Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Sunday, 12 February 2006

Partying like it's 1999


By Rory Cellan-Jones
BBC News business correspondent

There's a sense of deja vu in the air.

Money and computer
Is the cash coming back to the dot-com world?

Young entrepreneurs are crowding into a Soho club to pitch their internet ideas, venture capitalists have handed over 2m to the youthful managers of a web firm, and shares in British high-tech firms are back at their highest levels for four years.

Suddenly it feels like 1999 all over again.

In this club, on the second Tuesday of the month, the spirit of the dot com bubble certainly seemed to be back.

The crowd filing into the Century Club on London's Shaftesbury Avenue picked up a green badge for an entrepreneur or a red one for a venture capitalist, and started networking as if it had never gone out of fashion.

The event was Second Chance Tuesday: an attempt to recreate the First Tuesday networking club of the late 1990s, where investors desperate to climb aboard the dot-com boom flung millions at young hopefuls with a business plan sketched on a paper napkin.

When the wheels came off the bandwagon, many of the dot-coms went bust, the investors lost their shirts, and First Tuesday disappeared.

'The time has come'

Now, however, one of the survivors of the crash has started a new version.

Back in the late 90s, there were far fewer people online and the net was more difficult to use... Now you've got huge broadband take-up
Michael Smith, firebox.com

Michael Smith's firm, the online gadget retailer firebox.com, won its first funding at a First Tuesday event. It barely made it through the downturn, but is now thriving, after a bumper Christmas for online retailers.

Mr Smith says he's launched Second Chance Tuesday because the internet has come of age.

"Back in the late 90s, there were far fewer people online and the net was more difficult to use," he says. "Now you've got huge broadband take-up."

And he thinks many of the ventures that failed in the first dotcom age could now make it. "Many of them were great ideas - there just wasn't the audience. They can now become multi-million pound businesses."

Experience counts

But the general mood is a little more sober.

We're likely to be looking for people with a few grey hairs, a few war wounds
Andrew Carruthers, New Media Spark

Executives from New Media Spark, the venture capital firm which funded both firebox.com and lastminute.com, were in the crowd at the Century Club on Tuesday night.

The firm had its own troubles as the market collapsed and its chief executive, Andrew Carruthers, made it clear he wasn't going to be flinging cash at young dot com hopefuls:

"Not unless they've got a pretty demonstrable track record and understand what they're pitching," he warned.

"We're likely to be looking for people with a few grey hairs, a few war wounds."

Back in play

New Media Spark has put its toe back in the water this week, with its first investment in a technology firm since 2002.

It has put 2m into Skinkers.com, a software firm which provides desktop alerts for media and marketing firms.

But the investment does seem in line with the more cautious times: the founders of Skinkers are comparative veterans of the industry, and have spent the last three years building their business using their own funds.

They insist they're far more sensible than the "spend now, pay later" apprentice tycoons of the late 90s - their offices in Farringdon certainly don't boast the table football or video games that used to be an essential element in dot-com interior decor.

So while the beer and warm white wine flowed freely at Second Chance Tuesday, there were few signs of irrational exuberance.

The talk was of a world now ready for a new breed of young entrepreneurs who would use technology to change all our lives.

Mind you, that's what they said back in 1999.


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