Whatever your view on the burgeoning confluence between London’s technology start-ups and the marketers, designers and consultants who enable their ideas – some say they are turning into the same people – there’s little doubt who is responsible for accelerating the drift and galvanising the local ecosystem into a colourful fusion of doers and dabblers, catalysed with the magical assistance of booze, babes, burgers and banter.
Michael Hobson, Bryce Keane and Benjamin Southworth, the grunge-bandish organisers of Digital Sizzle and Silicon Drinkabout, have been instrumental in encouraging the trend. More generally, the events they run have brought the entire east London start-up scene together, successfully introducing relative grandees like Michael Acton Smith to new upstarts with little in their back pockets besides a good idea and a few grand from mum.
In fact, the Silicon Drinkabout events for which the group is now best known were started by Acton Smith, who via Mind Candy still sponsors them – and, of course, attends. But the organisational work is now done by the young men who devote a considerable amount of their personal time into providing what can only be described as drink-sodden revelry for the frustrated entrepreneurs of Shoreditch.
Note that we are not in the remotest bit judgmental of the premise – indeed, The Kernel is a strong supporter of both Silicon Drinkabout and the Digital Sizzle, not least because it infuriates those uppity, hormonal hand-wringers who whinge on their personal blogs about how “booze-fuelled” the start-up scene is. Get over yourselves! Of course we drink: it’s the only way to dull the pain of perpetual disappointment and failure.
“I’ve met some brilliant people at Silicon Drinkabout,” writes one recent attendee. “It’s not just networking for work, either. Some of the people I’ve met there are rapidly becoming good friends. I sort of don’t know what I’d do on Friday nights now without it. It’s amazing to get so many like-minded people in a room together from similar industries who would never have met otherwise.”
“This is enormously valuable to the community,” agrees Chris, a graphic designer for a well-known Old Street-based tech firm. “It helps the whole scene feel better connected. Though it has made getting to work more difficult as everyone seems to know everyone now and I’m always bumping into people I met at Drinkabout in the street.”
Smouldering Hobson, 26, is a graphic designer and project manager who recently put skin in the game and left his job at Top Left Design to go full tilt on his start-up, Pollarize.Me (a question-seeding utility and not a means to alienate friends, as the name might initially suggest), which won a pitching competition at Startup Weekend London at Google’s Campus London. He is currently seeking funding for his idea. In the meantime, “Drinkabout and Sizzle are my labour of love,” he says.
Keane, 27, describes himself as a “ladies’ man” – which will come as something of a shock to those who have encountered his flamboyant Australian intonation. He is a public relations executive but is keen not to be judged on that account: his official role is of course in “digital strategy”, and it is certainly true that his strategy to bring together 300 digital entrepreneurs for the express purpose of getting them hammered is paying lavish dividends.
Finally Southworth, the oldest of the group at 31, is something of a veteran. He currently works at Uberlife, a start-up you may remember from such irritating emails as, “Hey! Ben just showed up in your area!” He has been a prominent member of the Cambridge, Boulder and London tech scenes for some time, but only recently discovered his niche: herding drunken cats to weary corner pubs after host venues – most recently Google Campus – unexpectedly run out of beer.
Southworth is single, something he repeats several times during our interview. (When I suggest that his spectacular ginger side parting and David Bailey beard might be a factor, he looks nonplussed.)
“We started Digital Sizzle in May 2011, after Ben, Bryce and I met at a Shoreditch Twit meetup,” says Hobson. “We wondered why London’s tech start-up and creative agency communities didn’t do more together. After all, they are essentially the people with ideas and the people that understand how to market those ideas to the masses.
“We also noticed a distinct lack of food at many of the existing events, so we thought we might be able to both fill that gap and bring the community together… and nothing brings people together like a humble BBQ.”
The trio’s inaugural event at The Water Poet in June 2011 attracted 120 attendees. Sensing further demand, Hobson, Keane and Southworth staged another the following August – this time, at the Melia White House Hotel. 220 people came. Most recently, the attendee list has been tickling 300, with the most recent Sizzle raising £3,000 for prostate cancer charity movement Movember.
“One of the attendees at our very first Digital Sizzle was Michael Acton Smith,” says Keane, explaining how the threesome came to run Silicon Drinkabout as well. “In September 2011, he approached us after noting the increasing success of our first two Sizzles. He asked us if we’d like to partner up and run Silicon Drinkabout. Considering we were already regular attendees anyway, we were glad to come on board and take over – another way to drive the community together, and grow awareness and support of Digital Sizzle.
“Since taking over last year, we’ve more than quadrupled the number of regular attendees as well as attracting regular drink sponsors – turning it into a must-attend event for the London startup community each week.”
2012 promises to be an exciting year for this lovably eccentric triumvirate, as both events are ramped up in scale. A Summer party is currently in preparation [Editor’s Note: The Kernel will be a partner for this event] and east London can look forward to a packed roster of further Drinkabouts.
Naturally, their events have attracted the attention of local quango UKTI, whose chief executive Eric van der Kleij is due to give a talk at the next Digital Sizzle. But the great triumph of this band of intrepid intoxicators is that their events originated in and are supported by the private sector. Commendably, Hobson, Keane and Southworth have given much of their time, while soliciting a little of other peoples’ money, to creating what is now a portfolio of hotly anticipated shindigs.
This is networking at its best: authentic, spontaneous, quirky and memorable. And for those lucky enough to make it on to the increasingly over-subscribed waiting lists for Hobson, Keane and Southworth’s events, the parties these boys stage are actually yielding results: jobs, connections, partnerships… and even relationships.
But we’ll save the details of that last one for Friday.
Photography by Amir Lodge. View the full gallery.