James Minter, the founder of the iconic club for entrepreneurs in London’s Adam Street, played a key role in digital history
This is the first interview in a series of articles leading up to Like Minds, Bristol – powered by Barclays which takes place on September 8th & 9th. You can learn more about the event and book tickets here.
Few of us will ever find ourselves at the very centre of a revolution, let alone as a key protagonist.
James Minter’s role in the digital revolution, however, seems assured ¬- even though it included serving up espresso martinis to the most stellar tech entrepreneurs of our era.
But it may not be so surprising why the story of his club at Adam Street in London has not been told: Minter is as self-effacing as he is charming, recounting with warmth the role it played in the dotcom boom.
“Adam Street was absolutely amazing,” he recalls. “It was a first, unique, and I met the most wonderful bunch of people there. No one has ever directly copied it.”
Now sadly defunct, the venue off The Strand – with its bar, restaurant, library, gallery, and event space – became the go-to place for London’s tech entrepreneurs as they rallied after the bubble burst.
A “pop-up” version of the club will be recreated at the Like Minds Ideas Festival, perhaps reminding participants that great ideas rarely happen in a vacuum.
Originally established as serviced offices by Minter after a career in the navy, Adam Street became a magnet for dotcom start-ups with few assets and little capital. The club itself opened in 2001 in an old watering hole for actors propping up the building.
What would become the first entrepreneurs’ club in London was seeded when Minter noted the then itinerant nature of Julie Meyer’s First Tuesday networking club.
“Back in those days it was still the case that if you went into a club you weren’t allowed to talk about business – it was not done and was meant to be a subtle under-the-radar thing,” he explains. “So I thought you have got all these people together, First Tuesday moving from venue to venue, why isn’t there a fixed place where entrepreneurs hang out?”
These were the heady days of a gold rush – but before the launch of the digital paraphernalia that we now we take for granted.
“In those days people were only just getting laptops, there was no Wi-Fi, Facebook and Google didn’t exist – all these things we take for granted, and a lot of things that allow you to work from a space like that just weren’t there.”
Nonetheless, like all roller-coaster rides, the dotcom era was marked as much by the founding as by the spectacular failure of new internet-based companies, with the Lastminute.com IPO in 2000 signalling the bursting of the bubble.
“By the time we opened the club in 2001 it wasn’t such an auspicious time. It wasn’t really until 2003 that we got up to about 1,000 members, but by then a number of characters had helped gather together the bomb-burst and we had a whole layer of true entrepreneurs who came back together after the dotcom highs and lows to rebuild the tech community.”
These included such characters as Michael Acton Smith, creator of Moshi Monsters; Mike Butcher of TechCrunch, who introduced Minter to the term “podcast”; and Richard Duvall, the man behind the first internet bank, Egg, and co-founder of peer-to-peer pioneer Zopa.
The key to the club’s success was ambience shaped by an enthusiastic staff helping to select the right members – not least Drew Ellis of Like Minds – in a niche that morphed from a shared workspace during the day into a nightclub for hothousing ideas at night.
“There was no music during the day, but at about 5.30 we put on a little bit – and by 10.30 people were dancing on the tables. I also like to think that we introduced the espresso martini into the London cocktail scene!”
But a key lesson Minter has taken away was the importance of a diverse membership that helped to give the venue character.
“It was a bit like walking into the Star Wars bar: there was a very strange collection of characters and that was my intention from the word go. Innovation comes from interesting people meeting other interesting people who have got completely different experiences and ideas. The most important thing is to mix – we had politicians, businessmen, entrepreneurs, an entire spectrum of characters hanging out in a very small, intimate space.”
“Because you were in the club you had permission to go and talk to anyone, and they would absolutely listen to what you had to say. It is a very hard thing to achieve and certainly not something a corporate could do. It needs to have soul.”
Adam Street’s glory days lasted until 2008, but faded amid the global financial meltdown and the migration of tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Roundabout in East London. At that time Minter also had music on the mind, reopening Notting Hill’s famous Tabernacle.
Although it played host to battalions of iconic digital pioneers, Minter believes Adam Street was not just about tech – but primarily about entrepreneurship and making connections, a skill he has taken to the digital leadership experts Hannington Tame.
The club’s impact, if unrecorded, remains unrivalled, offering an inspiring model for entrepreneurial hubs such as Central Working, the Clubhouse, and WeWork. Today it is widely recognised that clubs, hubs and co-work spaces are an essential ingredient in the innovation mix – much like the coffee houses of the industrial revolution.
Asked how he felt about founding an entire sector, Minter laughs.
“I suppose we did. I just think it was inevitable. I happened to be in a situation where we had a fantastic building right in the centre of London and were part of the dotcom boom … and, as a 29-year-old, I was in the extraordinary position where I could just do what I wanted.”
To hear more on this from our stellar line up of speakers, come and join us at the Like Minds, Bristol, “Innovation & Ideas Festival” – powered by Barclays on September 8th & 9th. Read more and book tickets here.