First Tuesday’s first lady

Julie Meyer, founder of the IT networking phenomenon First Tuesday, on why being a dotcom entrepreneur is not all doom and gloom.

Sandy Starr

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Topics Politics

‘I think for the rest of my life I will be talking about First Tuesday.’

Julie Meyer is founder of three companies, one of the world’s 20 most important women according to Management Today (1), and chief executive of Ariadne Capital (2). But she is still best known for her previous company, First Tuesday (3).

First Tuesday started life as a meeting of 80 people in a Soho bar in London in October 1998 and by July 2000 had become an international network of over 250,000 people in 100 cities worldwide. Today, it is the best-known networking brand in the IT world.

So what did Meyer learn from the experience? ‘I learned the lessons that you learn when you’re in the trenches building a company’, she says. ‘There were a lot of odds that I overcame in terms of building a globally recognised internet brand and network.’ The aim of First Tuesday was to open up the previously guarded clique of technology entrepreneurs to a broader community. ‘First Tuesday was founded on the idea that you didn’t have to be in Silicon Valley’, says Meyer. ‘If you’re hard-working, know how to hustle, have a good idea, know how to inform yourself, that should count.’

The ethos of the entrepreneur is a preoccupation of Meyer’s. ‘They don’t even teach you how to raise money in business school, and I’ve been there, but you can learn, and you can learn enough about technology, if you’re interested.’ And Meyer hopes that First Tuesday’s legacy will be a ‘belief in the individual and seeing the individual as an agent of change. It’s not the family and it’s not the corporate and it’s not the government, but you and I create our own futures’.

Meyer seems to associate business with the individual entrepreneur rather than the faceless multitude. At First Tuesday events the world of the entrepreneur comes across as a democratic one where everybody can achieve their potential. But she points out that being an entrepreneur can be a risky business: ‘You don’t get to predict the outcome. All you get to do is to work hard. Sometimes I feel a little responsible for this entrepreneurial craze that has gone on. Not everybody’s meant to be an entrepreneur.’

What does Meyer think of the shift in how entrepreneurs are viewed? In the 1980s their dominant stereotype was materialistic and greedy, whereas in the late 1990s they came to be seen as adventurous achievers. ‘It just touched so many people across society’, she says. ‘The majority of people wanted to be entrepreneurs, because they wanted to have an impact, because they wanted to make money, because they wanted to be in control of their own destiny. There weren’t enough people to talk disparagingly about entrepreneurship because all of your friends were entrepreneurs.’

But the sense of adventure behind entrepreneurship didn’t last very long. The high-profile collapse of boo.com in May 2000 initiated a spate of dotcom nosedives. Now the technology sector is pervaded with gloom, and yesterday’s most confident companies are obsessed with caution and cutbacks. ‘We all learned that the internet is a channel to your customer, it’s not a business model’, says Meyer.

So is the sense of gloom really justified? ‘That’s just life’, says Meyer. ‘Whether it’s justified or not, we got through it, and there’s a shakeout, and if you can prove your business model in this environment, you can damn well prove it in any environment. There’s going to be a lot of my friends and yours whose businesses are not going to survive. It’ll be tough.’

Refreshingly though, she is on the outlook for positive trends. ‘I don’t want to wallow in the technology gloom. I’m looking right now for areas which some of the best VC firms are interested in investing in, and believe me, they are.’

Whether speaking, writing or chatting, Meyer takes every opportunity to use the term ‘Europe.com’. Indeed, Ariadne Capital’s mission statement is ‘to support the European entrepreneurial spirit by leveraging and extending our existing networks, and to build the infrastructure of Europe.com by providing relationship-driven connectivity between entrepreneurs, managers, corporate partners and investors’ (4). Which all sounds very grand, but it doesn’t give many clues as to what ‘Europe.com’ actually means.

‘I think it’s sufficiently precise and vague’, she laughs. ‘It’s kind of crystal vague.’

‘Crystal vague’ could be used to describe a lot of New Economy buzzwords, including ‘New Economy’ itself – words that embody aspirations and a great sense of change, without being tied to any specific meaning (5). Meyer elaborates on Europe.com: ‘Europe.com is just a reference to what I hope I’m contributing a little piece towards, by building human networks. The increased knowledge and internet penetration and usage, all that’s creating Europe.com.’

Meyer’s vision of Europe.com emphasises collaboration and harmony in the business community. ‘When I was building the First Tuesday network’, she recalls, ‘I’d run into people in Copenhagen. I’d say “Why aren’t you building up First Tuesday in Denmark?”, and they’d say “Because I don’t want those damn Greeks that keep on buying our web design agencies here”, and the French hated the Germans, and I’d just say “Leave it at the door, guys”. I kept on saying “Think Europe, think about what it’s going to take to make the whole thing rise off the ground”.’

Meyer’s is a dream of business without backstabbing, of capitalism with the ‘cut-throat’ taken out. This is also the case at many of today’s IT networking events, where the emphasis is on community as opposed to competition – the very premise of networking is collaborative. But isn’t this avoidance of competition a symptom of today’s risk adversity – where businesses would rather be friends than fight it out over market share and profits? Meyer reckons business should be about more than money. ‘The capital is the commodity’, she says. ‘The people aren’t.’

In recent years, when politics has become lacklustre and people have lost faith in much of modern life, the world of business can appear the most natural place to pursue philanthropic interests and try to change the world. Is this Meyer’s aim? ‘I just want to make a difference’, she says. ‘What am I going to spend my time doing – going shopping in Harrods? I’d rather at the end of the day say “Hey, I did something to make it a little bit easier for other people, who are in many cases far smarter than me, to get great businesses off the ground which contribute to us all living better”.’

So she’s not in it for the money? ‘No, not at all. I won’t even tell you how close I’ve flown to the wind in terms of not having money. In the face of First Tuesday going into liquidation, with founders who were actively trying to sabotage the business, let me tell you, it was rough. It’s been a rough ride to Ariadne.’

Ah yes, Ariadne. Ariadne Capital is named after a character in Greek mythology who helped Theseus to slay the Minotaur, by providing a reel of golden thread that allowed Theseus to escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth (6). The metaphor, illustrated by the golden thread in Ariadne Capital’s logo, is a potent one: the company will help to lead plucky start-up companies through the labyrinth of the market. Ariadne, the mythical character, also bears a resemblance to Meyer, the entrepreneur icon: a confident, charitable figure who dispels gloom.

What are Meyer’s hopes for Ariadne Capital? ‘I want to prove that you can be very successful, you can create a very valuable company, without treating people badly and looking to make money off the back of other people.’ And she hopes the people who work for her company share this vision. ‘We get people right now who are turning down some of the biggest VC firms in the world. I think it’s because at a certain point, 45 years old, you’ve done five companies, you’ve had three companies go public on Nasdaq, and you say “What’s left? What else do I do, now that I have so much money?” You say, “How about building a new model, how about trying to do it a little bit differently?”.’

Meyer embodies much that is particular to business in the twenty-first century. She wants to change the world, she sees business as the most natural place to do it, and she sees being an entrepreneur as a worthwhile thing in itself, independent of making money. This is all very idealistic – but maybe that is no bad thing in today’s pessimistic business climate.

Does Meyer have any parting words of advice for spiked, a dotcom with big ideas that relies on unpaid contributors for its depth and quality of content? ‘All of a sudden you’re going to have spiked version 2’, she says, ‘or somebody’s going to be coming out of the woodwork and doing the same thing as you, and you’re going to say, “Hey, wait a sec, you’re taking our space”, and you won’t feel as hip and as cool as you did eight months ago.’

We have been warned.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) See Management Today press release, 31 March 2000
(2) See the Ariadne Capital website
(3) See the First Tuesday website
(4) See the homepage of the Ariadne Capital website
(5) See Information society: frequently un-asked questions and New Economy: what’s new?, by Phil Mullan
(6) See this profile of the mythical Ariadne by Carlos Parada, author of Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology, Coronet 1993. Buy this book from Amazon (USA)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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