Acid Helvetica titles do not make you a decent person

(Alt. title: Look, it’s like a society but smaller!)

OK, so you may remember the case of Startupbritain.org, a well-publicised eye-catching initiative that turned out to be little better than spam paid for with a government grant to some whose-kid-are-you types. It seems that the whole pointless wankabout was kicked off when one of the WKAYers cornered poisonous old Thatcherite gargoyle Lord Young and pitched his eye out.

Ah well, the Big Society was always going to be a happy hunting ground for grantsmanship, wanktanking, and various other kinds of ligging and general availability entrepreneurship. Small business grant programs – which it essentially is – are notoriously vulnerable to fraud and general dodgy dealing.

And then it came to the MySociety listserv. So this message plunked into the trap last Monday. In it, a thing called “Sidekick Studios” offers to hire some software developers. Note – because this will be important later on – that they didn’t make any bones at all that they were making an offer of employment. (A shorter version of this post is in the list archive.)

“*We’re Sidekick – And We’re looking to hire 3 Developers…We’re a social innovation organisation – we develop web and mobile tools to tackle social issues and public services in a different way. We have 3 different jobs – please take a read and get in touch if the roles spark interest

Fair enough. The first one is for a Ruby on Rails developer with 3-5 years’ experience, for an 8 week consultancy gig at their headquarters in London Bridge, working alongside a mobile developer and a user-interface designer on a project for an unnamed client. Nothing to see here.

But here’s the problem.

*2 x Creative technical leads / senior developers *
Project – “SS3”
*Key info: *
· 3 month contract – maybe more
· Social innovation projects
a) Social Care Swap “wife swap for your gran”
b) Youth Justice Game Project “4 square for criminals”
· Experienced and creative developer to build proof of concept for an
innovative social project
· Start up experience preferred
· No language preference – but solid front and back end web-dev skills
required – whatever environment you’re used to
· Work in small dynamic team
· Based at Sidekick studios, London Bridge
· Read more hear http://sidekickstudios.net/ss3/

To be honest, it was the peerlessly idiotic “concepts” that caught my eye. “Wife Swap for your gran”. Had Nathan Barley been contracted to write the requirements statement? Or was the whole thing a reality-TV show? Had I stumbled upon a new Chris Morris project? We could read more “hear”, and some of us did.

SS3 is an experimental technology and design incubator to create new types of public services. We’ve assembled a team of 10 people, with diverse skills across research, design, technology, social venturing and commerce. Over 3 months, the team will work together out of a studio in London Bridge to launch 3 social businesses, each with the potential to deliver sustainable, social impact. And rock the world.

OK…well, it would appear from the next paragraph that the team is us. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that part of the team is us – the 10 ground crew have apparently been recruited already. It just remains to find Laika and Strelka the space dogs.

We’re offering 3 people the chance to become the resident entrepreneur for each venture. And have their salary paid for 3 months. And have the opportunity to become the full-time Managing Director of the venture at the end of the SS3 experience.

Note that the software jobs are additional to this. So you’re being offered the chance to implement…”Wife Swap for your gran”…over three months, and if you succeed you get to keep it. And they’ll pay your salary. Or maybe not – let’s skip ahead here…

How much will I get paid? Good question. And we’re going to duck it. Sort of. We are not saying exactly because we might pay people differently depending on their level of experience. We can say the salary will be more than enough to live off in London, pay exorbitant rent, travel to and from work, and have money left over each month. The value of SS3 is the awesome and talented people who’ll help build the venture. If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you.

Note that they have no interest in any ideas you may have:

I have my own idea / startup / service – will you help me with that? No. The startpoint is the ideas that we’ve already developed with partners, providers and people in the sector and which we know have some potential.

and reserve the right to terminate you at any moment:

What happens at the end of 3 months? We don’t know! The venture could be up and running, with money coming in. In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all. If the venture has limited chance of getting to market, we’re going to just kill it and you’ll be left with a whole load of training and skills, and some happy memories we hope. If the venture has a chance of going somewhere, but we’re not right for each other, we move on and find someone else. Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point.

So even if the project is a success, in fact, there’s no guarantee of getting the job, contrary to prior statements, and no guarantee of any pay even if you get it. And there is a lot of horrible macho Alan Sugar rhetoric and passive-aggressive expectations-wank.

But if you don’t do a good job, or your venture isn’t going anywhere fast, we replace you…Or we kill it…No remorse…We’ll try not to come to blows and then move on…Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point…Entrepreneurial..Committed. Passionate..Not an idiot…If you want exits / earnouts / options, we’re not for you…No…you have to be in the office in London Bridge…Or out telling people how great this is / learning / selling…If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you….It’s all about the team….If you’re afraid of sales, we’re not for you…Definitely not. Full-time. 100 MPH. Absolutely committed. As if your life depended on this. Well at least, your financial security. Because it does.

Indeed it does, but not so much that they’re willing to offer anything lame like a job. As previously noted, they’re not actually promising any money or any commitment of any kind, but they do keep using the word job:

If you do well, and the venture is doing well, you’ll get a job. A good job.

Ahem? What was that again?

In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all.

Now, I mentioned that the projects are non-profit and are to stay that way. Fine. This doesn’t, however, mean that Sidekick itself is non-profit. In fact it’s a commercial company, registration no. 6707987, and its customer in this project is, well, us. Specifically, they’ve scored a grant from the UK Technology Strategy Board.

So, to summarise: You get to work your arse off trying to make some daft idea like “Wife Swap for grans” fly. For this you get a suspiciously unspecified sum of money. You may be terminated without cause at any moment. After three months, you may get a job, you may get the same job but without the money, or you may get “no tea and walk home”, depending on no conditions that anyone is willing to state at the outset. You may not profit from the business, no matter how well it may do, but Sidekick’s directors get theirs whatever happens. And we’re all paying for this exploitative, cynical, spammy, hilariously ill-thought out shite.

Further, and just in case anyone thinks I’m biased in any way, does anyone else think The Guardian could perhaps make its pay-for-play Guardian Professional advertorial and events operation look and feel distinct from the actual newspaper’s website?

Why am I talking about this?

Well, Sidekick also recommended “a Guardian article” to us – this one. Now, unless you follow Fleet Street politics closely you’d probably think that’s just another Guardian URI. But the key bit is that it’s in their “Social Enterprise Network”, one of their “Professional Networks”. Guardian Professional’s front page is here. It’s possible that there is some difference between Guardian Professional Networks and Guardian Professional, in which case it might be more professional to make this obvious. But I suspect that this piece is advertorial.

It is, however, informative.

Over the past year, in the face of chaotic reorganisations and relentless manager bashing from politicians, we’ve seen many of them decide to take up generous redundancy packages, in some cases over a year of full pay…

Those civil servants who have been made redundant – they collected their redundancy money! The bastards.

Aside from the huge drop in productivity during the prolonged reorganisation, this mass firing and re-hiring carries huge risks for costs going forward. The same manager is thinking of moving on to work for an international research agency. If the GP consortia wants her unique skills and community relationships in twelve months time, they’ll find her charged out to clients at £1000 a day….

Indeed, just like last time. Perhaps it would be better not to do the privatisation and mass sackings in the first place?

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, social enterprises could offer a way to stem the flow of this talent and make use of the experience and knowledge that the taxpayer has invested in…the fear is the shadow of large private sector companies coming in and cleaning up….At Sidekick Studios, we’re going t try to grab some of this talent first. Our reasons are pretty selfish – if public services don’t want these people, and their knowledge, and their skills, and their networks, then we sure do….From May 1st, we’re starting SS3…

I think this might have been improved by an admission that Sidekick Studios is in fact a private sector, for profit, company. What offends me about this is that they are quite openly trying to help push public servants out of real jobs with pensions and union recognition and that stuff and into the hyper-precarious code-for-pizza status we just outlined. Come to think of it, if you can’t get hipster interns living off the Bank of Mum & Dad you might as well try sacked civil servants living off the redundancy money.

But then, what else would you expect from people who want to replace the poor sods working in local authority social care with “Wife Swap for your gran” and the police with “Foursquare for criminals”, all held together with sales-training day bullshit and shameless volunteer-mining?


  1. Cian

    That’s all possible, but a lot of that post also reeks of startup culture. I’ve lost track of all the opportunities I’ve been offered over the years to work for low pay, in a risky situation, with no chance of equity. The amateurism in that post is a little extreme, but not that unusual. I’ve seen worse – I mean there is at least the hint that you’ll get paid, probably.

    The market currently for developers in London is extremely tight, so god knows what kind of rejects they’ve managed to recruit, if any. Probably naive graduates.




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