There’s a sickness – well, a putative state of mind, really – called pronoia. It’s the inverse of paranoia, and it describes a condition under which sufferers believe that there is a conspiracy out there to help them; the delusion that people think well of them and are fighting their corner. It’s easy to see why one might apply this diagnosis to the mollycoddled start-ups of east London, who, glutted with lavish praise from fawning media and a government in desperation, are forgetting what it means to be capitalists.
These companies are mistaking journalists and quangocrats for customers. The reality is, internet users are becoming ever more suspicious and resentful of the sort of useless social mash-ups Shoreditchers are trying to emulate. (That’s why none of them is getting traction.) A wider malaise of entitlement and foolish optimism is sweeping Britain and America, gilded by the Oprah Winfrey school of vacuous, feel-good spirituality that tells readers they need only wish for something to be true in order for the universe to conspire on their behalf to provide it.
But we might have hoped that our entrepreneurs would have resisted such admittedly seductive ideas, which are really elaborate methods of evading reality and responsibility. Entrepreneurs should be reading Christenson, not Coelho. Those who are know that the social media wave has crested. They understand why Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson did not make a single investment in 2012. They know that the smart conferences are looking beyond apps and the social web.
The internet, as we now know, has singularly failed to deliver on its promises; indeed, the entire technology industry is failing. And the public is starting to notice, starting to ask where the hoverboards and jet packs are, and starting to get angry. Because the gross privacy violations and betrayals users have been subjected to are too painful prices to pay for a product that lets you share photographs of your cat, or harass other people about their lifestyle choices or favourite movie.
The technology industry elsewhere is waking up to its responsibilities, and perhaps its destiny, throwing attention and capital at the quantified self and internet of things movements. Yet East London remains comically untroubled by such revelations, churning out useless social networks and utilities that to those of us with long memories resemble nothing so much as poor imitations of products and business models that failed five years ago in California.
There are nascent glimmers of promise, but it will be some time before we know if the two laptops and a co-working membership crowd are capable of applying themselves to problems that actually matter. Most troubling of all is the lack of awareness that there is even a problem, or, worse, that regardless of the silliness of their ideas, their self-regard will always be supported by an establishment that is desperate for them to succeed.
Desperate the powers behind the Tech City Investment Organisation may be – for jobs, for taxes, for entrepreneurial credentials – but, for now, their efforts would be better spent on the economically productive areas like Cambridge, and not on the increasingly publicly subsidised and failing European internet sector. (You have to feel for the venture capitalists, frankly… they must privately despair at the quality of businesses coming through their doors.)
Meanwhile, the sickness that grips east London – the entitlement culture and the foolhardy state largesse – is threatening to turn promising young buds into putrefying vegetables. The world does not owe you a living, our parents used to say. Start-ups would be well advised to proxy that remark: the world does not owe you profit and traction, and you will never attain it so long as you slack off in the hope that someone else will do all the heavy lifting for you.
There is a very old truism being ignored here: create something people actually want. To find out what they want, you only need to listen. Not to the tech blogs or ridiculous industry gurus, but to your customers. How many east London start-ups are truly solving an urgent need? I can’t think of one founded in the last twelve months that qualifies. Sometimes it can seem as though the preening wannabe CEOs of Shoreditch care more about their public profile than their P&L.
Stop wasting time jonesing for invitations to Buckingham Palace, guys, and get back to the office. Your country needs you, but you’re not serving it by sucking up to the self-interested apparatus of the Establishment, believing, like some benefits-drunk skaghead, that the State will provide, and that its engorged and multitudinous tentacles are operating in your interests.