The startup dog in your handbag

“When I first met Robbie, I don’t think he realised he would become this famous,” she said. And from her handbag a dog barked. Hi, Robbie. I’d been getting on with business and staying out of trouble in my favourite Old Street coffee shop when I met the Maltese terrier. Robbie’s business partner is Mahny Djahanguiri, the world’s leading authority on ‘Doga Yoga’. She and Robbie have been featured in newspapers, magazines and TV shows around the world. So they’re a bit famous. And definitely more famous than Robbie could have imagined when he was a young pup.

As I’ve described previously, Silicon Roundabout coffee shops are like the London Underground. You operate in your own bubble, fight for your elbow space, mind your own business and get on with it. This suits me fine. I’m taking a mini sabbatical from working in, with, for or even near boot-strapped startups. As much as it’s exciting and meaningful, it’s also all-consuming and exhausting.

But here’s the flaw: once you’ve been through a few accelerator programmes as a co-founder, mentor or elite-scavenger-of-pizza- and-beer, you see a lot of familiar faces. Then you get talking and before you know it the dormant virus of startup excitement reawakens. If you don’t stomp on the buzz right there, you’re making introductions, then you’re pitching in, and suddenly you’re in another team. At midnight you stagger home with the milk lamenting like David Byrne: “Well, how did I get here?”

I welcome the winter. Turned-up collars, pulled-down hats, near permanent darkness. It’s easier to walk the streets without inhaling a startup conversation that catalyses the bug. I mean, summer is hell. Startup ideas float in the light breeze of enthusiasm like a thick pollen cloud. Winter, you have a chance. You just have to be disciplined. Don’t give the startup contagion a chink of light. That’s why I’m fiercely protective of the isolationist tendency of what I call working-coffee-shops and remain determinedly plugged in to my own space once the steaming bowl of psycho-coffee arrives.

But damn, when your neighbour’s handbag starts barking and the talk turns to Doga Yoga then all of a sudden the game’s up and there goes your iron willpower.

Curiosity takes over and we get to talking about books we’re writing and this, it seems, is our safe shared interest. I should have known better. Because of course it turns out that Mahny and Robbie have come to east London to seize the digital potential of Doga Yoga. Sure, Doga Yoga might have its spiritual home in west London but disruptive digital business models come from this side of town, and so here they are.

And, like everything in this startup scene, the idea swiftly does the dance of the seven veils and reveals that it’s fascinating. It’s one thing to consider Robbie doing a show-and-bark in a yoga studio. But Robbie on YouTube, the App Store and LinkedIn is, well, it could be big business. The familiar pattern starts. Business models unfurl in the imagination and then they unravel but only to be replaced by two or three more.

Brian Eno coined the word “scenius”. His point was that creativity springs not only from some lone genius but also from the social sharing of ideas, passion and interest. And here Silicon Roundabout shows its hand. It’s got the critical mass of entrepreneurs and enthusiasm to provoke the clash of ideas that spits out a better idea. And increasingly our scenius has the money, mentors, and know-how to turn these ideas into businesses.

The next trick is to perpetuate the growth and success. To do this, the roundabout must remain open to outsiders as well as stereotypical startup founders. It’s precisely those outsiders who do not fit the model who are most catalytic. They keep driving innovation and create new businesses.

That’s why it’s great to see Mahny and Robbie here. But as more people flock to the area there’s a downside: you can’t help bumping into people with ideas and passion. I try very hard not to and it still happens. So if you ever find yourself watching a video of Robbie the Maltese terrier doing trance dances, it just may be the product of the Old Street scenius.