Mavericks. Moguls. Millennials. It must be the Web Summit
People say ‘disruption’ and ‘ecosystem’ a lot and talk about selling their companies the way Buddhists talk about nirvana. They all seem to enjoy being at the Web Summit, in Dublin, but what exactly are they up to?
Founding father: Paddy Cosgrave on stage at the RDS. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile/Web Summit
Richard Hobson of Credibility: “I thought I would build it in six months, but it’s taken three years. I spent a lot of my own time and money and lost six girlfriends on the way.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Positive: Mor Assia of iAngels. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Web Summit is fuelled by coffee. I queue for a cup. “That’ll be €5.50,” a woman at one stall says, then cracks up. “Your face!” she says. “It’s free.” Of course it is. There’s free sponsored coffee everywhere. The ESB Tweet Cafe dispenses it in return for people posing with a little blackboard that says “I predict . . .” and tweeting about it with a hashtag.
“I predict . . . someone here will change the world,” reads one.
“I predict . . . my idea will be more successful than Apple,” says another.
“I predict . . . Paddy Cosgrave for Taoiseach,” says a third.
Cosgrave’s extremely successful, celebrity-packed, Bono-inclusive Web Summit is now attended by 22,000 highly caffeinated people (at a cost of between €649 and €1,525), and it is, for untechie folk like me, a strange cult of self-confidence, hope, greed and utopian thinking.
The main stage, constructed seemingly from illuminated multicoloured cubes, generally features giants of technology discussing the secrets of their success or drones or 3D printing or self-driving cars or Web 3.0 or wearable technology or robot butlers.
Many of the speakers subscribe to what the Belarusian writer and researcher Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”: the notion that most problems can be solved by a clever app or quirky idea. (The hacker Pablos Holman of Intellectual Ventures discusses a laser designed to kill mosquitoes.)
Certain tropes are continuously reinforced from the different stages: a near religious faith that any of the assembled businesses might “change the world” and that collectively they add up to something much bigger than online payments, pet-related social-media services and digital pizza delivery.
“The internet isn’t a technology. It’s a belief system,” says Saul Klein of Index Ventures on Tuesday. You don’t get this type of talk at your average chamber-of-commerce event.
The magic of networking at the summit is frequently evoked. (Cosgrave repeatedly refers to the deal done by Travis Kalanick of Uber and the investor Shervin Pishevar over pints at Bruxelles last year.) There’s a lot of talk about the maverick nature of tech entrepreneurs. (Before ringing the Nasdaq bell on Tuesday, Cosgrave compliments Enda Kenny for taking a punt on a guy “who wears T-shirts to meetings”.) And many emphasise the value of doing things for yourself. (“If you don’t build your dreams, someone else will hire you to build theirs,” Klein also declares, and I see it endlessly retweeted.)
The mood of the summit, imported from Silicon Valley, is one of can-do-it-ive-ness and libertarian nonconformity. This nonconformity is sartorially expressed by wearing jeans with a suit jacket or a sweatshirt (or, in one case, not wearing shoes at all) and verbally expressed by striding around saying things like, “Jeffrey, you need to pivot away from your core concept if you ever hope to achieve an exit.”
Out in the surrounding halls, where rows and rows of smaller companies crave attention, I find myself having the same conversations again and again. Entrepreneurs bemoan the bad wifi connection and cheerfully assert that we’re in a tech bubble. “But it’s got 16 months or so to go.”
They happily reject the notion of secure pensionable employment (arguably because it’s not available to younger people anyway) and talk about “exits” (being bought by a bigger company) the way Buddhists talk about nirvana.
People say “ecosystem”, “internet of things” and “disruption”. Youth is put on a pedestal. One entrepreneur actually apologises for being in his 40s. They are all “passionate” about their products, and they like talking about their heroes: Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla), Drew Houston (Dropbox), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Peter Thiel (PayPal).
“It’s a long walk from here to that stage,” says Timothy McElroy, cofounder of a useful-sounding dog-boarding service called House My Dog, but he sounds cheerful about it. A man flies around on a skateboard, a couple of less-evolved companies have “booth babes”. On Tuesday Eva Longoria and Jemima Khan both note the relatively low number of female attendees. On Wednesday the French entrepreneur Maelle Gavet, chief executive of Ozon, bemoans tech’s being a “bubble of white men talking to other white men about white-men problems”.
People are friendly and helpful but also blatantly self-interested. “Nobody looks at my eyes,” says George Cheteles, a young Romanian working with a Facebook-enabled pizza-ordering service. “Everyone just cares what’s written on this thing.” He points to his name tag. (Tags declare if you are an investor, a company or an attendee.)
“Everyone looks here to see if I’m hiding any money I might give them.” He laughs sadly. “I’m not hiding any money.”
Some are better at selling than others. I see an Israeli entrepreneur, Mor Assia of iAngels, being praised at a pitching event.
A young Hungarian woman, Boblarka Angelet – “Just call me B!” is written in marker under her name tag – of Bitninja is dressed as a ninja “because we’re a server security solution fighting against hackers – like ninjas.”
Tomasz Cisek, cofounder of the Polish company Funtiago, has a T-shirt that says “Ask me about gamification”. So I do. “Gamification” is essentially a way to make boring tasks for work-shy millennials fun. He’s hoarse from describing his company, but he’s tireless. He has written a book about Polish entrepreneurs, he says, and knows that success is often a matter of luck.
Krishna Gautham, a 21-year-old from India, is cofounder of an app called Enroot, which allows people to leave messages at geographical locations for socially networked friends. (“Like graffiti?” I ask. “Just like graffiti!” he says.) He says he never tires of talking about his idea. “If you woke me up in the middle of the night, I’d wake telling you about it.”
Six lost girlfriends
As we talk, people approach to pat him on the back, and each time he gives them his business card. Credibility is his second company, and he is under no illusions about the start-up life.
“I thought I would build it in six months, but it’s taken three years,” he says. “I spent a lot of my own time and money and lost six girlfriends on the way. Once a lot of people wanted to be in bands, but now they want to be in start-ups.”
The band analogy is made repeatedly – Bono himself makes it on the final day – although, having been in a band, and knowing the seedy, poverty-stricken reality, I don’t see it as a very glamorous comparison.
It’s clear, though, that many of them have learned the hard realities of entrepreneurialism. They appear to inoculate themselves against failure by referring to the low chances of success. “Ninety-five per cent of start-ups fail,” they say; there is an implied, unspoken “but not me” at the end of that sentence.
When I ask if they would recommend the start-up life, many hesitate. “No, absolutely not,” says Tomer Yosef, chief executive of an Israeli social-media company, Meetley. “Get away from it. Don’t do it. It’s very hard.”
In the run-up to the Web Summit I went to the Wayra start-up accelerator run by Telefonica, where I found a ping-pong table, egg-shaped revolving chairs, stylishly graffitied walls, and Russell Banks, founder of a start-up called Investor Sheet.
Banks runs a monthly meet-up for entrepreneurs called Dublin Beta and produces a weekly digest of start-up events called Startup Digest. He has seen the number of such events in Dublin go from three to 16 a week.
The reality? “Anyone who wants to do this needs to honestly say to themselves, ‘Can I survive for six months without getting any money? Will I tough it out? Will I beg, borrow and steal?’ ”
Mark Little, the former RTÉ journalist who founded Storyful, and is a panellist at the summit, is wary of the “messianic” hero-worshipping side of start-up culture. He compiles, for his own amusement, a list of jargonistic terms he hears at tech events.
“While I think the summit itself has had a tangible effect on Ireland as an economy, and has given us a great sense of confidence, I don’t like the lionising element,” he says. “I see some people on stage and I know them, and I know they’re shits sometimes, and yet they’re being presented as having some godlike plan. I’m a little bit jaded by that.”
The real summit action, I’m told, happens away from the RDS. It happens at prearranged meetings and at the little parties that occur around town.
Paul Hayes, a PR man who runs an irreverent summit spin-off event called Flounders, invites me to an event that Frontline Ventures is hosting in Ranelagh. When I arrive he’s about to joust with a middle-aged venture capitalist. This is not a metaphor.
He’s on an electronic scooter wearing a bike helmet and holding a snooker cue. On the other side of the long, open-plan office his opponent is on a skateboard, also holding a cue. A young man is filming them as they fly at one another. Casually dressed young people watch while dining on the staple start-up diet: pizza and beer.
“Rome is burning,” says Hayes as he glides by.
“Why have you come here?” he asks a passing Scandinavian games entrepreneur. “For investment,” she says. “But why come to Dublin?” he continues, “You’ve got a huge games industry in Helsinki.”
Paul Hayes, when not jousting, is a big booster for the start-up industry; he says that the Summit is, on the whole, a good thing. I tell him that I worry about the tech world’s insatiable appetite for insecurely employed, overworked young people lured by crazy dreams. He says he does wonder what some of them are getting from their sacrifices. He worries that there’s not enough self-reflection.
“Some of these kids have no understanding of whether they’re succeeding or not, just this vague feeling that they’re bending towards success because they’ve got nothing to judge it by,” he says.
“And then what does success mean to them? Half of them don’t know how to spend their money or be happy afterwards. They’re driven by this compulsion because they don’t know themselves. It should be about the journey, not the destination, because you’ll have changed by the time you get to the destination. It’s not about the IPO or the big sale. Are you squeezing craic out as you go along? Are you squeezing meaning and happiness out as you go along? If not, you’re at nothing.”