The British: nonchalant, or lazy?

Julie Meyer made her reputation by persuading us Brits to behave in very uncharacteristic ways.

At the chaotic weekly get-togethers of her First Tuesday networking club, which she created in the late-nineties, aspiring British internet entrepreneurs would don coloured badges and awkwardly start conversations with strangers. American and European investors and consultants, meanwhile, would serenely work the room.

These days, through her investment & advisory firm, Ariadne Capital, American-born Meyer is still one of the best-connected people around and right at the heart of the UK technology scene.

So lunch with Julie is always an illuminating experience. Yesterday’s, however, took us down a different track. For, having lived here for more than a dozen years, Meyer is getting rather animated about Britain.

Through her column in the City newspaper, City AM, she recently caused a kerfuffle (and elicited some very angry emails) by questioning the British work ethic and whether they were any good at marketing themselves.

I questioned whether this diffidence wasn’t the point about the Brits. The discomfort with self-promotion is actually our chief selling point; that gawky modesty actually hides a steelier interior.

To be fair, she agreed. Recalling her eager arrival at Insead, Julie says: "In the first week, the Brits in my class blew me away by uniformly saying they had written their essays the night before they applied, and made roughly 24 hours’ effort. Seven years versus 24 hours! Over-eager American woman meets laidback British boys looking to have fun at business school; what a clash of cultures.

"Only later did I realise that they had worked very hard to get in to Insead, but didn’t want to say so."

The bigger question here is whether that modesty is a sustainable characteristic in a hyper-competitive global economy. To me, Britain already suffers an economic identity crisis. It’s easy to restate that "London is a global city, the centre of financial services bla", but the international elite that sustains that position is inherently mobile. Chelsea today, Shanghai tomorrow. (Last week, incidentally, I met the proprietor of a very venerable British private bank, who told me that they were actively considering their first overseas branches in Switzerland or Lichtenstein.)

Which, of course, brought us to the non-dom fiasco. Wasn’t she, Julie, mildly insulted by having now to pay for the privilege of creating wealth and providing jobs for us mild-mannered Brits?

"The government has come at this completely the wrong way around," she said. "I hope that, with 12 employees and as an active promoter of entrepreneurship, I’m worth more to the UK than £30,000. The real question they should be asking is: how do we get more out of Julie as an entrepreneur and wealth-creator?"

More to come on some of Julie’s technology hotshot tips.

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