It's time to kill off the Dotcom Hero CEO

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As I sit here listening to Benjamin Cohen’s radio documentary about how he nearly became a teenage dotcom millionaire, I’m reminded of how tedious us journalists all found him back in the late 90s. We don’t now of course – now that’s he’s grown up and actually turned out to be a pretty good tech reporter for Channel 4 News, and quite an OK guy, I’d quite happily have a pint with him.

But the story of how he became a teenage dotcom (paper-only) millionaire and finally fell to earth has something to tell us about the nature of startups and Europe and why we must finally kill off the myth of the Dotcom Hero CEO. In 2010 there is no more room for dumbass Internet heroes. From now on we must focus on products, teams and businesses. Sure there will always be “the story” about a startup, or how it started with one person’s idea. But as soon as that becomes their focus that are quite simply dead. Ideas are two-a-penny, it’s execution that counts, and you can’t execute anything totally on your own.

A decade ago, in 2000, however, it was all rather different. As a teenager, no-doubt starryed-eyed from all the sudden attention around anyone doing anything online, Cohen basically sold a lot of tat to journalists about how he’d created a search engine to rival Yahoo (Google was in nappies). He’d press release about the slightest things (the press release was always written by him in the third person) and the whole thing seemed to be slightly made up. But the fact that he was a teenager was of course a gift to the media and his network of Jewish focused sites like JewishNet, which were not a great deal more than bulletin boards, came across as quite savvy plays, at least to Internet outsiders.

In addition we were living in a completely bizarre time. In the late 90s and early 2000s, few journalists really knew what the web was about. As fast as I could teach journalists under me (I was editing New Media Age magazine at the time) they’d be hired to a newspaper, PR company or startup.

At 15 years old, after founding JewishNet.co.uk in his bedroom and later the CyberBritain search engine, said then to be worth £5m, Cohen was a story too good to be true. Of course, buoyed by this apparent “success” he went on to create a simple clone of CyberBritain called Hunt4porn.co.uk, an adult search engine. His view was, why not? People want porn on the Internet, let’s help them find it. It didn’t lead directly to his disappearance from the industry, but let’s face it, suddenly his “PR story” stopped dead in its tracks.

I Was a Teenage DotCom Millionaire by benjamincohen

Ten years after lastminute.com’s flotation, when the British internet bubble burst, Benjamin has gone on to find out what drove him to spending his teenage years trying to become a dotcom wunderkid.

He’s done a personal, introspective documentary for Radio 4 about where he went wrong and how he could have done things differently.

For instance, when the company merged with the London Jewish News on the AIM market, Cohen was, for a day, the youngest ever director of a publicly-quoted company.

He goes back to his old office where his company was worth a notional £20m. It’s now a storeroom.

He also, unfortunately, gilded the lilly, later admitting CyberBritain had played “on the misunderstanding of impressions.” Hey, he was a teenager afterall. And at the time probably less than ten people in London knew what a ‘page impression’ actually meant.

The proprietor of London Jewish News says on Cohen’s documentary today that he was probably “too early” in purchasing Cohen’s sites. “Everyone was doing deals with these Internet whizz kids and we thought it was the right thing to do.”

Ironically, as a Channel 4 journalist, Cohen recently interviewed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and says (in his inevitable press release about the show) that “he was now the older journalist interviewing a 24 year old whizzkid who has revolutionized the way many use the internet.”

Well, yes. Zuckerberg is a pretty smart guy but he also focused on his product and built a great team. He also kept going with the business to make it better. He didn’t exit at the first sign of a payoff.

But we must remember this incredibly important point. Zuckerbuerg was also in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other entrepreneurs, tech people and mentors. Cohen had none of that in the UK of 1998-2001 and effectively had to make the decisions about his business in a vacumm.

As Brent Hoberman of MyDeco and LastMinute.com says on the documentary “starting to believe your own hype is dangerous.” Just relying on press release and hype is not enough he says. “You need good people around you and people to bounce off.” Teams, remember?

Luckily, Cohen is now a changed man. He got out of the business, went to university, grew up and became a human being. He’s a good journalist and a great deal more humble than the tedious teenage dotcommer he once was.

It’s my belief that had he been surrounded by mentors and put the focus on the team and the product he may well have been the Zuckerberg for the UK. He had the panache, and he’s smart. He knew about business and tech. But he was dazzled by the bright lights of publicity and lost sight of the product and the business.

So let’s finally lay to rest this Tech Hero CEO. Let’s kill him or her off. Because just being a hero is not a business and it’s not where tech companies should be any more.

Long after the fact, Cohen knows that now. Do you?

  • spo0nman

    >> “about how he nearly became a teenage dotcom millionaire, I’m reminded how tedious us journalists all found him back in the late 90s. We don’t now of course – now that’s he’s grown up and”

    Can someone not proof read this? So us mere mortals can read the gibberish.

    • Ryan

      “But as soon as that becomes their focus that are quite simply dead.”

      -This was my favorite sentence…what?

      • adnaan

        mike butchering english..

  • http://mattwrench.com Matt Wrench

    http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article7017695.ece I

    Although I would love to be proven wrong and hope he really is a nice guy nowadays, he still comes across as way too over-promotional.

  • TooManyProblems

    Well there are countless “wunderkid” stories which makes for great folklore. Even though I like FaceBook, lets be honest, Zuckerberg didn’t invent social networking (his former partners probably have some comments on that as well) but I will give him credit for making it the most popular site. The same goes for Google, they didn’t invent search, they just happen to be the best at it currently.

  • James

    Yes, it is individuals who make up the team, not ideas that count. Amazing how many home, dating, game sites/apps exist and their owners think their thing is the greatest thing.

    Ideas are a dime a dozen.

    • Paul Smith

      Ideas might be a dime a dozen but then the ideas you gave examples of are very average ideas.

  • http://www.ignimedia.com igniman

    The obvious thing to say is that the CEO you describe is a relic of the past for a long time now (it never was substance anyway, it was an image constructed by the media). Even in Europe, we are not THAT backwards-looking

    • http://twitter.com/mikebutcher Mike Butcher

      Fair comment, although it feels the right time to call time on the Dotcom CEO circus now.

  • http://www.yousaidit.com Charles Borwick

    It’s a nice idea, to kill the hero and laud the team. But it’s a fantasy, particularly in the USA.

    We live in an age of the “cult of personality” and always have to greater or lesser degrees. People can relate to people, not to teams, not to companies. Marketing is about telling a good story and the most compelling story is always the hero story. Ask Joseph Campbell or Misia Landau (http://www.amazon.com/Narratives-Human-Evolution-Misia-Landau/dp/0300054319).

    In the USA this is particularly true because one of the core tenets of the culture is “rugged individualism”. But true cults of personality (in the worst sense of the word) typically display pictures of the hero/leader everywhere. It always makes me a little scared when I see pictures of the President in all the government offices.

    Sometimes it’s even warranted. You use a somewhat distasteful image in your post representing the death of the hero in the form of Steve Jobs. But if ever there was a demonstration of how one person can make a difference to a company, I think it’s fair to say it’s Jobs.

    So, whether it’s warranted or not, the hero has always been with us and always will be. Nice sentiment, big windmill.

    • http://twitter.com/mikebutcher Mike Butcher

      It’s actually a picture of a real coffin you can buy. I wasn’t thinking of Steve Jobs. And beside’s you think be makes iPhone all by himself? That media image suits Apple – but it’s not the reality.

  • Canolli

    Okay… can I completely disagree? Even you fell into the trap: you mention Zuckerberg and his team … no names… not even Facebook.

    And all of that is acceptable to me, because capitalism needs heroes, just like any other “sport”.

    But I wonder why, if you believe the Dotcom hero should die, do you hold one up as an example of success. You idol-worshipper, you.

    • http://twitter.com/mikebutcher Mike Butcher

      Doh, you got me! I’m hit! Gurgle….

  • http://www.vanno.com/ Nickd

    Time has already killed off the dotcom hero CEO, with help from regression to the mean.

  • http://www.mikeborozdin.com/ Mike Borozdin

    The point that an idea doesn’t worth anything is simply false. Of course, implementation also matters. But look, anybody can make make an exact copy of, say, Twitter, but who needs it? They were the first to come up with a brilliant idea, they won. Sure, one can make a better implementation, but it still requires a few good ideas on how to make it better.

  • Mankhool

    “Ideas are two-a-penny, it’s execution that counts, and you can’t execute anything totally on your own”.

    Huh?

    How about bootstrap, outsource, launch, collect feedback, re-iterate, push update, see revenue?

    I’m sick and tired of all the startup hype.

    • http://www.ignimedia.com igniman

      reiteration based on feedback is a recipe for failure. One needs to be inventive and creative — and in this age, fast

  • Mankhool

    “Ideas are two-a-penny, it’s execution that counts, and you can’t execute anything totally on your own”.

    Huh?

    How about bootstrap, outsource, launch, collect feedback, re-iterate, push update, see revenue?

  • Chase Van Atta

    I’m impressed that TechCrunch has come to the startling conclusion, some many years after their launch, that businesses should be run as businesses and not as celebrity launch pads for boring geeks. Bravo!

  • http://blog.7touchgroup.com/2010/02/it/ It « 7touch Group Blog

    […] It’s time to kill off the Dotcom Hero CEO […]

  • http://iptiam.com iptiam

    okay. lets do a count of the number of times the word Techcrunch is used, without referring to Mike Arrington.

    ?

  • http://iptiam.com iptiam

    Can you imagine Techcrunch without Mike Arrington?

    • Timmeh

      Who’s Mike Arrington?

      You mean Mike ‘my gay seattel’ Butcher?

  • http://twitter.com/david1965 David Shieldhouse

    I wonder how many of Facebook’s 400m users know it’s CEO is called Mark Zuckerberg.

    Any successful business needs a leader but it’s customers don’t necessarily need a rockstar …

  • http://twitter.com/david1965 David Shieldhouse

    I wonder how many of Facebook’s 400m users know it’s CEO is called Mark Zuckerberg.

    Any successful business needs a leader but it’s customers don’t need a rockstar …

  • Riley

    Why is the iphone coffin used in this blog post? Does techcrunch get more hits by Apple bashing even when they aren’t apple bashing?

  • Fro

    I am so sick of this “ideas aren’t worth anything” crap. Ideas aren’t worth anything on their own, I agree, but if you don’t have ideas, you don’t have new products OR new solutions.

    The Google guys had an idea on how to make search better – a brilliant idea! And then they had an idea on how to make money off of it. Without those ideas, Google wouldn’t exist today. It’s the execution that made it great, but it all started with one idea and then the next – and remember, they also had ideas on how to execute, which a lot of people don’t have.

    Why aren’t all companies innovating and presenting great new solutions if you can pay a dime for a dozen? Why didn’t AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and all the early search engines come up with Adsense and the search engine tech of Google? Maybe they thought about it, I don’t know, but at some level their idea obviously wasn’t good enough – because funding wasn’t a major problem in the late 90’s they already had very talented people working for them!

    Or what about YouTube? They had a great idea that people could embed video into blogs, MySpace, etc. A simple and brilliant idea on how to distribute the content and their brand to millions of people! It wasn’t BRAND new – it worked in other areas other than video before. But you still need to have that idea to use it for video.

    If the entrepreneurs didn’t think of this, maybe YouTube never would’ve gotten the necessary funding? Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, says that the distribution is one of the most crucial things he looks at during a pitch. And guess what; a lot of the start-ups he’s looked at don’t have a good idea on how to distribute their content!

    So please, value GOOD ideas – but don’t exaggerate and inflate the importance of the ideas alone! There is a balance and don’t do the mistake of forgetting the importance of the idea, like many people do of the team, execution and people.

  • josh

    You guys have been saying this every year for the last 5+ years and then whoops somebody goes and does it, looks like next year is the end of the “hero ceo.”

  • ryan

    This guy is just a loser.

  • ryan

    plentyoffish.com – primarily a one man operation.. huge site, great revenue.

  • pBtlshp

    bah I say!! Bah!

  • jand

    The thing that annoys me about the dotcom ‘entrepreneurs’ is mainly just how they carry themselves.

    If you trawl through twitter you’ll find hundreds of self-appointed ceos, ctos, founders, managing directors etc……..

    In one example there was this guy that was supposedly CEO of 6 companies when in reality he had spent about £100 to register a single dormant co with companies house. The six ‘companies’ were just website ideas and he mainly spent his time just on twitter…… ‘consulting’ with other twitter users who were also supposedly running a conglomerate from their laptop.

    I wish people would just say they were working on a little project instead or masquerading as some visionary business guru…otherwise it’s just cringeworthy.

  • Ian T

    Mike said: “I’m reminded of how tedious us journalists all found him back in the late 90s.”

    Not just journalists, Mike, not just journalists. ;-)

    There were quite a few of his ilk around – I remember some *hilarious* meetings with teenage “CEOs” who had nothing to offer bar bullshit and they were often over in under 10 mins!

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