Web Summit Network

Engineering Serendipity Part 2: Understanding why you should and shouldn’t attend Web Summit

For 239 reviews of Web Summit see Twitter.

—— Introduction ——

About 30,000 people from 100+ countries will attend Web Summit this November. But Web Summit is not some sort of magic elixir for attendees. Attendance does not guarantee entrance into the pantheon of startup or business gods. If you’re considering attending you need to understand our approach, in particular why and how we use data and design to engineer serendipity.

Web Summit Speakers

—— Chapter 1 ——

Don’t judge a book by its cover

“Wait, let me get this straight: You want me to switch working in a particle accelerator and come work for a conference company in Ireland? I’m a physicist not an event manager, that makes no sense.” That physicist now works for us.

I started Web Summit five years ago. It came from my frustration as a startup founder attending conferences. I felt there was a different way to bring people together. That difference would use lots of software we’d build and then lots more graph data we’d analyse. It’s an approach that’s helped propel Web Summit from a tiny conference to the largest startup/tech gathering on the planet in just five years. It’s now a global crossroads for the world’s largest companies, the world’s newest companies and everyone in between.

We’ve now over 100 people working full time in Dublin, including some rare creatures who’ve left their jobs in universities, traditional software companies and research institutes around the world to join us. Including that physicist.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 12.45.26


—— Chapter 2 ——

The algorithms did it, Sir

Web Summit Attendee: “Who put me at this dinner table Paddy? I want to know.”

Me: “Are you unhappy?”

Web Summit Attendee: “Not at all. We’re all obsessed with Bitcoin. Who put us together?”

Me: “Algorithms. Algorithms put you together. If you really need to know, a guy called Modularity played a big role.”

Seating Assignments using Modularity
Seating Assignments using Modularity

It might sound odd, but Web Summit is run as a giant algorithmically-optimised dating festival.

In our view, as conferences scale, they become giant omnishambles. What use is a searchable or alphabetical attendee list when there are 3,000 other attendees, never mind 30,000? But it turns out you can go a long way to solving that problem, or hack conferences, if you just think about them in terms of momentary social graphs.

Many years ago, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter cut through the problem of prioritising and ordering from thousands of possible connections, friends or followers to suggest to you by using recommender systems. LinkedIn suggests similar profiles, Facebook suggests friends, and Twitter followers. They do this by analysing the network data inherent to their social graphs and personalising recommendations to you.

Twitter Recommender System

Ultimately what they do online, we do offline. The maths they use is neither proprietary, nor overly complex. Many people look at what we do and wonder how could a bunch of outsiders from Ireland grow conferences around the world faster than anyone else. The answer is pretty straightforward: a field in maths known as graph theory.


—— Chapter 3 ——

How do you win the startup lottery?

First, let’s be very clear: Web Summit is not some sort of magic elixir for attendees. Attendance does not guarantee entrance into the pantheon of startup or business gods. The chance of creating the next Uber and raising a funding round in a Dublin pub, is probably similar to winning the lottery.

To complicate matters further, over the years I’ve watched visionary entrepreneurs, who’ve already built billion dollar businesses, fail the second time round, despite an incredible team and a mesmerising roster of investors and advisors. On the other hand, I’ve watched 20-something year olds who haven’t a sense for design or code in their bodies build billion dollar startups, first time round.


—— Chapter 4 ——

So where does Web Summit come in?

Speakers at Web Summit

Let’s start with Y Combinator. Y Combinator is incredible in my view. It’s produced a staggering number of unicorns over its short history. Being part of Y Combinator increases your chance of winning the startup lottery by exposing you to incredible people and ideas. But it doesn’t guarantee you’ll win. After all, Y Combinator has produced more failed companies than unicorns, along with many middling successes.

Outcomes at Y Combinator are not binary, they are distributed. In other words, outcomes are neither universally good, nor are they universally bad for every startup in every YC class.

If you were to look at the shape of the distribution curve for success versus failure for Y Combinator startups versus startups in general, you could assume that being part of Y Combinator is on aggregate positively correlated with winning the startup lottery. In other words, it almost certainly increases your chances.

Web Summit is a different animal entirely to Y Combinator. We attempt to compress exposure to relevant ideas and relevant people into 3 days. Internally we think of Web Summit as an accelerated accelerator, a collision of 30,000 people from almost every country and industry on the planet.

We accelerate the probability of meeting people relevant to you and your business by applying graph/network analysis to engineer serendipity at the scale of 30,000 people over 3 days. In other words, we use maths to try and recommend who you should meet out of the 30,000 people in the room. Think of it this way: That pub crawl you find yourself on in Dublin isn’t a random collection of execs, entrepreneurs and investors, it’s machine curated.

Web Summit Pub Crawl

But, and this is important, similar to any product, experience is distributed at Web Summit, similar to Y Combinator.


—— Chapter 5 ——

Does every attendee achieve incredible outcomes by attending Web Summit?

No. The probability of incredible outcomes for attendees at Web Summit is distributed. 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.

Our focus every day for the last 5 years has been on improving outcomes for attendees by primarily attempting to engineer at scale who they meet and what ideas they’re exposed to. We’re getting better with every passing day at improving the relevancy of speakers and attendees, and the interactions they have, but we’re by no means perfect.

More broadly, we take a different view on software to most. We don’t believe there’s such a thing as a tech company anymore. There are just companies now.

Similarly, we believe as the costs of building software race ever faster and ever deeper into a bottomless pit of cheap, the opportunity for companies to bootstrap to global scale will accelerate. Perhaps, we’re just one among a growing army of bootstrapped startups.

In short, it’s important to keep the above in mind. But it’s also important that you’re aware of our broader approach to design and data to which we’ll now turn.


—— Chapter 6 ——

Wait, what do you do?

For the last 5 years, we’ve focused relentlessly on improving overall outcomes for startups, investors and general attendees, whether they be C-level execs from the world’s biggest companies or the founders of the world’s newest companies (see this year’s attendee list).


We’ve primarily focused on design and data to achieve this.

From a design point of view we obsess about the kerning, contrast ratios and typographic choices on our name badges and on our signage. We rely on research from the field of wayfinding for signage. We’ve applied research in anthropometrics to create custom length lanyards and even exhibition booths. We rely on years of research from the field of queuing theory to more optimally design how attendees queue at Web Summit, and so much more.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 12.48.37

In terms of data, one question we ask ourselves is: if you’re in a room with 30,000 other people, can Web Summit increase the probability that you’ll meet the most relevant 10 people to your business? The answer we believe is that you can, and that’s what we do. We’ve written about it, as have VentureBeat and Wired.

So for Web Summit, we focus first on getting the right 30,000 people across about 30 industries into about 30 rooms. After all, Web Summit is not a single gathering, but many gatherings within many gatherings: Code Summit; Data Summit; Sport Summit; Design Summit; Marketing Summit etc.

In the real world this means if you’re a startup and you’re exhibiting, then you’re assigned to a very specific area across our campus on a specific day. After that we get to work on recommending people to you. Hopefully you’ll have meetings set up with investors, media and potential customer before you arrive. If you’re an investor or top exec from a Fortune 500 company, your experience is different, but ultimately the same dynamics are at play.


A reminder: Our mobile app powers recommendations and is available from 5 days before Web Summit.


Engineering serendipity doesn’t just happen in advance of Web Summit or over our mobile app during, it happens all the way down to the pub crawl group you find yourself on or the dinner table you’re seated at on a particular evening.

The more data you share with us, the more active you are on our app and the more insights you provide us with, then the better your recommendations will become. It’s a collaborative effort.


—— Chapter 7 ——

So how do we know they’re getting better at what we do?

Aside from a huge acceleration in the number of customers we have, we survey relentlessly, across every attendee type. This means we survey before our conferences, during our conferences and after our conferences. We even embed GoPros in the ceilings at our conferences and use computer vision where human eyes might fail to spot congested areas or empty areas, and from there we take action.

But all of this does not mean for one moment that every attendee will have a life-changing experience at Web Summit. Some will, some won’t. The probability however that you will have an above average experience at Web Summit as compared to other events is, I believe, higher. And it’s that marginally better experience on aggregate that has driven our growth.


However, our focus has never been on growing the biggest startup/ tech conference in the world, but rather on optimising experience for individual attendees. That will remain our focus. Our team’s background is not in events, but instead in statistics, physics, maths, software, design and other related fields. We marry data and design in the real world. We’ve attracted former Googlers, folks from Apple, and some wonderful minds from research labs and particle accelerators from around the world to join us in Dublin. And hopefully we’re just getting started.


—— Chapter 8 ——

Hard Work

Finally, we work really hard to increase the probability that you’ll meet the right people and hear the right content at Web Summit.

Most likely as an attendee, be it a senior executive in a Fortune 500 company, an investor or a startup, you’ll also work incredibly hard to meet the right people and hear the right content at Web Summit.

Combined, our hard work and yours will on average pay off. That pattern over recent years for Web Summit attendees has I guess created a positive k-factor, which in turn has driven a large part of our growth.

Web Summit Stage

—— Conclusion ——

Make your own mind up

Your challenge as a Fortune 500 CEO, early stage startup, seasoned investor or the many other types of attendees that come to Web Summit is deciding whether we’re building something that on average delivers value. We’d argue that statistically you’re increasing the probability of success. And we also believe the growing army of tens of thousands of attendees at our conferences globally are voting with their feet. This year we’ll have more attendees across our conferences, than we had in all our previous years combined.

But we’ll never argue that success is guaranteed for our attendees at Web Summit, Collision, RISESURGE and the many other gatherings coming in 2016 and beyond.


Ps. If you’re interested in learning more, working with us or giving us feedback feel free to email me at paddy@websummit.net.

Pps. For 239 independent reviews of Web Summit go here.

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