WEB SUMMIT 2014

What is Web Summit?

Last week I attended Web Summit in Dublin. This conference was held over 3 days. Selling out 20 000 tickets it was absolutely enormous in scale compared to any conference I have been to before. This post is going to be about how I found it... which was well... a bit mixed to say the least.

Why I went?

I went to this conference because I got a free ticket through Web Summit's 'Women in Tech' initiative. This initiative gave €250,000 worth of free tickets to women who applied by filling out a form on the Web Summit website. Ticket prices depended on how early you booked your ticket, but towards the end of the ticket sales they cost around €1600 to buy. It is brilliant that they had this women in tech initiative simply because it actively encouraged more of a diverse audience.

Logistics

I got the email informing me that I had a free ticket about two weeks before the conference. The only problem with this is that most hotels were completely booked up and they had all racked up their prices for the occasion. They did have Web Summit offers on some hotels but only if you were staying all 4 nights, but I was planning to leave on day 3. I looked at hostels but after seeing a picture of the showers in one I thought... no way! (only curtains on the cubicles... no doors lol) so I decided to have my first Air BnB experience.

This actually turned out to be amazing. I stayed with a couple in their 30s (both very interesting and creative... he was a potter, she worked in theatre) who were really lovely. I stayed in a room in their apartment with amazing views near to the river and it was easy to get a taxi/bus/walk into town. This was €28 a night which was about half the price of a bed in some 10 person hostel rooms that I looked at, so I would totally recommend Air BnB if you are going somewhere for a conference (just make sure you pick people with lots of positive feedback).

This was also the first time I have flown anywhere alone... ok I know Ireland is pretty close to England and there is no language barrier but I haven't travelled to many places yet even with other people so it was exciting! Fingers crossed as time goes on this will just become a regular part of my life. I met some people at the airport from an email discussion list that I am part of called Ada's list. If you are a woman interested in technology I would recommend joining as there are loads of discussions,articles and people suggesting events on there. They turned out to be really great and they made me feel a lot more comfortable about going to a new place on my own.

We had a few drinks and I headed to the Air BnB place. I got in a taxi parked at taxi rank around 10.45pm and unfortunately the taxi driver turned out to be horrible. He wouldn't listen to my directions, was really aggressive and kept shouting at me, he couldn't read or write English as he couldn't spell the name of the place to put it into a sat nav and started driving before I told him where I was going which I didn't really like. He also had a really wild eye (yes only one was wild). He snatched my phone out of my hand to look at Google maps which I had open. I was worried he wouldn't give it back, but he did. He dropped me off at the wrong place near some council flats and I just got out (luckily it was 5 minutes from the place I was staying and the host came and found me). I handed him money, he didn't give me enough change... after that I downloaded Uber (a taxi app) which was really good and the conference offered money off codes. This was way better as the drivers are given ratings so it felt safer and the fare just gets taken off your debit card so you don't need to worry about having cash on you.

The people and overall vibe of the conference

The next day I got a bus from the town centre to the conference. Dublin city centre was very pretty. Quite a few people on the bus were also heading the the conference which was at the Royal Dublin Society about 20 minutes away (I think) from the centre by bus. Listening to their conversations was like listening to about 10 episodes of Dragon's Den at once. I guess they were just talking about their companies but it was very much 'pitching'. People on that bus had come from all over the world to be there. I queued up for a while and registered.

I walked into a massive room which was full of 100s of stands occupied by start ups exhibiting their apps. Companies such as Google and Dropbox also had large displays where people made you coffee and representatives talked about their various products... I drank a lot of coffee over the 3 days... I kind of aimlessly walked around being surprised at quite how many apps there were being exhibited, especially because each day a whole new set of start ups were exhibiting. I kept thinking... how do they not just come up with the same idea as each other, though I started to realise you don't really need a new idea... you can just take an initial service and add something to it. It was interesting reading all the different app ideas summarised on the stands. I tried to think about how they could be implemented/if I could recreate them with my own twist. It did inspire me to get into gear and build more web applications for fun.

After some further wandering around, I ended up talking to a guy and went to claim my free lunch with him. He was in his late twenties and had started up two of his own companies, I think one was something to do with file storage. Anyway he seemed like a nice guy and he explained to me about some of his experiences and how the whole venture capital/investor process worked. It was useful to learn more about the business side of things for start ups from someone who knew what it was like first hand.

If you don't already know, it basically works the same way as dragons den... A start up will have an idea for an app and will need money to grow their business. They will pitch their idea to an investor (they had about 800 investors at Web Summit... you could tell who they were because it said 'investor' and their company name on their name badge). The investor would then hopefully give them a load of money (known as venture capital). The investor would then have a share in the company (say 20%). If the company invested in goes down the pan then the investor has lost that money. If they have made a good investment then over a number of years they will have made their money back plus a large profit. As a rough example, he told me they had recently had a $2million investment but would soon need more, most of the money goes on lawyers, developers and office space.

It has definitely opened my eyes to just how much money there is in apps. I suppose you hear success stories such as Instagram's acquisition or the billions that Candy Crush brings in per year despite being free to download, but I didn't realise how much money is invested in early stage app ideas. I guess in my mind you would just build something and then put it out there and hopefully it would take off and you wouldn't need an investment unless your company just got too big too fast... but turns out that isn't usually the case.

Due to this conference being very focused on start ups looking for investments it was very much focused around money, sales and marketing. For this reason I didn't find it particularly enjoyable, mostly because there was pretty much nothing to do with writing code (that I came across) it was very much about sales which meant there was this layer of arrogance meets desperation.

One guy I talked to who was in charge of marketing for a start up asked me what Ruby was and then if there were different languages in programming... I was quite surprised by the lack of technology knowledge that a lot of people seemed to have at a 'Web' conference. I know you don't need to be able to code to bring out an app... you can just think of an idea and pay someone to make it for you... but I felt a bit like something wouldn't feel like it was mine if I hadn't actually helped to code or design it, but different people do bring different skills to a team so going to this conference helped me learn a lot about what it is like for non technical people to build tech companies and that its actually pretty normal.

It definitely has enforced in me that like it or not we need sales people so rather than be put off by the personality traits of some people I met, It made me want to learn a bit more about business and sales and marketing because it seems wrong that I could complain about (some!) of them having little technical skills if I wasn't willing to work on building skills in a wider range of areas. Plus I think potentially selling stuff could be quite fun.

With the heavy focus on sales, naturally there were a lot of arrogant guys roaming around. Maybe it was just worse because there were so many people in attendance that there was more room for these sorts of people. I quite often go to events for developers and people are generally always nice and interesting. It is always heavily male dominated but the guys I have met (so far touch wood) have all been lovely and not treated me differently or been in any way derogatory. Probably about 10 times over the 2.5 days there I got fed the line “You're too pretty to be a developer” or “you don't look like a developer”. I think they thought this was a compliment but to me it just gave off a vibe that they assume all women are stupid. I had a couple of guys come up to me at different points asking to go out for a drink without making an effort to talk to me first. Again I think they thought it was a compliment...

After the first night I met up with some ladies from Adas list and we went for a few drinks. A guy came up to us, his start up was exhibiting at Web Summit and the sheer amount of lies coming out of his mouth were highly entertaining. He said he was a developer and had some sort of start up which has been going for a year (he told the lady next to me 2 years). He told us about the "billion dollar investment" his app got last year. We asked him why he was here, he told us they wanted an investment of $50 million. We asked why they needed the money, he said he "didn't need the money he needed the expertise". Seems like a lot of money to ask for if you only need expertise... He told me about his dream future house where his cars arose out of the concrete in the drive way and he kept winking at me when he was talking to me.

After he left he started sending me messages on Whatsapp (the first telling me that I am beautiful... bit weird though nothing aggressive or crude) as my number was on the Codebar Brighton (event I co-run) business card . He managed to spell my name wrong... how the hell do you mis-spell Rosa?? One of the ladies I was with did do a good job of ripping apart (I mean er... challenging ;) ) his alleged business ideas but it probably went in one ear and out of the other. I googled his company (it turns out he lied... he doesn't run it he just works there) and found articles saying they have basically scammed money off of a load of people... so yeah I definitely experienced some sliminess at the conference but not anything I found intimidating more just a bit annoying.

Saying this, it is easy to focus on the negative and I did meet a lot of really interesting people that really cared about what they were trying to do. I went to a party sponsored by Twillio on the second night, I turned up on my own but everyone was welcoming and friendly.

The talks

The actual talks were either in the form of short talks or interviews, usually about 20 minutes long. They did have a great range of people and it was an opportunity to hear from people who have experienced huge success. A downside was even when developers/CTOs spoke it was more about their company than anything technical. I found that most people being interviewed from successful companies seemed nothing like the marketing types on the start up stands. They seemed down to earth, composed, they listened to each other, they spoke honestly when reflecting on their failures, they were fairly modest and you could tell they worked very very hard.

One of my favourite talks was actually from Lily Cole. I knew of her for being a model so it was interesting to hear about her start up and the transition into the tech world. She has an app called 'Impossible' where people write down their wishes and people send them gifts or offer support (mentoring stylee - not financial). It hasn't had great press because she was apparently given financial support despite being a millionaire, but I found the idea behind it interesting. This is that we rely very heavily on the economy for support and when that fails we don't really know what to do.

They are going to expand the site to include an e-commerce store where everything has a 'story' behind it and will sell items made for example by people living in poverty and giving them the money they deserve for their products. I think I mostly found this interesting as Codebar relies on people sharing knowledge for free through mentoring, so as a concept it was intriguing to see what she was trying to do with it. I suppose in her case, it is easy to think that if someone already has wealth then its an easier ride, but as far as I know, she earned her own fortune through modelling and acting rather than having it handed to her on a plate and it seems she is using her fame to help others.

I watched an interview with Scott Stanford and Shervin Pishevar who formed Sherpa Ventures. They invested in Uber as well as some others and have raised $150 million dollars in less than a year and a half. They were asked about what they look for when they invest in a company. They said they look for something tangible, they like to be taken on the 'mental journey'. They want to invest in people who genuinely care about what they are trying to do, they are obsessed by it to a point where its not something that should feel like a job.

They said that if they have a 15 minute meeting with someone they don't want to be 'pitched at' they want to have a conversation with someone. They want to see that someone would put their heart and soul into something and wouldn't give up on it. They want to invest in people willing to listen to others. I found this interesting in comparison to some of the people I had met who didn't seem to have much depth behind the dollar signs in front of their eyes.

Shervin spoke about how hard his parents worked (cleaning hotel rooms and similar jobs) to look after him and his siblings. He worked hard because he saw how proud they were if any of the children got a certificate or a good grade. He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he has had great success so I found that inspirational.

I don't have time to write about all the talks but mostly it seems like the main focuses were on the importance of decent content (video content seems like a 'hot marketing tool' at the moment) and 'The internet of things' which is basically an idea that in the not so distant future everything is going to be connected to the internet. This is supposed to give us greater convenience though more likely so that loads of data can be used to market stuff at us, though interesting from a developer point of view as potentially lots more platforms to develop for...

There were some great female speakers. Most inspiring (that I got to see) were Maelle Gavet CEO of a billion dollar Russian company called Ozon and Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco both of whom partly spoke about encouraging women in the tech field. Padmasree was asked if she thought there should be a no tolerance policy for people who had been involved in harassment regardless of their ability at their job. She affirmed there should be no tolerance for harassment and encouraged women to speak up.

She also spoke about trends in careers of women in the industry. She said women often drop out of the industry after about 6 years, often leaving for a more comfortable/less cut throat life in academia or because as they climb higher up the chain, pressures increase; C level people are often expected to look and act a certain way which doesn't often appeal. She spoke about how she finds it important to take time to paint, walk, write poetry and generally get into a different head space at the weekend. The thing that keeps her up most at night is the pace of change which causes a need for companies to constantly reinvent business models.

I had to leave early on the last day (my own choice... I had a gig to go to in London) which was a shame because there was a 'Music summit' which interested me as I studied music and computing at university. I saw a talk by the ex drummer of the Smashing Pumpkins and a cool Machine Listening demo.

It seems the things to build in the music marketing world are tools which sell 'experiences' rather than the actual music. One app that sounded awesome was called YPlan... it works in a few cities (sadly not Brighton yet) and depending on your interests it gives 10 recommendations of events/gigs to go to in your city happening that day. Purchasing tickets is a simple 2 tap process as opposed to the usual filling out loads of forms arrangement and has apparently hugely increased numbers in event attendance in the cities it has been released for so far.

Overall I am glad I went to Web Summit. I think it opened my eyes up a bit more to the business side of things and also what to be wary of. It hasn't put me off the tech industry. If anything it has continued to affirm to me that it's an exciting place to be and there is no shortage of money or work for developers. It seems like companies across many different fields will largely become 'tech companies' over the next decade. I thought about it, and I do believe that if I ever needed to pitch an idea then I would have the confidence to go out there and do it and I think this has taught me a lot about the right and wrong way to go about doing so.