Sunday, 23 April 2017

Book of the Month: Bringing Nothing to the Party (Paul Carr)

Paul Carr was a bright boy. His parents hoped that he would one day become a lawyer. After A levels he enrolled into Nottingham University and studied law. While at University Paul, whose love affair with technology had begun at the age of seven when his parents bought him a second hand ZX spectrum, discovered that he had a flair for writing. From his first year digs he created a web-site called which was a sarcastic version of the then powerful Yahoo directory of useful and entertaining websites. Carr kept these activities a secret. Difficult as it is to believe these days, Internet was not cool in 1997, and Carr had ambitions of making a transition to the respectable mainstream publishing. Which happened sooner than he expected when he was commissioned by the publishers ‘Prentice Hall’ to convert his ‘web material’ into a book format. This necessitated frequent trips to London, and, since the young Carr still could not bring himself to reveal what he got up to in his room late at nights (writing for and on his website), he became a source of much speculation amongst his peers, who began to suspect that he was a closet homosexual and his lover was dying of AIDS in London.

After getting his law degree despite attending a total of three lectures in three years, Carr headed straight to London. He had a clear goal: he wanted to be famous; and successful; and rich. And he wanted to be all these very quickly. He was a published author—Prentice had brought out his books—and he was publishing a regular column in the Guardian, writing mainly on the dot com industry. He was also sleeping his way through as many women as possible between the ages of twenty to forty. He was invited for the innumerable dos and networking events, arranged by the uber-networkers to break down ‘social inefficiencies’, where he enjoyed the free booze and meals, and partied late into the night, waking up the next day wherever he did, remembering neither how he ended up there nor how his trousers came to be back to front. So successful were these events, in which tycoons, who had not yet begun to shave, gave one minute tips to the throngs of wannabes, on how to reach the promised land of unreasonable wealth, that soon a whole industry was created around them by men who called themselves web-entrepreneurs, worth millions of dollars. Carr also rubbed shoulders with men— most of these dot com entrepreneurs were men, outnumbering women by a ratio of twenty to one (Carr charmingly describes these networking events as sausage fests), who were all young—some of them were probably not eligible to vote in an election or take a driving test when they made their first million. These boys/men had struck gold by launching websites, which were essentially different versions based on the theme of social networking, targeted at different groups defined by age, sex, interests, and geography; or by starting websites bringing together all the porn websites (and dividing them in various categories  that defied ordinary imaginations); or by starting Net-based businesses—say, starting a company which allowed you to prepare your own business cards on the Net; or one that helped you to draw your very own signature cartoons; or selling chess boards where the chess pieces were replaced by vodka glasses (every time you took a piece, you also took a vodka shot)—; or by coming up with breathtakingly original ideas such as setting up a website of 10,000 tiny squares, each square consisting of ten pixels. All the ‘businesses’—yes even the one which had nothing but empty squares—were then sold for sums (to companies which had made their fortunes with similar strategies) most of us would have difficulty in deciding how many zeros they contained after the first number, which could be anything from 1 to 9. In just a few years impecunious nerds in crummy digs, wearing baggy jeans and dirty T-shirts (who wouldn’t have had girl-friends unless they invented them), were transformed into incredibly wealthy nerds wearing designer baggy jeans and horrendously expensive trainers, on whose every word hung implausibly hot women in clothes worn either by supermodels or high class hookers, who learnt not to mind either the flush of acne or the slime on the buck teeth of these teenage millionaires.

It did not take Carr Long to realise that he was not going to realise his dream of becoming rich beyond imagination by hacking out columns for the Guardian. He might be rubbing shoulders with the internet tycoons, but he was not on their radars—he was one of the hangers-on who was a sometime-amusing-most-of-the-time-irritating company, and who needed to be tolerated, humoured even, for a few minutes so that he would not bitch about them, may even put in a flattering word, in his column. He might freeload on their drinks and stuff his face with the canap├ęs as much as he liked, but he would be as much away from their league as Comrade Corbyn is from Auntie May. Carr smelt the sweet smell of success, but it was not coming from his kitchen. He craved the glamour, the success, the wealth. And he wanted it quickly. There was only one thing to do. He had to become an entrepreneur himself.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is Paul Carr’s highly entertaining account of his disastrous attempt to become a web entrepreneur (and a millionaire). When Carr decided to take the plunge into the whirlpool of Web businesses, he had managed to bring a degree of stability to his life. In addition to contributing columns to broadsheets, he had, in partnership with a woman who had approached him all those years ago to write satirical books on Web, started a publishing company called ‘Fridaynight Project’, and had successfully published books which were essentially compendiums of articles uploaded on some or more of the websites. Carr decided to risk all this—nothing ventured nothing gained—and took on the ‘online’ aspect of the ‘Fridaynight Project’, giving up his share in the parent company. He was confident (probably not without reason) that he had inside knowledge of the industry. He had also convinced himself that he had developed useful contacts in the previous 3-4 years, having impressed some or more of the entrepreneurs by his charm, witticism, and the force of his personality. All he needed was a ‘brilliant idea’ that would capture the attention of those who had so much money it was burning holes in their trouser pockets and were looking for ways to spend it on fledgling ventures (and obtain large shares) which, if they became successful, would rake in more money, which they could invest in some more ventures (and so it would go on; it’s a vicious cycle).

Carr was joined by two others—an American woman from his University, called Savannah, and an aspiring novelist called Karl Webster—and he launched ‘Fridaycities.Com’, which was a networking site where, if I have understood it correctly (which I may not have), people exchanged titbits and information about the cities they lived in. The subscribers were also awarded points, or kudos, depending on the quality of their inputs. Cunningly, so Carr thought, he also wanted the website to be a quasi-dating website. So, the users were encouraged to use tic boxes in front of the pre-prepared statements (‘I find him sexy’ etc.) which were attached to the profiles of each subscriber. The use of the website was free; however, if you wanted to get to know other subscribers, for example, if you had a burning desire to know who found your profile sexy and your contribution witty, you could do it only by subscribing to a premium service which charged you annually £10. (If, like me, you are wondering why anyone would become a regular subscriber to such websites, you are obviously an anachronism and ought to be sent to live with the Pennsylvania Amish.) As for Carr’s confidence that he would be able to get funding from entrepreneurs and VCs (Venture Capitalists) for his ‘business’, you can’t really fault the poor lad. Remember, this is an industry where a website full of empty squares was hailed as a breakthrough and sold for a million dollars. Carr managed to get Angus Bankes, who had raked in millions developing and selling Web business, as the non-executive chairman of their company; he managed to convince his parents and uncle to part with 50 grands of their hard-earned cash; and, with the zeal of a Born Again Christian, he began to woo ‘the angels’—these are the aforementioned multimillionaires who are prepared to part with their easily-won cash—so that they would invest in his business venture. And failed every time. Every e-tycoon he met was interested in the idea, saw the potential in the idea, agreed that it was a damn good concept, and predicted that it would be the next big thing in the dot com business; but did not actually invest money in it. Carr tried every trick in the book—he even learnt the Powerpoint presentation and changed the name of his web-business from ‘’ (‘crap’) to ‘’ (so much better)—and sucked up to these men like a vacuum cleaner; however, at the end of one year he was forced to admit that he had reached the end of the road. No one was willing to invest in his company. The idea may have the potential, but the business had no future. Carr accepted defeat; accepted that he was not cut out to be a web-entrepreneur; made the (inevitable) discovery that he was much happier when he was a two-penny hack (the free booze and dinners might also have gone some way towards maintaining his felicitous state); and decided that there was something in the notion that on the whole it was a sound plan to stick with what you were good at rather than attempt something (you were not good at) only because you saw others doing it and some succeeding. ‘Fridaycities (or ‘Kudocities). com joined thousands of other similar web-business ventures that do not make it, and disappeared into ether forever.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the over-hyped world of dot com industry at the turn of the century, where one swallow often made a summer. Carr successfully enlivens the Sybaritic world which appears to be unending successions of decadent gatherings. It is also an honest (and often hilarious) account of Carr’s own alcohol-fuelled capers, which, more than once, end up in him pissing off the very people he needs to schmoose with. Running in parallel with Carr’s attempt to secure a funding for his business venture is the story of the love triangle involving him and two American women, one (called Savannah) who is his business partner, and the other (called Kate), one of the subscribers to the test-site of his business. With self-deprecating humour and candidness Carr tells how he achieves the difficult feat—he invites both of them at the same pub when he is rip-roaringly drunk and afterwards has the mother of all blackouts—of upsetting and losing both the women.

Carr has the gift of a raconteur. The book which, at times, has the feel of a shaggy-dog story, and is full of comical anecdotes—the one involving Carr hiring a singing and swearing gynaecologist, who specialises in parody songs that border on misogyny, for the launch of his business, is toe-curlingly funny— crackles throughout with his humour and wit.

Towards the end of this very engaging and entertaining memoir (if that is what it is), Carr recounts how Kate, his jilted ex, started a blog dedicated to dissing him. On the blog the ex told the story, warts and all, of her one year on and off relationship with Carr, which portrayed him as a commitment-phobic sociopath who had an unusual relationship with truth. Kate, Carr informs us, went to great lengths to get in touch with everyone, of either sex, whom Carr had crossed swords with—and there were many—in the previous few years, and invited them to add their stories to the blog. Worse, she encouraged them to dish the dirt on the failed internet entrepreneur on their websites, which were then linked to her own blog. The result? If you typed ‘Paul Carr’ in the Google search box, the Jezebel’s blog site was the first one to pop up on the search engine for reasons that are too technical and beyond my comprehension. What the woman did, was apparently worse than a ‘Google Bomb’. And please don’t ask me what a ‘Google Bomb’ is. It is what, Carr informs us, Zoe-the Girl-with-a-One-Track-Mind- Margolis  did to Nicholas Hellen, the Sunday Times Acting News Editor, who ‘outed’ her as the woman writing salacious stories on her blog, describing in detail her bedroom adventures, and is not very nice, although, obviously, not as malicious as Kate did to Paul Carr. Carr’s name was mud. I wouldn’t have known any of this had I not read Carr’s book. Perhaps there is a lesson in this.