nav search

Take your hands off me - I'm a tech VC superstar!

Hotspot hobos tussled with the wrong fellow

By Steve Bong, 16 Mar 2012

¡Bong! Effendi, entrepreneurs! The Bongster is back from Texas! Every year, the brightest talent in Shoreditch's vibrant tech scene swaps the workspaces and mentor-ins of N1 and E2 for the sweet smelling grass of Austin, Texas, for SXSWi. And so did I.

As the founder of ¡Bong! Ventures, I am the enabler behind some of the best-known startups the London tech scene has produced: household names like Catflapp, the social network for pets. In the past, I was a partner of Woodstock Capital - but please note those losses have been exaggerated and do NOT believe the figures bandied about by envious dead-tree media. Since then my legal team has reached a successful confidential agreement with the financial authorities.

Today, I'm my own man again, a venture Svengali with his own go-to-market investment platform and talent incubator. And if you don't know what those words mean, you are probably the kind of guy who doesn't get to choose his own job title. Well, get up to speed, amigos, or we might have to move you into the Google Circle for very slow children. Hell-o!

All aboard

This year's trip sent a powerful message to the world: we Britons finally have a government that Gets It. And by "it" I mean a truly post-industrial, post-profit digital economy.

So last Friday at 2pm - these early starts kill me! - you'll have found the Bongster downing a half-dozen White Russians in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse to settle the nerves. Just me, and a handful of the most disruptive British startups in the social space. And backing from our facilitation teams from No 10, the FCO, the Cabinet Office, the Technology Strategy Board, TechCityUK, their own mentors at the inestimable UK Trade and Investment, NESTA, the British Council, and BiS [the Department of Business Skills and Innovation - ed].

So the entire lounge had been reserved for all 650 of us, with Wi-Fi thoughtfully provided so we wouldn't miss a single tweet or poke. Spirits were already pretty high as we got on board the specially chartered Virgin flight - or as Rohan christened it, the "Bong Bus". That's how we roll.

It's amazing - it's Flickr meets Green Shield Stamps

Now people ask me: "Steve, why do so many civil servants need to attend web conferences?"

But I tell them: "That's really an analogue-age question. For a start, we call them social stimulus enablers. But more importantly - with so much amazing entrepreneurship breaking out all over Shoreditch - a better question is 'How many is enough?'"

You know, we all agree that startups need help, but digital talent is special. It's like an orchid: it's beautiful, it's fragile, and it needs careful watering. I think every Shoreditch startup should have its own "govern-mentor" to pick up the tab. And pay for the drinks. I'd say 1:3 is about the right comfort ratio for me. As long as two of those three are blondes.

Rest assured, cubicle dwellers from the industrial age, your money is being well spent - as you can see from the amazing choice of UK.gov-backed talent showcased at SXSWi. Take Shopcade for example. Shopcade uses the power of the crowd and the social web to get discounts for people taking part. What participating businesses lose on margin, they can make up in their social mojo. It's brilliant. It's Flickr meets Green Shield Stamps. In fact, I predict shopping vouchers might go viral very soon - we just don't know who it will be.

I'm the Prince of Wales. Jimmy Wales

Rohan stole the show, with his announcement that my old pal Jimmy Wales is coming to advise the knuckle-draggers in Whitehall. Well, you can thank the Bongmeister for this one. I was one of the seed investors in Bomis many years ago - and on the subject of babes and bourbon, you can't do much better than listen to Jimbo.

Lots of other switched-on govern-mentors were over at SXSWi to promote the new Gov 2.0 platform. No 10 really gets this, and says it's "digital by default".

That brilliant slogan sums it up for me. Digital isn't like some sex toy that arrives without a battery, which leaves you having to run to Mr Patel the newsagent and discover he doesn't have the right size. Gov 2.0 isn't like that. With Gov 2.0, the battery is built right into the hardware, like an iPhone. In particular, the beta "UK in the USA" site showed what web innovation really looks like - it's making our ship movements open and social.

And it's fantastic to see British marketing at its best:

Blighty's eye-catching tech slogan
pic: British Embassy, Washington DC

Get it? That's the name of the country, guys. And it's what we think of the web. What we're saying is: "We're civil servants - and we LOVE using the WEB!"

Even hobos must learn the etiquette of social

Now I mentioned SXSWi was a bit of a bummer for me. I blame the crazy decision to hire guys to walk about selling "top-ups" to us visiting investors. Well, in the Shoreditch investment community, that's standard practice. We're a work-hard, play-harder community. The flamboyant facilitator Lafayette Fenwick-Symes - you'll know his workspace in the glossies - prefers to employ very tall young gentlemen from Mali to dispense the pick-me-ups - and lovely lads they are, too. Only here in Austin somebody had the idea of perking up the party using characters including … wait for it … at least one guy just let out of prison!

These peeps walked around with T-shirts saying "I'm a 4G Hotspot". Well, I tried to be subtle, but they kept refusing me the goods. And they were asking for money too - which really isn't very cool at all.

And then when I wrestled one to the ground demanding "Now you give me an APPOINTMENT with CHARLIE" that they called security.

I must tell you that as a titan tech investor, I have better things to do than spend three hours of valuable venture networking time in an Austin police cell.

I explained to the authorities that it was the hobo who started with the aggression, and explained that I had friends in High Places ("Do you even know who Rohan Silva is??"). I think that clinched it, then they let me go. I think the cops gave the guy a real kicking, though. The sound of teeth falling onto cement will unfortunately be one of the memories of SXSW Interactive 2012 that I won't be able to remove with Diazepam.

There's a moral here, guys. Don't ever meet a major tech investor without being prepared to give up the goods. And as for you hobos - you had better shape up or ship out. ®

Steve Bong will be contributing regular reports from the heart of Shoreditch on Britain's technology startup miracle. Follow him on Twitter at @bongventures