Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Web Summit Vol. 1: Kick off

Aint no mountain high enough: the blinding positivity and some hardcore home truths for the Web Summit masses.

Wed, Oct 30, 2013, 19:27


The stage was set for The Summit last night. Under the blinding haze of an over-the-top lighting rig at the VIP opening party in the Market Bar as part of the Web Summit’s Fade Street takeover, the cash registers ringed up a seemingly endless tab at the open bar, entertainment came in the form of Camille O’Sullivan and Kila and a dance piece which I described in my mind at the time as “Grindr Riverdance” (two dueling drum-playing male dancers eventually gave way to two female dancers – all four were vg), platters of crayfish and coddle were passed around, trays of shots of baby Guinness and black velvets and an extra whiskey bar upstairs got the start-ups started up. Dublin, 2013, the Web Summit is go.

It’s hard not to overstate the scale of this tech conference, especially when it’s more than just a tech conference now – it’s a massive social event with music add ons and a Food Summit in Herbert Park. The organisers have a glint of SXSW in their eyes. Its growth is astonishing. One of the co-founders and the omnipresent host, Paddy Cosgrave, remarked towards the end of the main stage’s events this evening the numbers in that room alone was the figure of the entire attendance in 2012.

The buzz is FRANTIC in the RDS, but there’s a lot of bullshit in the room, unsurprisingly. Cutting through the jargon and blind enthusiasm is pretty easy, so which good ideas are left when that’s gone? I heard a lot of smart things being said, but like all big conferences, there’s an incredible amount of noise. I bet amongst the rows and rows of start-ups some people were feeling a little lost. Day 1 was stimulating and absorbing and occasionally boring. I purposefully didn’t download the app and rarely looked at the schedule because I wanted to happen across things and be challenged with new ideas I generally wouldn’t be drawn to.

Everyone is looking for the next big start-up. But it’s hiding in plain sight. The most successful start up at the Web Summit is the Web Summit itself.

Here’s what I heard and saw.

Learning from other cities
My first stop was the main stage: Creating an Ecosystem: Survival of the Leanest, which from what I could gather was learning from Anna Scally, Sri Swaminathan, Simon Devonshire, Matt Cynamon, Jonathan Dillon and Vanessa Barcroft about how other cities do things, primarily the situations in New York and London. Sri talked about the conditions that need to be in place for a tech scene to flourish in a city, “talent, appropriate infrastructure and a sense of community.” He spoke about how New York decided to foster start-ups by increasing the number of applied sciences students and fostering technical talent. That’s something we’re kind of screwed with in Dublin because young people keep emigrating even though some of the biggest tech companies in the world here have vacancies and are hiring all the time. Matt who’s from Miami but was referencing London as he’s the regional director of General Assembly there said “you need a local market to validate business models.” He referenced scenious without using the word, saying that genius rarely happens as a solo thing and “the single biggest limiting factor to growth is access to talent.” That’s another alarm bell for Dublin’s disappearing 20-somethings.

Agilty: How We Killed Reductionism
This was the second panel talk I went to, because I’m involved with Agility. Jim Carroll, Finian Murphy, Blathnaid Healy and Agility’s first client Paul Rowe of Educate Together were at the Library Stage for a chat about collaboration and new agency models. Blathnaid had lots of interesting things to say about the lack of collaboration in journalism right now because journalists are meant to be doing everything themselves. She cited Storyful’s open newsroom as a good example of collaboration in media. From an ad planner point of view, Finian said that too often people are trained in expertise, and have individual skills that they don’t necessarily branch out from. Agility is the opposite of this. I pitch an element of it as perspective engineering (how’s that for jargon!) because we are hoping to give people perspective in order to make their ideas better, more interesting, and see them through practically.

Paul Rowe’s thoughts on education were fascinating. The critical barrier to learning and human development, he said, is self-image, and creating an environment where the individual feels he or she couldn’t or shouldn’t do something. Educate Together is the opposite of that, providing a learner-driven system where people collaborate in their learning, and are not just simply told what the right answer is and to repeat that in an exam. Rote learning is totally out of date. Educate Together has the new model. And it’s working.

Pioneers rock!
If you want the real good stuff, you don’t look for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the future, you check out the pioneers of the past. The average punter knows very little about the history of the technology we use every day, and here was one of its architects, Leonard Kleinrock, rolling out the blueprints before us. It was a privilege to hear him speak. I’ve a follow-up post on this coming shortly, check it out.

Music festivals are start-ups too.
I met this guy who says he’s bringing an acoustic festival to Dublin next autumn, in a field, outside, candlelit with elaborate seven-foot candles, and he threw around the names John Mayer and Jack Johnson. The details seemed a little vague, although he’s done it in Salt Lake City. Am I meant to be dishing on this? Well, I was sitting at the Irish Times stand when he told me, in fairness.

Roofs are the new couches
With Air BnB’s success comes a new breed of space-sharing. Laura Martinez Celada said hi after we’d spoken on the phone recently. She is one of the people behind the buzzy house swap service Knok.

Twitter is obsessed with TV
Stephen McIntyre gave a talk about Marketing In The Moment. Stephen is the MD of Twitter Ireland and the MD of Online Sales EMEA. If you know anything at all about Twitter, a lot of Stephen’s talk was familiar, but there were a few nuggets. He rightly pointed out that no Irish business took advantage of the All Ireland Football Final in the way Adidas did of Murray’s Wimbledon win. These kind of moments to seize for marketing are predictable so companies and brands should market in the moment.

Mentions of “hungry” on Twitter mirror our blood sugar level, and are pretty much consistent daily throughout the week.

His favourite tweet of all time was from VisitEngland just after England got knocked out of the Euros: “England lose on penalties. For more on our culture and traditions, go to visitengland.co.uk.”

Then came the big second screen TV spiel, “Twitter is the social soundtrack to TV,” he said. TV conversations are, like major sporting events, predictable. The dramatic arcs of movies are mirrored on Twitter with such predictability than two screenings of Taken, as Stephen’s example, on two completely different dates, showed almost the exact same spikes in activity on Twitter. TV dramas deliver a bookend effect in terms of tweeting activity. Reality TV is more scatter-dash throughout as there is no real arc.

The future of Twitter and TV’s snuggly relationship at the moment is to do with mapped TV data, according to Stephen, “we know who’s watching a show, who’s tweeting about it, and who’s engaging with tweets related to the show.” There’s no big ideas here about Twitter and social change blah blah blah, this was a marketing talk, so this is all about how they can shift that data to advertisers. “Twitter is a bridge, not an island. Twitter compliments other media.”

SnapChat finally gets a mention
The CEO of Box, Aaron Levie gave the shout out, “The SnapChat guys are doing interesting stuff… I’ve no idea how they’re going to make money, but all the kids are using it.” That’s the biggest vote of confidence SnapChat is going to get these days, I reckon.

Obligatory self-helpish talk
Michael Acton Smith aka Mr. Moshi aka the CEO and founder of Mind Candy started off selling rocks outside his parent’s house when he was 7. He gave an Oprah-esque talk about 10 tips for building a killer start-up that was full of generic advice. Make beautiful mistakes. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Storytelling should be emotional. Dream big. Say yes to parties. Work hard and be nice to people. Ok, that’s six tips, but I left then because all of it was vague and clichéd. Soz. Maybe it was helpful to others.

Tony Hawk disappointed
Tony Hawk is one of my heroes so I was SO excited to see him in the flesh, but as can happen with star power, it fell a little flat. He made an interesting point about the correlation between skateboarding and start-ups: becoming a skater is determined by the first time you get really hurt. Either you decide to get back out there or pack it in. The backstory to his now legendary video game series was interesting too. A PC developer came to him and asked if he wanted to get involved in a basic skating game. Console manufacturers and software developers said ‘no’ at every turn. Activision came along having just finished a game with Bruce Willis so the skateboarder in their demo was Bruce Willis skating around a wasteland. Ha! Hawk knew the controls felt good. He initially wanted it to be a Nintendo game, but the game was on a PS1 and Activision said there were a lot more Playstations in the world than Nintendos, so they went with that.

He also gave a shout out to the video editing app Cameo as something he’s digging at the mo. His conversation was with Kevin Rose, who I heard gave a great talk himself.

Some free advice for start-ups
Don’t aggressively pitch to journalists. Please. It’s rude. We’re not VCs and you’re not going to get someone to write about you by chugging or acting the buffoon. I saw some behaviour by guys pitching to journalists today that was just completely inappropriate and borderline harassment. Get a grip. If your idea is good, then let’s talk. Politely.

45Sound is now FanFootage
I’ve really liked this from the get go, and have got to know founder and CEO Cathal Furey and have worked with him a little. Check it out, it’s really great.

Taxi ride banter of the day
I shared a cab back into town with a dude who was initially coming over to the Summit to look for investors, but his company happened to secure funding recently, so now he’s just chilling here. We spoke about the usefulness of the conference, “There’s a lot of broken dreams” he said, of those attending, pointing to their “blue-eyed” naivety. One in 10,000 might make it big though, I said, to which he replied, “less than that. A percentile of a percent might be sitting on a billion-dollar idea, and less than a percentile of that will have the capability to execute it. That said, a lot of them have decent business models.” He didn’t seem to know anything about Dublin, nothing about the economic crash. It was just a city where the Web Summit happens.