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Bringing Nothing to the Party: Ben Cohen and the art of the press release

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In our third extract from Paul Carr's book Bringing Nothing to the Party, the nascent net-botherer muses on one particularly irksome and precocious flash in the dot com pan...

During the post-bubble years, between 2000 and 2004, the entire dot com industry was in turmoil. No one could agree whether we were seeing an industry in its death throes or whether the downturn was just (as many optimists claimed) 'a correction', a natural response by the market to weed out sky-high valuations and bad businesses.

Generally, those who survived the crash remained firmly in the 'correction' camp, while those who had lost everything loudly declared that they were simply the innocent victims of an overhyped industry, fuelled by the high expectations of the press and the ridiculous overconfidence of investors. No one, they protested, could possibly succeed under those conditions.

It was that latter camp that most riled me, but also most appealed to my sense of Schadenfreude. These smug wankers who had grinned out from the front of business magazines and newspapers across the world, these young entrepreneurs, some not even out of school, who claimed fortunes (on paper at least) in the tens of millions.

God, I hated them.

God, I envied them.

But now they'd lost everything and instead of shrugging and saying 'ah well, it was good while it lasted, and fuck it, I'm still only 22', they blamed the market, the press, the fact that they were ahead of their time. Anything to avoid admitting their complicity in the bullshit instant-fame machine that they thought would make them rich.

My favourite example of this phenomenon was Benjamin Cohen.

Benjamin - Ben - Cohen is one of that rare breed of people: someone I took a passionate dislike to from the very first time I heard his name, without even having met him. Actually, I should clarify that - it wasn't his name that made me dislike him; that would make me sound like an enormous anti-Semite (in fact, some of my best friends control the media and killed Jesus).

No, the reason I took an instant dislike to Ben Cohen is that he was everything I wanted to be: someone who during the dot com bubble had created a virtual media empire out of nothing and in doing so had managed to convince the press that he was not just a genius, but a rich genius. And all before he was 20.

The story goes a little like this.

Once upon a time (1998) there was a 16-year-old boy called Ben. Ben decided that there was a gap in the market for a site offering everything the modern Jew-about-town could need: Jewish news, Jewish advice, a calendar of Jewish holiday dates, Jewish discussion rooms and so on. He called it soJewish, because that's the sort of name someone with no imagination whatsoever would call such a site. (I would call it 'Look! Jews Talking!)

Before long the site had become reasonably popular, with thousands of people visiting every week. SoFar, SoGood. But Cohen didn't just want to be an entrepreneur - he wanted to be a celebrity; and what better way for a slightly dorky kid to become a celebrity on the eve of the dot com boom than by becoming a teenage millionaire?

So that's exactly what he became.

And here's how he did it. He simply phoned up, wrote to and otherwise buttonholed as many journalists as he could find and told them 'my company has been valued at millions of pounds'. Now of course, Fleet Street's finest are no mere hacks - so they went away and fact-checked Ben's claims, demanding proof of his self-confirmed valuation.

Just kidding. They are hacks.

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