A couple of years later, they were able to float the venture and make a fortune. Brent was suddenly worth about £80 million. Not long afterwards, the dotcom bubble burst and his value dropped to a tiddly £30 million, although, give him his due, he doesn’t yield to self-pity about it.
“I am very lucky to have made more than I could ever need,” he says.
He has the wife and family. He has the house in France. But once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur: so Brent’s at it again. He’s just launched a web service that allows people to establish what items of furniture would look like in the room they’re thinking of putting that furniture into. Companies such as M&S pay MyDeco to have their chairs and tables featured in the belief that the European market, which buys relatively little of its furniture online, will go the way of the Americans — one in 10 of whom orders their new bed or loveseat on the internet.
One of the stories Brent told the Guardian when it interviewed him last week was about the days prior to the public float of his first venture, when lastminute.com was wooing investment and fund managers.
“I was with my chief financial officer in Scotland and he is doing the spiel and I am always writing emails because I am bored to tears and trying to run a business,” he recounts, adding the fund managers took a dim view of a chief executive playing computer games in meetings with them. His broker tried to ban him from using his Blackberry in those situations, but he insisted on continuing. Today he laughingly recalls how his colleagues would kick him under the table when his key-punching became too obvious.
What a plonker. Here’s a guy who was educated at Eton and Oxford and he not only doesn’t have the basic good manners to pay attention to other people at a meeting, but finds his behaviour so amusing, he advertises it in an interview with a business journalist.
Not that he’s alone. Whether at pitches for business or training programmes, the compulsive Blackberry user is a constant factor. That little icon on the main Blackberry screen inviting the user to turn off the ring tone so that it silently vibrates instead of yelling is oddly threatening to them. Even worse is the threat posed by the icon inviting the user to actually turn the thing off completely. The absolute nadir is when an addict accidentally leaves the phone at home and has to get through the day with as much discomfort as if they’d left one of their legs in the shower by mistake.
No doubt, now that each transatlantic shopper brings back at least two iPhones because they’re cheaper, Stateside, we’ll see a variation on the Blackberry-under-the-table syndrome. The new trend will be iPhoners sweeping their index finger rather than thumb-thumping a keyboard.
Here’s a paradox. Addiction to communications technology radically DISIMPROVES communication. The person quietly checking their texts and emails under the desk at a meeting, so subtly that nobody misses for a moment what they’re at, is rarely connected to anything important. They’re getting the same text three or four times from people who have incontinent mobile phones. They’re getting news updates about events in which they have no interest whatever. They’re getting offers of products they would never buy.
SOMETIMES of course, you get people who pitch up to a meeting (or students who attend a lecture) who bring their laptops as well as their Blackberries, in order to check out aerial shots of Sydney during Saturday’s attempt to get the world to switch off its electric lights, or find out what odds the bookies are offering on a particular horse.
At one recent meeting where a participant’s gaze was fixed on his laptop, another participant challenged him.
“You’re not paying a blind bit of attention to what we’re saying,” he cribbed.
The laptop user smilingly repeated the most recent comment made, by way of proving that of course, they were paying attention. The challenger wasn’t having any of it.
“Yeah,” he said. “I could do that in school, too, when I was reading a boob magazine under the desk. The reptile brain will always produce the last sentence uttered. Doesn’t mean you’re paying attention.”
He’s right. Laptop and Blackberry addicts who can’t be parted from the technology operate under the illusion that they are multi-tasking, when in fact the meeting could be over much more quickly if they were committed to full participation. Road safety research indicates that even a glance down at a mobile phone screen can precipitate a collision: the human brain is a wonderful organ, but it performs best when concentrated on a single task.
But functionality aside, what doesn’t strike the screen-hooked is how incredibly rude they’re being to the other people present. It’s like those crazy messages you get when you’re hanging on the telephone having made a call to a service company. In between chunks of Greensleeves, a fervent cuddly voice tells you a) your call is important to them, which it clearly isn’t, because if it was, they’d answer it, and b) it will be answered in rotation, whatever the hell that means. It may connote First Come, First Served, which is no help if you don’t know when No 1 telephoned or how many other people have since followed them down the telephonic road to nowhere. Or it may be code for survival of the fittest: as soon as they’ve gone through all the humming lines once occupied by callers who have abandoned the phone in despair or rage, they’ll come to a live survivor, like you.
Strangely, companies who go to great trouble and expense to develop health and safety programmes and support them with training often pay no attention at all to inculcating the basic courtesies that make the workplace tolerable. Like not taking a phone call in the middle of a conversation with someone who’s in front of you. Like not taking a phone call in the middle of a telephone conversation with another person who is coerced into saying no of course they don’t mind being put on hold while you go off to talk to someone more interesting. Like turning to an interlocutor and giving them the priceless gift of undiluted attention.
Of course, even as you read this, you may already have disengaged, opened up your laptop and logged on to MyDeco to figure out if red leather chairs would be too retro-diner for your new house.
You wouldn’t, would you?