Overwhelmed, underwhelmed at the Web Summit, Lisbon

I am taking the opportunity to review the Web Summit, held in Lisbon last week of 5th (evening) to 8th November 2018. The Web Summit, originally Dublin Web Summit, is a technology conference held annually since 2009. The company was founded by Paddy Cosgrave, David Kelly, and Daire Hickey. The topic of the conference is centered on internet technology and I went looking for multiple innovation angles and left actually disappointed.

I do have to admit I did head to the Web Summit a little biased. Everything “smacked” of commercialization on a big scale. I never really got past this judgment. I had been invited so should I be so cynical or ungrateful, perhaps not but it is hard not to get past this “sheer” commercialization and randomness. I’ll explain randomness later.

When you are told “Forbes has said we run “the best technology conference on the planet”;  or The Atlantic that Web Summit is “where the future goes to be born”;  The New York Times that we assemble “a grand conclave of the tech industry’s high priests.”

These overhyped claims roll on “Bloomberg calls it “Davos for geeks”, Politico “the Olympics of tech”, and the Guardian “Glastonbury for geeks”. My eyes are rolling on these. Overhype is an understatement.

The publicity blurb adds “At a time of great uncertainty for industry upon industry and the world itself, we gather the founders and CEOs of technology companies, fast-growing startups, policymakers and heads of state to ask a simple question: where to next?”

This year over 70,000 people were heading to Lisbon for this Web Summit.

The claim and I don’t doubt it, is that we’ll be joined by the CEOs and founders of the world’s biggest companies, the most promising new startups, influential investors and leading journalists. Can you find them might be another challenge as they are mostly tucked away in VIP or off-limits sections of the venue, pampered and feted? I doubt they lined up for their food from the food trucks provided. The lines were impressive and off-putting. I quickly gathered it was best to eat well before you came to this event and just keep “walking the halls”

It is claimed that the Web Summit is the world’s largest gathering of international journalists, attracting more than 2,500 global journalists from publications including Bloomberg, Financial Times, Forbes, CNN, CNBC, and the Wall Street Journal.

So let’s read all the reviews over on the Web Summit press site, where there are presently only THREE entries in SIX weeks as of today. Something is not connecting here. Where is the validation of worth provided by this largest gathering of journalists on the Web Summit site as the point of reference, of knowledge, insight or benefit? This focus on size and commercialized comes through again. Put some meat on your bone, Mr. Cosgrave.

The Commercial Icing on the Cake, the timing for me was suspect.

Then I receive this to add the extra “commercial” icing on the cake, announce just days before the event.

On the 3rd October 2018: Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of Web Summit, and António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal revealed today that Lisbon will remain the host city of Web Summit for the next decade. This is under a new €110 million deal, including a large-scale venue expansion to facilitate the conference’s fast-growth.

After a robust and competitive tender process involving offers from over 20 cities across Europe, the company behind the world’s largest technology conference has come to a new agreement with the Portuguese government. As part of the deal, Web Summit will receive €11 million per year from the country.

Do your sums, this is a sizable revenue-generating event

Now assume 70,000 attendees at Euro 1,000 (average) and you have Euro 70m coming in for this one off event over as well as this Euro11m, not bad for any events, in today’s environment.

 The good news I have just found out is the Web Summit has launched a $50 million VC fund baptized Amaranthine, the Financial Times reported. According to the FT‘s sources, the new fund will use the data from the conference to support its investment decisions, such as which startups have attracted more attention at Web Summit and what trends are worth attention. The fund will supposedly take minority stakes in startups at all stages, however, judging by the fund’s size and the startups that usually exhibit at the conference, it’s more likely to be anywhere from pre-seed to early growth stage.

Amaranthine will reportedly be led by David Kelly, the co-founder of Web Summit, and Patrick Murphy, who used to work for Goldman Sach’s and Universal’s venture arm.

The other part of the pre-event announcement was that additionally, a part of the Web Summit deal to stay in Lisbon deal is to double the size of the Altice Arena and FIL (Feira Internacional de Lisboa) within the next three years, to fit Web Summit’s growth forecasts. Commencement of the first phase of the expansion project will start in the coming months and will be completed for Web Summit 2019. I think it is WAY TO BIG now

The catch for anyone interested in buying out Web Summit is that they have also agreed to a €3 billion buyout clause. The buyout clause is the minimum, the expected economic impact of Web Summit to Portugal over the duration of its contract, and provides security to Portugal that Web Summit will remain in its capital for the 10 year period. It was estimated by the Government of Portugal that Web Summit generated more than €300 million in economic impact for the country.

It is also claimed Web Summit has also helped elevate Portugal and Portuguese companies on the global stage. Portugal was described recently by The Wall Street Journal as “one of Europe’s hottest stars, with tech startups mushrooming and investment pouring in”.

Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave said: “We’re incredibly excited to be staying in Portugal. Without a larger venue, this would not be possible. Even until a few months ago, we never believed it would be possible. The plans are incredible and we’re very thankful to all those who have worked on them.

 This deal gives certainty to our many attendees from over 170 countries around the world, and our thousands of partners and exhibitors. It also gives certainty to our host country, and to our team of more than 200. Together we’re looking forward to doing incredible things.

 Finally, I should add that we are grateful for the support and encouragement we received from other cities who also placed bids to host the event. We very much recognize their efforts and definitely appreciate all they have done.”

The Mayor of Lisbon, Fernando Medina said: “This 10-year agreement with Web Summit will decisively make Lisboa a key capital for innovation, entrepreneurship, and talent. I am confident the next few years will bring a sharp rise in IT investment and employment in Lisboa. We are thrilled to continue to write this story together with Web Summit”

 

So did it live up to this hype? Simply NO! Well not for me. Let me explain

 

The Guardian’s quote of “it defines the Ecosystem”. All I felt was,  if this is defining an Ecosystem, then watch out, it is a lop-sided, highly unbalanced event. As my title of this post suggests “I was overwhelmed in its sheer size and underwhelmed in what it actually delivered to me”.

To start with just take a look at the jaw-dropping schedule.

Check out the schedule here. You can search by title, description or speaker or use the topic filter. The Web Summit App feeds you like the hungry beast sifting through so much. For me, personally it was not that easy to visualize, schedule and that was my loss in not investing pre-event time on this. This needs serious organization and focus and I am not famous for that!

The event crowds 1,200 speakers into limited time slots over three days. So in 20 to 30 minutes, all these speakers deliver a message. Inspiring, shallow, motivating, boils down to “depends” Some were listening to speakers for much of the time. Not sure why unless you wanted to top up your “I listened to..” claims to fame.

There are over 2,000 startups set up in ALPHA, BETA & START tracks pitching away to 1,400 Tech Investors. Where do you go, what do you visit really needs organizing your day and that is very hard unless you have a very definite focus.

I was talking to a fellow Web Summiteer on the way home on a plane. He valued the experience, he found some value but spent significant time having to “weed out” all the messages, promotions, announcements he was getting on his “Web App” as he found the “keyword” suggestions too broad, so he lost time picking up on those points of value in any (decent) organized way.

I believe Digital has not really arrived at the show to help the attendee pack in the real return on investment. It is great at knowing where the night time events were happening or the next “star turn” on the main Stages if you can get to them on time. Somehow the Web Summit people need to think about investing in a greater digital event set of tools. I was not impressed.

Without a doubt, the Web Summit is a very different beast than I had experienced before.

I felt I was sometimes on a different plant. The halls were seething, thousands were constantly on the move, walking these halls, chatting, meeting and drawn together. Some of the vendors like Amazon were pitching to packed audiences. So it attracts without a doubt.  It has the chance to mingle, seek out tech founders, investors, prime ministers, magazine editors, heads of global banks and multiple startups all under one roof. This is certainly unique and draws in such a diversity. Yet it is a little scary. I am not a techie, geek or seeking to compete in the technology Olympics. I wanted to learn a little more from some of the bigger sponsors on where the future was heading (AI, Big Data etc). To be honest I am learning more ‘rooted’ to my desk than I did for much of the time at this event.

The one thing that certainly struck me was how CISCO, Google and Microsoft were working very hard on AI face image recognition. The one that caught me was Pedro over on the Cisco booth and his coffee brew to show how tired you were. Take a look, the coffee grinder worked overtime. While over on Google it was comparing your face to famous people or past ones or Microsoft comparing you to a dog breed. So they decided I was comparable to a bluetick coonhound. I am smart, devoted and tenacious- I’ll take that! Fun maybe, helpful for them to build out their data bank of faces but where was the serious stuff I had come to hear from very significant tech companies. Missed it and they are missing what they can deliver if they bother to think beyond “missing out” by not being there. They need to rethink what they can offer web summit attendees.

Most of the big players in technology were sponsors but lacked any real substance. They had the bigger booths (bigger pockets) but gave little of their size, contribution or what they offered. Perhaps there were so many startup or tech investors they have not figured out the appropriate messages they want to deliver into such an audience like this. They had a brand presence but not a great amount more, they should. You do notice the Chinese, Japanese and most of the Asian tech world is dramatically underrepresented at the event- I wonder why? Bring them in, it might raise the bar for the established ones.

One example of a decent delivery of content was Amazon,.  I managed to listen to the Amazon AWS presentation on Knowledge Graphs and found out it was repeating what I knew or had invested in research, so not much new came out of this, apart from the fact it is a very hot topic figuring out AI and where Knowledge Graphs fit within this. The event was overflowing though and many more just gave up and simply moved on, back in the mass migration from one hall to another.

Actually, Amazon did seem to have the most active presence in what they are offering, so they get my vote for being the most tuned in for what was needed and provide as good awareness material. The other biggies were honestly a waste of time for what they should have given me or countless others as a “captive” market. So underwhelming.

Now the real appeal for many is the networking.

I think there was so many who were attending were having this as a reward for their contribution to the work they were doing. I think there was some serious partying going on at the Night Events and recovering during the day. So maybe CISCO had tapped into our need to check how tired we all were with their coffee idea.

At all the events, night and day, you can start up some great conversations but getting to know this one person is that someone you should talk too, is still left to chance. I cannot figure out why the bracelet we are all told to wear throughout the event can’t work with the web app to “signal” and connect us more.

Networking is such a generic term, how can the Web Summit turn this into a real powerhouse of connecting investors, those that are pitching and actually looking to change job. I loved the bland “we are hiring” signs for many, so lacking in anything imaginative besides this. Another lost opportunity

I found it amusing, up to a point, when I was pitched non-stop for three minutes, with his partner or wife I think, holding one or two sales pointers. To stop him and point out he was wasting his time on a randomness that was bordering on the ridiculous.

Randomness is where I want to finish.

This event is far too random, far too diverse, far to big in what it tries to provide; a melting pot “a place where many different people and ideas exist together, often mixing and producing something new”. It is certainly a “potpourri” offering an unusual or interesting mixture of things but does it work?

There was one talk “We cannot rely on algorithms to determine quality” by Ev Williams, CEO, and Co-Founder of Medium and former CEO of Twitter, but in the case of this Web Summit. If Paddy and his team invested in AI and some well-focused algorithms for their event, we might get a greater connection going, even more than presently claimed, with a real validation of its value, a real take-home value over simply tiredness.

As I said this event was both overwhelming in size, and due mostly to this, it failed for me and underwhelming in value I got out of it. I can’t imagine heading back to Lisbon for this event unless Paddy Cosgrove and his team stop thinking size and really investing in understanding what really matters, besides the buzz of this, and that means a very different set of digital solutions, not ones focused on selling hype and tickets.

It is certainly not the “the best technology conference on the planet”. For me, I feel it is an event that needs to be experienced once, a bit like The Great Wildebeest Migration – the annual migration of giant herds of grazers across Northern Tanzania and Kenya is a truly spectacular event. Replace herds with nerds of digital devotees moving around an event, restless for new feeding grounds. Yes, that was the Web Summit for me, the problem is I failed to get across the divide.

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3 thoughts on “Overwhelmed, underwhelmed at the Web Summit, Lisbon

  1. I went once- the last time it was in Dublin and even then found it just as you described it. I’ve done all the big events – only once: CES., SXSW, TED, Web Summit, Dreamforce. They are all the same shallow commercial drivel where quantity is supposed to compensate for quality and the hype is simply to feed the producer’s wallet and drive sponsors and create FOMO. Far better to seek out events that cap audience around 300-500 like CB Insights, Poptech or the Amplify Festival that I founded and produced for 10 years where audience is capped at 180 and each session lasts 55 minutes with 30 minutes for speaker and 25 minutes for audience to interact with the content. Have yet to find a better format for deep connection around a topic- the audience questions were often the best part because it could open up new perspectives or reveal where culture is at.. None of this can happen at these monstrous events and just trying to navigate the complexity eats up too much of your cognitive energy that you’d rather reserve for learning and immersion in the content. On the other hand- happy for the economic benefits accruing to Portugal- it’s an amazing country with wonderful people who don’t take themselves or all this capitalism too seriously!

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