Disciples stay faithful to dot coms

Leo Lewis finds the networkers at First Tuesday chastened but still doing business
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The entrepreneurs wear prominent green stickers, the venture capitalists wear red ones. Those sporting a large yellow spot are denoted as "other", but might just as well wear a sign saying "heathen".

The entrepreneurs wear prominent green stickers, the venture capitalists wear red ones. Those sporting a large yellow spot are denoted as "other", but might just as well wear a sign saying "heathen".

This is First Tuesday, the monthly internet "cocktail party with intent", offering a free-for-all marketplace creating the chance to match the right venture money with the right, bright e-business idea. Last Tuesday - the first since the demise of Boo.com and the collapse in e-commerce share prices - the gathering was like a prayer meeting for the faithful, held a few days after the news broke that God didn't exist.

The original First Tuesday - the brainchild of Julie Meyer - was held on the first Tuesday of October 1998 in a Soho bar. From its humble beginnings, when members numbered just 80, the past 18 months have seen 80,000 of the internet faithful stampeding to jump on the bandwagon.

It's not hard to see why. Those 18 months have produced some amazing stories of short-term entrepreneurial success. Millions of pounds have been dished out by way of investment in small e-commerce ideas, on the off-chance that investors are backing the next Amazon.com or eBay.

Until recently, that exuberance was reflected in the First Tuesday statistics. Back in January, there were plenty of decent-sounding sales pitches, and a hefty number of speculators willing to buy into snake-oil.com. So there were hundreds of green spots at the events, but more than enough red spots for them to ingratiate themselves with.

First Tuesday is shamelessly a forum for business in the raw. Around the hall, half the green spots blast out their 30-second propositions; the others roam about in desperate search of a red-spotted audience. Unfortunately, First Tuesday rather spoils things with the blunt language it uses in its programme for the evening. Everyone knows that the whole thing is about networking, but to schedule "6pm to 7.45pm: Networking" takes a bit of the fun out of it. A little like a friendly neighbour saying it's fine to climb over the wall and scrump apples.

The stories of intrigue and deception, however, do add some spice. At the desk where the coloured spots are handed out, a First Tuesday rep dutifully warns that some of the red spots might not be all they seem. The word is that a few of the craftier operators are posing as venture capitalists, listening to all the ideas, then taking the best and pitching it themselves next time.

Equally, some of the real VCs from the larger investment houses, which include Citibank and Europ@web, prefer not to have their company name on the badge, out of a justified fear of being mobbed.

But April rather changed that happy scene. The massive slip on the Nasdaq market of hi-tech US companies gave investor confidence a sound thrashing. The demise of Boo.com and a raft of liquidations in the US finished the job. Last Tuesday, the red spots were few and far between.

Much of the world remains agnostic on the future of the internet, but First Tuesday is like a faith-healing act at a Southern Baptist church. Both red and green spots firmly believe that through devotion and blind faith the answers will eventually come. The devotees used to dress down but now, as part of the new, more serious approach, the entrepreneurs are kitted out in their Sunday best.

When the networking session was over, it was time for the guest padre to address his flock. The green spots, with names ranging from vQ-tech to lovegame.com, poured to the front of the auditorium, unwilling to miss a single pearl of wisdom. At the back, the red spots milled about nervously, anticipating the next barrage which would come seconds after the speaker finished.

On this occasion, literally preaching to the converted, was the chief marketing officer of the US internet consultancy Scient. Chris Lockhead's sermon, delivered at full volume, had a double agenda. The first of these was to reassure everyone that "E-business is still cool, and a good idea is still king". This was instantly achieved by the use of a slide presentation, which also managed to bellow the message out in bald terms.

Advice like, "Don't worry about the Nasdaq, just take a deep breath and remain dot-calm" was greeted with whoops and applause. To deafening cheers, Mr Lockhead delivered his verdict on the future of the market: "Risk is back - and boy is it mad."

His second agenda was to decry the internet doubters. He rounded on those elements who dared criticise start-ups for being vague about their ability to make any money.

He carefully explained that the level of US investment in dot-com ventures still runs into billions of dollars, but that, unlike a few months ago, cash is no longer free. The key, he said, lay in presenting a business plan that would "enable David to dance with Goliath". Around the room, the green spots nervously shuffled their 15-page assaults on years of established business practice.