Business Irish

Friday 23 March 2018

Adrian Weckler analysis: The Web hit that was Lisbon shows Ireland what might have been

Paddy Cosgrave on the main stage at the Web Summit in Lisbon
Paddy Cosgrave on the main stage at the Web Summit in Lisbon
Helen Dixon
Portuguese football legend Luis Figo
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Did Paddy Cosgrave's gamble pay off in Lisbon? Is Dublin worse off for no longer having the 50,000-strong Web Summit on its shores?

The short answers are: yes and yes.

This week's Web Summit, although still flawed, was a step up for almost everyone who attended the event. It was better organised, slicker and far easier to navigate than the friendly omnishambles of previous attempts in Dublin's RDS.

There were no confusing treks between outhouses and buildings, no €20 burgers (almost all food and coffee was free) and two separate rail systems took you almost to the door from anywhere in the city. Even the wifi settled into a consistent, usable state.

Helen Dixon
Helen Dixon

In short, it's hard to see Dublin ever getting this event back.

"Dublin had a cosiness to it which is a little bit lost in Lisbon," said Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer for Facebook and one of the event's star speakers. "But this venue is better. And not trekking through mud is great."

Mr Schroepfer's view was widely echoed among other tech executives who cared to offer a view on the subject. While the RDS has a charm to it, the Lisbon set-up is a proper, linear mega-conference venue that is easy to get around. The main stage alone, in the Meo Arena, holds 15,000 people.

As for Irish startups going there, money and opportunity was definitely in the air. One well known Irish startup founder I spoke to said he had just met a potential investor for his 'beta' (almost ready) service in a taxi on his way to the conference.

Another, Voxpro's Cork-based Dan Kiely, said the possibility of meeting someone interested in funding was one of the reasons he was at the conference.

There were hundreds of investors floating around, some of them (like Sherpa Capital's Shervin Pishevar) big fish looking to place tens of millions into the next big thing.

Portuguese football legend Luis Figo
Portuguese football legend Luis Figo

Many of Dublin's top employers were there, too: Facebook sent three of its top global executives while Google had a section booked off for private business and strategy meetings.

Given all of that, it was a little sad that no one from the Government turned up to capitalise. Or if they did, they kept it so quiet that neither a Government spokesman at home, the IDA or Enterprise Ireland knew about it.

This smacked of the administration cutting off its nose to spite its face. There is still a huge amount of goodwill at the top of the tech industry toward Ireland, perhaps now more than ever after the Government's stance in sticking by Apple.

The IDA knew this, which is why they pulled many of their senior US executives over from California and other regions for the Lisbon event. Privately, some of these executives acknowledged that their hand would have been strengthened had they a ministerial - or even prime ministerial - hand to offer those companies.

But pride is sometimes a stubborn, hard thing to overcome. After the row from last year, no Irish minister was apparently going to be seen giving Paddy Cosgrave the satisfaction of presenting a united front for Ireland Inc. Portuguese ministers and officials wasted no time stepping in to that diplomatic void, swarming around investors with polished pitchers and presentations.

As for others attending the event, it was by no means perfect. One soft spot the conference arguably had was that several of its on-stage interactions felt a little too sugary, like staged marketing events. This could hurt the Web Summit's reputation in future. In fact, arguably the highlight was US startup funder Dave McClure's furious tirade after Donald Trump's election on Wednesday morning. This reporter's video capture of the outburst was the most tweeted-about moment of the entire Web Summit.

The conference might also have been considered a superstar or two shy of previous Web Summits. Despite a solid line-up that included Tinder's Sean Rad, Facebook's chief technology officer and actor Joseph Gordon Levitt, there was no triple-A megastar, such as Elon Musk, in attendance.

Many will legitimately argue that this isn't the main reason people go to an event such as the Web Summit, that it's a networking fest rather than an entertainment fair. Still, global events need global stars to keep their premium lustre.

One refreshing element, though, was better gender balance. Technology conferences are notoriously male-dominated. But this felt far more mixed. Walking around, it soon became clear to me that there were more female participants than any other tech conference I'd ever attended. Official figures from the Web Summit appeared to back this up, with women making up 42pc of the registered 53,000 attendees.

Some of the most impressive speakers were women. Square's Tyrone-born chief financial officer, Sarah Friar, drew a full house around the money stage. Ireland's data protection commissioner, Helen Dixon, also attracted major interest among the web companies present.

Will the Web Summit ever return to Ireland? The deal with the Portuguese government only lasts for three years, but it's hard to see a path of return. Lisbon has invested heavily in major transportation and other event-friendly infrastructure. It's now reaping the rewards.

Irish Independent

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