Friday 23 February 2018

Are endless tech summits mostly a fun waste of time?

Attendees inspect a display of Galaxy S5 smartphones at the Samsung Electronics Co. pavilion at the recent tech summit in Barcelona.
Attendees inspect a display of Galaxy S5 smartphones at the Samsung Electronics Co. pavilion at the recent tech summit in Barcelona.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

ARE we wasting our energy on endless tech expos? Are startups being seduced into meaningless seminars, summits and congresses?

Over the next six weeks in Dublin, there are over 20 technology conferences, seminars, meetups, expos, summits and other lanyarded networking events.

Some cost money, others are free. Some incorporate competitions, others offer sponsored pizza. Every day brings a new invitation, microsite or Eventbrite notice of some new gathering.

But how many are really worth attending?

Last September, an Irish startup entrepreneur called Russell Banks wrote a brave blog post about the reasons why his startup, Conker, failed. In Winning customers, not competitions: lessons from a failed startup, Banks outlined how his startup won plaudits and friends in the technology community, but few actual customers. With an eye off the ball, the business withered. Today, he has a different approach.

"Whereas previously we were busy winning competitions, we are now focused on winning customers," he wrote of his new startup, Pirate Dashboard. "We now have 23 pre-paid beta customers whose input is worked directly into our product on a daily basis," he says.

I wonder how common Banks's experience is? How many startups believe that attending an event in jeans and branded T-shirts is part of being a tech firm? How many focus on entering endless competitions rather than concentrating on closing customer sales?

To be fair, it is possible to argue that one sometimes helps the other. For example, an Irish security startup called Trustev won a competition category (enterprise and big data) at a large conference called South By Southwest (SXSW) in Texas last week. (Another Irish startup, Viddyad, was shortlisted in another category.) That conference is a high-profile event that garners considerable publicity. It is very possible that this could further Trustev's profile among potential customers.

But this may be the exception rather than the rule. For every Trustev, there must be 20 startups who will burn through thousands in attendance expenses and wasted hours going to endless events.

At the end of the trading year, what do they have to show for it? Are conferences and seminars now becoming a productivity sinkhole for startups?

Arguably, those who really derive value from tech conferences have their plan of action decided long before the event occurs.

At last month's Mobile World Congress (the world's biggest telecom and mobile phone conference), most of the people I spoke to had a laser-targeted list of crucial meetings or interviews lined up.

"Normally I deal with mid-level managers in the global operators, but [at Mobile World Congress] I'd get the CEOs," said Mark Burke, chief executive of Dublin-based Wi-Fi technology firm OptiWi-Fi.

"For example, the chief executive of Ruckus Wireless [a global telecoms infrastructure firm], which is a brilliant opportunity. If I just rang up and asked for that any other time of the year, I'd never get near her."

Many senior international attendees didn't even go into any of the main halls at Mobile World Congress – Microsoft and BlackBerry maintained meeting rooms across the road from the actual venue.

A similar pattern emerged at the recent Davos summit, according to a colleague who attended. The serious players were simply going to fulfil pre-arranged business meetings in furtherance of a deal they were pursuing.

To be fair to the big conferences, there are concrete examples of venture capitalists being persuaded to part with significant investment sums at events such as Dublin's The Summit (formerly 'Web Summit').

But there is still a lingering feeling that many Irish startups devote an inordinate amount of attention to events that they treat as a TED talk: something that's life-enriching, but doesn't advance any business metric in the time that is left for their company.

Perhaps this is an overly-sceptical view: we Irish do have an advantage at networking over some rival nationalities. But sometimes one is left with the impression that a lanyard is not the equivalent of innovation.

Sunday Indo Business

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