In the week that TechHub moves to Google Campus London, The Kernel begins its six-part series on east London’s best-known co-working space. We start with a few of the more colourful complaints we’ve received since soliciting contributions from our readers.
As the technology scene in east London matures, what were previously sacred cows are coming under heightened scrutiny. Questions are now being asked of the Tech City Investment Organisation, the Technology Strategy Board and even TechCrunch Europe, as reported at various times by The Kernel. It is only natural, then, that east London’s pre-eminent co-working space, TechHub, should eventually fall under the microscope.
This week, London’s best-known office space for start-ups, 50 per cent owned by TechCrunch’s European editor Mike Butcher and 50 per cent owned and managed day-to-day by chief executive Elizabeth Varley, who previously co-organised the charity event Twestival London, moves to Google’s Campus London, as a steady and ever-more public trickle of unedifying and distasteful vignettes, yet to translate into tangible negative press, begins to leak out.
TechHub is the subject of much debate, with allegations of mismanagement, comical self-regard and outlandish and offensive stunts by staff circulating the London technology community, often focused on the office space’s controversial chief executive. In this and the next five articles in the series, The Kernel attempts to get to the bottom of the rumours and occasionally gruesome anecdotes surrounding one of London tech’s most iconic presences.
To frame our discursive six-part series, we begin today with some testimony about the early days of TechHub from former residents, whose stories can be unsettling and which suggest a lack of oversight from Butcher, who has recently attempted to distance himself from the running of the business amid claims that his role as a highly influential technology journalist presents an unacceptable conflict of financial interest.
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The most commonly-related tale we have heard, among many lurid and peculiar tableaux, concerns Elizabeth Varley’s boyfriend, far-Left activist and “performance artist” Mike Marcus, who is also a member of TechHub staff and was seen, scarcely believably, shredding copies of the Bible, Koran and Torah next to TechHub’s reception last year – in his words, as a “political stunt”. This shocking allegation has been corroborated by four separate start-ups to whom The Kernel has spoken in the last seven days and will be regarded as particularly offensive by TechHub’s Muslim residents, who regard the Koran as the unalterable word of God and copies of it as sacred texts.
Marcus, who is known to the police and was pictured in several national newspapers during the “occupation” of Fortnum & Mason during the London riots, has been reported as boasting about his prior arrests and his attempts to get detained at airports. His intentions are said to be the filming and dissemination of footage of his own incarceration.
Striking a light-hearted tone, one of the start-ups who reported the shredding incident to The Kernel said today: “Quite aside from the loony politics, I had to wait four hours to get to the shredder. It sounds funny, but this happened at a time when we were doing our investment and I had loads of documents from the due diligence process that I couldn’t leave lying around.
“Like everyone else, I did wonder how appropriate for a supposedly business-focused office space this sort of ‘art attack’ was, and it made me feel uncomfortable to be around [Marcus]. It’s one of the reasons I moved out shortly afterwards. Why is this man allowed to literally run riot at TechHub? And why on earth did Mike Butcher give him a TechHub email address?”
[Editor's Note: Marcus, who describes himself as "controversial" on his website and whose artwork consists of shredded Israeli passports, but who is responsible, according to his email signature, for TechHub's international business development, recently threw a glass of wine over the author of this report at a Google event in response to prior criticisms published in The Kernel.]
Start-up founders who criticised TechHub in the early days for its “shabby decor” and “unwelcoming atmosphere” should count themselves lucky they were mostly male: two female residents have told The Kernel that they found filthy cleansing utensils and water bottles left in the female toilets relating to the chief executive’s intimate vaginal affairs. The women concerned were understandably perplexed that what they described as “moon-cup cleaning apparatus” should be left out on display – for months on end.
“The whole thing felt a bit like a grubby sixth form common room,” says another former TechHub member, who declined to be named. “I know we were were one of the first residents there, but even the internet was a bit iffy. There was construction everywhere. I haven’t been there for a while and I’m sure things have improved, but it wasn’t ready at all when we moved in.
“Nor was the accounting great. I had to go through and check who owed who money, which was intensely irritating as we were in the middle of a round and had to tot up our contingent liabilities. Not deal-breaking stuff, but definitely an extra headache I could have lived without. It did make me wonder where their priorities were.”
“It always felt as though TechHub was concerned more with politics than business,” agreed a third founder, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he is still a member of TechHub. “They were sucking up to Downing Street while the place was becoming rapidly dilapidated and was terminally mismanaged.”
One person comfortable enough to go on the record is Housebites chief executive Simon Prockter, who feels short-changed by TechHub, though he was at pains today to stress that he remains a member because he believes TechHub is “a good idea” and he wants to “support the community”.
“I joined right at the beginning,” he said. “No one spoke to me. No one spoke to anyone. That’s still the underlying problem at TechHub: no one talks. Mike’s always in a bad mood, Elizabeth’s always aloof and looks too important to speak to anyone.
“It’s impossible getting an answer out of them even about simple things. I once asked for a quote to use the venue and it took them three weeks to get back to me with an astronomical price. In the meantime, other spaces, including some of their competitors, had replied, some of them offering their spaces for free.
“In general, I was shocked by the lack of knowledge about who was who, the lack of encouragement other than very awkward Tuesday drinks once a month and the lack of introductions and help. This despite Elizabeth swanning off to conferences and talking about ‘her start-ups’. I certainly didn’t feel like one of ‘hers’.
“They don’t mind using Housebites’ name when they’re showing people around the space, even though we’ve moved out, yet just last week they got the name of our company wrong in their newsletter, calling us Foodbites. It was really embarrassing. And a while ago they tweeted asking if there were any food delivery companies in the area. I mean, really.
“They also hosted a big food event in their space without even telling us it was happening, let alone asking us if we’d like to take part. Imagine if it had been a car-sharing event and they hadn’t told Drummond [Gilbert, chief executive of Gocarshare and a TechHub member] about it.
“They host a lot of events, which is good for the community, but the founders act as though they’re too important to get involved. It’s supposed to be a collaborative space, but they barely even know who we are.”
Prockter agrees that TechHub’s chief executive appears more concerned with her own media profile than with running the business. “Lots of people have said that to me,” he said this afternoon. “But they’re all too frightened to speak out because they think they need Mike to get on TechCrunch.
“I can’t imagine how the business is making any money when it’s so poorly run. Then again, I guess if you have a lot of Government attention and media exposure driven by Mike you can make money in other ways.
“Not to go on about it, but I was even left locked out in the snow on one occasion because none of the staff had bothered to show up to work. When I tweeted Mike Butcher about it, he was very aggressive and said he ‘didn’t appreciate’ me making a fuss.”
If Prockter’s account of his membership makes the outfit sound shambolic, it is meant to. But not everyone agrees with him, pointing out that many of the teething troubles experienced in the early days have since been resolved – though at least two current members we spoke to were uncomfortable about sharing office space with Marcus. “Personally, I’ve found TechHub a great place to work,” one user experience designer told The Kernel. “I don’t know Mike Marcus. It’s a shame it closes so early, and all of that, but come on. For a few hundred quid a year, what more do you expect?”
In a statement this afternoon, TechHub said of the shredding of copies of the Bible, Koran and Torah: “This was part of a personal art project undertaken while the member of staff was completing an MA at Central St Martins. The shredder was borrowed after hours and did not relate to the running of TechHub.”
Next week, The Kernel gives the other side of the story, sharing feedback from members who have received investment and exposure as a result of their membership of TechHub and who find the space excellent value for money. You can contact the authors of this series of articles here.