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High hopes, dashed dreams, a dose of reality … and the elephant in the room

I spent two days at Web Summit 2023 and have sore feet and a head spinning to show for it. This is why.

Despite the controversy around this year’s event (more on that below), Web Summit 2023 boasted staggering numbers. According to a Web Summit press release:

  • 70,236 attendees from 153 countries
  • 2,608 startups exhibiting
  • 906 investors from 52 countries
  • 806 speakers from 50 countries
  • 2,129 media attendees from 69 countries
  • 321 partners, 32 trade delegations, 37 community partners
  • Floor space expanded to 215,000 square feet (the equivalent of 1,099 tennis courts)

And there was an elephant in the room.

Former CEO Paddy Cosgrave stepped down after several major companies and tech leaders pulled out of Web Summit over his Gaza comments on X a month before the event. He was replaced by Katherine Maher, former CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Undoubtedly, some of the star power had gone from this year’s Summit, and given the backlash, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the ground. The numbers above speak for themselves, but I wonder if the true test might be for future editions.

This is because the 2023 edition will have had significant momentum by the time the controversy erupted. It would have been harder to walk away for individuals and small businesses that had already committed significant funds to attend.

To their credit, the organisers did not avoid addressing the elephant in the room. At least one speaker was asked the question on the centre stage, while I was told new CEO Maher also addressed it in her opening remarks. I was in the air on my way to Lisbon when she spoke, but according to Reuters:

I think it’s important to say that I believe everyone, everywhere, has the right to express their views on what is happening in the world. But having a right to expression, and considering the weight of your words are two different things.

I should also mention the organising team. Events are stressful at the best of times, so the past month must’ve been tough on them. But if you blank out the controversy, you would not have thought they had severe last-minute challenges.

Sore feet and a spinning head:

Events of this magnitude are impressive, but the sheer scale of it is overwhelming despite the technology available to help you structure your time there. 

I reckon the experience will be better and more productive if you go as a group rather than an individual. It’s just “too much” for one person to take in; having people to share it with always makes an experience better.

Speaker programme-wise, I wasn’t blown away by the sessions I attended. But it was not that they were disappointing. And, to be fair, that take-out is based on my specific personal interests. I probably also made a few wrong choices regarding the sessions I attended. Too much choice does that!

On the expo side, the organising team puts on events of this magnitude year in and out, so they will have a trove of data to support how they organise the expo pavilions. 

For me, however, it would have made more sense if the exhibitions were more granular along the lines of specific industry sectors in the same way speaker stages were set up. It might be interesting to talk about heavy engineering with a hydrogen startup, but it is not very productive if you are a B2B startup for the media industry! 

There were relevant exhibitors, of course, and technology helped identify some, but I am sure I missed out on several good (and surprising!) conversations walking through the pavilion overload.

High hopes, dashed dreams

As you walk through the expo area or watch startup pitch sessions, anticipation and hope are palpable. It’s a good vibe.

But the cynic in me couldn’t help wondering, for every dream that materialises here, how many are dashed?

It’s, of course, not as clear-cut as this, but the average for startup success is something like 1/10. So, if you take the number of startups exhibiting at Web Summit (2,608), it means more or less:

  • Dreams materialised: 261
  • Dreams dashed: 2,347

We are a startup in our own right, though. You have to try.

The glass is never less than half full.

And every experience a lesson.

A touch of reality

Launched in 2009 after the financial crisis, Web Summit has thrived largely in a VC bull market flush with funds and a looser set of expectations on timelines to profitability.

Today’s climate is different. As a few speakers said, while funding is available for promising startups, it demands more effort and expectations have evolved. It will differ from sector to sector, but, generally, founders must think beyond growth-over-profit as the central angle for their pitches.

In conclusion

Web Summit offers a wide-ranging overview of various topical areas, making it useful for gaining a broad perspective across multiple themes from a general/media attendee point of view.

For those seeking to go narrow and deep on a particular industry topic and connect with like-minded folk wanting to do the same, more concentrated events offer value in another way. It’s less hard work, with the organisers of such events having already done a significant job on the curation side for you! (Full disclosure: That would be us at Mx3).

Ultimately, it’s not a case of either/or, but rather different objectives and the ROI you desire from the events you attend.

Mix and match.