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How to make the most of a massive tech conference

...and is it worth your time coming at all?

Hello there,

Something a little different for you today.

As I’m at the Web Summit in Lisbon, meeting startups for future coverage and moderating a couple of panels, I took the opportunity to talk to a bunch of early-stage startups and figure out exactly how to make the most of an event the size of the Web Summit… and if you should come to events like it at all.

Our usual startup profiles resume on Tuesday next week.

While I’ve been here, I also spoke to a VC who has three startups we’ve featured on PreSeed Now in his portfolio.

You can read that interview in an upcoming edition of the newsletter, as our last investor interview was really well received.

– Martin

Has Web Summit been worth the trip after… you-know-what?

  • As someone who remembers the sad and sudden decline of LeWeb–the Paris event that was the end-of-year European tech conference before the Web Summit stole its thunder–I wondered if the Web Summit might have a similar vibe this year.

  • After all, former CEO Paddy Cosgrave’s comment on the Israel-Hamas war caused a bunch of speakers and sponsors to pull out and forced his resignation (“He evaporated overnight” I overheard one employee say).

  • But tech is a hell of a lot bigger than it was a decade ago, and while the Web Summit might feel a little quieter if you’re there for big-name speakers, most people are here to make connections and do business. There’s still plenty of that going on and the seemingly endless sprawl of pavilions have been buzzing with activity.

  • The organisers say there have been 70,236 attendees from 153 countries here.

  • That said, there is a sense of ‘feeling a bit awkward being here’ among some people. Several speakers told me they hadn’t shouted publicly on social media about being here like they normally would. Regardless of what they think of Paddy’s comment, most people simply don’t want to cause a fuss.

  • Being tied in the minds of influential people to the world’s most long-running, complex, and emotionally-charged geopolitical dispute is a brand challenge Web Summit’s new CEO Katherine Maher will have to tackle seriously. Maybe the drama will fade away, but certain corners of Silicon Valley might simply never come back.

How do startups make the most of a big tech conference?

Even if you’re not at Web Summit, maybe you’re considering a trip to Slush or another big tech conference in the coming months. Is it worth it?

Here’s some aggregated advice, based on the conversations I’ve had with startups here…

  • Make sure you have goals: Going to a big conference can take you out of your normal working life (and personal life) for days. Have specific goals - whether it’s attracting investors, customers, potential employees, or anything else, and structure your plans around those goals.

  • Preparation is key: Buying a small startup stand for a day isn’t enough. If you want to make sure you’re not relying on the serendipity of the right person coming past your stand and happening to be drawn over, booking meetings in advance pays dividends.

  • The exception this year? A.I.: Startups with A.I. in the name or description seemed to be having less of a problem with walk-up interest. No surprise there, perhaps.

  • Beware time-wasters: There are a lot of tech services companies touting for business at big conferences, and they might try to lock you in a long conversation that you simply don’t need. You paid for a ticket - don’t waste the limited time you have at the event.

  • Trawl the attendee list in the event app: It’s a great way of finding potential opportunities, but email outreach might be more effective than trying to connect with them via the event app - not everyone uses the app and if they do they might not have notifications switched on.

  • Investors are unlikely to just wander by: Some founders I spoke to were unhappy that investors didn’t walk around the startup stands. But many of those investors were busy meeting startups in pre-arranged appointments elsewhere in the venue.

  • What do investors do here?: They have meetings with their portfolio companies and LPs. Maybe they work to raise their next fund. But the investors I spoke to said discovering new startups at their stands just isn’t an efficient use of their time. Think about it - anyone with an ‘Investor’ badge would get mobbed the second they walked near the startup stands.

  • You might get less done than you think: Booking back-to-back meetings at different locations is only going to lead to one or all of you getting lost or delayed en route. The Web Summit is leg-punishingly enormous. This might be less of a problem in smaller conferences, but building some slack into your schedule is sensible regardless.

  • Embrace (some) serendipity: Don’t chain yourself to your stand (if you have one). Try to make sure you have time to wander around and meet people. You never know who you might encounter. I’ve made friendships, discovered great stories, and learned valuable information simply by scheduling some time to explore.

So is it worth it? It depends what you make of it, but don’t hinge the future of your startup on being at a big tech conference.

Back on Tuesday

We’ll have another startup profile for you on Tuesday. I’m really excited about the pipeline of startups we have lined up and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.