The first editor I ever wrote for told me if I got backstage at Glastonbury I could network with the entire music industry, like no place on earth. At tonight’s Web Summit opening party, I felt like the same could be said for Europe’s Tech industry.
It’s 7pm and I’m standing in a pub in Temple Bar. I’m surrounded by men who run startups dressed in the standard “startup casual” dress code of plain shirts, jeans, and school shoes. An American is talking to our Irish tour guide, who is leading the group around various drinking spots before the opening party. “This is my first and last Guinness of the weekend – it’s all bark and no bite, y’know?” Our tour guide nods politely. There are lightning pitches going off all around me. It’s like being back at (legendary startup meetup) Silicon Drinkabout in London, only this time the lightning pitches become a primal rumble of noise by the time we hit the opening party. Russell Brand used to tell an anecdote about wondering how long, once a girl has told you she has a girlfriend, should you carry on speaking to them (his best estimate: around eight seconds). I talk to some amazing founders who have some great ideas, but on hearing the words “fintech” from one or two startups tonight, I wonder the same thing, and plan my escape.
I leave the startups to it and nip into Badoo’s VIP party. Girls are spinning inside rings hanging from the ceiling and staff with white teeth and big smiles are greeting us with trays full of Black Velvets (a Guinness and champagne cocktail, apparently). I decline their kind offer. I’m still not sure if it’s cool to eat the canapes at parties so I turn those down too.
The free bar is rammed with press and investors, and founders glowing with the self-confidence that their startup is on the up. One founder tells me nonchalantly that their one-year-old startup received an offer for $20 million from eBay yesterday to buy it outright.
I ask if they are going to take the money. He looks mildly annoyed and mutters “We’ll see”. Here is the get-rich-quick dream followed by many of the startups who have flown into Dublin this week, and yet an aversion to saying “yes”, possibly in the hope of getting more money, still reigns.
Startup celebrities begin to file in. Robert Scoble finds someone has already drawn an avatar of him on the wall in chalk. He laughs, takes a picture of it and wanders in. He has an aura which sees most of the founders with lanyards around their necks follow him around the room with their eyes. I hear someone distribute wisdom: “We shouldn’t pitch him directly, he’ll hate that. I think I know someone who can get us an introduction.” And so it goes on, startups and investors playing it cool, journalists openly saying they’re only here for the free bar, founders concerned about the early start while ordering three-drink rounds at midnight, and some sort of whisky bar putting big smiles on the older gentleman in attendance.
There’s mock anger from the upstairs bar when last orders are called, though secretly most of the startups (myself included) are quietly relieved that we’re being forced out and back to our hotels for just a few hours sleep before the real work begins. There’s no sign of any after parties (which will surely follow in the coming days) but there’ll be some hefty hangovers for many of those exhibiting. I knew I’d packed the Alka Seltzer for a reason…
As well as representing Planet Ivy at the conference, I was also contributing to their ongoing blog/magazine “The Peak.”I was to report to Mic Wright, who greeted me at 8.30am with “Do you have copy then? I need it. You’ve got 30 minutes – write up what happened last night. Then I need you to do some interviews.” I interviewed a business correspondent from the BBC, and then found myself standing next to Tony Hawk. Well, here’s a chance, I thought. His PR told me he had no time to do any interviews – he had three lined up and that was all he had time for. I told her that was fine, I’d interview him while he was walking between the two interviews. I told her I’d wait right here until he was ready.
It felt vaguely like I was doorstepping, quickly crowdsourcing questions from my Twitter and Facebook contacts to find unique questions he wouldn’t have been asked before. I was feeling pleased walking back into the media room to tell Mic I had a scoop, when word got out that the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kelly had arrived. Mic jumped out of his seat and shouted “Get me a quote – go and meet him. Now! Ask him anything – ask him what he eats for breakfast!”
I cautiously remembered John Simpson asking British prime minister Howard Wilson a question unannounced and getting punched for his trouble. In fairness that was unlikely to happen but as I grabbed Enda as he left a press conference I heard someone shout “Who’s this guy?” as I blurted out that I was writing for the Websummit blog and needed to ask him some questions. So the bizarre spectacle of the Irish Prime Minister telling me he eats “porridge, sometimes fruit” was followed by the scoop that he planned to ask Elon Musk to move production of Tesla cars to Ireland the same way Henry Ford did in 1900. I walk back into the speakers lounge and find a barefoot Mic Wright screaming “This. Is. My. Office!” in the direction of a bemused Tony Hawk. It really is like working with the legendary editor from theSpiderman movies.
Meanwhile in the Digital Marketing room, the Twitter keynote made the bold claim that the hashtag is the modern-day equivalent of people telling campfire stories, and ended with the sweet statement “Twitter is a bridge, not an island.” So epic.
Startups took over Dame Street in the evening, with a bizarre but brilliant Bollywood party followed with a monumental amount of free drinks at several other locations. I arrive at the Spotify party and the PR girl gives me four drink vouchers. I tell her I’m press and receive another 10. Awesome. A French-looking character wanders in with skeptical eyes and expensive glasses. “Welcome to the jungle,” I tell him. “Too many men here,” he replies. Fair point. There’s a rumoured Tumblr party with expensive free whiskies, but I was suffering from exhaustion by this point and had to rest before the big final day.
People look visibly hungover and the coffee bars are rammed from very early on, but the only words on everyone’s lips are “Elon Musk”. Everything else that happens today is basically foreplay, as far as the tech community is concerned. It’s both disconcerting and exciting to spend the day interviewing other startups, when I normally spend time talking about my own, our plans, ambitions and so on, and now I have an audience with global successes like Peter Arvai, the founder of Prezi, who finishes our interview with a touching anecdote of his father’s death and his belief in making sure you do what you want with your life. Perhaps I should feel jealous that I’m meeting other founders who are smashing it on every conceivable front, but I’m pretty inspired and grateful to have access to them.
I interview one speaker about his startup, Teachshare. In Ireland teachers keep a black book of all their students attendance, exam scores and performance results throughout the year which is then handed to the board or principal of the school at the end of the year. Jordan Casey’s app puts all of that in the cloud so it can’t be lost. He plans to sell it to principals and schools as a way of making the process more efficient. Last year, his game “Alien ball vs humans” made number one in the Apple store for gaming. He’s also 13-years-old. I’m not even mad, I’m impressed.
Towering new media legend Shane Smith has old media scared for all the right reasons, and his onstage chat with The New York Times’ David Carr is the best talk of the weekend. It begins with Shane Smith telling the audience he’s just got back from Dagestan, where the Boston Bombers were living and were apparently radicalised just before going to America. David Carr’s dry response: “I wonder how many people here have heard of Dagestan…”
It’s a verbal back and forth, where they reveal that “under the covers” of most tech “content aggregation” startups, you may find algorithms on top of algorithms leading to content, but that content has to be produced by and for people, at the end of the day, and it has to be good to rise above the noise of the web. Also I can’t let it pass that he commented that “Vice is probably not cool, cool is small”, and his definition of the increasingly negative label “hipster” as someone who’s interested in music, culture, and fashion should kill off it’s negative connotations forever. It won’t, of course, but Vice undeniably have superb insight into those three worlds.
Meanwhile, the worlds of space travel, politics, and audience adulation combine for the closing talk by Elon Musk and Prime Minister Enda Kelly. I’m ordered to interview Elon but backstage he is already deep in conversation with the Irish PM and flanked by both security and the Garda, so that exclusive falls by the wayside.
The talk itself sees my scoop from Enda coming to life, with him very quickly pitching to Musk to move production to Ireland. Unfortunately, the pitch doesn’t resonate with the audience, who laugh wildly. I’m surprised – I’ve seen all sorts of insane and unstable product ideas pitched on startup stages and never once have the audience laughed at the serious part of a pitch. Maybe I didn’t understand how the Irish view Kelly. I had spent the night before telling every Irish person I met that I’d interviewed their PM. Their reactions were muted at best, and seemed much more impressed by the Tony Hawk interview.
Elon Musk received a Steve Jobs-esque standing ovation on his arrival
So how was Elon? He received a Steve Jobs-esque standing ovation on his arrival (this could’ve been for the PM too, I guess). His skin looked glossy and he generally appeared to glow, almost like a superhuman. Also apt for his Iron Man moniker, his answers were robotically perfect, even faced with potentially awkward questions like “What would you change if you were the Irish Prime Minister?” SpaceX is undeniably one of the most exciting projects on earth, and I felt my heartbeat quicken when he spoke about it. “They talked about us living on the moon and going on holiday there 50 years ago, so why hasn’t it happened?”
To his credit Enda Kelly does seem to genuinely care about the startup and tech scene in Dublin, and in the process encouraging young people to try new things and accept failures as a part of becoming successful. “Many Irish people all around the world find success in their business on the fourth, fifth, or sixth try,” he says. That’s a “fail better” motto if ever there was one.
The closing party has a St Petersburg feel as it’s very cold, out in the open air, in a square courtyard. The 3D stage show is a neat spectacle, but it really is very cold so we head to Liquid Rooms where the vibe is more of a student disco (it’s the last night, it’ll do) where at 4am a chubby salesmen and a skinny upstart are arguing about lead generation – which is better, phone and email, or social media? New and old ideas are butting heads, and everyone is learning from everyone else, still. That’s the Websummit in a nutshell.
All images: The Peak/Web Summit