The small matter of an identity crisis

In the last month, I attended two major conferences; both targeted at startup audiences, and both with a focus on technology innovation. One unashamedly boasts about being the largest startup tech conference in the world, while the other wears its startup credentials with a touch of cool abandon. But to hold a lens up to these events from the perspective of a startup, which best fulfils the brief when it comes to brand awareness creation, acquiring net new customers or reaping the benefits of a ready-made network of contacts?

I am of course talking about Web Summit and Slush. For anyone involved in the business of startups, these two conferences are a not-to-be-missed fixture in the calendar. Whole marketing teams are dedicated to plotting a brand’s presence at these trade shows, often dedicating months of planning to prepare for when all parts of the global entrepreneurship eco-system congregate together. And while the common objective to connect startups and trade may be the driving force behind these events, my impression is that one achieves this much more organically to greater success.

When Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrove founded the event back in 2009, he would not have had the foresight to predict what a phenomenon it would become today. Some 60,000 attendees representing startups of every ilk, vy for the attention of every major VC investor, who will mingle among a mix of Fortune 500 CEOs, industry luminaries, innovation gurus, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts from across the global tech scene. Paddy boasts of it being the “largest conference of its kind dedicated to the startup eco-system”, and the operative word here is “large”. The event is mahoosive, practically taking over the whole of Lisbon. There are events within events, sector-specific conferences and talks branded as mini summits, with dedicated stages and coverage from a range of featured startups.

In contrast, a not-for-profit event run entirely by an army of volunteers, Slush is often described as “Burning Man meets TED”. With a mission to “help the next generation of great, world-conquering companies [come] forward”, in just a few short years, it’s become the place where founders and investors collide, deals get brokered, and generations of tech entrepreneurs get inspired to join a worldwide startup community. This year’s event attracted 18,000 attendees from over 120 countries, and while the Helsinki flagship program is still the biggest, outposts of Slush have popped-up as far a field as Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore. It’s singularly unique, blending Nordic cool with an underbelly of creativity, inspiration and motivational drive designed to ignite startup proliferation.

In the world of startups, events play a hugely important part of the marketing mix. It’s where networks are formed and introductions are made, where business development ambitions sit side-by-side with the desire to expand the mind through lessons learnt from other startups. Knowledge transfer tends to prevail, especially when you consider the precious time relinquished by any startup founder who’s spending time away from running a business. It’s a huge commitment, and therefore I believe any event should unfailingly deliver on the promise of how it wears its heart on its sleeve. Especially one that’s pitched at helping startups succeed.

And herein lies the problem. It’s impossible to create a meaningful experience when you’ve grown to such extent as a conference. You end up being nothing to no one in the interest of trying to deliver something for everyone. This was super evident at Web Summit, where for three days, I alongside my colleagues were flummoxed by how overwhelming the whole experience turned out to be. As a tech conference, it’s morphed into a hodgepodge of things, dipping into a whole horde of different areas akin to a child with ADHD, running rampant through a pick-and-mix store, incapable of deciding what it wants to take home. This is an event suffering from more than a touch of an identity crisis.

I spoke with countless startups that week in Lisbon, some of them first-timers, some who relished the opportunity to be among thousands of their peers, and others who didn’t come prepared at all in terms of what they wanted to get out of their Web Summit experience. I can only imagine the sheer scale of proceedings didn’t help the cause either. The whole event just lacked focus and there was wasted opportunity in abundance. I found the conversations in Helsinki to be much more productive; attendees were genuinely interested in talking shop, had something constructive to contribute and the overall quality of content tried very hard to deconstruct the business of startups. It’s not to say Slush doesn’t have it’s own set of challenges. But I think what’s significant is the driving philosophy behind the event, which Slush CEO Marianne Vikkula summed up perfectly in a recent article:

“Slush is a non-profit movement that is all about helping local startup ecosystems. We don’t want to export Slush as a big international brand. But we do see it as something that can help communities around the world”

Sometimes, bigger doesn’t always mean better.

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