Why have you resigned from Business Insider?
That’s a good question. I think that over time companies change and people change. I launched BI UK in 2014, I was the very first hire in the UK, and that was an amazing thing to be part of that. People don’t realise now, but looking back in 2014 there wasn’t a Business Insider brand in Europe whatsoever. People in the US absolutely knew it but it took a couple of years for us to get to the point where we could interview CEOs and VCs and talk to big tech companies. Having done that and growing the team, and publishing some great stuff it was time to have a look for myself and see what I want to do and take some time out; you know, see what’s out there.
People may not remember this, but when you started at BI how old were you?
I’m 24 now and it was about 4 years ago, so I must have been about 20.
I certainly learned a lot, I’ll say that.
It’s interesting that you had that position of responsibility really quite young.
I joined The Kernel when I was 18 or 19, when I started in journalism. I joined as a writer and sort of became a manager and editor through that, and I did learn a lot very quickly as it was the kind of environment where you had to expand your responsibilities and step up. It’s like working in a startup, it’s very, very similar. And that’s the sort of environment I’ve always enjoyed.
Is it true that you first met BI because you and Milo [Yiannopoulos] tried to flog the Kernel to BI?
[Laughter] That’s an interesting rumour. I can’t talk about what we did with The Kernel and the sales process of that. Obviously we ultimately sold to The Daily Dot. But we were aware of BI in the Kernel days and sort of knew BI and liked the style of it and so I was certainly in touch with them when I was at The Kernel.
When you first got to BI, as you say, it wasn’t a brand recognised in the UK particularly, and I remember you telling me how that posed a bit of a catch 22 situation in terms of igniting your relationships with the tech industry, and that you came to a realisation that you just had to start writing [without access].
When we came here we wanted to have access to big companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and also respected VCs and startups, and they didn’t know who we were. They thought we were a publication in scotland because we shared a name with a different publication. So for a long time, to try and get that access, we were in meetings and meetings or we couldn’t get meetings. And in the end the way we went about doing that was to just write about those companies and cover them without the access, and if you do smart journalism, even if you aren’t in the room with them, people take note of that.
I feel like you built up really quite a scrappy young team. And you guys were like the snotty nosed kids on the block…
[More laughter] And that was always the intention as well, that wasn’t an accident. We wanted to have that sort of attitude because BI UK was a young, growing company and what we wanted was young journalists who hadn’t necessarily been around tech journalism for a long time, not seasoned veterans from newspapers. It was about coming into quite an insular scene and saying, ‘we’re here, we’re going to cover this in a really exciting way, there are some great stories to tell’. I think we saw that when we dug into things like Crowdmix, Sam did things on Fling, Shona did a story on Blippar. We wanted to really dig in and find those stories and I think having a young team that was fresh to tech journalism really helped with that.
But it’s fair to say it wasn’t to everybody’s liking, was it?
There were detractors. There were people who didn’t like it. I remain banned from the TechJPR Facebook group for tech journalists and tech PR people. You know, you take these falls and you move on! I think a core sort of tension came when some people see the role of tech journalists as being a cheerleader for the industry. I’ve had tech CEOs and people say ‘why aren’t you just shouting out about what’s good, why aren’t you being the cheerleader that we need?’. And the counterpoint to that is yes there are always great things that you want to shout about and there are success stories that are fantastic to follow – and that’s really special when you get to do that – but also there are things that go wrong and there are layoffs and mistakes and decisions that don’t work, and we have a responsibility to cover that. And if the rest of the industry isn’t covering it and perhaps in the detail we thought it required, then it becomes even more important for us to pay attention. Because, you know, a hundred people lose their jobs when a startup goes bankrupt. It’s important that there’s a record and people understand how it happened. There was always that sort of debate, and that debate continues. It’s never going to go away.
How would you sum up your editing style, because at one point you were managing four others, so what was it like in your newsroom?
I think I always prefer to be hands off in terms of direction. Obviously we had a vision, which was to do great tech journalism and be that disruptive force. And I think as long as everyone is on board with that then that’s great. What I don’t like to do is say to a writer, ‘you are the artificial intelligence writer now’, ‘you are the VC writer now’. I think that’s wrong to do that as often people’s interests develop over time as they learn more about the scene, get more contacts. And actually I see the role of an editor as being the person to sort of help writers develop those interests and those contacts and help them find those stories. With Sam Shead, for example, we never said to him ‘right you cover artificial intelligence’. That was never an official conversation. Instead he gravitated towards that and it become a really cool part of what we did. Day to day the newsroom was me facilitating that team and making sure they could deliver really good stories, and then when I do go hands on is when we sort of get into the edit and sit in a room for half an hour and really get into it.
Let’s talk about the BI Tech 100 list. We in London all enjoyed that, it was like a guilty pleasure.
There’s a lot of snobbery over lists and some people really look down on it. Probably because I think some lists that come out – whether it’s tech or power lists or wealth lists – aren’t done well. From the very early days we wanted to do it well. I think it was 2016, the first Tech 100, I spent so long working on it that on the day of the actual event I was really ill and almost collapsed on the floor and could barely attend the party. We worked so hard on it because we wanted to do it right. We wanted to leave off people who had been on these lists because of courtesy for ages, and we wanted to put people on who had been overlooked, and we wanted some controversial choices. We wanted to get people talking about it and to say, this is our knowledge, this is our expertise. I think the events were really important for that: come have a look, meet us, see what we do, see our network of people. And I think the turnout and the people who came were really excited to have that.
And that was a really important part of building the brand.
When you turn up to the top of The Gherkin and there’s one of DeepMind’s founders and there’s two partners of Google Ventures and Jimmy Whales from Wikipedia, you think, Ok, Business Insider is here doing great tech journalism, it becomes very apparent.
[Laughter] And Steve O’Hear, obviously (see ITK: #34).
Absolutely. [Laughter] Every single person counts, that’s for sure.
What are the pieces that you’re most proud of, either ones you’ve written or ones you commissioned?
, Fling and Blippar, I think were really deep dives into secretive and fascinating UK companies and I’m glad we had the opportunity to do that. And I think seeing our senior writers really work on those stories and really explain what was happening was really special.
What’s the story that you are most disappointed that you missed out on?
That’s a really good question. There isn’t something that I feel really got away and there wasn’t something that we were dying to write for years that we haven’t been able to.
That’s interesting. I feel like we somewhat missed the Snowden stuff initially and I guess maybe perhaps this Cambridge Analytica stuff [although TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher did an extensive interview with the Cambridge Analytica CEO five months before the story broke] .
Yeah, that’s a really good point. That was right under our nose. I think the Observer, New York Times, and Channel 4 have done a really good job. That’s a really good example where tech journalists have a role and it’s interesting that it wasn’t broken by tech journalists.
I think with the Cambridge Analytica stuff we are all a bit too desensitised. When it broke I was like ‘so what’. And surely it’s Facebook you want to look at not some external data company.
Yeah, we see adtech companies all the time and how they can target people, and are [becoming] more and more advanced. And you become, as you say, decentised to it. When you take a step back from that and you take a more considered look at it, it is shocking. Because we’re in tech and see so much, to us we’re just used to it.
You’re quite funny on Twitter, [and] somewhat rude. Do you think you’re slightly misunderstood by some people in tech?
That’s a really good question. Erm, yes, I think some people probably see Twitter and see [me] playing out that sort of brash tech editor as a counterpoint to tech PR and think that’s generally a pretty aggressive way of behaving and that’s what I’m like all the time. But you have to have that public profile and you have to speak out when you see things that are bullshit, but that doesn’t mean that in person and generally you’re bitter and angry all the time. I like to think I’m quite a nice polite young man, maybe other people will differ with that.
[Laughter] I don’t think some people in the industry understand how much you care about news and journalism.
I do care a lot and I take it personally when people get it wrong and there are mistakes or puff pieces given to people who perhaps don’t deserve them because, you know, I’ve worked in startups and I’ve experienced what it’s like at a startup when things go wrong. And I understand the way it’s portrayed in the media really matters. Looking back on the Crowdmix story when young graduates were leaving university, going into Crowdmix, being told it was the next Google, and they had a burn rate of 2 million pounds a month and no revenue. That’s the PR and I think you have to fight against that sometimes. Otherwise people get hurt and they end up being owed a lot of money.
The thing that I feel responsibility for is starry eyed entrepreneurs never reading about anything at all hard.
You have to take people out of their comfort zone and show that it’s not all next billion dollar companies. There are failures and things do get messy and it’s not all good news. And some people don’t want to see that side but we have a duty to put it to them.
Have you enjoyed our pseudo rivalry as much as I have?
Yes, I have! And I actually think it’s really important to have someone pushing you to do better. Because if you don’t have that you become lazy. And I’m not calling you lazy, obviously, I’m speaking in a more general sense.
Certainly for me, and for people on my team, we would have stories and we’d be saying that we need to publish this before Steve O’Hear out-scoops us, and sometimes you did out-scoop us, and it pushes us and gives that sense of urgency. And if you don’t have people doing that, then I think you get a little bit complacent. So, yes, that’s been great fun.
Do you plan to stay in journalism, because that’s what everyone will want to know?
I’d like to as I think there is still a lot more to be done in journalism and that’s certainly something I’m having a look at, and certainly open to and keen to do. It’s not the be all and end all and I’ll have a look. That’s the fun thing of going off and being able to have a look around and journalism is something I’m certainly considering continuing.