‘You can Google Checkout any time you like, but you can never leave...’
Bringing Nothing To The Party: Revenge of the Nerds, with roasting
Book extract In our second extract of Bringing Nothing To The Party, entrepreneurial chancer Paul Carr finds himself enviably ensconced in a swanky Hertfordshire hotel at the pleasure of Google. But will he make it out alive?
The trouble started with one of those emails that you assume must be the result of an administrative error.
I’m writing from Google Europe ’06. We’re hosting an event later this year called ‘Zeitgeist’, bringing together some of the top thinkers in the Internet industry to discuss trends...
...Speakers include David Cameron, Peter Gabriel, Martin Sorrell ... and Google CEO Eric Schmidt...
I wondered whether you might be interested in either speaking at the event or joining a panel...
It must be a mistake. Why on earth would Google possibly invite me to contribute to an event like that? A former newspaper journalist whose only success to date was bringing together web and print. And they wanted to put me on the same bill as those guys? It just didn’t make any sense.
But at the same time, it sort of did.
A few months earlier, Google had launched a bold initiative to scan the world’s books and to make them searchable online, in the same way as they make websites searchable now. The plan had caused all kinds of outcry from traditional publishers, who claimed that by scanning books the search engine giant was breaching their copyright.
Evidently my experience in the middle of this strange internet and book publishing Venn diagram qualified me to be a speaker at this super-exclusive conference, hosted by the world’s biggest search engine. They were offering to put me up in the country house hotel that was hosting the two-day event. They would even give me a spare ticket for the second day of the event to allow me to bring along a friend. How could I resist?
Annoyingly, a couple of weeks before the event I got a second email. Due to scheduling issues, the email explained, there wasn’t going to be any room on the schedule for me to speak after all. Clearly Google had either found someone who was actually qualified to address such an illustrious audience or they’d realised that they’d invited the wrong person in the first place. My money was on the latter, but – the email went on – to make up for it they’d still be delighted to have me as their guest for the event, and I could still stay in a nice hotel. Although, now that I wasn’t a speaker, I would have to slum it in the hotel down the road with the other attendees – the CEOs of companies who advertised on Google and various other internet bosses. That suited me just fine. Five-star or four, a free shower cap is a free shower cap.
The event was to be hosted at the Grove hotel and spa in Hertfordshire, a venue so exclusive that the hotel’s website offers instructions for arriving by car, train, helicopter and boat (‘by boat: allow eight hours from London’s Regent’s Park’). I opted for the train and then took a minicab from the station.
"I’ll get as close as I can but it’s a bloody circus up there," said the cab driver when I told him where I was going. "What with all the TV cameras camped out."
"Really?" I asked. "TV cameras?" God, this must be an even bigger event than I thought.
"Yeah. They all want pictures of him, don’t they. David."
TV cameras camped out? For David Cameron? Christ, it must be a slow news week in Hertfordshire.
"Well, him and her, obviously, she’s here, too. You know, the missus. I might stick around myself and see if I can see her."
Now there’s no denying that David and Samantha Cameron have a certain glamour, but I was amazed that the cab driver was so impressed. It was only when we got to the hotel that it became obvious there was no way on earth this media scrum was here for the leader of the Conservative Party. Lining the driveway were men with huge cameras slung around their necks and behind them stood gangs of teenage girls holding signs saying "We Love You Becks!" and "Posh 4 Eva".
Fucking hell – Google had managed to get David and Victoria Beckham to speak at their conference. That was a hell of a coup – no wonder I’d been bumped. But what the hell could the great and the good of the internet industry possibly learn from the silent clothes horse out of the Spice Girls and a squeaky gonk whose only real skill was that he could kick a ball into a net better than almost anyone else?
I soon learned that David and Victoria weren’t at the hotel to meet Eric Schmidt or to join a panel on the internet and the environment. Instead, they had come to the spa in Hertfordshire with the rest of the England squad to relax and recover ahead of (or perhaps after) some important game or other (football is not my sport).
David and Victoria Beckham and the entire England squad, sharing a hotel and spa with the A list of geeks and nerds. For two whole days. This was going to be amazing, I thought. Like Revenge of the Nerds, but with roasting.
Unfortunately, the England management had taken some extreme steps to ensure that the England players weren’t disturbed during their stay, closing off large parts of the hotel to stop the press from getting inside, and presumably to avoid David and Victoria accidentally running into any nerds in checked shirts.
The event began with a grand soirée designed to bring together all the guests for mingling and canapés. The hotel’s ballroom had been decorated with all manner of technical fripperies, including dozens of elaborate lava lamps and a giant floor-projected virtual football pitch with animated balls that bounced off your feet as you walked across it. In the corner, a young magician wearing a back-to-front baseball cap made a playing card float in mid-air, to the envy of the men in suits and the amazement of the much younger and very attractive personal assistants many of the men had for some reason opted to bring with them to the remote spa in the middle of the countryside.
Realising that I literally brought nothing to the party, I decided to perch myself by one of the many free bars and engage in a bit of people-watching. And what people there were. CEOs of major companies; hugely successful dot com entrepreneurs from the first and second booms; a purse of top venture capitalists (yes, that’s the right collective noun); I swear an MP or two... and a flirt (ditto) of astonishingly pretty PR girls whose job it was to make sure everyone had a drink in their hand and was having a good time.
Naturally, I took my networking responsibilities seriously and shunned the once in a lifetime opportunity to mix with the cream of the cream of the business community in favour of chatting to a ridiculously hot and unconvincingly blonde PR girl called Emma. There’s always one called Emma.
Emma wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol while she was working, so between us we hit on a devious plan. I’d order a rum and Coke for myself, a tonic water for her and a straight vodka for my ‘friend’ who had gone to the loo. When no one from Google was looking, I’d empty the vodka into her tonic and no one would be any the wiser. Whenever one of her bosses came past we’d seamlessly switch from whatever we were really talking about to a heated debate about Google or some other search-engine-related issue.
Emma would be able to get slowly drunk while on duty and I would get to enjoy her company while neither of us had to talk to any of the dull men in suits mingling around us. I’d had about three or four rum and Cokes, and Emma had downed the same number of vodka tonics, when I spotted someone wearing a Google shirt heading towards the bar. It was time to put our fake conversation plan into action, pretending to be deep in discussion about something relevant.
"So, I have a theory about this event..." I began, loud enough to ensure that the Google person now standing to our left knew we were talking about work.
"Oh yes?" said Emma, playing along.
"Yes. It occurs to me that Google has hired this big hotel, invited the CEOs of some of its biggest potential rivals: the heads of rival internet companies, the heads of telecoms companies, MPs who are in charge of competition legislation, that kind of thing."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Google person eyeing us up. He had even stopped talking to his friend. Good, he had obviously heard me. Our cover was safe.
"Well, it’s a bit Hotel California, isn’t it? How do I know they haven’t invited all these people here just to bump us off? What if they’ve poisoned the canapés to get rid of the competition?" It seemed like a solid enough conspiracy theory to me. Why else would Google invite so many potential competitors to a spa and be so nice to us?
But before poor Emma could answer, the man from Google decided to jump in.
"Hey, buddy," he asked, in a thick Californian drawl. "Did I just hear you say you think we’re gonna kill you?"
His companion – a tall Australian fellow in a suit – piped up as well. "Well that’s ridiculous, mate. That’s stupid. What kind of faakin’ ridiculous, stupid thing is that to say?" He was clearly a bit pissed, but then so was I, so I could hardly say anything. (Although I was doing a better job on that front than he was.)
"Well, you have to admit," I joked, stroking my chin in a sinister fashion. "It does seem very convenient."
"That’s just ridiculous," said the Californian. "Why would we do that? That’s just stupid." The man was clearly taking my allegations very seriously; there had evidently been a huge irony breakdown somewhere. California, probably.
"Ah, yes, but they laughed at Groucho Marx," I pointed out. "Anyway, can’t stop, got to mingle." I wandered off, chuckling at my joke, in search of some more canapés.
The next morning, slightly hungover and, having forgotten to book myself a wake-up call, ten minutes late for David Cameron’s opening speech in which he had promised to lay out his vision for a Britain driven by increasing GWB (General Well Being) rather than GDP, whatever that meant. I ambled up to the reception table to collect my passes to the various events.
"Hello," I said to the woman at the desk. "Paul Carr, sorry I’m late. I think you’ve got some tickets for me."
"Ah, yes, Mr Carr. Really glad you could make it – sorry about the mix-up with the speaking schedule. Actually, would you mind waiting for a moment, my boss wanted to have a quick word..."
"Of course, no problem at all." She probably just wanted to apologise again for cancelling my talk. How nice. But as the head of PR came round the corner, her face a mask of seriousness, I could tell she had something else on her mind. In fact she looked really cross. Oh God, what had I done? I cast my mind back to the previous night – had I been really drunk? No, I remember getting back to the hotel. The party was too boring for any of that kind of madness.
Had Emma confessed to our booze scam? No, she was a PR. A professional liar.
"Hi... Paul... er, can we go round here for a quick word?" she asked, guiding me behind a giant ‘Welcome to Google Zeitgeist’ board. "It’s just that we’ve had... er... a bit of a complaint from one of our people about you."
"A complaint? I’ve only been here 12 hours – what on earth could I have done wrong in that time?"
"Well, apparently there was a bit of a disagreement last night at the party. Did you tell one of our PR people that you thought we were trying to kill you?"
"What? No, of course I didn’t!"
Well, yes, I did.
"But... oh for goodness sake, are you serious?"
"Apparently one of our guys was at the bar talking to the CEO of ——— and they heard you saying you thought we had some sinister ulterior motive."
Oh, shit, the tall gobby Australian was only the CEO of - a huge financial services company and one of Google’s biggest clients. Exactly the sort of person you don’t want to overhear someone accusing your company of trying to murder. And the Californian with him was clearly the most humourless prick in the history of the world.
If the look on the head of PR’s face hadn’t been so serious, I’d have laughed out loud. I felt like I was back at school, being hauled up in front of our head of sixth form for sabotaging the headmaster’s microphone on speech day. Trying desperately not to crack a smile as I spoke, I explained the entire situation – the Hotel California joke, the fact that her Californian colleague was a humourless dick. The fact that the Australian was bizarrely rude.
"And, anyway, you’d have to be a fucking idiot not to realise I was joking."
Suddenly I realised she’d been trying not to smile, too. We both failed at the same time. "Jesus," she said. "Well, there does seem to have been a, erm, sense of humour failure. So you don’t think we’re trying to kill you?"
"Absolutely not," I said.
"In that case, I suppose I can let you off. And if you have any more trouble from people with no sense of humour, just come and see me."
"Will do," I said. "Thanks."
But as I walked away, I had to admit if I had accidentally hit upon a secret plot to kill us all she’d dealt with it brilliantly.
Just to be on the safe side I decided that, at the gala dinner that evening, I’d sit near the door.