With the appellation as “The Largest Tech Conference in the World,” it was no surprise that Web Summit would be an eye opener for me. This post will talk about the overview of the event, my opinion of whether you should go and whether it’s worth going, and other misc. details such as transportation, food, and its night events.
In 2019, Web Summit was attended by slightly over 70,000 attendees. The event, as in recent years, has been held in Feira Internacional de Lisboa, a massive exhibition with five gigantic halls, and alongside it is the grand Altice Arena, hosting some of the most prominent speakers over the 4 day event. Some of the more attention grabbing names this year included Edward Snowden (who didn’t appear in person for obvious reasons), Jaden Smith, Ronaldinho, Tony Blair, Guo Ping – rotating chairman of Huawei, Brad Smith – president of Microsoft, and a whole lot more.
Web Summit is an event that brings together everyone in the startup community from all over the world. As with any other exhibition and conferences, there were many startups exhibiting there, a lot of keynote presentations, some workshops that gave longer and more detailed talks on specific topics, and a couple of meeting and networking areas and sessions. Just to give you an idea of how large the exhibition was, walking from one end to the Altice Arena, which was at the other end, it will take you about a good 25 to 30 minutes including the pedestrian traffic.
As I was staying near the Terreiro do Paço, I tended to walk to Lisboa Santa Apolónia station, and take the railway train to the Estação do Oriente station, which was about one or two stations away. I’m probably more of an exception though, because most of you would probably be taking the metro instead of the railway train. For the metro, you will be getting off at the Oriente station. Also a little tip for those going in the future – I was a little lost the first time going there because Google Maps was giving me the wrong direction. If you get off from either the railway station or metro, just remember that you have to pass through a large mall called Centro Vasco da Gama before reaching there. From the station to get to the actual entrance, you can expect at least a 20 minute walk.
Thoughts and Impressions
Because of its location, most of the companies and participants attending were largely from Europe. There were people from Asia and America, but my feeling was that there weren’t many of them. I’ve been to their sister event, RISE in Hong Kong, two times already. What I would say is that if you’re looking for Asian startups, it is much more relevant and much better value to go to RISE rather than the Web Summit. If you’re looking for European startups, then Web Summit should be a consideration.
As a startup, one of the reasons why you would want to go attend or exhibit at these events is to gain contacts of investors and also the media. Just like RISE, the number of attendees wearing an investor’s badge was paltry. The reason why I believe it continues to gain large attendees to come is because of its marketing and buzz that it brings, attracting a significant amount of attendees to come and partake in the community. That said, investors are hard to meet from out of the blue, and there are so few of them. Perhaps if you were to use the Web Summit app and contact them beforehand to set up a meeting, that may be more efficient, but your chances of talking to an investor, especially as an attendee, is similar to your chances of watching a lion fighting a group of hyenas in a safari. In my opinion, if you were seriously looking for investors, I highly recommend attending smaller startup events that your local startup community hosts, and from there you have much more opportunity and much more conversational time to really chat them up. Investors usually have an agenda when they are at these exhibitions and conferences anyway.
For someone who’s been attending many startup events, you sort of get a sense of the general hot trends in the startup scene. The themes that I saw in RISE were very similar to Web Summit. In fact, I found the themes so repetitive that I wrote down some of the recurring topics that each startup was tackling, which included Social, Blockchain and Crypto, AI, Chatbots, Marketplaces, Travel (hotels, grouping people together, check in check out), AR, VR, events and ticketing, energy, security, environment, Fintech, Marketing and Advertising, and HR tech. At the onset when you’ve never attended many startup events before, you would feel that there was a diverse mix of startups. But after attending several of them, these days the startups tend to merge along one of these big themes. In fact, I feel that almost all of these startups were thinking too small. Not that it’s always a bad thing, as some startups were purposefully targeting niche problems, but almost all of the startup ideas just did not sound revolutionising enough.
With the keynote conferences, most of the information that the speakers share tended to be very high level and very general. For example, they would ask questions such as what would be one advice to give to startup entrepreneurs, and the speakers would say something like don’t give up, follow your passion, don’t listen to your parents etc. motivational stuff but not practical and concrete information. Even when they do talk about their marketing experiences of their brand on their recent ad campaign, they tend to be general pointers like focus on getting local influencers rather than mega celebrities. Additionally, most of the talks invite a panel of 2 to 5 speakers, and with each keynote session being 25 to 30 minutes each, you’re not going to get a substantial amount of information from these speakers. Therefore, I feel that a lot of these speakers were invited not because they are able to share a large amount of practical, detailed information, but mainly for the organiser to use their names as marketing purposes to attract large amounts of attendees. It’s a great concept, as the speakers make money and get to share their brand, the organiser can use the big names to promote their event, and attendees can share on their Instagram that they saw Jaden Smith in person.
If you really want to learn, I encourage you to attend the workshops or the company hosted sessions instead. Those talks tend to be longer, from 45 minutes to 2 hours, and they delve deeper into the material of the topic they are discussing about. The speakers may not necessarily be prominent figures, but that’s the point, they are knowledgeable about the field they are in. One talk I enjoyed this time was this talk about the role of emotions in politics, where a group of researchers from the European Commission shared their statistics and data they’ve gathered from scraping data from social media and the press to understand which sentiment usually generates users to react or be engaged with a post (answer: it’s usually anger and fear).
Also when designing your schedule for the talks on the app, I highly encourage you to choose all the ones you like, even if some of them have overlapping times. The reason I say this is because once you get to the venue, you will realise that one talk might be located at the opposite end of another talk, and if their time slots are one after another, you might want to attend something that is closer instead. Keep your options open.
OK so you shared a lot of what you didn’t like, so why should I attend?
Every time I come back from an exhibition like Web Summit or RISE, I always feel incredibly inspired and motivated. From listening to all the speakers, finding out what other startup companies are doing, and being on the receiving end of the energy and excitement vibe that these entrepreneurs give out, you get a nitro boost into wanting to go back home as soon as possible and continue to work on your startup.
While I do not believe attending these conferences is the best way to meet investors, you could still potentially meet them. If you were to meet them, I highly encourage you to go as an exhibitor rather than an attendee. As an attendee, it’s hard to just randomly strike up a conversation with a busy investor. But as an exhibitor, some investors will come by your booth and that is a green light that they are somewhat interested in what you are doing. By exhibiting, you also get to practice your elevator pitching to both investors and attendees.
For everyone that goes to Web Summit, you will meet an incredible amount of people. For me, I like to meet in brief moments a large quantity of people and keep in touch with them, especially with the people I click with most, because hey, even though that person and I may be working in different industries or located in different cities, someday they may be a useful contact for a future project down the line. Therefore I like to take this opportunity to network with as many people as possible.
The food is surprisingly good at Web Summit. They have hamburgers, Taiwanese burgers, Portuguese pork sandwiches, grilled beef steaks, pasta, and a diverse amount of food for you to select from. Generally, I try to avoid the lunch time peak hours of 12pm to 2pm since you will have to queue a long time for food and will have difficulty finding space to sit. My favourite food were the hamburgers from the Hamburgaria gourmet, as pictured above.
Some of you may enjoy the keynote conferences more than I do, and like I said they also had workshops and company talk sessions that were incredibly interesting and detailed. For those who have their own startups, there’s also pitch competition sessions everyday, so you can gain some insights on how to practice your pitching from these competitions.
Also from Monday to Wednesday, Web Summit hosted a Night Summit, where they coordinate with a certain nightlife district and encourage the attendees to go there for the night gathering. Basically it’s just a way for attendees to get together during the night and eat, mingle, drink, and drink alcohol, and have fun. I felt that the night summit was really fun and also a great way to meet people as well. And if it’s your first time in Lisbon, you get to really see the different facets of Lisbon’s nightlife. The first night was held at the waterfront harbour next to the event location, the second night was at Pink Street, and the third night was at LX Factory. Then on the fourth night, there were unofficial parties hosted by third parties that you can also attend as well.
Tips and Strategies
To really make the most out of the event, I suggest using their Web Summit app and start talking to attendees or investors, whoever is relevant for you, and see if they are interested in meeting up with you one or two weeks beforehand. I suggest meeting no longer than an hour, except of course if the conversation flows, just because there are so many things to do there. Prepare and plan beforehand.
For the four days you are at the exhibition, you are going to be incredibly busy and tired, especially if you also attend the night summit as well, so that means you will not have much time to explore Lisbon if it’s your first time there. I managed to fit in one tourist attraction every other day, and it wasn’t until Friday where I had the whole day to really see the city.
Of course, don’t be shy. If you’re there, you’re there to meet people so say hello and get their business cards or contact information.
If I had to pick between RISE and Web Summit based on just the attendance fees, I think I would have to pick RISE. Sure there’s less people and less startups, but the themes between the two exhibitions are so similar, and as I said that the keynote speeches are mainly motivational rather than substance, the value of RISE seems to be better than Web Summit. Web Summit is expensive because of its massive size and its long standing reputation, but I realise it doesn’t matter how many more keynote speeches there are compared to RISE, you simply do not have the time to attend all of them anyway. This is true even with RISE as well. And therefore, value wise, I would give RISE the nod.
Of course, this doesn’t include other factors like whether you are targeting European or Asian startups, or where you are currently based will affect the final cost after including flight and hotel fees.
As a sidenote, RISE 2020 is not happening in Hong Kong and will be postponed to RISE 2021 in March 2021.
That said, don’t let me stop you from attending Web Summit… I wouldn’t avoid it, but I wouldn’t go there just for the sake of going there. Also, Web Summit tends to have early bird deals and two for one deals so purchase early or otherwise those attendee tickets do get quite pricey, so do subscribe to their newsletter as they always have promo and partner deals. In general, I find exhibiting to be much better value than purely attending, as exhibiting usually grants you a couple of tickets, pretty much at the same cost as attending.