In hindsight, the stripper pole in the living room should probably have raised more red flags.
As I checked into an Airbnb on Shoreditch High Street in east London in the summer of 2014, I was more worried about the grimy staircase leading up to the flat and the noisy railway line outside my window. But at least my host, a peppy American named Jennifer Arcuri, was friendly, welcoming me with a bowl of pasta.
We quickly discovered we knew many of the same people. In addition to being an Airbnb, the flat doubled as Ms Arcuri’s start-up headquarters. I was passing back through London after two years in San Francisco as a Financial Times correspondent there. As the reporter with the dubious honour of being the first to write about Silicon Roundabout, the area around Old Street that was home to a clutch of nascent technology start-ups, I had met several entrepreneurs on my host’s cosy circuit.
This weekend, The Sunday Times reported that Boris Johnson, the then London mayor and now British prime minister, was a “regular visitor” to that Shoreditch flat. Mr Johnson was a “close friend” of my host, the newspaper alleged, raising questions about conflicts of interest, when Ms Arcuri won public money grants for her businesses and joined him on overseas “trade missions”.
Ms Arcuri has brushed away the innuendo, saying the grants and trips were “purely in respect of my role as a legitimate businesswoman”; Mr Johnson denied any impropriety.
London’s tech community seemed pretty incestuous in those days. It was a small world where an energetic American newcomer like Ms Arcuri could quickly rack up hundreds of LinkedIn connections. But after some years covering the industry from both sides of the Atlantic, by 2014 I was struggling to foresee a grown-up “Tech City”, as the government had tried to rebrand it, ever emerging from adolescent Silicon Roundabout.
Hyped east London start-ups such as Mind Candy, maker of the children’s online game Moshi Monsters, online radio pioneer Last.fm, and Dopplr, the travel site (whose founder coined the name Silicon Roundabout as a joke), were all fizzling out. Several of the city’s more prominent founders had already fled to Silicon Valley in search of higher valuations and better weather.
Even the Roundabout’s hangers-on were letting go. Two years before I met her, I was invited to one of Ms Arcuri’s InnoTech summits at the Grand Connaught Rooms hotel, at which the highest billing, after Mr Johnson, went to a keynote from one Milo Yiannopoulos.
A former Daily Telegraph blogger who was running tech news site The Kernel, Mr Yiannopoulos was at the centre of the London tech scene and was already showing his considerable talents as an antagonist, especially of the Tech City Investment Organisation, and picking headline-generating Twitter spats. Even those founders who had managed to stay on the right side of his poison pen were shocked when he went to work for Steve Bannon’s rightwing news site, Breitbart, in 2014. His rapid ascent to Donald Trump-supporting uber-troll, banned by Facebook and Twitter for hate speech and harassment, still gnaws at the consciences of his former drinking buddies and peers.
These days, London’s tech scene has real substance to match the hype, thanks to the likes of food-delivery company Deliveroo, founded in 2013, and Monzo, Revolut and OakNorth, London’s fintech “unicorns”, which all got started in 2015. Some of those are staffed with entrepreneurs who cut their teeth on the earlier start-ups; learning to fail is a badge of honour in Silicon Valley and London’s venture capitalists have long urged their companies to embrace this more ambitious approach.
But in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crash, politicians, investors and, yes, reporters, were all too eager to will London’s tech scene into existence. There were breakfasts at 10 Downing Street and parties at Buckingham Palace long before there were any really big companies or billion-dollar exits to celebrate. No wonder wannabes, freeloaders and groupies often outnumbered the real entrepreneurs and investors.
Start-up founders are encouraged to “fake it ’till you make it”, and the same went for Tech City itself.
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