PinkNews.co.uk founder and Channel 4 News Correspondent Benjamin Cohen is to revisit his life as a teenage dotcom millionaire a decade ago in a programme broadcast this afternoon on BBC Radio 4.
At 16, while studying for his A-Levels, Mr Cohen founded a website then called JewishNet, an early social networking website consisting of synagogue and business listings, dating and chat. I even had a “cyber-rabbi” to answer questions from around the world.
Thousands of people visited and it soon caught the attention of a boutique investment bank. Writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Cohen explained what happened next: “So, in the brazen style of a teenager who knows no better, I telephoned The Times. The reporter had one question I couldn’t answer: ‘How much is JewishNet worth?’ We had no idea, but dad told him: ‘There’s an Asian website that is valued at £5m, so it might be worth something similar.’
“Bingo! That story — ‘Jewish website nets London schoolboy £5m’ — set a media ball rolling that ended with me appearing in every national newspaper and on every television channel.”
This prompted a bidding war with two Jewish newspapers, in the end Mr Cohen opted to work with the Jewish News, who gave him a stake in a new website called SoJewish, which it and two software company investors would spend £850,000 on building. He got a seat on the board and even got the newspaper to sign away its digital rights to the new business. SoJewish was designed to be a brand selling everything from internet access to plumbing.
A flotation on the London Stock Exchange was planned and valuatations for the company of £50m were talked about. But on14 March 2000, Lastminute.com was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Benjamin Cohen remembers that day well. It was the day the British dotcom bubble began to deflate. The flotation of soJewish was put on ice. It later merged with a rival, TotallyJewish and eventually reversed onto the London Stock Exchange. This meant briefly, Mr Cohen was the youngest ever director of a public company.
After soJewish, Mr Cohen created CyberBritain a pre-Google search engine which was offering paid for search listings two years before Google. At one point he was placed above Prince William in the Sunday Times Rich List.
But as he explained in the Sunday Times, he made a mistake: “I had become frustrated by a search that my sister, then aged 10, made on the site. She’d typed in ‘Amsterdam photos’ for a school project and found hardcore pornography. I developed crude technology to separate adult and family safe searches and inadvertently created Europe’s first porn search engine.
“I then did something foolish: I launched a copy of the adult search with a user registration system and named it Hunt4Porn, hoping to generate publicity. It worked. I was the nice Jewish boy from north London who had created an easy way for people to access hardcore. One newspaper claimed that a launch event for the site would feature a rabbi and a naked woman.
“The life of a virtual porn baron was strange — cloak-and-dagger calls from real porn barons desperate to find someone gullible enough to be their fall guy. I turned down one very lucrative offer to front someone else’s established porn empire.
“But the problem with running a porn search engine was that I did not feel comfortable selling porn or advertising space to those that did. No mainstream advertisers would touch it with a barge pole and one day … I grew up. It may have been hitting the grand old age of 19, but I decided enough was enough and sold the site.”
In the wake of the end of the dot.com crash and a number of the company’s clients going into administration, CyberBritain was ultimately closed down in 2005.
He then launched PinkNews.co.uk: “When I founded PinkNews, it wasn’t really as a business venture. I’d been writing for the Times for a while about the internet and e-business and I wanted to publish a couple of pieces about the pink pound. I couldn’t get them commissioned anywhere so I decided to put them online myself and PinkNews.co.uk was born.
“It’s not a money making venture, it’s more of a social enterprise although I did raise some investment in order to pay for our journalists. Ironically given my labelling as the ‘unlikely porn baron’ during the dot.com boom, I took a very deliberate decision to bar all sexual and pornographic advertising on PinkNews. I wanted to create a work-safe LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) news service that people really could read with confidence in the office.
“I don’t run PinkNews to make my fortune. I’ve lost thousands from it, I guess it’s a lifestyle investment. The most important thing to me is that hundreds of thousands of people get to read high quality LGBT news. That we break news is more important than breaking even.”
Since 2006, Mr Cohen has been the Technology Correspondent for Channel 4 News, “when I talk to people like Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. ” I do sometimes look at them and think, ‘I could have been you’ — perhaps if I had created a mainstream Facebook-style social network rather than one focused on the Jewish community. I was a bit ahead of the curve with my search engine, charging for targeted text listings two years before Google. But unlike Google or Facebook I didn’t have the Silicon Valley investment climate or the ability to recruit from a techie community at Ivy League universities.”
Reflecting on his experiences in the bust, he wrote: “I had been lauded as a hero of the British Jewish community, then cast as its demon. I went from being someone every Jewish ‘bubba’ wanted to introduce to her granddaughter to a person you couldn’t look in the eye. I’d given foolhardy investors hope that I could make them rich beyond their wildest dreams and left them with just a tax-deductible loss.
“I’d lost people their livelihood. And for a time I’d believed my own hype. But this strange journey had been started by religion — me wanting to give the Jewish community a way of connecting online. So I turned to religion, not in a literal sense but academic, reading for a degree in religion, philosophy and ethics that helped me reflect on my experiences.
“While studying I realised I’d been exploited. Not by my parents, who had always wondered whether it was too much, too young, but by the very people whose businesses and fortunes I’d helped to wreck. They thought a child could save their businesses, take them into the 21st century. Some just wanted to coat-tail on my perceived success. Backing me seemed an easy way to make a fortune.
“I also realised that my biggest asset — the ability to spin the press into writing about me — was also my biggest failing. I was chasing my ego and attention. I provided them with a perfect narrative: boy wonder gone bad, the kid who lost a fortune. But I was a kid none the less.”
Benjamin Cohen is technology correspondent for Channel 4 News. I Was a Teenage Dotcom Millionaire will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 4pm on Tuesday 9th February. It will be available on the BBC iPlayer after broadcast.