It Was Way More Fun to Be in a Startup in the 90s

It Was Way More Fun to Be in a Startup in the 90s

Simon Jenner

Sunday, 16 February 2020

I'm not sure that it's as fun to be in a startup now as it was back in the Dotcom Boom.

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I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve started to look like my sixth form chemistry teacher and my knees hurt. I was 20 in 1996 and that meant I grew up in the most amazing time to be involved in a Startup: the Dotcom Boom. 

For those too young to remember the joys of ‘The Word’, Grunge and Tab Clear, the Dotcom Boom was a period of high growth that was catalysed by the advent of the internet. In the late 90’s company valuations skyrocketed as investors speculated on the transformational impact of new connected technology. Those lucky entrepreneurs who mastered the strange new frontiers of the ‘World Wide Web’ became millionaires overnight. Companies that failed to get on the internet were quickly outwitted by their nimble new competition. 

It was a period of conspicuous excess to parallel the boom of the 80’s. ‘DotComs’ launched with huge parties and let employees wear casual clothes in the office. There were bean bags and arcade machines in the workplace! New brands were irreverent and marketed themselves with colourful and witty campaigns. In the UK the Prime Minister (the wise and indisputably honest Tony Blair) even had a party for actors and musicians in Number 10 Downing Street! It seemed like anything might be possible…

…but then as quick as it came the DotCom Bubble burst. It rapidly became apparent to investors that the early promise of high growth, scalable businesses with vanishingly low cost structures didn’t justify the crazy premiums they had put on shares. Additionally many of the early brands to launch ‘Online’ were hard or even impossible to operate over early broadband networks. Big names collapsed leaving nothing behind but broken FoosBall tables, wacky chairs and a bunch of frustrated shareholders who should have known better. 

Life in the Boom

I was at Egg Bank from 1999 to 2004, right in the height of the Dotcom Boom. Egg started out as a telephone bank cut from the same cloth as First Direct but dived into the internet feet first in 1999. It was an amazing place to work. We had all the pool tables and funky-fresh furnishings of a modern office. Strange foam shapes hung from the ceilings and there were flexible workspaces and a lady that performed reiki massages.

The culture at Egg focussed on the customer and tried to eschew the toxic behaviours of other banks. It was a highly collegiate atmosphere, vibrant and collaborative. Where tensions arose it was often through a clash of ideas and a drive to do more, better and faster. The air was electric with possibility created by a leadership that was so involved in the day to day of the business that the CEO would occasionally pick up the phone and service customer accounts. 

We all seemed to be young back then. The team that worked hard together in the day, played hard together in the night. We had flats in and around the office campus that saw lots of drunken nights and sore heads in the morning. On one memorable occasion I saw my boss fall asleep in a Madras after a particularly heavy session. We were still back in the office in the morning. Far from this behaviour setting us back the list of ‘firsts’ we developed together was enormous. For a few years we broke all the new ground in banking technology. We did all the cool things.  

Its testament to the spirit of Egg that the team has gone on to deliver so many interesting and exciting propositions. Egg men and women have been behind Shepherd Direct, Wealth Wizards, Zopa, Crossword Cybersecurity, AnyGood and have gone on to lead some of the most interesting banking and payment programmes in the UK and beyond. 

Then and Now

I can’t help but feel that being in a startup now is a world away from the halcyon days of Cool Britannia and the Dotcom Boom. I spend most of my time talking to, and working with, new businesses. We currently have about fourteen in Million Labs and we are on-boarding another three. Life for a founding team is very different today to what it was twenty years ago. 

The availability of technology that allows simple execution of an idea, paired with the advent of distance working means that many startup teams simply don’t spend a lot of time together. We are also a darn sight more healthy and well behaved these days so waking up with your nose in a curry and having to present to a board of investors with a slightly orange nose is unlikely. 

I know that the low cost, flexible approach characterised by a two man team squatting in an incubator while they use developers in Eastern Europe to deliver code is probably the best way to preserve resources and ensure success for investors and founders alike. However, I mourn the loss of those crazy days we enjoyed at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps there is a startup party I’m missing that’s raging under my nose. I hope so. 

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