Web Summit 2014; Finding the Gems Amidst the Mediocrity

The Web Summit is an annual technology conference in Dublin which, since its inception in 2010, has grown to rather spectacular size and scope. The 2014 edition took place over three days at the sprawling RDS grounds, and I attended day one on behalf of State of Digital.

I’ll be honest; I went to the 2014 Web Summit with the full intention to dislike it. Previous editions have left me underwhelmed, and the conference’s increasingly shrieking marketing material seemed to indicate an ever-growing focus on all that is wrong with Silicon Valley: uncritical worship of everything associated with startup culture, glassy-eyed embrace of the trendy buzzwords du jour, and sycophantic adoration of the venture capitalists and tech CEOs that enable the whole techno-fetishist circus.

In fact, I was fully expecting an event analogous to a religious gathering of technology worshippers. Once described as “Davos for geeks”, the Web Summit has tried to rename itself to simply ‘the Summit’ but that was blissfully denied when a similarly named event threatened legal action. I can’t help but feel this renaming failure is a boon in disguise: calling this gathering ‘The Summit’ would have been a step too far down the road of ego-masturbatory self-importance.

Unfavourable First Impressions

When I first arrived at the Web Summit, I did indeed find much to satisfy my pre-conceived loathing. A glance at the agenda revealed an array of talks with titles like “How The Data Explosion Makes Everything Better” (it most assuredly does not), “How To Scale Products In The Sharing Economy” (I presume an informative talk about neo-libertarian regulation-avoidance schemes), and “Content is King”. (I kid you not – this topic is apparently still worthy of a dedicated session at a conference of the Web Summit’s size and acclaim. Perhaps it reveals a lot about the type of attendees it hopes to attract.)

This embrace of meaningless waffle spread to the promotional material on the periphery as well – the front page of a freely distributed Irish Independent supplement devoted to the Web Summit screamed ‘Meet the Growth Hackers’, and the titles of the articles inside read like a toddler’s guide to Silicon Valley: “How To Raise Startup Cash”, “The Billion-Dollar Guide to Making a Startup Work”, and similarly vacuous filler fluff.

Saul Klein at the 2014 Web Summit
Saul Klein at the 2014 Web Summit

The first talk I saw further encouraged my inner curmudgeon. Index Ventures’ Saul Klein waxed rapturously about the findings of his report in which he outlined his amazing discovery that small businesses account for much of the economy’s strength (hardly a novel factuality), and how internet entrepreneurship really is going to build a Better World and ‘disrupt’ (blergh) every existing industry.

At one point Klein quoted Guy Kawasaki: “The internet isn’t a technology, it’s a belief system.” The talk managed to reinforce my perception of a delusional religiosity at the heart of the whole movement, as well as highlighting the profoundly fallacious notion that the startup itself is the raison d’etre – not what you do, what value you add, what problem you solve, but the mere fact of being an entrepreneur, a startup founder, is the real goal of today’s technology acolytes.

Startups, Startups Everywhere…

Upon venturing out on to the exhibition areas, I encountered a deeply depressing environment. Endless rows of startups with nonsensical names and colourful logos, vying for attention from anyone that dared amble in close proximity to their microscopic square footage of the vast interconnected exhibition spaces. My green media badge acted like a siren call; I was repeatedly approached by startup reps with pleading eyes begging for a chance to show off their solutionist creation that will Change The WorldTM.

Startups, Startups Everywhere...
Startups, Startups Everywhere…

This was more or less in line with expectation: as the date of the Web Summit neared I’d become inundated with mass emails and tweets from startups exhibiting at the event, in the hopes some poor sap on the media list would actually write about them and perhaps earn the startup a bit of return on investment on the apprehensive costs of exhibiting at the Web Summit. In desperate attempts to claim whatever infinitesimal slice of the attendees’ attention spans, some startups went as far as plastering the inside of toilet booths with their branded stickers.

As an unintended side effect of the technology bubble, it serves as a damning verdict on the substance – or lack thereof – of most startups. For these proto-Snapchats it’s all about getting coverage on blogs and tech sites, which they hope will translate in to VC funding whilst working towards that Big Buyout or IPO. The vehicle through which this ascension to tech-nirvana is achieved is almost irrelevant; it just needs to be an app (web or native, either will do) and it needs to have gazillions of users. What it actually does is entirely beside the point.

Suffice to say, by noontime my scathing review of the event was practically written and ready to be published.

Finding the Gems

Then something strange happened, something I did not expect: I encountered interesting things. A few of the startups I spoke with had actual worthwhile products, and some of the talks went beyond simian quotations of profound-sounding business wisdom straight from Seth Godin’s playbook and presented some actual content worth digesting.

Then at 3pm I found myself in the small Library room, primarily to meet Chris Moran, a fellow soul-scarred veteran of the SEO industry, which forced me to sit through an hour-long talk about the Guardian’s own in-house analytics tool Ophan.

And I was fascinated. Absolutely captivated.

The Guardian's Chris Moran, Tanya Cordrey, and Graham Tackley at the 2014 Web Summit
The Guardian’s Chris Moran, Tanya Cordrey, and Graham Tackley at the 2014 Web Summit

This Ophan platform is massively intriguing stuff, a true showcase of the awesome things an established company can do if it dares venture out of its comfort zone and allow talented employees to build something it needs rather than buy an off-the-shelf system.

After the talk and an altogether much too brief chat with Chris, I hurried back to the centre stage where I caught a fascinating discussion between Stewart Baker (a former NSA lawyer) and Matthew Prince (Cloudfare CEO) about online privacy. Moderated by James Ball, the two panel guests came at the issue from entirely different angles and their conflicting views provided an engrossing debate.

I stuck around for the day’s last talk, which was a fireside chat with Dropbox’s founder Drew Houston where he spoke about his startup journey and the new challenges he now faced growing Dropbox in an ever more competitive space. This too proved to be a content-rich session.

Worth Putting The Effort In

So, as it turned out, I did manage to find a few worthwhile nuggets at the Web Summit amidst an ocean of vapid mediocrity. On top of that, I have to give it to Paddy Cosgrave and his army of staff and volunteers: it’s a very well-organised event. Considering the sheer scale of the Web Summit, with 22k attendees plus another thousand or so media bods, hundreds of speakers across 5 main stages and numerous smaller speaking areas, there were very few queues and blockages. Even the WiFi kept working more or less adequately (for me at least, not everyone was so fortunate).

Due to a crowded work schedule I could only attend one of the Web Summit’s three days, but I daresay it sufficed to provide me with an adequate impression of the event. It’s a vast sprawling occasion that demands you actively seek out the worthwhile stuff; just soaking up the talks and exhibitors without direction will leave you overwhelmed with insipid tripe.

But when you do your research, find the talks worth listening to and the startups worth watching, you can have a truly rewarding experience at the Web Summit.

2016-list

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant based in Belfast, delivering specialised SEO services to clients across Europe.

  • Fergal Monaghan

    Excellent review of the Web Summit, I couldn’t agree more on all points (good and bad) 😀