The smell of startups

The Queen thinks the world smells of wet paint. So it has been said, anyway. But the thing is, if it’s true, how would she know?

Thus wandered the mind during a talk by a senior honcho at one of the world’s leading tech companies at Shoreditch House recently. All these people worrying about technology and jobs and robots should just “check their cognitive bias”, he advised.
 
So should you, mate, I was going to say, but by then he’d sped off to Mars. 
 
We all slip into obliviousness about our environment because it is for each of us our own particular normal. And so, I wondered,  what might we come across so frequently in Silicon Roundabout that we forget that it is special? 
 
The author David Foster Wallace once gifted us a parable about the ease with which we lose our bearings and lose sight of our life and our world. He said: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
 
What, then, is the water like in Shoreditch? What does it smell like? I decided to find out and took a stroll of curiosity in the manner of Patrick Suskind’s  anti-hero Grenouille in his novel, Perfume. This is what I sniffed out:
 
Two Pizzas
The perfect sized development team can be fed by two pizzas. This was the lean heuristic created by Jeff Bezos as he built up Amazon. More than two Pizzas and the team is getting too big for optimum efficiency, much less and you may not be in growth mode. You smell two pizzas only and you’re near a startup. 
 
Roses
This is the fragrance of the spectacles worn by “n00b” startups as they pitch their first idea to accelerators, angels and friends and family. The whiff sours fast.
 
BS
This permeates the atmosphere almost every time angels or mentors explain to a n00b that they know just how to grow this decent little business into a unicorn …and can be persuaded to share the insight for rolled-up advisory fees and founder shares.
 
Coffee
Shoreditch is mostly a patchwork of coffeeshops separated by the need to stretch your legs. This smell is everywhere. It is the base.
 
Chinese Apples
Every flat surface in Silicon Roundabout supports a silver computer that once smelled of the the Chinese factory where it was manufactured and packed.
 
Red Bull
There is at least one hackathon going on every weekend and  usually many more. Jamie Oliver is judging a “food hackathon” as I write this. He might wish it to smell of fresh baking or lobster bisque but I guarantee that the overpowering pong will be that of all the energy drinks that have kept the hackers up through the night.
 
Sweaty yoga mats
There’s a moment just before morning rush hour when the pavements are overrun by a sub-species of Old Street inhabitant – the top-knotted yoginis. For a brief instant it is as if the northern lights have lost their direction as creatures wearing startling cosmic-patterned yoga pants and proudly bearing their rolled up mats briskly scuttle up and down the streets. An hour later they walk back much more slowly. 
 
Bicycle chain oil
This neighbourhood is the home of the fixed wheel bike brigade. They louche down the inside of buses, the other side of the road, and balance like a circus act at red lights (sometimes). Meanwhile Brompton bikers angrily show that just because their bikes fold in half and have small wheels it doesn’t mean their freakish gears won’t allow them to go just as fast. Rush hour is bedlam. Bicycle chain oil and burnt rubber give texture to the cursing and yelling, diesel and horn blasts.
 
Brick dust
Vast numbers of older buildings are being knocked down to make way for bigger, newer buildings. The dilapidated old warehouses and office buildings that used to sit in no-man’s land between the City and Islington were once so cheap that artists, designers and startups flocked to Old Street. Thus the scenius was born. Now these buildings are toppling like dominoes – though the low rents have disappeared faster. 
 
Steel and glass and cement dust
That tinny tang, that smell at the back of your throat, that’s from the brand new high-rises that are being built where the old brick buildings once stood. The Old Street gyratory itself is gradually being hemmed in by hugely expensive and vast office blocks. Who will occupy these? Bootstrapped startups? er…
 
Sulphur
Old Street is less than half a mile north of the City.
 
Cereals
Old Street is but a few flat whites away from Brick Lane which has many smells of its own to offer – not the least the  amazing curry shops. But today, readers, spare a sniff for the sugary smell of breakfast cereals. During the Autumn, protestors attacked a shop that sells all the varieties of cereals available in the entire Universe. With robots, artificial intelligence, multitudinous apps and revolutions being created in Old Street the protesters were alarmed by the wrong target. They couldn’t smell the wet paint.
This is my December 2015/ January 2016 column for BA Business Life…. which you should be sure to read every month because it was this column wot won columnist of the year. Did I mention that already?

 

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