Like many of you I read the Is Web Summit a Scam article making the rounds this week. I have attended Web Summits three times – it is not a scam. Let me get that out of the way. It’s a big conference and all big conferences charge money, make money and serve a diverse set of needs.
I even wrote about my experiences attending Web Summit, something I rarely ever write about. I have absolutely no affiliation with the event, no economic interests and had no other reason for writing about Web Summit other than as a person who has to attend many events for my professional life I found it to be the most meticulously plan and run and intent upon serving its audience of any major event I had attended. There is simply no way that an event grows from 400 people to 22,000 in 4 years without doing some things right.
The founder of the event, Paddy Cosgrave, smartly responded to the critics in a post I just read this morning.
And as always some critics weighed in publicly and authoritatively on Twitter without some nuance in thinking about this critique such as, “Wait, my own city hosts DreamForce every year, which has become one of the most successful tech events on the calendar. How might DreamForce be different from this international event that I may or may not have ever even attended personally?”
So how should you feel about Web Summit, DreamForce, TechCrunch Disrupt, CES, SxSW or any of the myriad of tech events that are put on every year? After all, entry price registration question aside, they are all expensive once you factor in airfare, hotels, ground transportation, booths (if you have one), meals and – especially – time away from your day jobs?
Let me be clear. I hate attending big conference. I find them to be a distraction from my daily routine. I find them exhausting and draining and I find that I eat like shit, stay up too late, exercise too little and probably always get sick from shaking too many hands. It’s why I really try to focus on smaller events.
Web Summit was amongst the best tech events I have seen from an execution standpoint – anywhere. It was on par with DreamForce in attention to detail, networking potential, entertainment and speaker quality. That’s why so many people come to DreamForce and so many come to Web Summit. As Paddy points out in his own defense – many of the people sniping at him have never been to Web Summit. What is unique from my vantage point is that I have observed Paddy behind the scenes many times and for hours on end.
Paddy comes across actually as quite an introverted guy at these events. He’s always in a t-shirt and casual clothes. He’s always behind the scenes making sure the execution is flawless. He’s always attentive to the speakers and the crowd. If speakers come and are treated well and are happy then they deliver in part what the audience wants. Paddy isn’t drunk dancing on tables, isn’t spending all of his time with Bono, or the many high-profile CEOs at the event. He’s back stage like an orchestra conductor.
So what will you get out of Web Summit or any big conference?
- If you want to see world-class speakers and hear what they have to say in person – you will get that. Big conferences in part are about education and entertainment. Paddy brings the best. In part by relentlessly pursuing speakers to attend and in part by paying attention to every detail of the speaker.
- Happy speakers mean the audience gets a better show. And just like Recode – where I go every year – it’s the quality of speakers that is often a draw. Paddy really creates great private moments for speakers through an adjunct event. This is how he gets world-class speakers to travel half way around the world. The speakers get what they want (small, private networking) and the audience gets what they want – world-class speakers.
- If you want to network you need to plan relentlessly in advance. At ANY big event you only get out of it what you put in before you go. I’ve written about how to get the most out of big events before as in this post about how to get the most SxSW and this post about how to network at LeWeb and get access to speakers.
- I’m not a big believer of booths at any conference. Networking, lobby conference, hearing speakers, staying out late and meeting people – that’s where the real value is to me. It’s the work you put in before and the follow up afterwards. I’m always surprised how after spending so much to attend events so few people follow up.
I offered a term sheet to a company I met at Collision – the event Paddy’s runs in Las Vegas. I met the founder on the street walking from the conference to my hotel. His company had recently moved from Germany to the US. I was blown away by how thoughtful he was about his business and how to succeed so I scheduled time to meet after the conference when it would be less hectic. I took a year getting to know him and decided I wanted to work with him and his team. In the end, we couldn’t consummate a deal (mostly due to having raised from previous investors), which was a shame, and he raised from other people. But I met him on the streets of an event – networking.
So in the end, judge for yourself. If you want to attend a big conference with great speakers and an organizer who pays meticulous attention to detail and wants to truly “host” you with a big team of big-hearted organizers, Web Summit is amongst the best of them. But it is exactly what is says to be – a big conference – so know what you hope to get out of it. It is certainly not like being part of an exclusive club.
So I’ll close with actual advice I have a few days before this controversy began. An entrepreneur wrote me randomly to my public email address and asked about attending and meeting me there. This is my actual email back (minus comments about her business):
“Thanks for reaching out. I’ve noticed your Twitter handle over the years so definitely know who you are. Some thoughts:
Web Summit is a bit of a zoo. It’s a very big conference. To get much out of it you need to pre-book meetings. Otherwise it may be unfocused for you since it’s a long way to go and $$$. But if you want a great trip to Dublin then you should definitely go! I get more value because I get invited to the much smaller, private, f.ounders conference.
If you do go to Dublin make sure to Tweet at me – I’m planning to be there.”
It is what it is. You get out of it what you put into it. Conferences are education, entertainment and networking. Nothing more, nothing less. I think it’s smart to pick 1-3 per year – whatever you budget will allow and be realistic about why you’re going and what you hope to get out of it.
And just be careful not to attend too many. Else you aren’t paying enough attention to running your business. And as I’m quite known for saying, “Don’t Be a Conference Ho.”
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)