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.
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?