Believe your own hype - always
Bringing Nothing to the Party: Ben Cohen and the art of the press release
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.
'His company is worth millions!' they repeated. 'And if his company is worth that, and he owns the company, then that means he is worth millions as well! He's a millionaire! A teenage millionaire! Hold the front page!'
But Cohen didn't stop there. After soJewish, he decided to expand his empire, creating a whole network of sites under the brand 'Cyberbritain.com'. And appropriately enough for a network with such a porny sounding name, the first two Cyberbritain sites were porn sites - Hunt4Porn.com and dotadults.com - both naked (sorry) attempts to attract the sticky white pound. The pitch? That the sites would provide the best way for one-handed surfers to find adult websites. Other ways include: close eyes, throw rock, hit porn site. The reality? The site was just some tacky window dressing that Cohen had bolted on to an existing public-domain listing of hard- and soft-core smut.
But there was still a boom on and, again, the press lapped it up. Everyone knew that sex sells, and lazy journalists could only speculate what adding an 'adult' arm to a company already 'worth' 'five' 'million' 'pounds' would do to its valuation. But fortunately, they didn't have to - Ben was quite happy to tell them exactly what it did to his company's valuation. It increased it immeasurably, he explained.
There was no doubt about it: he was now Britain's richest teenage dot com entrepreneur.
Even if he did say so himself.
Of course, all of this smacks of jealousy on my part. If I could have achieved even half of his success while still producing almost no original content or having any original ideas, I'd have done it in a heartbeat. Well, of course I would.
But... and here comes the but... BUT there is something very wrong about peddling other people's porn, creating tons of artificial wealth on the back of it, and then pretending you hated doing it. Which is what Cohen did the moment the market crashed and the hype dried up.
Four years after creating soJewish, Hunt4Porn and the rest, Cohen sent out a press release to journalists, marking the occasion of his 20th birthday. Reading through it, I was absolutely stunned. This was, after all, the guy who had spent the last half-decade or so relentlessly promoting himself and his media empire. The man who had gladly given journalists quotes about his wealth and how he was changing the world. A man who was quoted in a TV interview saying 'money has no morality'. And now, after the dot com industry collapses, he sends out this. A press release to mark his birthday. And what a press release...
Once I'd finished reading it, I immediately hit the forward button and sent it to my friend Sam Lewis, annotated with my own comments. Here's exactly what I sent (the text in bold is from the press release; the italics are my comments)...
To: Sam Lewis
From: Paul Carr
Subject: Total genius or unbelievable dick - you decide...
The Last of the Teenage Dot.Com Millionaires is to Disappear... He's turning twenty
A strong start. If the secret of a good press release is to grab journalists' attention with a strong title then he's played a blinder. When I read that title, my attention was immediately grabbed by the fact that I was suddenly vomiting involuntarily on my own shoes.
Benjamin Cohen has been at the forefront of one of the most innovative industries that the UK has ever seen, the dot com industry. Founder of soJewish.com, the community portal, he was thrust into the limelight at the tender age of 16.
Yeah, thrust into the limelight like Michael Douglas was thrust into Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or Harold Shipman was thrust into murdering old people.
Figures of £5m were quoted for his personal stake in the business. As it goes...
As it goes? As it goes?! - another useful tip, Ben, don't get your press release drafted by a chirpy Essex builder.
...the company merged with the London Jewish News... and then reversed into Totally plc on the AIM market. For a day Cohen was the youngest director of a publicly quoted company ever. His share in Totally was not worth anything like the £5m that was quoted two years earlier, it was valued at £310,000...
Hang on. Let me read that again. Is he saying he wasn't a millionaire at all? He's admitting it was never true? He lied in the title of his press release and then admitted it three paragraphs later? That's pretty ballsy.
...but had reduced to £40,000 when he came to sell his stake.
So in pounds sterling, he was actually a forty thousandaire. In what currency was he a millionaire? Yen?
Cohen was hyped from day one of his media debut. However, this was not by PR people - he had none - but by the press. Speculating at his stake in the business, Ben was made into a millionaire.
...and now the Oscar for most disingenuous paragraph in a bullshit press release. The envelope, please.
Cohen for his part never truly believed what was said about him and his bank balance and realised that at the end of the day he'd be very lucky to walk away from SoJewish.com with a few hundred thousand pounds.
[Said Cohen] 'When I look back at the way that I was... I cringe. I was at the top of an industry that was built on sand. I was carried away with the fact that I, a mere 17 year old had as much experience as anyone else at building an Internet company.' 'I can remember how rude I could be at times to journalists and people phoning up for advice. Back then, I could be as obnoxious as I liked and people would still come back for more, they had to, I was Benjamin Cohen, the Dot Com sensation.'
Also, Benjamin Cohen, the cock.
...Shortly after the [BBC2 Trouble at the Top documentary that followed Cohen and his 'businesses' as they struggled to make money] was screened Benjamin says he grew up. 'I realised the stupidity of what was going on, there was no concentration on key revenue streams, it was all about land grab and not about money. I decided that the only way there would be a future was to start to cut back.'
Benjamin also decided to start a degree at King's College London in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics. This, he says, has also forced him to grow up. 'The added work load of a degree has made me focus a lot more when I am in work. I still manage to spend around 40 hours a week at work but it is a lot more focused on what can make money as opposed to what makes me look good in the papers.'
He added... in a press release... sent to THE PAPERS.
'I think that really I spent too much time flirting with the media and not enough time working in the early years.'
His three-page PRESS RELEASE continues.
The degree has also made Benjamin rethink his impressions of internet pornography, a subject that he has been criticised for in the past. CyberBritain.com owned Hunt4Porn.com, Europe's first and largest adult search engine. Destined to cause controversy, Cohen has always displayed mixed views towards this aspect of his empire.
'In one sense I still stand by the comments that I made last year about freedom of speech and the right of the individual to access pornography. Yet I have come to realise that there is really little money that I can make out of it.'
The above might actually be my favourite paragraph, not just in this press release, but in any press release ever sent. It's a heart-warming tale of Damascene conversion...
God: 'You know, Saul, there's really very little money to be made in persecuting Christians.'
Saul: 'Good point, God. I think I'll change my ways. Call me Paul.'
Benjamin has grown up into a sensitive and sensible young man. He has dispensed of his obnoxious, brash manner of the past into quite the perfect gentleman. He has the ability to laugh at himself and realise his faults but most importantly, change them.
Seriously, Sam, I PROMISE I didn't make this up. 'Quite the perfect gentleman'!
'I prefer the new me a million [*] times more than the old one. I much prefer the calmer, sensitive and perceptive nearly twentysomething than the excitable temperamental teenager.'
Benjamin Cohen was the first and the last dotcom teenage millionaire...
No, he wasn't. He's just admitted that. Do you think he even read this thing as he was writing it?
...sure there were many after he first appeared but they disappeared from the scene long ago. He's excited that the label will finally be dropped and he can become Benjamin Cohen, the businessman, student, media commentator and human being.'
Well, one out of four ain't bad. Although, if he's really off to university I can't wait for his next press releases...
Benjamin Cohen: 'The media claimed I'd got off with my housemate while I was drunk, but that was just hype...'
Benjamin Cohen: 'Why reports of my £4.5m student loan were greatly exaggerated.'
Benjamin Cohen: 'My mixed views on downloading tons of porn while I should be revising.'
It wasn't just Sam and I who were having fun at Ben Cohen's expense. The release was not exactly well received by the new media press, with many - including The Register - simply printing the release verbatim and inviting readers to make their own comments.
You see, journalists will tolerate falling victim to hype; they'll tolerate overblown valuations and they'll even embrace precocious 16-year-olds who claim to be worth millions, while the journalists themselves struggle to pay their rent. Yes, we're jealous and we're bitter, but we have a job to do and, in a boom, we're your bitches.
But when the market crashes and the same precocious kid sends a press release admitting that it was all bullshit: hoo boy, then your ass is ours...