Setting the record straight

Every startup starts small, determined to upset the status quo. At the beginning no one takes any notice. But if you build a product people want and like, chances are word will spread, and you’ll start to grow. As you gain more customers, people might return that call and incumbents will certainly begin to take notice.

I started Web Summit from a couch 5 years ago. It was born from my frustration as a startup attending conferences. I believed there was a different approach.

Instead of hiring event managers, we hired engineers and data scientists. We fixated on how data could fundamentally improve the efficiencies of human gatherings. We obsessed about lanyard design, queuing theory, crowd flow, wayfinding systems.

Web Summit started with just 400 attendees in Dublin. All Irish. Four years later 22,000 people flew from more than 100 countries to be there. Most people seemed to like what we were doing. Now attendees are flocking to our conferences in Europe, the US and Asia.

We’re still a bootstrapped startup and proud of it. Whatever we make gets reinvested into growing the team and improving our product. From a couch, we’ve moved through 3 offices in 3 years. There are now 140 of us in our Dublin headquarters. We’ve been joined by incredible engineers, data scientists and event producers from all over the world passionate about improving all forms of human gatherings. Our team includes people who’ve helped Apple, Google and Live Nation create incredible products. However, we still very much feel we’re just scratching the surface.

Some of the team at RISE,our first Asian event, in July
Some of the team at RISE, our first Asian event, in July.

But as we scratch the surface, and our conferences scale rapidly, incumbents are now very much taking notice.

If you’ve got a differentiated product that people seem to like, eventually and understandably, incumbents won’t like it. Some incumbents have decided to copy us. From Tokyo to Istanbul to Munich, we find folks who’ve cloned our entire website or elements of it, who’ve copied our stage design, mimicked our pub crawls or even replicated our custom designed booths.

Some incumbents have looked at our deeper approach using data, which Wired and VentureBeat have written about. They’re now doing what they can to apply computer vision to crowd movement, and recommender systems to table seating plans and everything in between.

This forces us to double down on what differentiated us in the first place. We had almost nothing going for us at the start, except a different way of organising conferences which we believed could deliver more value to most attendees. And if it did, word would spread.

Garden Party 2020
Our Garden Party last month at Web Summit HQ where we welcomed our 400 original Web Summit attendees

And as word has spread, some incumbents have gone on the marketing attack. This has happened particularly in the US where this year our Collision conference gathered 7,500 attendees in Downtown Las Vegas. Next April Collision will be held in New Orleans during the week of Jazz Fest.

Smart marketers don’t focus on the rival product as a whole. Observations out of context in particular can be powerful. People are busy and don’t have the time to really do their own due diligence on every product.

So some conference organisers, who have never attended our events, are somehow sure we run a giant scam, hoodwinking startups the world over. They set themselves up as saviours of the startup world. We call it “martyr marketing”. They claim that Web Summit charges startups $10k to meet angel investors. They also say we are a “pay to pitch” or “pay to be accepted” organisation.

None of this is true. What is true is that Web Summit is now the most influential gathering of startups in the global technology ecosystem. We don’t always get it right and when we look at what we have done in the past, we sometimes wince. But we care about getting it right and about giving startups the best experience we can.

What is also perhaps true is that, as we have grown, we could have done a better job at explaining our pricing and the value we deliver for startups. This may have allowed this FUD to gain more traction than it deserved to.

So let me have a go here:

Here are the basic prices for startups:

  • ALPHA (early stage) track: €1,950 – 4 tickets
  • BETA (have raised €1-3M or have a proven record of market traction) track : €2,950 – 4 tickets
  • START (raised more than €3M) track : €3,950 – 2 tickets, START Lounge, START/Speaker dinner

In other words, for early stage startups the cost per person is about €500. To be clear, these prices can vary a bit, depending on when you purchase. We have NEVER asked startups to pay €10k to meet angels. To be clear, Web Summit is a premium event and our prices are set to help us deliver the highest quality of attendee – which delivers the best experience for everyone.

This is the value you get if you are a startup at Web Summit and our sister events:

  • One exhibition stand for a day (larger stand for START)
  • Attendance for three days and four nights of Web Summit, with hundreds of top name speakers across multiple stages
  • Chance to apply for PITCH, our world-beating pitch competition. Startups cannot buy their way onto PITCH. We choose the 200 most promising companies for Web Summit, for example
  • Chance to meet investors and mentors at our “Office Hours” scheduled meetings
  • Access to hundreds of top media and investors during the event and at after-hours parties
  • Inclusion in our startup database which is circulated to media, investors, partners and speakers
  • Opportunity to take part in curated workshops with leading companies
  • Opportunity to take part in curated roundtables with top name speakers and partners

Here is how startups get into Web Summit:

1 They are asked to apply or apply on the website – which states there is a cost to attending
2 We screen them for suitability and state the €1,950 cost at the outset, including on the call
3 We invite them to purchase or we reject them.
4 They purchase the tickets.

For Web Summit 2015 we have rejected more than 1,000 startups that have spoken with us. In the last month alone.

Finally a word on pricing. Some say that our prices are high for early stage startups. In some cases this is true. We reject some startups because they are not ready for Web Summit. It is too early and they won’t get any value.

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.

And, of course, we will never make everybody happy. As a consumer your job is to make your own mind up. No matter what the product, even the best-selling product on Amazon, reviews will always be distributed. There is no purely five star product. Why? Because human experience is distributed. We don’t all think in exactly the same way. Combine these realities and you get distributed reviews and varying opinions.

So here’s my opinion. Web Summit is not a 5 star startup conference. I’d argue it’s a 4-4.5 star conference. And every day we work to make it better.

And what I want to say to those who feel able to criticise Web Summit with no experience of the event itself is this: Come along to Dublin (and next year to Lisbon). Or to New Orleans. Or to Hong Kong. See for yourself. Talk to lots of attendees and startups. Then write what you like. All 140 of us will be busy trying to improve the value we deliver to startups in every way possible.

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