By royal appointment: Why startups shouldn’t suck up

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.