Web Summit’s ‘ungovernable zaniness’ sets it apart
Another profitable Web Summit, but is this success sustainable long term?
Paddy Cosgrave, CEO and co-founder of Web Summit (centre right) at the official opening ceremony of the 2019 Web Summit in Lisbon. Photograph: EPA/MIGUEL A. LOPES
There is a madness to Web Summit that is difficult to convey to the uninitiated. It’s like a cacophonous 19th century carnival, but in 21st century clothes. Instead of jugglers and fire-eaters and men with two heads, there are flirty robots, business meetings on cherry pickers, and a flat-capped Eric Cantona in green jeans and yellow trainers begging for 1 per cent of your wages for charity.
None of it makes much sense.
Since its co-founder Paddy Cosgrave shifted the event from Dublin after its last outing on home turf in 2015, Web Summit has more than doubled in size to over 70,000 attendees. About 77,000 people arrive onsite including media, staff and hangers on.
That’s equivalent to the population of Galway city coming each day for four days, all to be fed, watered and kept busy.
That’s not forgetting the corporate element. Including the main arena, the summit is spread across five adjacent halls, four of them jammed with stages and exhibition stands, including elaborate set-ups for some of the biggest business names on the planet, such as Google, Microsoft and Siemens.
Web Summit’s move from the RDS to Lisbon’s waterfront has certainly helped it to grow. Into what, is the question. For better or worse, whether by accident or design, Cosgrave’s unhinged technology jamboree is a business conference like no other. The event’s production is precise. Everything runs to a tee. Yet Web Summit’s essentially ungovernable zaniness is what sets it apart.
It kicked off on Monday evening with a rapid fire series of pitches by start-ups to an audience of about 15,000 in the Altice Arena, the main hall that acts as the basilica for this gathering of tech-religious fervour. Each start-up got two minutes to wow the giddy crowd, like an episode of Dragon’s Den on steroids. There was a smell of popcorn in the venue. It felt like a show was starting.
Some of the pitches were perfectly orthodox, such as Irishwoman Dee Coakley’s digital payroll business, Boundless. Others were quirkier, such as Banjo Robinson, which uses technology to exchange personalised letters with children from a fictional globe-trotting cat: “We’ve taken the joy of writing to Santa and turned it into a subscription business,” Robinson said.
One speaker, Lisbon entrepreneur Rui Sales of automotive data start-up Stratio, strode the stage manfully as if he was Portugal’s entry to the Eurovision. Then a Dutch business, Shleep. com, pushed its dystopian suite of digital sleep programmes for companies. The more your staff sleep, apparently the better it is for the company’s performance.
And then there was Ohne, a UK start-up that runs an online community around women’s periods and associated products: “Because you’re a human with a uterus every day, and not just the days you’re bleeding from your vagina.”
Its founders, Nikki Michelsen and Leah Remfry-Peploe, swore repeatedly onstage in calculated fashion during their pitch: swearing appears to be a part of its in-your-face brand.
Ohne – founded for women by women who don’t give a s**t who judges their choices – neatly captures a particular zeitgeist. Financially-attuned feminism. The crowd almost blew the roof off the arena.
That evening, and over the following three days, conference attendees were treated to the wisdom of everyone from US tech-surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden, to UFC star Paige VanZant and footballer Ronaldinho.
Technology simply provided the backdrop for most discussions. The debates at Web Summit touched on almost every conceivable issue. It wasn’t all about data and algorithms. There wasn’t a hot button topic that wasn’t pushed, from gender equality to climate change, political populism to corporation tax.
At his press conference on Tuesday – the publicity-conscious Cosgrave speaks almost as much as most of his onstage guests – the Irishman riffed on the growth of Web Summit from its humble beginnings as a product showcase in Dublin to this, its ninth and largest-ever instalment.
“Web Summit is now about serious and grown-up discussions about everything from what we will do about democracy to addiction,” said Cosgrave. “I’m never fulfilled.”
He deftly deflected persistent questioning about the correlation that appears to exist between companies that pay to be exhibitors and the people chosen as the summit’s speakers. Cosgrave insisted exhibitors “get no guarantees” on speaking opportunities. But he wasn’t all that convincing if his aim was to debunk the theory that there isn’t any correlation at all.
Mark Roden, a former Esat telecom executive-turned EY Entrepreneur of the Year who started mobile tech firm Ding, this week attended his first Web Summit in Portugal. He was stunned by the sprawling scale of the event and agrees it is unrecognisable from its beginnings in Dublin.
“I remember it at the start. It was scrappy, but very quickly it attracted big names. The local tech industry was proud of it,” Roden says.
“At one of the early Web Summits, I agreed with Paddy that I’d lead one of his pub crawls around Dublin. I was given a sign with the number six on it, and told to wait for my assigned guests to show up,” he recalls.
A “huge man” arrived and plonked himself down beside Roden: “I asked him what he did. ‘Oh, I’m the chief technology officer of Amazon, ’ he said. It was Werner Vogels. I hadn’t a clue who he was. But the event was like that back then. You never knew who you’d meet.”
In addition to Web Summit, Cosgrave’s business now operates at least three international conferences, with others in Hong Kong and Toronto. The company’s last filed accounts show revenues of €30 million. But that was for 2017. Given the Summit’s recent breakneck growth, its turnover is now surely far higher.
Last year, Cosgrave signed a 10-year deal with the Portuguese government for an annual subsidy of €11 million to keep it in Lisbon.
It is easy to see the commercial rationale for why Cosgrave moved it from Dublin. But with all the sports stars and celebrities and €1,500 tickets is Web Summit now just an entertainment and gab-fest?
Or is it still useful for investors and entrepreneurs outside of the value of simply being seen there?
“One conversation with an investor can lead to a funding round. That sort of thing still goes on,” said Roden. “I met a guy from Trinidad earlier. We’re going to meet up later to discuss some ideas. Things can still happen at Web Summit from those sort of casual conversations.”
The event may still be of value when it comes to “doing business”. But its growing obsession with celebrity culture and attracting star names – whether they know much about the technology industry or not – may run the risk of eroding the event’s industry cachet in future.
Each year, Cosgrave ups the ante with more pizzazz, more glamour. The trend started in Dublin in 2014 with the coup of attracting Eva Longoria from Desperate Housewives. Where will it end?
Web Summit is committed until 2028 to its cavernous home on Lisbon’s waterfront, which takes a lot of ticket sales to fill. That is a long time to stay relevant in the notoriously fickle tech industry. With its ever-increasing focus on attracting star names to please the growing crowds, Cosgrave must hope that Web Summit isn’t a supernova, destined to burn itself out.
Then again, perhaps he simply recognises that a dash of glamour is an essential ingredient when designing such a pageant.
For now at least, Web Summit has no difficulty attracting industry heavyweights to talk. One of the first speakers on centre stage on Wednesday was Microsoft’s Brad Smith, with a meandering but insightful presentation about “the promise and perils of the digital age”.
Smith also used the opportunity to kick the Irish Government over its failure to bring broadband to some rural parts of the country.
From an Irish point of view, Cosgrave may be an attention-seeker and deliberately provocative in some of his own public utterings – it’s free publicity for the brand, after all. But he is far from a mindless technology, industry evangelist. He appears to genuinely see the value in opening up challenging and controversial debates. He also seems to enjoy the rows.
An outsider might suspect, however, that his penchant for diversity of thought isn’t as prevalent among the Web Summit’s attendees. The overwhelming predilection of the bulk of the crowd for progressive, traditionally left-leaning ideas was painfully obvious this week.
Every mention of Donald Trump from the stages was met with guffaws. Every criticism of Brexit was met with cheering and applause, as was every platitude about protecting the environment or fighting poverty, no matter how devoid of substance or how obviously meant to procure affirmation from the youthful crowds.
If these were mostly tech employees, they lived up to the stereotype. But as long as someone is paying for them, none of this should matter to Cosgrave. Web Summit is a business, after all. A hugely profitable one.
Technology companies are traditionally focused on selling “solutions”. So it was interesting at the summit to witness the industry’s collective soul-searching about whether it is also the cause of modern problems, such as the lack of privacy on data and the malign influence of social media giants on democracy.
The industry’s saviour complex was also on show, however. The technology industry truly believes it can tackle almost every ill facing humankind, from climate change to hunger and disease. “We need to use technology to solve the world’s problems,” urged Smith. The crowd nodded. Maybe they are right.
Some self-deprecation still exists around Web Summit. The conference is known for its events venerating “founders”, the people who start successful businesses. Yet among the unofficial fringe events in Lisbon on Wednesday night was the so-called “Flounders” gathering, organised by Paul Hayes, who runs Dublin-based technology communications outfit, Beachhut PR.
Flounders, in a tongue-in-cheek sending-up of the worst bragging excesses of the technology industry, celebrates business failure.
Cosgrave, meanwhile, will be celebrating another packed out, profitable Web Summit. The event doesn’t appear to miss Dublin at all.