be drawing a velvet rope around some of the most influential people in the industry. But, truthfully, it isn’t: it’s brilliant, and the inaugural F.ounders was one of the best events I’d been to all year. Indeed, I said so on the three occasions I wrote about it in the Telegraph.
And I was tempted to write an outraged piece about how classless and ungrateful it was for a conference I’d put together a UK guest list for, made numerous introductions on behalf of, spent two and a half days of valuable consulting time giving strategic advice to and endlessly plugging, to cut me off because I’d decided to go freelance and they couldn’t boast about a specific publication next to my name on their guest list. (At least I know not to waste my New York Times commission this month on a conference review.)
But I won’t do that. I’ll simply say this. It was a shame they knowingly misled me, failing to correct my excitement and anticipation after they knew I’d booked my flights to Dublin and stringing me along for months discussing with me whom I might interview on stage, before abruptly sending me a generic email explaining that “demand had been extremely high”. Guys, I know: I’m part of the reason.
While I wish them all the best for the future, I don’t much feel like attending another F.ounders or Dublin Web Summit event right now, and I won’t for the time being feel able to vouch for those events or any of the people behind them.
I’m sure Paddy and the team will pull off another great weekend. Though, having seen this year’s guest list, which is a mixture of impressive Americans and… well, Europe’s quite small isn’t it? I hope they find someone new to help them separate the European wheat from the chaff. Because the real character of this conference is still very much in flux, and you have to wonder what the value is for the Silicon Valley guests.
For a drink-soaked hack, it’s a brilliant boondoggle, but what, besides a hangover, are people really getting for the three days away from their companies that we don’t already from DLD and Founders’ Forum? My concern is that unless F.ounders filters more effectively and consistently, this event will become just another utterly missable European schmoozefest for US CEOs with something to flog over here.
Then again, maybe not inviting me was their first step on that process…
In some circles it’s considered bad form to review books in which you appear. Fortunately for you, I don’t move in those circles. Because as one of this volume’s (admittedly minor) characters, I’m better placed than most to verify what might otherwise appear a wildly implausible series of ludicrous drunken adventures.
The Icelandic rock stars. The near-death experience with Spanish drug dealers. The hairdressers’ convention. The 6,000 mile booty call. In short: yes, it’s all true.
Paul Carr has forged a surprisingly stable career out of his alcohol-fuelled antics, failed relationships, friendship with infamous London entrepreneur, networker and mischief-maker Robert Loch and his opinions about the latest internet technology. But despite weighing in provocatively on privacy, copyright and media issues in his TechCrunch column, his forte has always been writing about himself, which is the singular subject of both of his books to date. Even more surprisingly, he manages to be fresh and entertaining without slipping into limp Hunter S. Thompson burlesque.
People need attention: it’s a normal and healthy part of life. And getting attention is marvellous: it makes you feel smart, sassy and confident and leads you to perform better in life, at work and in the bedroom. But guess what? Your start-up is no different! It too needs nurturing to perform at peak efficiency. So how do you make your start-up feel like the prettiest girl in the room?
If you’re in the early stages of building a B2C product, you know that capturing people’s imaginations by explaining to them why they absolutely have to sign up to your beta is critical to your future. But there’s a problem, right? At precisely the time in your company’s lifecycle that you need a bunch of users to prove your model, you can least afford so-called luxuries like PR. Why shorten your runway, goes the thinking, when you could be ploughing the cash into developer time?
On the outskirts of a regional city in Britain – Bristol, perhaps – two hundred people gather to discuss “radical engagement strategies”. They are oddballs: a mixture of chippy girls with unruly fringes and sweaty, overweight blokes with bits of burger stuck in their beards. They fire cheap jibes at the Microsoft event they’re sharing a building with, and from which they’ve nicked a few chairs – a fact they crow about on Twitter as if it were some sort of victory over the “evil” corporation.
These are the social media gurus, a rag-tag crew of blood-sucking hucksters who are infesting companies of all sizes, on both sides of the Atlantic, blagging their way into consultancy roles and siphoning off valuable recession-era marketing spend to feed their comic book addictions. They claim to be able to improve your relationships with your customers by “executing 360 degree reignition programs”. But who are these people? Where did they come from? And how on earth have they managed to hoodwink so many big companies so quickly and so comprehensively?