Jim Carroll

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Kicking some tyres at the Web Summit

The sound of the crowd at last week’s two-day Web Summit in Dublin? Sell, sell, sell. When you stand on the balcony overlooking the main room in the RDS and take it all in, the hubbub is impressive as a …

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 09:38


The sound of the crowd at last week’s two-day Web Summit in Dublin? Sell, sell, sell. When you stand on the balcony overlooking the main room in the RDS and take it all in, the hubbub is impressive as a couple of hundred start-ups take to their stands to hawk their wares. Elsewhere, there are different stages hosting presentations, panel discussions and workshops, as well as various nooks and crannies housing investors and men in blazers and open-neck shirts who confidently tell TV reporters that they have “millions of dollars” to invest.

Spot the men in blazers

All in all, there are over 3,000 people wandering around taking it all in, like farmers at a mart. But, just like those farmers, you wonder who is swayed by the finely calibrated chatter and practice-makes-perfect pitches. If it’s all about sell, sell, sell, who exactly is buying? Are the marketing dudes and PR ladies (or marketing ladies and PR dudes, if you wish) who are here in abundance – certainly, there are way more of them in attendance than makers and coders – really who you want to attract?

There’s certainly an element of tyre-kicking going on, which is something all start-ups have to deal with. But while there are undoubtedly some who came to the Web Summit to run a rule over projects and burgeoning enterprises they knew nothing about before heading to Dublin 4, the serious money men and women have done their homework long before coming to town and knew exactly who or what they were after. It’s how A&R and talent-spotting works: you do your homework in advance, you know exactly what you’re after and you look for people who have already put in the hard work. Take SmartThings, for example, which won the Spark of Genius competition at the Web Summit. Its Kickstarter campaign was massively oversubscribed because people think it’s a project worth buying into.

If SmartThings are already on the fast-track, there are hundreds of other startups here vying to just get a leg-up on the same ladder by all means necessary. From protyping what they’re trying to produce to pitching at anyone who loitered by their stand for more than 10 seconds (even if they were just looking for a spare plug to recharge their phone), they have their game face on at all times. Such is the nature of startup culture that many here will be back here again next year with something new or a different version of the same thing to sell. The energy, gumption and enthusiasm to do all of this is there in spades.

You could apply these attributes (and others) to Paddy Cosgrave, the man who set up the Web Summit and the F.ounders event. Cosgrave has come a long way since he was pushing Rock the Vote at us back in 2007 and, while there may be questions over some aspects of the operation, the manner in which Web Summit dominated the domestic business and tech agenda last week was quite remarkable. Stories from the Summit topped and tailed many news bulletins and reports, which is a considerable achievement for an event which is still in its infancy. As startups go, Cosgrave has a winner on his hands.

Yet, as the editorial in this paper noted on Saturday, “any conference such as the Dublin Web Summit has about seven years before the tech set move on to ‘the new new thing’” so the onus is on Cosgrave and his team to buck that trend and reinvent the conference. It can be done – look at how SXSW Interactive, an event Cosgrave may have ambitions to emulate, has survived and morphed into something else entirely to what it was in the beginning, for instance – but it takes careful work and planning and a different tack than just sell-sell-sell.

For instance, one of the biggest drawbacks for me at this year’s Summit was the lack of any bite to the content. Most of the panel discussions and presentations were full of PR smoke and mirrors with little real substance to the discussion. There was too much airbrushing going on, too many cosy conversations between vested interests (Pinterest co-founder Paul Sciarra was interviewed by Michael Birch, who just happens to be one of the investors in his company, so you can imagine how that one went down) and too much hit air.

Of course, you’re not going to get all these people flying into Dublin if they know they’re going to face sticky questions. There are little follow-up, for example, when Beats By Dre president Luke Wood talked about certain “financial reasons” behind the company’s decision to locate its international HQ in Dublin. But, for instance, SXSW Interactive has thrived because its panel discussions are at a much higher pitch with moderators not afraid to ask hard questions and most of the ideas for the conference’s content are generated by the SXSWi community. By giving the power to the community, the conference has manged to outlast the pack. Has the Web Summit got a similar community at this stage which it can tap into?

At the same time, there were some panels which went far beyond the simplistic PR pitch. Daphne Koller of Stanford University and Coursera was hugely engaging as she spoke about the growth in numbers taking online university courses and the problems and advantages which upscaling brings, while the discussion about political activism with Wael Ghonim, Joe Green and Maya Baratz was fascinating and wide-ranging which didn’t pull any punches.

Yet it was noticable that the main stage room was not quite as hopping for these as it was for others. Perhaps the Web Summit community simply doesn’t want such discussions and distractions and is happy to be a sell-sell-sell marketplace for start-ups? How Web Summit 2013 deals with these and other matters will be very interesting to observe as it continues to find its feet.