Unasked for advice for Web Summit 2014
This year’s Web Summit was a huge success for the organisers, but there’s still plenty to do before 2014 rolls around
By now, we assume that the thousands of high-flyers, founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, bright sparks, thought leaders and tyre-kickers who gathered in Dublin for last week’s Web Summit have made their way home. If last year’s Web Summit caused a bit of noise, this year’s affair in the RDS was several notches louder. Everything was bigger: the number of attendees, the amount of stuff on offer, the off-stage noises, the extra bits and pieces, the media coverage. Especially the media coverage, with every organisation worth its salt covering the event with gusto (here’s the bulk of the coverage from this newspaper, plus you’ll find several posts by Una Mullally from the event here).
This was also the year when the Web Summit jumped the snark. You could tell this by a cursory look at your social media timeline with people who’d no intention of going or no real interest in what was happening in the RDS bitching about what was happening. Now you know how the good people of Austin who have no interest in SXSW feel when March rolls around. And you will always have well-argued, well-written pieces like this, written from the point of view of someone working in the industry taking issue with the whole enchilada.
But all of this bah-humbug and meh-Summit stuff also conversely shows the sheer scale of what it has become and how it has established itself on the calendar. There was very little attention paid to the Dublin Web Summit in 2010 or 2011 and there was a little more attention last year, but this was the year when it went interstellar and supernova. Sustaining this will be a challenge, but it’s a welcome challenge.
Walking around the RDS on Wednesday and Thursday, it certainly felt much bigger than last year. You could see that in the sheer number of start-up crowds pitching to all and sundry in the venue’s chicken-coop bazaar. You could tell that attendance was up by the fact that every single presentation or panel or talk was well attended, as people crowded in to make the best of the event. You could gauge that this event was swinging by the queues for food over at the Food Summit in the marquee in Herbert Park. All of which means there was most definitely money made by the organisers this year.
It’s also interesting to examine what the hell Web Summit actually is, as it’s still in a process of defining itself. Sure, you’re seen the advertising and marketing and the 10,000 bright minds pitch yadda yadda yadda. But on the ground, Web Summit means different things depending on who you’re talking to. The start-ups and investors, who probably make up the bulk of the attendance, are here to make connections (there are some interesting observations on the Web Summit from an investor here), the media are here to get stories and the politicians are here to ring bells.
You need a gathering for all of this, an IRL meeting point, and that’s what the Web Summit provides right now. It may see itself as something different – certainly, the amount of add-ons (Food Summit, Night Summit etc) and the constant references to SXSW leave you in no doubt as to what the organisers are thinking – but there’s a sense of cart-before-the-horse with Web Summit from time to time, as if it’s running before it can walk. That’s understandable when you’re dealing with a start-up keen to own a certain terrain, but if Web Summit is still going to be around and relevant in five or 10 years time, which it has every possibility of being, it needs to work out the kinks.
And boy, are there kinks. The very nature of an event like this means there are various teething problems, but this is the fourth iteration so many of these issues should already have been addressed. Here, then, are 10 pieces of unasked for (and unbilled) advice for the organisers about stuff for 2014.
(1) Sort out your website
I know, you probably think the Irish Times’ website is pretty bad too, but yours is particularly atrocious, especially as you’re a bloody web event. Why didn’t you link from the schedule to individual speakers? Why was there no description under each panel title or heading? Why was the navigation on the site so 2000? Was that your nod to the tech bubble?
(2) Invest in a few signs
As someone who was involved in a talk on the Library stage, I was glad there was someone on hand to take us to the stage because we wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of finding it otherwise. There was one door, a bit like Bosco’s magic door to quote one of our speakers, and very little signage to get there.
(3) Sort out your male/female speaker ratio
Yes, you asked Twitter, but Twitter obviously didn’t see your request in the midst of other stuff. It’s not a great look when there are so few women onstage – or if they’re just onstage to act as chairperson or moderator – especially when there was a sizeable number of women in attendance in the hall. Indeed, there were less female speakers in 2013 than 2012. Maybe instead of asking Twitter, just go through the women who’ve registered to attend and ask them to speak or take part in a panel discussion? Note that not all the women at Web Summit were “digital marketing” types or “booth babes”. And if it’s a “tech industry thing”, maybe take some initiative and change this?
(4) Better time management
While I applaud your desire to have the stages running like clockwork, there has to be a break between panels for changeovers. Even a 10 minute break between panels means you have a natural pause between one panel and the next. It also means you won’t have a situation, as you did on Thursday, when Paddy Cosgrave went “get the fuck off the stage” (albeit with a smirk on his face) to a panel who went overtime by a few minutes. That the chairperson of that panel happened to be female was a little unfortunate.
(5) Big up the Library Stage
Despite the fact that it was hidden behind Bosco’s magic door, the panels on the Library Stage were fantastic. I could have happily spent the entire time there, once I’d found the place. If you’re really serious about being more than a start-up zoo or place where entrepreneurs go to recite cliches nicked from self-help titles they browsed on the way to Dublin in airport book shops, you need this kind of big-brain thinking. You probably need two Library Stages in fairness. And don’t forget those signs.
(6) Better time management, take two
Some of your panels could have gone on much longer. For instance, the chat between Shane Smith and David Carr was only getting going when it was over. And surely you could have done more with Elon Musk instead of throwing him on a panel with two other speakers – Mark Little did a great job of moderating the panel, but he also had to make sure both Enda Kenny and Shervin Pishevar also had time to speak, when everyone really wanted to hear Musk.
(7) You are not SXSW
While I can understand the desire to expand and add in more Summits to go with the Food Summit and Night Summit, you may be running before you can walk. Naomi McArdle has an interview with Night Summit organiser Rob Farhat over on Harmless Noise where he speaks about their plans to expand next year. But any of the people I spoke to who attended Night Summit events said the majority of people at the gigs naturally stood around drinking and networking and not really playing a blind bit of notice to the acts. It’s what you expect because they’re tech people, not music people. SXSW works because it brings in a music audience for the music side of things who want to see and hear music acts – can Web Summit really attract a totally different crowd for a Music Summit?
(8) Better time management, take three
Some of your panels were truly superfluous. Do you really need 15 minute “fireside chats” with all those Stepford Wives’ entrepreneurs on the main stage? Wouldn’t it be better to properly curate and programme the main stage so attendees are getting a better quality of bang for their buck? Do all of those entrepreneurs really have something to say that someone else hasn’t already said?
(9) Talk about the bubble
While I understand the need for enthusiasm and optimism at an event where you have a lot of funding from government agencies keen to push the jobs agenda at every juncture, there was little talk or acknowledgement of the growing tech bubble issues. As we saw in 2000/01, it’s never going to be all good all the time. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any semblance of reality about what might be ahead at Web Summit 2013. Realism and pragmatism about the sector may not be something start-ups want to deal with, but it’s something Web Summit should be addressimg.
(10) Better time management, take four
I kept hearing that the Food Summit came together in the last 10 days and that the app came together in the last week so I kept wondering if you realised that there are actually 365 days in the year and that everything doesn’t have to be lastminute.com. The Food Summit was a huge success (bar the fact that no-one in the queue knew what they in line to eat until they got to the top – a few more signs needed there, lads), but the app was as bad as your website. Again, spend more time getting their basic stuff right.