As a startup, it is all about taking calculated risks, if we don't we fail, if we do, and we make the wrong decisions, we could also fail, but that is the life of a startup. When all the mud was being thrown about the Web Summit in October, I committed to myself I would write a blog about my experiences from start to finish at the Web Summit 2015, the good, the bad and the ugly, so here it is, blow by blow. Please understand, these are just my honest experiences and I am sure there are 1000s of others with different views, so use this information as you see fit, but you may have a very different experience should you choose to attend next year.
The sale of the Web Summit does employ what I would call aggressive marketing. You are initially attracted to the advert due to the promise of exhibiting "for free" if you are a potential ALPHA startup (one who has raised less than $500,000). However, when you apply and then subsequently speak to someone, they were very clear that the cost is 1950 euros for the three day event, which includes discounted entry for three attendees and a "free" exhibition stand for one day.
They do also then make it feel like you "win" a chance to be chosen as an ALPHA and you don't get the option to pay for the conference there and then, you wait a few days before you receive a mail to say you have been chosen as startup with great potential, at which point you pay. I have no idea how many startups who apply as an ALPHA get rejected, but it does make you feel good about your company and more likely to go for it than not, so I did.
Before the Conference
If anything, the bad press around the Web Summit 2015 actually helped me. I do think, if I hadn't spent time before going to Dublin, finding out who else was there, ensuring I was applying for EVERYTHING as soon as the mail came out (i.e. Google 1 on 1s, round tables, pub crawls, mentor hours and so on) I would not have had the same experience.
I was also lucky enough to be selected for PITCH, but if I hadn't have been watching my mails and the Web Summit blog I would've missed it, like a lot of companies I met whilst in Dublin.
We had an exhibition stand on the first day (Tuesday) and I am very glad we did, hats off to the guys exhibiting on Thursday, we were dead on our feet by then!
Anyway, you are exhibiting on a very small stand as ALPHA, but again it was made clear this was the case in advance. There are rows and rows of other ALPHA businesses throughout the conference and you really do have to do something different to get noticed.
Initially we focused on those people who had "Media" or "Investor" on their badges, which was the same approach most people had, so I apologise to all you journalists and investors, it must've been tough!
In actual fact, we didn't have a huge amount of success with this approach and this is where being prepared comes into play as a couple of investors came to our stand after I had contacted them over the app in advance.
We had more success talking to other attendees and startups who were walking around, and then of course if your stand is busy it starts to attract other people as well.
We got "invited" to one meeting with a VC company on Thursday afternoon. Actually, the VC was quick to tell me that they didn't ask to see us and it was set up by Web Summit, so be aware of that. I was realistic, as I knew that VCs are in 99.9% of cases looking for much more well established companies than us (i.e. turning over millions and looking for millions in investment).
I also "hustled" myself into another meeting with a VC, really both these were just to put ourselves on the radar and get a business card, nothing more. In my experience you have to be realistic and it certainly seemed to be a much more open and honest conversation when approached in that way.
However, we did get some very interesting discussions going with Angel Investors. In fact, we are in contact with three, and I hope one of them will invest in Ding Dong Diary, but only time will tell.
We got these connections in three different ways:
- Looking up angels through the app in advance and arranging a meeting before the actual event (the investor came to our stand)
- From PITCH - we didn't get past the first round, but when we came off stage we were approached by an investor
- Luck (and talking to a lot of people) - turned out one of the exhibitors at ALPHA wasn't the founder but the investor in the business!
There was simply too much going on at the Web Summit for me to attend many talks at all. I went to one on the Wednesday at the Startup University, which was very interesting, but I felt I was wasting valuable networking time, so quickly went out. One thing I did notice, was the queue then for Startup University was HUGE, so if you do want to go to the talks, I would suggest you target a "Summit", get there early and stay seated!
One on Ones
We'd booked a few of the round tables, and due to arranging other meetings whilst at the Summit, only managed to attend one. The one I attended was good, they really are small (i.e. 15 people max), so if they are on next year and someone who you are interested in is running one, I would definitely recommend it as you do get to talk directly to them rather than being spoken at.
We also had "mentor hours" booked, but didn't attend as someone wanted a separate meeting with us about investment. I therefore don't know how good they are, but it was frustrating you had to select from 3 different options and only got one (we go the least interesting of the three to us).
The one on ones that were unforgettable were with Google. My impression of Google after the event has gone up massively. These guys were senior resources and were not only spending time with you at the event on an individual basis but have also connected with me subsequently and seem genuinely interested in what we are doing (helps me with the "why are you different to Google Calendars?" question for sure. I cannot recommend these enough if they are on next year!!
Social / Networking
This was the second key element for us at Web Summit (alongside the investment which I think was the case for all ALPHA businesses). I was planning on going to every Night Summit and making as many connections as possible. In reality I can only talk about one of the 4 Night Summits set up by Web Summit and that was on Monday night. I also didn't stay out too long as we were exhibiting on Tuesday, but I know a lot of people who did and thoroughly enjoyed them.
The reason we didn't attend the one on Tuesday and Thursday was just plan tiredness, we had pushed ourselves so hard during the day, but 7pm we were exhausted. I did get invited to the Google Offices on the Wednesday night which was another great experience and well received by all the startups as a couple of hours to just chill and chat without needing to "pitch".
Our networking was mostly done during the day, walking round the event and talking to other startups. This point could still be the biggest win we get from Web Summit as we met an amazing American company with a lot of synergy who we will be hoping to work with in the future.
The Web Summit for me and for Ding Dong Diary, was an incredible experience and, with potential investors, potential collaborations and some incredible new connections, definitely worth the total expense. We obviously don't know the true value until we see which of our opportunities turn into realities, but if you'd said to me before the event what we actually achieved at it, I would not have believed you.
Anyway, feel free to get in contact if you want any additional info, happy to help. Assuming we are still alive and kicking next year, we will most definitely be in Lisbon for Web Summit 2016, hopefully as a BETA or START business (next level up). I'll leave you with a few tips to keep in mind:
- Decide for yourself if you think your company is at a stage where you can get value from the event
- Book hotels and flights early, they get very expensive if you leave it until the last minute
- Ensure you do as much prep in advance as possible, registering for everything, and contacting everyone you want to speak to
- HUSTLE - make sure you talk to everyone you can, don't be arrogant, but ensure you take the opportunity to push your business as much as possible, you won't get another chance like this in a long time, so go for it!
- Make sure you rest up before the event and wear comfortable clothes and shoes, you will walk, a LOT
Good luck to all the amazing startups I met in Dublin as well as the incredible people both in Web Summit and around Dublin in general, the most friendliest city I've ever had the pleasure to visit.