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By royal appointment: Why startups shouldn’t suck up

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Last night the cream of London’s thriving, growing technology community descended, en masse, on one of London’s most prestigious venues.

As they turned up, they spent their time going through the usual motions of any startup event: twittering, checking in, taking photos. But unlike most similar occasions, this wasn’t a meet-up or a conference or even a launch party: it was a reception at Buckingham Palace.

Under the auspices of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, dozens of startuppers were invited into the heart of Britain’s royal family to discuss the future and plans to invigorate the economy through technology. It marked the latest moment in the Tech City initiative, a government plan to make a corridor in East London “the digital capital of Europe”, which has seen Andrew acting as a sort of ambassador.

There’s no doubt that building the city’s startup community could help the country, bring jobs and go at least a little way to fixing a broken economy. And while London has serious competition for the continental title — not least from Berlin, which has its own thriving scene — it is interesting to see it begin to believe in itself a little more.

But… but… but…

I couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed as the number of tweets from the palace built up in my stream. Here were people I deeply admire and respect — including some of my closest friends — giggling like children at the prospect of their royal moment. I was uncomfortable. Why?

At first I thought it was tinged with jealousy. After all, I wasn’t invited. It was sour grapes: the corridors of power were closed to me. But while I thought about whether my discomfort was merely at my own failures, I realized it wasn’t that at all.

Startups are meant to be disrespectful

Thing is, I’m a republican (in the true sense of the word). I believe in meritocracy. I hate the groveling, I hate the cap-doffing, I hate the insane, unaccountable privilege of those who control Britain. I hate my country’s obsessions with class. And I’m not ashamed of these feelings: I am frustrated that in a world where Occupy Wall Street marches to try and represent the interests of the 99 percent, Britain has basically codified the 1 percent’s control into its laws and systems.

And to be honest, I think these biases are an important part of why I love covering startups.

Startups are meant to be disruptive. They’re meant to be disrespectful. They’re meant to look at the existing order and scoff, saying “we can do it better than that”. The best technologies have been enormous levelers, breaking down cultural barriers, probing the existing order for weaknesses, exploiting them and overturning it. Technologies don’t wait. They don’t ask permission.

Yes, it can be arrogant and unseemly sometimes — things that leave many of us stiff upper-lipped Britons feeling rather uncomfortable. But the assumption that the system can be better, and the burning desire to make it better, is a big part of what makes the startup world so exciting.

Yet as I worked at my desk into the evening, I watched a sequence of the country’s best and brightest entrepreneurs lining up to visit the Palace and felt disappointed. This wasn’t telling truth to power, this was cosying up to it. And while it might be a bit of fun — a great story to tell your friends or your parents — where does it get them in the long run? Oh yes, investors might benefit from this (most of the world’s money lives with the powerful, after all) but where does it really get startups?

My friend Ben Hammersley recently gave a speech to the security industry in which he argued that the decision-making elite — the rich, the powerful — are totally disconnected from one of the most important changes in human history. That makes it their job to keep up with technology, not technology’s job to slow down for them.

Moore’s law. You all know it: the rule of the thumb that has computing power doubling for the same price every 18 months. It makes planning really difficult. Mostly because people don’t see its relentlessness.
For example, a two term Prime Minister today would end his term of office with an iPhone 64 times as powerful as the one he won the election with. (Or the same thing, but 1/64th of the price.) His policies, therefore, need to written with that future in mind, not the present. Good luck with that.
Another example: a civil servant only gets to do really good stuff in their 40s. If they’d joined up straight out of Oxford, by the time they get a big chair, their desktop machine will be 1000s of times as powerful as when they joined.
[…] This is all obvious for us, yes, but Truth Number One, is that anything that is dismissed on the grounds of the technology-not-being-good-enough-yet is going to happen. We have to tell people this.

The fact that we still play to the old dynamic is what made me so uncomfortable. Of course the power brokers want to court technology, because they realize — even if they don’t admit it — that they’re on the brink of watching it all slip away. They know that a new order is coming, that old businesses and old systems won’t always have the power.

So don’t be co-opted. Don’t get fooled. Don’t mistake a quick, groping handshake with a prince for success.

I hope a glimpse into the corridors of power doesn’t make Britain’s startups think they’ve made it — or even that this is the way they need to make it. I hope they realize that they’re in charge.

Don’t suck up to the establishment. Scare them.

Photograph of Buckingham Palace used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Jimmy Harris; Ben Hammersley courtesy of Campus Party Mexico.

11 Responses to “By royal appointment: Why startups shouldn’t suck up”

  1. What I take from this is that the rich and powerful leaders wish to keep themselves at the top by trying to boost the national economy, to ensure that in the future their nation is a strong economic power by networking with the top entrepreneurs and encouraging them to establish their operations in the UK. Startups likewise wish to find investors and support for their ideas because without money, they can’t do anything. Its kind of a symbiotic relationship.

  2. tom_sloan1

    So – don’t suck up to “the” establishment but make sure you’re at Tech City (aka another establishment). What a load of tosh, there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Loose the chip and gain some respect?

  3. Jeff Putz

    Isn’t this over-thinking it a bit? It might be my US slant, but the royals are just figureheads that are fun to watch, and probably neat to meet in person. To me it would be like meeting other celebrities. I doubt your friends are turning in their street cred. If you think this is part of a class problem, you’re only reinforcing it by suggesting that the royals are better than you.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Great comments so far, everyone. I’ll respond here rather than to each comment individually. Let’s keep the discussion going.

      I think this is maybe the heart of it: it’s marketing. But while startups are right to look at it as great marketing for them, this is also part of a marketing effort on the other side of the table. I’m wary of situations like that.

      @David Caldwell
      Of course, by startups being ‘disrespectful’ I mean their desire to question the status quo and eradicate flaccidity or inefficiency. I am a great believer in the rule of law, and the power of democracy; I get shivers every time I go to the Houses of Parliament or the high court. I have the utmost respect for the great institutions of our country, I just don’t think the royal family is one of them.

      @Steve, @JeffPutz
      I think you’re both underestimating the royal family’s role at the apex of an entire system of privilege that is responsible for a lot of the cultural and civil rot that Britain currently suffers from. Maybe it’s hard to see from the outside, but it’s powerful stuff that permeates a great deal of British life — and the pomp around an event like this, in its way, is a part of maintaining that relationship.

      And that’s before we get into the subject of Prince Andrew himself and his history as a trade ambassador for the UK.

      Ultimately, you can call me an old trot — and I am sure you will — but I dislike the idea of a pampered royal deigning to give an audience to people who (should) stand for everything that they are not… yet watching those individuals happily going along with it because it scores them a few bragging rights.

  4. Stu Bradley

    This whole thing is like middle school all over again – the underachievers who are pre-occupied with disruptive get nowhere, the overachievers who follow the teachers around and put their hand up to answer every question lose the respect of their peers. Somewhere in the middle are the cool kids, who do well at school but are well liked because they are well-rounded, popular etc etc.

    So while I agree that startups shouldn’t ‘suck up’, I see nothing wrong in accepting invitations to what is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity…

  5. The Royal Family has no actual control over Britain – it is purely a ceremonious post that costs Britons very little and gives us a perceived position in the world above where we merit to be. If they refuse to sign an act passed in parliament, they can be done away with with one stroke of a pen from Westminster. This is inherently uncodified.

  6. David Caldwell

    Bobbie, great article, I also reflected on the twitter stream last night for a different reason, and came to a different conclusion.
    I am into disruptive business and start-ups, and more efficient ways of meeting needs. But I also respect the institutions that have underpinned free-thought, enlightenment industrialisation and internationalism. I think the core institutions of a free and open (as opposed to anarchic) society are independent, strong and respected Executives (in the UK’s case the Monarchy), Legislatures and Courts. Thumbing your nose at entrenched, inefficient market participants is one thing. Disrespecting the institutional enablers of an open society is another. As I see it startups have to challenge norms in the market- I don’t think that extends to disrespecting national institutions, the rule of law etc.
    Even if you despise the old institutions, if you are prepared to accept an invitation from Buckingham Palace, and they ask you not to use phones, and then use them to 4sq and tweet around photos etc that is not disruptive, not innovative- just rude.
    I was disappointed to see highly-followed London investors and founders alike taking glee in under-cover photo distribution (e.g. we’ve been told not to use phones but here is a photo of president X with HRH Y). If I had a guest in my house and they distributed photos, other attendees etc, against my express wishes, I would tell them to get the fuck out.

  7. Adam LDN

    While I agree with your sentiment about not sucking up to the establishment it’s an undeniable phenomenon that in British society an invitation to the Palace is going to be noticed.
    And since people are always discussing how to encourage startups it’s not a bad thing that the Royals have been roped in to earn their keep.
    Anything that can help attract talent away from the big banks and keep the media buzz about startups is probably worth it.