An Irish Start-up’s Experience of the Web Summit

YellowSchedule is an Irish based software start-up. We applied for Alpha last year, which looked as though it was free. I spent time doing a phone ‘interview’. I was told at the end of it that our company was so exciting that he didn’t even need to go back and consult with colleagues, we were hot and he was putting us straight though. Sounds good, appeals to the founder’s ego, you feel like you’ve just won a prize.

Then the issue of the cost comes up. I expressed surprise at the cost, having believed I was applying for a free table. I was told that it was normally €10k, our table was being subsidised by the larger companies. I told him we already had 4 early bird tickets and I suggested that he could just deduct the cost and it would be approx. the same. He wasn’t willing to do that, although he was willing to come down a little on cost.

So we declined to exhibit at Alpha. We still turned up with our 4 cheapie tickets, rocking our bright yellow hoodies with our logo. We got large yellow helium balloons made with ‘Ask me about YellowSchedule’ and tied them to our wrists, letting them float high above us. We made ourselves visible on the floors and we split up to maximise our exposure. We had our target list of attendees, we made contact beforehand and had our meetings set up. Securing meetings took a LOT of planning and effort on our part. For the ‘serendipity’ part we got 1,500 yellow cigarette lighters made and we put them in the bars that were hosting Summit Parties. Our team just left some at all the tables when we were in a venue and offered them to smokers outside. We also got 1,000 rain hoods with our logo made and handed them out when it rained (It’s Ireland after all, we knew we were safe to order rain hoods!). We secured a free house as a friend’s parents were away that week.

Companies need to be smart and find cheap ways to ‘hack’ the Summit. I know of Irish companies, who never buy a ticket, but contact attendees, VCs and speakers and set up meetings with them at venues just outside the main venue. We ourselves were interviewed by the National TV broadcaster. We met a Senior Exec from one of the largest tech companies in the world and had a call the following week about a potential acquisition of our start-up.

I’ve thought for many years now that Paddy Cosgrave is selling fairy dust to start-ups and is really clever at it. He appeals to ego and fear in equal measure and knows how to push those buttons to perfection. I have the benefit of being a bit older, so I know that I’m never going to be sitting in a bar beside Bono, I think lots of other founders don’t realise that.

Additionally, Irish based start-ups get emails asking them to host Summit pub crawls, which sounds like it’s going to be great exposure for the start-ups invited. However, you are asked to foot the bill at the bar, and don’t get to choose what companies you invite. It’s a way of the Summit getting the people who can least afford it to pay for some hospitality and give foreign attendees a good time.

The Web Summit is certainly guilty of sharp practice with start-ups but I really wish start-ups were smarter about this. As a start-up you won’t be schmoozing with the VIPs, despite what the slick marketing leads you to believe. You are not going to meet Bono. You are mostly going to meet other start-ups. You will find it hard to meet investors. The companies that raised money at the Web Summit were so good that they would have raised money anyway. It wasn’t a serendipitous meeting that made it possible and it certainly wasn’t the Web Summit.

The onus is on your to do your due diligence beforehand. Phone peers who have attended and ask them did they get any value, do they recommend them, would they go again, would they go as an attendee or as an exhibitor. Know what you’re trying to achieve and who you’re trying to meet.

I wouldn’t use the phraseology ‘scam’ in relation to the Web Summit as there are a lot of fantastic connections to be made if you do a significant amount of work before the event. But at the end of the day, Paddy is in it to make a tonne of money, and the people he’s making money from are the start-ups. Buyer Beware!

I should point out that I won a free ticket this year, and I’m happily attending.

EDIT 16 October: I’ve handed back my free ticket,


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