Interviews – Technology – Julie Meyer

Julie Meyer rose to stardom as a founder of First Tuesday and quickly became known as the First Lady of the internet. We meet the woman who calls herself ‘a deep pan-European’ and talk to her about her company, Ariadne Capital, and the careers in the start-up economy

What is Ariadne Capital?
It’s a blend of advisory and investment services. People will come to us and in some cases we’ll be helping their capital-raising process, introducing them to private investors or a corporate. In some cases we have to say, ‘You haven’t a chance at all of raising money, so let’s look at whether there’s something to sell here, a brand, an asset, something that would be of interest to an operator’.

What triggered the idea for Ariadne?
I thought, what’s my point of difference? It’s not that I’m a better financial engineer than anybody else or that I’m a technology expert, it’s the fact that I’ve had an unusual opportunity to work on a pan-European level. Not just three trips a year, but three weeks out of every four I was in a different part of Europe working for First Tuesday, and that has given me a very broad network. I thought this would be powerful for helping start-ups when they say that we want to expand across Europe.

What was your biggest concern for the project?
It was: who else do I need to do this with? That was the trickiest bit. It’s been well documented that I’ve been pretty disappointed with the founders of First Tuesday. They were very pleased to call themselves founders but didn’t do any of the work.

What is your day-to-day role at Ariadne?
I’m very client-focused on any given day. I’ll work on client stuff rather than working on the website or working on fund-raising. I find it very difficult to turn people away and say, ‘Sorry, go figure it out yourself’. So I tend to get involved even just on a personal level, to help people think through their scenarios.

Is there a downside to the job?
You see successes but you also see major crash and burn stories like City Key. Places where the venture capitalists said, ‘We’re going to take you from a thirty million valuation down to half a million, and the whole exercise is simply to get you guys out of the picture’. That’s really nasty stuff and I frankly don’t have too much of a stomach for it.

When did you decide to leave First Tuesday?
A short answer to that is when Yazam bought First Tuesday. Literally the day after I said, ‘Okay, what next?’

Has First Tuesday run its course?
I think First Tuesday’s idea is timeless and had the potential to be timeless. It is an extremely elastic brand and there is an enormous amount of good will and elasticity in it. Clearly you wouldn’t set up First Tuesday again because it’s not as simple as in mid-2000 to put entrepreneurs and investors in the same room and presto, they get funded and go public.

How do you distinguish between a good idea and a bad one?
I think ideas are pretty worthless. I don’t think ideas ever make anyone wealthy. I think it all comes down to the leadership and the big ‘E’ word – execute. What I would say about an idea is that there needs to be some sort of natural magic to it. First Tuesday in many respects was the ultimate good idea because it wasn’t even meant to be an idea. We didn’t want a business. We came together to bring people together to talk about talking about ideas. It should have been an amazing company but it had a management team that couldn’t execute.

What kind of people do you look for in a start-up?
People who have a flexibility, who lack rigidity but still have rigour and discipline. Very few people get ahead without hard work, so flexibility and an openness to opportunity. They also need a certain generosity of spirit because the more you give, the more you get. And people need to specialise and take an interest in a particular sector, that’s increasingly important as technology comes back into fashion. A good attitude, hard work and intelligence get you a long way.

What is your advice for those starting out on their careers?
I think you should always work for somebody that you really respect. I’ve always tried to find a very unique individual that I’ve felt wow, I have a lot to learn from him or her. Go to a place where the spirit of the place is very much about giving responsibility to people, where people don’t feel that they need to be successful at your expense.

What word of warning would you give to wannabe entrepreneurs?
It’s a very difficulty thing to be an entrepreneur. It’s very difficult to deal with the stress, it burns through your personal life and you simply cannot have a well-balanced life. I’ve forgotten all of my family birthdays in the past two years. There is a certain group of people that just want to be an entrepreneur simply because they don’t want to work for anyone else and they’re not disciplined enough to hold a real job. And that’s the group that is figuring out that maybe that’s not good enough.

What’s your least favourite part of the dotcom world?
The fact that people use the word dotcom. I never use that word. I say start-up.

What’s your driving ambition?
Call it corny but I want to change the world. First Tuesday was very much a symbol of real belief in the entrepreneur, the individual as an agent of change. It’s not the government, the family, the corporate, it’s the individual who can and should control his own destiny. And there was no amount of money that I could have paid these people around the world to get them to work for me. It was the fact that they felt they were changing the world. And they have. They have galvanised the entrepreneurial spirit in Zurich, in Madrid, in Buenos Aires, and Timbuktu.

What would you like your legacy to be?
I get really sad when I go to places like India or South Africa. People don’t trust that society as whole wants them to get ahead and they don’t believe that they have a chance to change the world, to make it a better place for themselves. I’d love if people can look back at some period of time and say, ‘Well, Julie Meyer seems to have played a small role in unleashing the energies of hundreds of people’.

What was your career path?
I went to Paris when I was 21 with $700 and worked for a marketing company and then I went and set up my own consulting firm. Then I went back to Boston and worked with Andy Cunningham at Cunningham.com. I did an MBA at INSEAD and then went to work for New Media Investors. And nobody could understand why. It was a very deliberate path, but nobody else would have chosen it.

What’s been the most challenging part of your career?
If you’re ahead of the field there’s a period of time when people think you’re crazy. They said, ‘Why is she going to New Media Investors? It’s three men and a telephone. Why is she setting up First Tuesday? It’s just a cocktail party.’ I remember some of my business school friends saying, “Do you think it will keep you busy?” And I said yeah, there’s a good chance it’ll keep me busy. But I think you have to experience and be comfortable with that feeling of being an outsider and realise not everybody’s going to understand what I’m doing.

Why do you love Europe so much?
Firstly, because it’s a fascinating place. Because of the history, the complexity, the people are more interesting. My problem with Americans – and I am one so I guess I can say this – is that they tell you everything about who they are in twelve seconds. And then you don’t have anything else to ask them for the next twenty-five years! Europeans are more subtle, they’re more discreet. And secondly because I can play a bigger role here than if I went to Silicon Valley.

Any final words of wisdom?
If you can manage somebody else’s money, manage somebody else’s money!

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Business, career, interview