When Noel Gallagher was ruminating about meeting Tony Blair at Number 10 Downing St in 1997 he said: “I was 30, off me head on drugs, and everyone telling me we were the greatest band since who knows. Then the prime minister invites you round for a glass of wine. It all becomes part of the high.”
There was more than an echo from that moment when, in the era of roughly 2011-14 tech startup founders became as common as 90s Britpop stars to frequent the hallways of Number 10, and tech conferences almost turned into pop concerts.
It was 2014 and the London tech sector had switched from the kind of party a teenager hopes someone might turn up to, to being swarmed by random hordes after the details are posted on Facebook.
It hadn’t always been like this. Years earlier in another era, a Christmas bash thrown by Sarah Brown at Number 10 Downing Street, called “Downing Tweet”, had been a great party, but a false dawn for London’s tech scene. The only time the UK government took notice of the tech geeks was when it issued vast public sector IT contracts.
By the time of the ConLib coalition, and with the recession in full flow, any sign of economic activity attracted Number 10’s attention. So when Rohan Silva, David Cameron’s policy special adviser, started throwing “Tech City” Breakfasts in the Rose Garden of Number 10, suddenly tech entrepreneurs and politicians were rubbing shoulders. This was the tech sector’s Britpop moment, where startup founders had replaced the rock stars off old.
Like all over-night success stories, the real work had started years previously. Hunting down cheap offices, startups in London had gravitated towards the old industrial buildings of Shoreditch, alongside the many creative agencies and artists that had moved in years earlier.
In 2008, Tech startup Dopplr and others subletted desks from Moo Studios, 100 City Road, directly overlooking the Old Street roundabout. That summer as the music pumped and the drink flowed, deep in the bowels of the Vibe Bar at the traditional Moo.com summer party the phrase “Silicon Roundabout” was born. And so was the running joke to get the phrase into the newspapers. But the success was real, as evidenced by Last.FM’s acquisition by CBS for $280 million.
Egged-on by George Osborne, Google agreed to create the Google Campus in Shoreditch. TechHub became the first London tech co-working space.
On November 4th 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron took to the stage to announce a welter of plans to recognise East London’s growing technology startup community. With the Prime Minister turning up on “Silicon Roundabout” the entire movement had gone mainstream, and the heady-mix of political power and tech cool was cast.
Into this world came a new kind of tech event entrepreneur: Jennifer Arcuri.
This newly-minted MBA student would have been just another fixture on the tech scene, but for one simple fact: mayor Boris Johnson. Realising he’d been left out of Cameron’s party, he used her first event to grab some of the tech coolness. The previously unknown American was thus catapulted from obscurity into the big league, overnight, complete with Britpop-eque Union Jacks plastered everywhere.
Other events like Silicon Drinkabout flowered. Companies like Moshi Monsters, Mixcloud, Skimlinks and Songkick sprung up. “Silicon Roundabout” was becoming a media sensation. Suddenly the Sunday supplements were full of computer engineers with beards.
But Arcuri was perhaps the most adept of these new movers and shakers. She had the most important prerequisites of any entrepreneur of that era: huge chutzpah and personality that could fill a stadium. And, importantly for British entrepreneurs and politicians still slavishly watching breaking news from Silicon Valley, an American accent.
A natural networking maven, she’d throw parties at her Shoreditch flat. Entrepreneur group “ICE” loved to hang at the pad. As in the 60s – if you could remember what happened, you weren’t really there.
Likewise, Arcuri’s “Innotech Summit” events were billed as being at the centre of the ‘swinging London tech’ scene. But although Arcuri had “bootstrapped” her events with her own money and had some private sponsorship, as time wore on her conferences were increasingly underpinned by thousands of pounds of public funding. And she clearly enjoyed the heady mix of public and private association, branding her events “policy discussions”.
A year or so before, David Cameron had created the Tech City Investment Organisation and given it a temporary staff. But when emails crossed my inbox suggested Arcuri might go for the permanent role, I nearly spat out my Americano. The prospect of her running TCIO’s million-pound annual budget for a government-run body to promote tech seemed very odd indeed.
In the background, a puckish Milo Yiannopoulos started lobbying for Arcuri. Although he was still a few years away from switching into full Alt-Right mode, he was already a figure living off the bubblish atmosphere.
Puzzled, I asked one Arcuri supporter why it was that Johnson would only ever go to her tech conferences. He’d avoided London Web Summit, and even the prestigious Founders Forum. The reply came that he “enjoyed” InnoTech events more. And it was plain at the events exactly how much he did enjoy them.
Who could have blamed a young ambitious woman for joining the bandwagon with her own vehicle? As an entrepreneurial business woman, she had secured the Mayor of London as an almost regular speaker, no mean feat.
With Cameron and Johnson all over tech, entrepreneurs suddenly found themselves able to talk directly to the policy makers. The UK had beaten the US to an entrepreneur-friendly Startup Visa, Google had opened Campus London, and Amazon and Facebook began moves to bring engineer-led labs to the area. There were new tax breaks for angel investors and many other tech friendly policy initiatives.
But in the end Arcuri didn’t get the big job. A big hitter was wooed to join the Tech City project: namely Facebook’s CEO in Europe, Joanna Shields. Shields had famously been part of the crack team which sold Bebo to AOL for $850 million. It would have been a perfect time for Johnson to seize the initiative.
In December 2012, the UK government gave the GLA a chance at £50m to regenerate the increasingly dilapidated Old Street Roundabout area. The money would go towards establishing a new “civic space” dedicated to start-ups and entrepreneurs in East London. 3D printing labs, classrooms and auditoriums were planned.
Did Boris meet the challenge? No. The window to secure the funding was missed. Boris had missed the deadline, and his chance at securing his tech legacy.
As 2014 arrived, Arcuri’s enthusiasm for Innotech seemed to have waned, and so had the mayor’s. For Johnson, a UK general election loomed the following year and his interest in the tech industry dried up. Acrcuri moved on, into cyber security training and, by all accounts, managed to get on to more events and trade missions.
Back in Shoreditch, put-off by higher rents and bigger firms muscling in, startups began to move out of the increasingly pricey Silicon Roundabout.
The London tech scene had had its moment in the sun, and the startups had spread throughout the city. For a brief moment, “Tech Britannia”, as some tried to brand it, had supplanted the 90s “Cool Britannia”, and just as then, the tech rock stars had left with a bad taste in the mouth.
Watching a ‘Conchita Wurst’ lookalike to close the annual “Europas Awards” for tech startups with the “Rise Like a Phoenix” torch song that had taken the 2014 Eurovision by storm, I wondered if London’s tech scene had officially entered the realm of parody. When Arcuri and Yiannopoulos started genuflecting before the stage, I figured I was right.
Mike Butcher is editor-at-large at TechCrunch