Participants in the MykonICE event reflect on the day’s discussions in the pool at the Saint John Hotel in Mykonos, Greece.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki/Bloomberg

The Party Winds Down for London’s Tech Bros

Jagermeister at 2 a.m. once bound Britain’s tech community. Today it’s sunrise yoga, mindfulness, and jousting on unicorns.

Not long ago, when London was still a virtual pipsqueak in global tech, a group of startup founders, feeling starved of any type of community, decided they needed to bond through wild parties in exotic locations. The goal: share lessons and frustrations, and revel in the heady rush of entrepreneurship.

“Imagine learning how to attract and retain the best talent while sitting on a deserted warm beach half naked at 2 a.m. with a shot of Jägermeister in your hand,” Renaud Visage, the chief technical officer of event planning company Eventbrite, wrote on the group’s website. “This is what happened.”

They formed the International Conclave of Entrepreneurs, and their first adventure was a ski junket to Switzerland in 2009. Since then, they’ve ventured to South Africa, Israel and a slew of other Alpine resorts.

ICE participants listen to a speaker during a mid-morning conference.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki/Bloomberg

But with Brexit clouds arriving and the deluge of venture-capital cash drying up, the hard-drinking tech bros of London are turning to self-reflection and thinking harder than ever about their real priorities and new realities. That was the idea, anyway, for about 70 venture capitalists, founders and CEOs, and marketing executives who flew in September to the Greek island of Mykonos. Less Jägermeister more nourishing drinks like one called The Green Martian, promising “the ultimate power elixir,” and that choice hashtag of the moment, #wellness.

"We’re family, and we’re here to try to grow personally and professionally,” said Alex Hoye, one of the trip’s organizers. “If you are not at your best personally, you’re not going to be at your best professionally.”

Part of that growing involved pre-flight homework. A reading package included the classical authors Seneca and Plato. On board came a pair of business coaches, a yoga teacher and mentors, including one who described herself as the “chief inspire officer” at her company.

Sessions with life coaches were booked through an app, Qudini, being developed by one of the attendees. Of course it crashed.

The participants didn’t exactly allow themselves to fully retreat from the real world. Many stayed glued to their phones. Not covered in the advance reading was the story of Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who sought to retreat to the underworld by hiding in a hole in the ground and instructing his mother to tell friends he had died.

On the first morning, a Greek yoga teacher–tattooed with the phrase “let my body do the thinking”–led a swift 30-minute vinyasa class by the pool. But by day two, attendance on the mat had withered.

An ICE participant dives into the sea after a meeting aboard a sailing boat.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki/Bloomberg

Many attendees said they valued the biannual trip as a rare opportunity to share with peers the stresses and anxieties inherent to their work, away from staff and hovering investors. While floating in the Aegean off the hotel pier, Tom Savage, founder of “people search engine” Wholi, described ICE as an opportunity to “lift the veil” on their crafted narrative of success.

That veil truly lifted when Christopher Gergen, a fellow at Duke University's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, organized a series of team-building exercises.

In one, participants were told to invent and perform a new Olympic sport. Most creative was modern-day jousting on unicorns. (A piggybacked participant charged at another.) One team put forward a musical theater-type number that culminated in a merry tune about that feeling when bankruptcy is imminent. “We have three weeks left of runway,” they sang in a stirring refrain, using industry jargon for the amount of time before a startup runs out of money.

At first, many attendees brushed off the vote for Britain to leave the EU, before later speaking guardedly about potential hurdles to recruiting and the risk of losing talented London staff on European passports.

Over pizza in the hotel bar, Alicia Navarro, a founder of advertising firm Skimlinks, said she didn’t think she would start another company in the U.K. after Brexit. “It’s a disaster,” she said.

A yoga session before breakfast.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki/Bloomberg

Signs of stress fractures are already showing in London. After years of a relative boom in Europe, some high-profile tech companies have gone bust or are struggling. Powa Technologies, a payments company once valued at $2.7 billion, went bankrupt over the winter. German startup factory Rocket Internet's stock has fallen by about half over the past two years. Venture-capital funding, the lifeblood of tech companies, fell 13% in the U.K. in the first three quarters of 2016 compared to the prior year, according to research firm CB Insights. And there are questions over how London, in particular, will fare as a tech hub after Brexit.

“I don’t think people would be confident that in a year, two years time, there’ll still be lots of money available,” said John Spindler, CEO of Capital Enterprise, an umbrella group that includes universities and incubators active in the tech scene in London. Spindler wasn’t on the trip.

Michael Acton Smith, who founded children’s game company Mind Candy, talked about his own journey and the crumbling of his once-hot company with a runaway hit brand—Moshi Monsters. In 2014, after a decade of success, he said he would step down as chief executive officer. His next venture: Calm, a meditation app.

Standing in an open-sided pagoda, above the Aegean, Acton Smith described how he responded to burnout by taking a solo vacation, a practice he said was also favored by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. He read a stack of books, including Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.

“As many of us know, entrepreneurship is also one hell of a rollercoaster, huge soaring highs and crushing lows, sometimes on the same day, and it’s really really tough to ride that,” he told the group, overlooking the narrow strait that separates Mykonos from the island of Delos. “The joy of work for many years had faded into a bit of a dull ache, and I think this is something more entrepreneurs need to talk about, because pretty much all of us go through it.”

After he wrapped up, the group headed to the beach.

Alex Hoye, co-founder and chief executive officer of The Faction Collective SA, checks his smartphone during a toga party.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki/Bloomberg