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The Web Summit could make you a millionaire... just don't bank on it

The annual tech conference will be held in Ireland for the final time this year – but how have startups experienced it?

File Photo THE WEB SUMMIT has published the e-mail correspondence between Government officials and itself, in the weeks before Web Summit organisers announced the summit would move to Lisbon next year. The letters show how the relationship deteriorated as Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THE WEB SUMMIT sets up shop in Dublin for the last time this week before jetting off to Lisbon next year.

The annual tech conference started back in 2010 when it drew in around 500 people from mostly the local tech community, and has grown to a point now where this year more than 30,000 attendees are expected from more than 100 countries.

On its website, the event describes itself as “one of the world’s most influential and international tech events”, with 2,000 startups set to exhibit.

While the conference will bring together some of the biggest names in the tech industry, does it deliver the results for the startups attending it?

Show me the money?

There is no doubt that for some companies, the Web Summit is an opportunity to receive some serious investment.

On the company’s website, a blog post in April listed 40 startups who have received $925 million (€840 million) in funding in the six months after last year’s event.

Web Summit 2014 - Dublin Enda Kenny ringing the Nasdaq bell on stage at the Web Summit last year Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

While this was a great result for those 40 companies, 22,000 were at the conference, and not everybody left happy.

“I think they definitely overplayed it, they said there was going to be loads of investors walking around,” said Michael*, who displayed as part of the Alpha programme for new startups last year.

They made it look like a really fantastic by saying there would be massive opportunity.

Michael came into the conference with his sights set on securing funding, something that didn’t materialise.

“There was nobody walking around with the investor badges. Many of them spent their time in the back rooms and things like that,” he said.

Others reported similar experiences.

Co-founder of Mashup Media (a digital content producer) John Tobin displayed at the event last year:

“We got a kind of two for one deal as part of a prize that we won, so it wasn’t like the companies alongside us.

“I know that some of them were a little bit disappointed with the opportunities that they got to meet investors. They weren’t as readily available as they thought they would be. I think some of the foreign delegates there were disappointed with the outcome really.”

Web Summit 2014 - Dublin Final preparations being made at the Web Summit last year Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Looking past capital investment 

While early-stage startups may struggle to secure investment, such criticism may stem from assuming that displaying at the Web Summit means an automatic investment windfall, or as founder Paddy Cosgrve puts it:

“Web Summit is not some sort of magic elixir for attendees.”

In a response to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for the Web Summit said, “We work hard to give every attendee a great experience, especially startups. They are at the heart of Web Summit and we have learned lessons from 2014 and all our other international events in 2015.”

He said that those attending Web Summit 2015 could expect the “most influential gathering venture capital firms this year” and that office hours and mentor hours will be in place to facilitate meetings between startups and investors.

While the cost to attend might seem steep – ticket prices range from €1,195 to €5,245 and the cost of displaying from €1,950 to €3,950 – those who treat it as an investment in education and making contacts come away happier.

While he noticed the difficulty for overseas attendees, Mashup Media co-founder Tobin felt that the conference had helped his company develop a network of contacts which had in turn given his business a boost.

Source: MashupMedia1/YouTube

A video produced by Mashup Media for the 2015 Bloom festival

“I suppose it was a window for our company if you like. In terms of seeking potential investment, probably not that good, but then again, we never really set out with that mind anyway. We were just not at that stage yet in business,” he said.

This expectation management may be the key to how successful an experience a startup has.

Networking 

With such huge numbers in attendance, a plan of attack is a big part of gaining the upper hand at the conference.

Iseult Ward displayed at the conference both last year and in 2013 with the company she co-founder FoodCloud, a social enterprise that helps redistribute surplus food that would otherwise be dumped.

“I can be a bit challenging I suppose because there are so many startups there,” Ward explains.

But with a bit of planning and preparation in advance they do have attendees up on the website so you can make a little plan beforehand to see who it is it would be most beneficial for you to meet.

Taking this focused approach led to her startup making connections with a business operating the same model in Phoenix in the United States and also with mentors who have helped with the development of FoodCloud.

food cloud Social enterprise Food Cloud received a bit boost from Web Summit Source: Food Cloud

Last year her company got the opportunity to not only display, but to also speak at the conference after winning a competition ran by the US Embassy.

That was brilliant. Because of the fact we were speaking we were listed as speakers. Everybody that came to hear us speak were there to hear us speak.

Web Summit as a learning experience 

The conference also gives tech companies an idea of how their products weights up in the international scheme of things.

Ronan Higgins attended for the first time in 2012 with Aftermath, an app that turned social media time for younger students into an educational reward.

“We pitched to a judging panel at that conference, and when we heard the calibre of the other pitches, it was a bit of a wake up call that we were not ready for investment,” says Higgins.

Seeing the calibre of other businesses from around the world, it became clear a lot of work had to be done.

If you can walk away from a conference and know that you have a lot of work to do, that is very valuable as well.

From this experience, Higgins returned to the conference last year with his new company TvAdSync as attendees, and managed to make contact with meet a number of “good quality investors” and have his company featured on Fox television in the United States.

ronan higgins

TvAdSync co-founder Ronan Higgins appearing on Fox Business in the US – the full clip can be viewed here. 

Is the conference value for money? 

In a blog post from earlier this month entitled ‘Is Web Summit a scam? – setting the record straight‘, founder Paddy Cosgrave says:

Because what matters is not absolute price, but value. Do startups get €1,950 worth of value out of Web Summit? The evidence of our growth, repeat attendees and our relentless polling seems to suggest that, generally, they do.

In a post last month about who should and shouldn’t attend the Web Summit, Cosgrave said, “Yes it’s true startups have emerged from Web Summit with tens of millions in funding because they met a single investor in a pub.

But it’s also true that some startups have met tens of investors in many pubs, and walked away with nothing.

Speaking about the experience of startups at the Web Summit, a spokesperson said, “Web Summit is a massive opportunity for startups but that is not to say that everyone will succeed and that everyone will have a uniformly great experience.

As with all products, reviews are always distributed from five stars to one star.

Web Summit 2014 - Dublin Preparations taking place for the Web Summit last year Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

It is hard to get a completely accurate picture of how startups experience Web Summit, especially as the list of startups that have displayed in previous years at the event are considered to be commercially sensitive by the company.

Despite this, those who go into the Web Summit with clear aims seem to come away satisfied. As TvAdSync co-founder Higgins says, “You really have to put in the effort to hustle to meet the right people.

That maybe isn’t the typical behaviour for a tech startup founder. They’re not known for being aggressive in their outbound efforts to meet people. They tend to be quite passive.

Read: This conference is trying to turn the west into a hub for drones

Also: How one small group of people is building Ireland’s most high-tech town

 *This individual’s name has been changed as they wished to remain anonymous.

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