Milo Yiannopoulos sounds an ominous warning about the future of the Tech City Investment Organisation, and wonders why more journalists aren’t applying their usual rigorous standards when covering the quango’s activities.
Like a skag-addled Faversham tart getting herself pregnant for a council flat, so the start-ups of east London are spreading their legs and coquettishly tossing their hair around for UK Trade & Investment to rob them of their innocence – the only difference being it’s the start-ups who end up with the clap, because the bright stars of Old Street seem no better able than Kentish harlots to tell the difference between long-term health and illusory, destructive short-term gain.
Over the past few years, I’ve lost count of the number of parties, networking events, swish sojourns to meet royalty (the Duke of Edinburgh, brilliantly, asked Mike Butcher this month if TechCrunch was a sort of cat food) and government-sponsored junkets thrown my way. These events have ramped up dramatically, in scale and frequency, with the establishment of the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO), a government quango whose only purpose appears to be marketing itself.
And what a commendable job it has done. Column inches, column inches, everywhere! It was no surprise to me that TCIO’s annual budget for events is £250,000, with a further £150,000 set aside for marketing alone. The bulk of this money is used to promote the Tech City brand with obscenely expensive and widely derided websites and leaflets riddled with basic errors. The figures above don’t include events charged to other departments’ budgets, by the way.
TCIO likes to boast about the high-level connections it has made in Silicon Valley on behalf of companies in east London, but how many of its meetings are leading to investment? Do they really flatter themselves to suppose that senior partners at Sequoia, Accel and the other top dog firms in Menlo Park take their meetings out of anything but courtesy? Because when I spoke to a close friend at DFJ in the Valley this week, the best I could get out of him was a knowing chuckle and a “Yawn. Next question!”
For example, where were all these esteemed Valley bigwigs – we’re told they are wildly enthusiastic about Silicon Roundabout – during Global Entrepreneurship Week, when it was nigh-on impossible to find an event not drenched in UKTI-emblazoned banners? Was even a single heavyweight lured over by TCIO’s risible entreaties to “join the buzz”, or did Tech City rely on Sherry Coutu’s Silicon Valley Comes To The UK, for which even they dare not claim credit, to bring in the star power?
And how long will it be before TCIO, drunk on its own self-importance, starts imitating its parent’s murkier methods? I ask because long-time quango-watchers will recognise what has been done so far as typical of the early stages of a UKTI love-in: carpet-bombing small business owners with lavish praise and impressive invitations.
Soon it will be time for phase two: the period in which not just the taxpayer but start-ups themselves will be fleeced for pointless, self-congratulatory drinks parties and the inflated salaries of worthless management consultants clamped to the public teat.
Stories abound of seasoned entrepreneurs who got into bed with UKTI in earlier days for one-off events and promotional exercises, only to be sent an unexpected bill for the quango’s services at the end of it. Sounds ridiculous, but we have seen the paperwork. Like g2i, which also loves to appropriate credit for private sector achievements, UKTI is notorious for biting the hand that feeds it. “I was astonished,” one well-known start-up chief executive told me. “Where do they get off?”
A bill? From a quango that hoovers up millions a year from the taxpayer to assist British business?
A bill, presented to a start-up by an organisation whose senior employees enjoy lavish perks and an enviable international lifestyle, jetting around the world to promote themselves.
Seriously. And this is still going on, its frequency surely set to increase. As the frothiness centred on the Old Street roundabout reaches hysterical proportions, UKTI will be smelling money.
UKTI is an almost legendarily wasteful quango, even by public sector standards, which makes the idea of its consultants advising small businesses laughably absurd. But its profligacy is matched only by its appetite for money, both public and private, which is insatiable. This year, chief executive Sir Andrew Cahn was busted by the Telegraph for begging senior staff to come up with new ways of burning cash so he could squeeze an extra million pounds out of the public purse.
This is the milieu from which the Tech City Investment Organisation emerges. And yet no one is asking what good TCIO is actually doing in east London. No one is asking if its strategy is effective. Privately, entrepreneurs, investors, incubator heads and others in the ecosystem giggle at its excesses and naïveté, but because – understandably, in some cases – no one wants to be ostracised, everyone stays quiet.
Thus it falls, or at least it ought to, on the media to hold this powerful group of people to account. It falls to us to expose and to ridicule the ludicrous attempt to rebrand the area, away from its original moniker, Silicon Roundabout, which entrepreneurs prefer; it falls to us to print the unintentionally hilarious emails from UKTI staff begging start-ups to refer to the area as Tech City, and not Silicon Roundabout, in their press releases. (David Cameron wants Stratford to get some love too, you see.)
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In reality, we have a Financial Times journalist I normally respect, along with the BBC, parroting ludicrous figures from a government press release that do not bear the slightest scrutiny. Am I the only person who laughed out loud when I read that release? Is that how far the rot has spread?
And so this quango, which The Kernel revealed this month has frittered away over a million quid so far on parties, administration and staffing costs, and whose annual budget is a whopping £1.7million, remains entirely unaccountable, thanks to a lavish campaign to seduce lazy tech bloggers and render mainstream hacks incapable of critical analysis or basic journalistic obligations like fact-checking and applying common sense tests.
Emerging technology is an industry built on hype. Indeed, it cannot survive without a healthy dose of bullshit. But when large quantities of public money start appearing, it becomes immoral and irresponsible to go on playing fast and loose with professional ethics.
How much of Eric van der Kleij’s rumoured half a million pounds salary is to be paid for out of the marketing budgets of the start-ups he is meant to be helping? (Whatever’s left after the portion already paid for by their taxes, I suppose.)
Is TCIO really any different to the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Arts Council, which appear to exist primarily for their own gratification and engorgement?
These are the sorts of questions to which start-ups deserve the answers.
But, right now, they and the reporters whose job it is to inform them are being seduced by the whirligig of spin and the glitter of Buckingham Palace and the other assorted institutions and apparatus of state inevitably wheeled out when the government has something to gain from private sector ebullience.
Everyone outside the Silicon Roundabout bubble can see that David Cameron is ruthlessly exploiting good intentions and a desire for regulatory change from private businesses, as he did with the ill-fated StartUp Britain project, to underscore his government’s entrepreneurial credentials – for votes.
And many are now privately worring that start-ups will realise, too late, that Tech City will exist only so long as it suits the current administration.
Soon, the washing up liquid will be exhausted and the fountain will run clear again. And the rest of us will be here, picking up the pieces, explaining to those pitiful, wide-eyed ingénues how it all went so wrong.