Newsnight goes sour on Tech City miracle
Notes on a VC? I'd be delighted, says Andrew Orlowski
+Sketch BBC's Newsnight decided to get a reality check on Britain's economic miracle of East London's "Tech City Cluster" on Friday, and asked me if I'd like to contribute.
With a hangover and not much sleep the night before? Of course I would. Radio 4's Today and BBC2's Newsnight are invitations you don't turn down if you think you've got something useful to say. For one night only, you get to be media luvvie, do air-kissing, and tweet about yourself in the third person – like Werner Herzog, or Julian Assange.
The production team sounded very well briefed and wanted something more skeptical, more empirical, than the infantile "be a startup wonderkid" hype. And I hadn't "done Newsnight" since the Google IPO 10 years ago.
Now here at The Register we leave Tech City coverage to an expert: Steve Bong. What Bong describes is a leisure scene rather than a business scene, one that provides a gap year alternative to learning juggling in Goa for upper middle class children; and it exists largely because of government subsidies. Suddenly there's a vast panoply of Launchpads and Catapults and we must make everything more Googly – even if means sacrificing the individual along the way. (A fine recent Esquire profile captured some of this).
But while Steve thinks all this is exciting, and makes Britain look great, I think it's a fantasy world that makes us look superficial and stupid. I think the economy needs more companies like ARM and Dyson, based on real scientific and engineering talent and invention and protected by strong IP. It does not need social networks for pets.
I think British values are unique and superior to Californian values: we respect the individual, and we leave something on the table when we do business, for example. So it is we who should be educating companies from Silicon Valley – which have rather bungled the opportunities they seized – rather than "learning" from them. And we need to be much more ambitious.
The problem is: my view is the boring conventional wisdom. Except where it isn't – to wit: inside the media bubble of programme-makers, policy wonks and consultants. They appear to completely buy into the internet startup fantasy. Anyone who disagrees (or wants to slow down the gravy train) is a provincial dinosaur. Or worse, some kind of stone age anarchist. This leaves the critic with a tricky job.
I scribbled down a few one-liners that might work.
Tech City and "Year of Code" fulfill a kind of fantasy for the media and political elites. We think social mobility is a good idea, but it's dying in Britain: our pop stars are now public schoolboys and public schoolgirls. Children of media people or politicians become the next generation of media people or politicians. The fantasy is that "the tech scene" or "the internet" will make Britain more of a meritocracy. It'll fix social mobility. Yes, that sounded quite good. I'd try to use that.
My taxi driver was a web-trepreneur (no really)
By a weird coincidence, my taxi driver for the ride to the W1A studios – I know, stories that begin with with those words are almost always fictional, but this one isn't – provided a great counterpoint to the fantasy. He had started a web business 10 years ago offering directory listings. After two years it was making a profit. Here he was, driving a taxi. What happened? I asked. Google had moved into the same territory, and chopped them off at the knees.
There was a half-drunk bottle of wine in the Green Room. My sparring partner soon entered. She was an experienced Silicon Valley technology marketing pro who had become a London VC called Eileen Burbidge. She had run a seed VC called Passion Capital and started a workspace in White Bear Yard, a spit away from El Reg. She was a bit puzzled why Newsnight had invited The Register, rather than one of Tech City's cheesy barkers, like Mike Butcher.
"I think we're supposed to rip each other's throats out," I assured her. "But don't worry, I'll be very nice."
She'd worked at Sun Microsystems. Did she know Scott McNealy well? Not really, it turned out. She struck me as very competent and businesslike, and was tweeting or messaging (I couldn't be sure which) every few seconds from her BlackBerry Bold. As we chatted, I said my problem was really with the government and media's emphasis on internet startups. The reward and value goes to companies that solve really hard problems.
"Mind if I tweet that? 'Andrew Orlowski has a problem with internet startups'?"
I tried not to roll my eyes. "I'd rather you didn't."
It was an etiquette breach that was actually a bit prophetic – I just didn't realise it at the time.
(Full disclosure: I tweeted too. "Last chance for product placement - any purveyors of fine luncheon meat?")
Need to find a dentist? We have just the thing...
In the studio I found it hard to follow David Grossman's film that preceded the discussion, as both studio playback screens were out of sync. Only later did I realise that the last words - "is it just a bubble hyped by the media and political class?" had been perfectly set up for me.
The discussion flew by at terrifying speed. When you have a hyper-aggressive sparring partner like Burbidge, who interrupts frequently, you can either go into full fingerwagging mode, or try to pick your moment carefully.
I realised that rather than talking about "the Tech City Cluster", which is what Grossman's film had been about, Burbidge counted almost anything as East London or Tech City's own. She cited a high-tech manufacturing company "in Somerset" that made drones. And a machine learning startup founded by Demis Hassabis (who had studied for a neuroscience PhD at the University of London, and was backed by Li Ka-Shing's investment fund).
Neither had anything to do with Rohan Silva's Tech City cluster. Perhaps it was time to mention some of Passion Capital's seed bets. How about Toothpick.com, which finds a dentist near you. And that's pretty much it - it finds you a dentist. Near you. Just like Google does, but without Google's vast behavioural database (Google will be able to find your secret lover's dentist). Was Toothpick the future of British business? It didn't even look like the future of looking for a dentist.
No. Too personal. I now rather wish I had. You can judge for yourself, here. The report starts at 14:25, and the gabbing at 19:38.
After years of slack-jawed hype, Newsnight's report is another sign that people are getting weary of bandwagons rolling round and watching other people climb on and off. Things might be changing.
And I'd stop there, if it wasn't for something surprising that happened the next day.
I have a protected, aka locked down Twitter account - don't worry, just ask, I've never rejected anyone - which for a media luvvie is doing it all wrong. But it works nicely for me.
The next day I tweeted a screenshot of a friendly email I'd had from a major British tech investor, who made a snidey about Burbidge's investment in Lulu, the notorious social network for women.
Without asking, Burbidge then retweeted it, taking my image out of my little closed group of 500 people, and putting it on the internet. I asked nicely, with a luvvie x, if she could so kindly delete it. She told me to get stuffed, pointing me to what she thought was a loophole in the copyright law allowing her to do what she wanted with my photo, as it had been posted through TwitPic.
Oh dear. We'd only just met, and she'd become the first person (and hopefully last) I blocked on Twitter. She's since deleted her refusal to take down the picture on her side of the conversation, and so as not to stir things up further, I'll leave my screengrabs on the hard drive.
Just imagine: a "Tech City" VC not having a clue about IP - and trying to steamroller over people who assert their rights! Who'd have thought it, eh?
No wonder they want to change the rules. ®