What do we want you to know? WebSummit – Don’t Miss It Next Year!
If you’re startup-minded or technology-loving, you missed out on the best conference of the year if you failed to attend Web Summit. Members of Convention Nation just returned from the event, which was held last week in Lisbon, Portugal. Immediate impressions were that it was the best organized conference we have attended for all of 2017. Featuring over 60,000 attendees and 20,000 volunteers and staff, the event was simply massive. Even more attractive is the diversity of countries represented. We were told the attendees came from 173 separate countries. And what is most notable for this event is the discounted Women In Tech entrepreneurs ticket that 4,000 women received for a discounted price. The organizers wanted to make sure there was a good turnout from women in technology.
You’re probably wondering what our key takeaways were for the event. Here are our notes, in no particular order:
1. Opening Night Ceremony
The opening night ceremony was in the packed Altice Arena and it was sold out days before the conference start date. There were many disappointed conference attendees who were unable to secure a seat for the opening show.
For a conference which prides itself on promoting the buzzword of AI (Artifical Intelligence), it was no shock that the conference was opened by Stephen Hawking via webcam. Not one to mince words, he offered his perspective of the dangers of AI and its possible negative effects on the future of humanity. We won’t soon forget his standout line: “Success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know.”
Paddy Cosgrove, Founder of WebSummit, echoed this view in his opening remarks as well.
Nuno Sebastio opened the conference on the main stage and was chosen because he’s a native Portuguese citizen and the founder of FeedZai (www.feedzai.com). Nuno’s AI Platform for Payment and Risk was praised for just having raised 50 Million Series C funding just a couple of weeks earlier. Next on stage was Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General of the United Nations and a former Portuguese Prime Minister. Guterres’s insightful words focused around creating innovation for the good of humankind.
2. Diversity and Quality of Attendees
We won’t quickly forget our impression of the quality of attendees at this conference. Sure, there were 60k in attendance and we couldn’t meet them all, but of the folks we met, we were impressed by a PHD student from Paris working on a cancer cure moonshot, a government incorporating ICO’s into its regulatory framework, AI engineers in every industry conceivable, blockchain developers in healthcare and insurance. In addition, there were attendees who didn’t have Alpha or Beta exhibition booths but had multiple projects which they were working on and telling others about. Some of these ideas were more profound than the exhibiting companies. Everyone was open to learn and collaborate, basically more interested in inter-disciplinary pollination of ideas rather than enhancing ideas.
The same buzzwords were used across all days of the conference. We heard AI, blockchain, drones, AR and VR and decentralization, but the depth of discussion from the panelists as well as discussions outside were of a much higher quality than we expected. There were very popular discussions about flying cars from Uber, new job categories of AI trainers, personal assistants 2.0 and the decentralization of every industry under the sun.
3. Lisbon and after-parties
We could not have been more pleased with the location of the conference. Lisbon is a city rich with good connectivity to many other European cities. The city has its rustic charm which blended beautifully into the discussions at the WebSummit of bringing old, stodgy industries and executives into today’s digital world and eventually into the AI of tomorrow.
We want to mention that the food was amazing in the city. Some nights we went for dinner early, while other nights we didn’t go out until after the multiple parties organized by various groups. Our favorite haunts were the TimeOut Market (https://www.timeoutmarket.com/lisboa/) and Atalho Real within PRÍNCIPE REAL http://www.grupoatalho.pt/atalho-real/.
The Night Summits hosted by WebSummit were good affairs but we quickly learned that the majority of the networking and collaboration between startups and partners happened during the late hours when attendees poured into Cais do Sodré or Pink Street. These discussions and networking sessions went usually till 6AM (!!) the next morning but these were wholesome discussions on the future of work, Millennials’ needs in the workplace, ethics with AI, and even a staged managed debate between Sophia and Einstein. Lisbon has a population of only 500,000 people so WebSummit was like a city invasion, having increased the city’s population by 16%. That meant public transportation was taxed, but we noted that as a host city, Lisbon and its citizens were incredibly welcoming and gracious, despite being inconvenienced by our invasion.
4. Focus on Women and Diversity
In the United States we have many discussions about diversity in tech, but we would like to applaud WebSummit for putting its money where its mouth is. As mentioned previously, the organizers gave away deeply-discounted Women In Tech tickets to around 4K women. The event also hosted a huge Women In Tech pavilion which was a reserved meeting place for female attendees to network and refresh. We counted several Women in Tech Events across the summit. These micro-events gave women multiple opportunities to network in a comfortable space.
You’d think women would be attendees only, but we were pleased that a good majority of the panelists and speakers were women as well. For the first time in our experience going to startup and technology conferences, there was a higher percentage of women investors and VC’s than what we’ve experienced at startup conferences in the United States. The organizers made sure women were a highly represented group and all of us appreciated the efforts to not only include them, but to make them a cornerstone of the event experience. Of note: a woman VC at dinner one night looked around and then said to us, “This crowd looks more like a liberal arts class (a mix of 50% of both genders) than like the other conferences which look like a Stanford engineering class(70:30 split, with higher male presence).” We couldn’t agree more.
5. Networking and Technology Usage
The official WebSummit app was an adequate tool to help attendees to reach other. We were surprised that we could direct message some celebrities. (For example: Al Gore, Mark Hurd CEO Oracle, or Brian Krzanich CEO of Intel). The only downside was its slow speed, but maybe with 80K people using it was to be expected. We won’t gripe about this.
But being a technology conference of course the entrepreneurs found other ways to connect with each other. There were almost 30-odd FB groups, around 100+ WhatsApp groups and 20+ Slack Channels all being used by attendees to connect and network. We joined a couple of WhatsApp groups that had 200+ members. Attendees created groups organized by country, by domain, by hobbies (like Surfing) and of course by technology.
This meant all attendees had opportunities to use multiple channels to discover new relationships. Many solo attendees benefited from these communication groups. As stated previously, the high-quality attendees were quick to welcome new connections into their group. None of us felt like outsiders.
6. What didn’t work at the conference
With all the good things above there were a few which didn’t work when you consider the overall success of the conference.
a. Some of the more popular summits like Growth Summits had a very small seating area and almost double the folks standing as compared to some of the other larger ones which had seats empty.
b. The security lines to get into the conference every morning was huge, and if you came in peak hours it took an hour to get in. This improved on the second and third day but the first day was a struggle
c. The food lines were expected to be bad during lunch hour-- and they were-- but there was nothing anyone could do. There was finite space in the arena for the food trucks.
d. The app was difficult to use as it slowed down a lot during the peak conference hours, making it difficult to message and connect with folks in a timely manner.
Overall we believe this was a very well organized conference and we’ll surely be going back to this conference again next year. There are positive elements from WebSummit that other conferences could implement but I guess bringing in the right people and discussing topics at a deeper level is the successful recipe for a blowout event. WebSummit didn't fail us, and in fact enriched our lives with its rich experiences. We can't wait until 2018! In fact, we'll buy some 2-for-1 tickets right now (and you can too). See you next year!