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Teenage dotcom millionaire has trouble on TV

Is this is the best of the dotcom generation?

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Teenage dotcom "millionaire" Ben Cohen was the subject of a revealing Trouble at the Top TV programme last night. Ben, if you haven't heard of him before, is famous for selling the Jewish Web site he set up in his bedroom to a big media company. In return he received shares in the company and a seat on the board.

The programme followed him from last July - when the dotcom frenzy had just passed its peak - to last week when he signed an as-yet-unannounced deal with Affinity.

Unfortunately, Ben came out less the entrepreneuring hotshot that he had been made out to be and more a normal young man who had hit upon a good idea when he was 17. There were continual references to his maturity, mostly from his mum, but what we saw instead was a normal 18-year-old with a few good ideas, money from his Dad and relatives, but no idea how to implement them.

The Jewish site he had started at home while suffering from ME was initially valued at £5 million but as the dotcom bubble burst, we saw it turn into SoJewish.com (from JewishNet), fail to launch on time and ultimately be bought out and shutdown by rival TotallyJewish. The dotcom millionaire ended up with the smaller (but still significant) sum of £215,000.

In the meantime though Ben had started a new venture - CyberBritain - which he swore he would never sell on and would be his swansong. Hiring and firing his teenage friends to work for him, based and funded by his Dad, family and family friends, he set out to make a fortune on the back of an adult search engine.

Things didn't go according to plan. Newspaper editorials lambasted his attempts to link Jewishness with porn sites, causing him to exclaim that "money has no morality" and "I've bigger fish to fry than the Jewish community". Unfortunately, he hasn't. His teenage "content manager" Daniel continually bemoaned his failure to go to university and "get pissed all the time". PA Lucy left saying "he's completely changed. I can't work for someone so highly strung and hot-tempered". Lee was sacked after his cold-calling sales pitches fell flat on their face.

And what of Ben's notorious temper? The BBC was kind enough to exorcise any tantrums from the screen. Instead, we had Ben's Dad warning him to behave while in his office and his mum telling of his paddy when she hired a waitress for his 18th birthday: "When the waitress turned up he screamed and shouted for 50 minutes and said he was cancelling the party."

Of all the scenes - Ben giving a sales pitch, taking part in a board meeting, talking to VCs - the one that seemed most real was of him and his friends a little worse for wear at the birthday party.

What of the search engine that will make Ben his fortune? We have queried his claims on how successful it really is in the past, but even with careful massaging, it doesn't look to be making money. At one board meeting, the financial director and friend of the family tried to impress the need to make money. "Do we actually have any income streams?" "We have identified income streams," replied Ben. It turned out that no one was actually looking after the core of the business - the adult search engine - and no one wanted to either. "I don't want anything to do with it," said Daniel. "I'd be very happy not to be in it but I don't want to give it away," said the FD.

The show ended on a high point - the signing of a deal with Affiliate which will push CyberBritain's search engine to its 150 corporate customers. This could bring Ben millions of pounds in the next few years, said the commentator. However, an Affiliate spokesman told us that no money was guaranteed - it's up to CyberBritain to make money off the back of it. The claims that the search engine was written by Ben in his bedroom weren't investigated any further, which is a shame because they would have found it bears a strong similarity to the Open Directory Project run by Netscape.

The fact is that Ben Cohen had a good idea at the right time and made himself over £200,000 into the bargain. For that he should be applauded. But if he is indicative of the generation of young dotcomers, then perhaps it's just as well the dotcom market has crashed. ®

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