It’s along way from Communist Poland to the cyberspace world of Internet cafes, but Eva Pascoe made the link – and a fortune on the way. By Ruth Picardie
Last Thursday, Eva Pascoe hopped out of her bed – one of the few pieces of furniture in her grimly urban loft space on the edges of the City of London – and downed a cup of black coffee. She pulled on a pair of black combat boots, black leggings, a furry, skin-tight leopard-skin jumper and a faded, less than pristine denim jacket. Finally, she applied her habitual slash of red lipstick, grabbed her leathers, revved up her motorbike and went to work. Tank Girl meets Sharon Stone.
Pascoe is not a courier. Nor does she run a stall at Camden Market or work the day-shift in a funky restaurant. She is a very rich, very successful businesswoman. She has already had two breakfast meetings today. In the past three weeks she has been to Tokyo, New York and Paris. Since its launch in September 1994, the company she founded with Gene Teare has turned over approximately pounds 5m. Later this year, she plans to float it on the stock market.
Pascoe, 31, is the brain behind Cyberia, which she claims is the world’s first “cybercafe”, where experienced surfers can play with the latest technology and Net virgins learn to log on while sharing an “obscene nacho sandwich” (aka Scooby Cyberspace) for pounds 3.20. The low-key but hip pioneer – stripped floors, distressed walls, ambient music, funky art – behind Tottenham Court Road has turned into a global concept. Today, Cyberia cafes can be found in Manchester, Edinburgh, Paris and Tokyo and elsewhere. The New York branch opens this summer. Next up is Glasgow, Lisbon, San Francisco, Berlin, Moscow, Delhi. Meanwhile, the company is diversifying fast: multimedia training and development take place in the TransCyberia and SubCyberia basement venues; there is a range of Cyberia accessories designed by Sebastian Conran (long-sleeved T-shirts, pounds 18; mousemats, pounds 5), plus an on-line dating agency and the new Cyberia magazine. The world’s first online “television station”, Channel Cyberia, launches in May. Cyberia Records – vinyl copies of samples taken from the Net, for DJ use – is coming soon. Pascoe is a cyberspace version of Richard Branson.
How has Pascoe, who grew up under the rigid conformity of Polish Communism, managed to fly so high in the “live fast, die young” world of the techno- nerd?
At first, it didn’t look good. At the launch of the first cafe, she spent most of the day trying to buy a decent coffee machine. “It was incredibly disorganised,” says someone who worked there as a cyberhost. “There was no proper kitchen. Four out of five directors had other jobs.”
Eighteen months on, many insiders rate other cybercafes more highly. “It’s half-cocked,” says Ivan Pope, who runs a web design agency. “You never get served. The coffee’s always cold. It’s chaos.” Indeed, industry analysts are sceptical about Pascoe’s ambitions. “Cyberia is a restaurant chain,” says David Tabizel, director of research at Durlacher Multimedia in the City. “The fact that Planet Hollywood sells T-shirts doesn’t make it a clothing company.”
Despite the carping, Cyberia was quicker than anybody else to spot that the Internet was coming out of its nerd ghetto and turning into an everyday resource; yesterday’s newspaper and cappuccino was tomorrow’s e-mail and Scooby Cyberspace. “They managed to capture the mysterious Zeitgeist of where people want to be,” says John Browning, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The company had brilliant branding, too. “It’s a hell of a good name,” says David Tabizel. And instead of cloning the original restaurant, each Cyberia is tailored to its city’s needs: the Edinburgh cafe works closely with the festival; Manchester services the club scene.
They also had Pascoe – tall, lithe, green-eyed blond and variously described to me as “weird and intense”, “a magnificent self-publicist”, “very charismatic, very smart”, “a pioneer in integrating people and technology”, “going places”; “an evangelist for the Internet”. She is, indeed, an unstoppable force of nature. “I don’t need that much sleep,” she says, in her slightly broken English, downing another black coffee. “Around four or five hours is enough for me.”
Possessions tie her down. “My security is my knowledge … Because information changes so quickly and I get so much input from the Net, I have to keep it [her loft] clean. The flat is full of white walls … There’s nothing to distract me.”
She gets online at 7am, works weekends, is rarely home before midnight. She can’t remember her last holiday. Even on weekend trips to see friends in Spain and get some sun (“I need sun. I’m a Leo”) she takes her laptop. She has a contract for a book on interfaces; she is trying to write up her PhD in human computer interaction. “I don’t usually eat until the evening,” she says. “I find it distracts my energy.”
Pascoe has always been this way: while still at school in Poland, she designed and launched a range of funky clothes. Studying Spanish and linguistics at Warsaw University, she ran an art gallery on the side. When she came to the UK to do a further degree in psychology, she worked part-time as a programmer. And her PhD sideline was developing software for the post- Communist banking system. (The company she set up there will float on the Polish stock exchange later this year, valued at $12m.) Pascoe left her husband, a Spanish artist, after the first two days of their honeymoon. She was 21 at the time. “He started painting,” she says. “What was I supposed to do with myself?” The marriage itself lasted four years: once she had computerised her husband’s farm, “there was not that much left to do”. (Her current boyfriend is a war photographer.)
Like other pioneers, Pascoe is a fearless iconoclast. What does she make of Richard Branson?
“Going crazy in a balloon,” she declares, “I don’t know what’s wrong with the guy.”
And New Yorkers? “New Yorkers sit on their asses, particularly the SoHo lot. They are all based mentally in the Sixties, they all think being a curator of a gallery is a great statement. It’s complete bollocks.”
Pascoe is also a force of the future. While she shares the Eighties media savvy of (her pal) Lynne Franks (“There were so many film crews in here,” says someone who worked on the launch, “we couldn’t set up”) and the post- Party politics of Anita Roddick (“The Labour Party sinking to bourgeois nothingness is very bad news,” says Pascoe, “because if you want to change you have to be radical”), she is helping to forge the techno culture of the next century.
Here, for example, is Pascoe’s typically wild reply when asked why she lives in “energy-less” England: “Lots of things. I think the dance scene is really interesting. It went through this hippy, zippy nonsense but now the DJ culture is getting stronger and stronger. I really like it, because [commercially produced] music is so over-manipulated. It’s sewn up by three or four major record companies who produce bullshit, bland irrelevant stuff, and they create and manipulate audiences. Young people are really smart these days. The Net is a great depository of samples, so there’s a lot of 30-second samples you can take, put a few of them together, mix them up and have your own personal statement music, and lots of DJs are doing it. That means nobody’s buying music any more … Perfect.”
And here she is on why Cyberia isn’t open 24 hours. “Remember, the Net is still full of young boys who are cruising for adventures. I would rather them cruising from their own bedrooms than from my place … I don’t want any hassle with censorship. I don’t want to look over people’s shoulders … Video developed because people started watching blue movies. The Net has developed out of universities for very similar reasons. We’re trying to keep the balance right and make sure that the good side, the positive side, the educational side, the fun side, is supported.”
Like the Net, Pascoe’s ideas are evolving all the time. Originally conceived as a women-only venue, Cyberia opened to men when they came beating at the door. There are still women-only training sessions and the staff are overwhelmingly female, because “the medium is intuitive and women are good at intuitive problem-solving”.
Pascoe is now trying to evolve into less of a workaholic, which means not logging on after midnight: “If you do it in the dark, when you’re on your own, it’s just so seductive. You go into that world and meet mind to mind. It’s fantastic. It’s a beautiful experience. But it’s also like a vortex – you go there and never emerge.” Indeed, she got badly burnt when she left a relationship for someone she met on the Net while doing her PhD: “If you’re locked on your own for three years in a room, anything at the end of the terminal is going to be cute. He turned out to be a snotty New Yorker … I would shoot them, all of them. And they treat people very badly …”
Nevertheless, Pascoe is going back there this summer for the opening of a Cyberia Cafe. It will, she says, be a good chance to relax. “I’ve started taking flying lessons.” Real ones, that is.
Tuesday, 30 April 1996
Author: Ruth Picardie