Tuesday, 9 April 2013
As friends will know already, Berlin is rapidly becoming my home from home. Part of the reason is the extraordinary friends I have made there, particularly in hy! founders Hans Raffauf and Aydo Schosswald.
I’m thrilled that Hans & Aydo have this week given me an excuse to spend even more time in the city I love by asking me to come on board as Editorial Director of their terrific invitation-only event series.
I’ll be helping to put the programme together for an event I already know and love. Axel Springer-backed hy! is by far and away the most credible and inspiring gathering of entrepreneurs and creatives in Europe. I look forward to contributing to its ongoing success.
I’m moving to Berlin full-time, with immediate effect. I’ll still be writing regularly for the usual complement of European & US newspapers, magazines and websites – but a bit less often.
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
I wondered whether it would feel like grief. Whether I could Kübler-Ross it, sketch out the stages, predict when the process would come to an end. But it’s quite a different feeling to the enormity of helplessness and loss I felt when my grandmother died last year. There are feelings a bit like grief that surface from time to time. But this is the first time in my life I have failed at something I wanted so desperately to make a success. And I have failed spectacularly.
Things hadn’t been going right for a while, and people had noticed. My shoulders were slumped, my head was drooping. Something in me knew this was coming. I was already sensing that I might not really be cut out for a permanently combative life: The Kernel’s journalism was always more robust than its editor. I worried it was doing something ugly to me on the inside.
The Nutshell, our gossipy newsletter, in particular, brought out the bits of my personality I have grown to like the least.
Perhaps that’s why, though I think it’s something others feel too when it all goes tits-up, I am flooded with relief. Relief tempered by immense regret, yes, but relief at freedom from bondage. It’s odd, actually, sitting at home with nothing to do. I’d forgotten what the place looked like. Nowhere to go. Nothing to be late for or prepare notes for or worry about or write emails about. Jesus: I’m unemployed!
The sight of a diary wiped clean is temporarily liberating. I get a flicker of titillation from the fact that after eighteen months of twelve-hour days and months of travelling when I’d be in my own bed at home perhaps ten days in three months, the rest spent in hotels and on friends’ couches, that I could, right now, if I wanted to, fire up Netflix and just watch TV all day and eat ice cream. I imagine a lot of recent failures get quite fat.
The longer you hide, of course, the greater your apprehension at going outside again. That tricky first public appearance. You know people are talking, and you probably have some idea what they’re saying, but what you can’t bear is the uncertainty about what they will say to you. Will it be awkward? Pitying? Will they laugh? Should you laugh, too? Is this a funeral?
There’s a sense of open space. You’re not yet ready to see it as opportunity; instead, it feels oppressive, shaming. Why am I not in the office? Guilt and shame are unproductive and friends will tell you not to indulge them. They will be kind and say you shouldn’t be feeling them: that you deserve the opposite. You were brave, you tried something bold, you put it all on the line, ignore the haters. You’ll get a lot of that and although it comes from a place of love it is all terrible advice.
You need to ride those feelings out; to see them through. It’s what’s left of you after the reckoning that you take with you to your next endeavour. Newsflash: you are right to feel guilty and ashamed. I, particularly, have just cause to feel both. In a series of emails to one former employee I wrote things of which I am not proud. She did not deserve them, and I will have to live with them. And there are others who have suffered financially through my incompetence. But more on that another time.
More than anything else, it’s the disorientation and fury with yourself at how easy it is to temporarily forget something so enormous that dogs you in the post-venture void. For months after Nana Petra died I would pick up the phone and start searching for her number. I knew she’d want to know that Mariah Carey was going to be a judge on on American Idol. Sometimes you get as far as being angry that no one is picking up.
You jump out of bed and shower, forgetting for a moment there’s no one to be clean for. You go to write, forgetting for a moment there’s nowhere to publish it any more. You start planning an event that will never happen. A thousand little deaths a day. So it’s easier to stare listlessly at the wall for a few hours instead.
The emails aren’t coming any more. People aren’t calling. Invitations are drying up. The silence takes hold of you.
When your brain starts to wind down after months or even years of feverish activity, there are moments of ecstatic calm that feel almost religious. You are free. But there are also dark moments that creep up on you. You feel useless, pathetic, a joke. You find yourself wondering idly whether any of the kitchen knives would do the trick. How much paracetamol you have in the house. That sort of thing. You start to lose your grip on common sense.
Anchor yourself to those you love. Chances are they’ll have offered already, but, if they haven’t, impose. That’s what friends are there for. Doubtless they won’t know what to say or do, but they can tell you when you’re being a fucking idiot.
Remember that you are good enough, and that acting out of sincerity, aspiration, compassion and love are the best anyone can expect of you. Identify the failings in your business, when you can bear to do the autopsy. (It may be some months.) Chances are it went wrong when ego and pride took over. When the grieving is over and the wrongs righted, you will rise again, strength redoubled, faith restored.
So take the time to heal. I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do for the next few months, or how I’ll pay my bills, but I’m OK with that. There is no shame in downtime. You need it to retreat, regroup and recharge. But don’t slide off the map for ever, or completely: keep doing some work on the side, of some kind, so returning to the real world isn’t a total shock.
Some of us are born broken. We need to impose our will on others; to fix flaws, to refashion the world around us. These efforts usually fail, but, when they succeed, great art is made and great companies are built. I have no idea what I will do with the rest of my life, though I do know I never want to work for anyone else for any prolonged period of time and that I’m not happy unless I’m creating something.
One of my dreams is, at least for now, dead. But I wouldn’t trade the volatility and excitement of this life for the tedium of job security, my own office and and a good pension plan. I’d rather die. In fact, I couldn’t: it’s part of me, this irrepressible urge to build and aspire. It will always get me into trouble but it’s what keeps me away from the cutlery drawer, and it’s what will grow inside me until it bursts out as my next project. We do what we do, ill-equipped as we are, because we have no choice.
Next time, though, I’ll hire a real CEO.
Monday, 12 December 2011
It’s the object of widespread ridicule from those not endlessly flattered and sucked up to with invitations to swanky drinks parties. It spent £55,000 on a website everyone hates and which fails to meet even the basic standards of modern web design. It is coming under increasing fire for shameless appropriation of others’ achievements.
But Tech City, the wasteful pet project of trendies in Downing Street that has so successfully used internet businesses in east London as PR for the Government, has already burned through at least £1million.
I was surprised at how small that number was, initially. But of course it doesn’t include all the other bits of Government chipping in to help, the extensive schmoozing going on overseas and God knows whatever else they’ve charged to someone else’s budget. Nor does it include the investment fund. So the real total cost is probably something like three times that amount. Think what three million quid would have done if simply given to Seedcamp to invest in start-ups!
Thanks to a Freedom of Information request I submitted in November, the annual budget of Tech City has been revealed today as well. £150,000 is set aside for marketing and communications. £250,000 for events. £220,500 on employing civil servants elsewhere in Government. And a little under £1.2million in staff and consultant costs.
These are staggering sums. How much of that is chief executive Eric van der Kleij’s salary, I wonder? (Tech City wouldn’t say: they’ve come up with an ingenious way to dodge FoI requests, and public accountability, by muddying the employment arrangements of their staff with contracts from PA Consulting and Grant Thornton.)
I ask again: what, precisely, has been accomplished with this massive splurge of cash?
Saturday, 19 November 2011
Who am I to talk, right? I mean, who’s been more of a thorn in UKTI’s side than me, with the embarrassing Freedom of Information requests, the patronising “how it could have looked” pieces and the cattiness on Twitter? While my colleagues and friends got invited to swanky dos at the palace, I stayed home, uninvited and unloved because – as I imagined – I was the only one with the platform and temerity to say: hang on a minute. Is this really what Silicon Roundabout needs? It’s a shame UKTI don’t deal well with criticism, but given the awful circle-jerkery of European technology journalism, I can’t say I blame them for being a bit shocked.
But here’s the thing. While few have been more vocally critical of the Government’s Tech City Investment Organisation, its Tech City-branded website and events, the people, economics and philosophies behind it and the amount of money it spends, I have at least done so in articles published under my own name – even though it has not served my interests to do so. I don’t point this out to be self-congratulatory (as if!), but to make a point.
Yeah, I’ve been tough. I’ve been bitchy and sarcastic, too, because I think some of the claims made by UKTI are risible. That 600 figure is a joke, and it deserved to be mocked. But the bile streaming out of this new, pseudonymous @TechShitty account, set up last night, of which I am but one of many victims, is neither constructive nor even entertaining. It’s just trolling, from someone with neither the wit and wisdom to make devastating critiques, nor the courage to identify themselves. The tweets from this account are sufficiently wide of the mark that you can tell this person doesn’t really know any of the people or businesses he’s sniping at. Thus, while some valid points might be made about the Tech City initiative, gratuitously vicious remarks like the one above render the whole account impotent.
So, if you give a damn about making things better, about reducing unnecessary Government expenditure and dialing down the media spin, overblown rhetoric and outright lies through constructive – even if sometimes harsh – criticism and dialogue, do what I just did, and unfollow @TechShitty. Then log in to your own blog, or Tumblr, or whatever, and write something that expresses what you really feel. Because only when we’re more honest about what the Government is really achieving with our money in east London, and have the courage to put our own names underneath what we write, is there any hope of change.
Thursday, 17 November 2011
My favourite technology PR firm, Ballou PR, which focuses on high-growth technology and health IT clients, has sold its US operations to MWW Group. Founder Colette Ballou told me that the firm’s focus will now be on Europe, and that expansion into other countries, either organic or by acquisition, is on the cards for 2012. I guess she’ll be using the cash from this sale. Ballou will continue to offer services in the US through its new partner MWW Group.
Colette’s firm has added several prestigious clients to its roster lately, including Twilio, Eventbrite, Evernote, Seatwave, Ostrovok, Marin Software, Care.com and goBalto, rapidly establishing itself as one of the leading emerging tech PR firms in Europe. Recently the company’s focus has shifted from start-ups to higher-growth businesses.
Silicon Alley Insider, which broke the news, quoted Colette as saying the acquisition was “a nice liquidity event”. (But no, she wouldn’t tell me what the deal was worth either.) What she neglected, out of modesty, to say to SAI is that this was the second exit in two weeks for the European technology power couple she is one half of – Colette’s boyfriend Max Niederhofer sold his company, Qwerly, to Fliptop three weeks ago.
So lovely news all round in the Ballou-Niederhofer household. I can’t wait to see what they get us all for Christmas!
Disclosure: Colette and Max are friends of mine. Her firm has represented me in the past and I once briefly consulted for them.
Monday, 14 November 2011
I don’t normally bother with funding stories, but since the chief exec of Skimlinks is my best friend I don’t think she’d forgive me if I didn’t point out some happy news. VentureBeat reports that Alicia Navarro’s affilate marketing company, which has offices in London, San Francisco and New York, has closed a $4.5m funding round, let by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments.
This comes hot off the heels of Skimlinks’s acquisition of Atma Links in October. I couldn’t be prouder of my Leithy and her awesome co-founder Joe.
Thursday, 3 November 2011
Because the emerging technology industry is small, there’s a shortage of brilliant, opinionated writers with the wit and intelligence to make people smile, and, more importantly, think. The ones who are out there, for whatever reason, are not getting jobs. Instead, we have a glut of rather embarrassingly illiterate bloggers who, in their competitiveness for pageviews, feel pressurised into churning out rewrites of press releases and other people’s posts, occasionally over-reaching themselves to pen opinion pieces.
Start-ups have become conditioned to this cult of the mediocre, but it’s time to snap them out of it. Entrepreneurs who aspire to refashion the world around them deserve writing just as audacious and thought-provoking as their own ambitions. Unfortunately, as the technology sector in Europe has expanded, the quality of commentary around it has failed to keep up.
Depressing, isn’t it. Where are the columnists, the brave iconoclasts? The people who can make insightful links between technology and other disciplines, draw distinctions, see revealing connections? Why aren’t they being given platforms? And who is providing founders and venture capitalists themselves with a platform to share their expertise in pieces whose appeal reaches beyond the tech blogosphere? (Such an endeavour admittedly requires a patient editor. I’ve tried to do it once before, and it went down exceedingly well, but it was for a one-off project.)
Where, too, are the sketch-writers, the gossip columnists, the people writing about the people, places and events that shape the headlines? Fundamentally, people are interested in people, and we don’t hear nearly enough about the faces behind the technology that is so rapidly changing our world.
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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Violet Elizabeth Bott’s got nothing on the g2i executive who just visited a start-up CEO friend of mine in Shoreditch. I’ll leave both her and the friend unnamed, for the sake of kindness. Here’s what my friend had to say afterwards:
Today I had a visit from a g2i representative. In her introductory speech, she claimed that g2i had raised £18 million since the programme began. I immediately pulled her up on this, saying that I don’t think the companies who have spent months of meetings, presentation writing and contract negotiating would agree to that claim. I also pointed out that 50% of that money probably relates to Huddle. The Huddle guys are friends of mine and I really couldn’t imagine them handing over credit for their funding to g2i.
Seconds later, the woman pulled out a tissue and began to cry. The crying continued for the rest of the meeting. I apologised and pointed out that I was merely providing feedback, and that I value initiatives like g2i and Tech City. Who wouldn’t want help with presentations and the funding process if they were new to this type of thing? I just didn’t like the way they positioned themselves or the claims they made.
She replied: “Who are Tech City?”
I realised I was giving feedback to the wrong person and apologised again. But the crying didn’t stop.
She then pulled out a form asking for my wage bill and funding amounts. She said she also required “proof”. My funding was undisclosed at the request of the investors, although, as their anonymity is now out of the bag, I did tell her their names. But I now have to write a letter confirming the company’s wage bill with supporting evidence. I don’t want to, but, since she was crying, I promised I would.
I don’t want to largely because I am sceptical about how this information will be used. We’re currently planning a series A round which will ultimately go public. I’m interested to see how much credit they’ll want to take for that.
Like I said, I think g2i is a valuable programme and has great alumni events (for which I’m almost certainly off the invite list now!). But I think that if g2i want to make bold claims they need to use stats from people who really believe g2i was the main contributor to gaining funding.
There’s also a presentation problem. When I joined the programme, I was told it would include mentoring from the likes of Brent Hoberman and Melanie Hayes (then of 4iP). That was the main factor for me signing up, in fact.
The sessions ended up being run by companies earning a commission on finding you funding. This was still not a major issue until I got to my first mentoring session and was told that there wasn’t really much they could do to help me and that I had it all in hand.
The session lasted around 10 minutes and a week or so later I received a ‘subsidised’ mentoring invoice for £352.50. (To give some credit, the lady did point out that the consortium of companies running the programme – Quotec, Pembridge, E-synergy – have done so at a loss.)
With that, the publicly-funded princess wailed, “I’ve got a sick husband! I didn’t come here to be attacked!” and fled back to her office.
With stories like this circulating, is it any wonder curmudgeons like me are so vocally sceptical of Government-subsidised programmes?
Tuesday, 1 November 2011
I admire the Wall Street Journal Europe‘s tech blogger, Ben Rooney, for his initiative and enthusiasm, but in his naïveté and inexperience about the European technology industry he made a hopelessly and hilariously misjudged snipe about my friend Sherry Coutu’s legendary annual Silicon Valley comes to the UK in his gushing review of the F.ounders conference in Dublin.
Ben has never been invited to SVC2UK, which is perhaps why he doesn’t realise that it is, by a considerable margin, the heaviest-hitting and most impressive initiative currently operating in Europe to connect Silicon Valley elites to European founders. So I worry that Ben, whose journalistic pedigree is better than most of his peers, might be feeling pressured into sucking up to the new kid on the block at the expense of accuracy.
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Wednesday, 26 October 2011
Regular readers will know that I leave serious reporting to the likes of Tim Bradshaw at the FT and the inimitable Mike Butcher. Love those guys. But frankly, for me, slavishly reporting on funding rounds and acquisitions and paying obeisance to the cult of UKTI is just too fucking tedious.
So I like to write about what’s going on around the edges of the technology scene in Europe: the people, places, events and ideas that are behind the dry reportage and which silently shape the headlines.
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Wednesday, 26 October 2011
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.
Wait, sorry, no. Four times.
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…
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Regular readers will know that for the last few years I’ve been on a one-man mission to inject some tabloid values into tech reporting. So, after the extraordinary reception to my Gold-digger’s Guide to London VCs from the investor community last week (and by ‘extraordinary reception’, I mean they bitched about it on Twitter while secretly forwarding it around furiously – no use denying it guys, your colleagues told me!), Real Business asked if I’d repeat the exercise for the real stars of the tech scene: the entrepreneurs. As it’s a picture feature, there’s not much point reproducing it here, but if you’re in the market for a well-heeled and hard-working spouse, check out the list on the magazine’s website.
Friday, 14 October 2011
This column originally appeared in Real Business.
When Lady Gaga rips off someone else, it’s high art; a loving homage in the finest tradition of pastiche – even when the results look more like theft than mimicry. But it appears that Gaga takes a somewhat dimmer view of her own admirers’ attempts to celebrate her all-consuming narcissism. She can dish it out, it seems, but she can’t take it.
This remarkable, almost comical lack of self-awareness deserves a fresh mention today, in light of her High Court triumph over London technology start-up Mind Candy, the company behind Moshi Monsters.
Mind Candy’s Lady Goo Goo, a parody character of the singer, has been banned from YouTube. Mind Candy isn’t now allowed to sell Goo Goo’s single, The Moshi Dance, either.
The parallels, though incidental, between Moshi Monsters and Gaga are admittedly striking: Gaga even calls her fans “little monsters”. But there is no suggestion that Mind Candy has sought to gain commercial advantage from these coincidences.
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Tuesday, 4 October 2011
I’ve done a feature for Real Business on the most eligible investors in the London technology industry. Since it’s pretty picture-heavy, there’s little point in reproducing it here. Read it at Real Business instead.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
This interview originally appeared in Real Business.
When James Minter spotted a 500-capacity auditorium in the middle of Notting Hill – one that came with a beautiful 2,000 square foot garden and had once played host to Pink Floyd, The Clash and The Specials, but which had since become sadly dormant – there was just one thing on his mind: resurrecting this iconic venue.
But his mission to reinvigorate the Tabernacle, while successful in its ultimate goal, came at a heavy price – not least to his investors, who lost £500,000 in the process. Last week, in his first interview since the company behind the Tabernacle’s revivification went into receivership, its former director bravely, and with good humour, shared with me some of the things he has learned.
James Minter is quietly charismatic and, though outspoken, impeccably well mannered. We sit down to lunch at Adam Street, the private members’ club he founded ten years ago next month, and he begins the conversation abruptly, with a sentence I’ve heard from a lot of serial entrepreneurs.
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