After sitting through too many poorly run panels, ambling around endless mediocre exhibition halls, and being given one too many lacklustre packed lunches, I’ve had enough with big startup events.

And I’m not the only one.

Big generic startup events — I’m looking at you, Startup Grind — need a shake up. What began, in the early days of Europe’s startup ecosystem, as one of the few ways to make connections and learn from others, has morphed into a self-serving, unimaginative industry whose only incentive seems to be to grow bigger and make more money.

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An all-male panel at Startup Grind Europe, held in London in June.

Nobody needs to go to big startup events anymore: no investors are seriously scouting for companies; no founders are serendipitously luring in a big client at a lonely booth with a small bowl of Haribo; and no insights are shared that can’t be heard or read elsewhere. But this — “Networking, Learning, Exposure” — is still what the events are selling.

And they’re not cheap. AI festival CogX costs £2,495 for a gold pass (although startup CEOs and students can get hold of free passes). Early-bird tickets for WebSummit in Lisbon are €495, while chairperson tickets are €24,995. Startup Elevate, held in London last week, was hawking its wares to startup founders for £995-£2,700. Startup Grind Europe approached Fahim Pour, cofounder of early-stage startup Pukket, to tell him his company had been shortlisted to exhibit — and then asked him to pay £995 to do so.

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Not, of course, that most people pay for their tickets; there are endless free passes to be won (if you’re looking in the right places). It’s mostly big companies, wealthy investors — and naive early-stage founders without the experience or connections to advise them otherwise — who cough up the cash for passes and stands.

So why does anyone go?

Investors want to be onstage. Startups want to get in front of potential clients, backers and employees. Big businesses have corporate development budgets to spend. And — fuelled by FOMO — most people aren’t questioning whether these events are really a good way to spend their time and/or money in order to build up some “brand equity”.

“The emperor’s not wearing any clothes and none of us want to admit it.” — Daisy Onubogu, Backed VC

“The emperor’s not wearing any clothes and none of us want to admit it — so meanwhile, we’re all still there,” says Daisy Onubogu, head of Backed VC’s scout network and formerly director of speakers at WebSummit.

Daisy Onubogu startup events Backed VC
Daisy Onubogu of Backed VC.

Many founders are, however, turning away from big events to focus on industry-specific events (where there is real value) or much more curated small meetups. “We now go to hardly any events as it is rare to get anything commercially useful,” says Naveed Parvez, chief executive of UK health startup Andiamo. “The biggest events such as WebSummit are a waste of time and money; they’re too big and definitely too commercial,’ says Marcus Jacobsson, cofounder of Swedish startup Tipser.

“At large scale events it’s so difficult to foster a deep connection [with investors] or even get them to pay attention to you,” says Elizabeth Akanbi-Ogabi, founder of content and event platform For Working Ladies. There’s far more value in intimate invite-only events, she adds.

The real power of mega conferences lies in the networks people already have. They can be a useful way for attendees to catch up with contacts who don’t live in the same city as them, for VCs to hobnob with other investors they’d like to do deals with, and for startups to set up meetings with clients which are already answering their emails.

It could be different. Sector agnostic events could become a powerful way for startups to partner with one another; for founders with great ideas but poor networks to make the connections that matter; and for investors to escape from their filter bubbles.

Sweden Demo Day
The Sweden Demo Day “unconference”.

The rise of the “unconference” — first in Silicon Valley, now in Europe — is a sign that many founders and investors are hungry for events whose organisers think hard about what is required to do this, rather than copying a tired template (flashy lights, enormous stages, famous names, fancy sponsored stands).

A little bit more innovation shouldn’t be too much to ask for, should it?

When it comes to startup events, bigger is not better; creating space for connections is what really counts.

 

This post first appeared in the Sifted newsletter. Sign up for more Monday morning columns here.

This article was amended on 3 July to reflect that fact that students, and startup CEOs (if recommended by CogX partners) can get hold of free passes for CogX. 

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Albert Rainies
Albert Rainies

I think Slush is one of the few bigger startup events that has been able to remain its core: startups and investors which are served with a lot of actually value-adding concepts.

Maija Palmer
Maija Palmer

What do you think Slush does that keeps it working well? Is it that they capped numbers (although it is still pretty big with 20,000+ attendees).

Dave Collins
Dave Collins

I couldn’t agree more with the tired and over-used format. I’ve been to *many* conferences over the years, and so many have been guilty of the panels (shudder), exhibition halls with bored underpaid staff who couldn’t care less, and those lunches… But I’m still a regular at the Business of Software conference – https://businessofsoftware.eu/ – who not only pull in phenomenal speakers, but also attendees I actually want to meet and spend time with. I don’t know what their formula is, but it might have something to do with not letting speakers pay their way onto the stage! Or maybe… Read more »

Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood

Yay us. Thank you Dave Collins. It’s great to be appreciated. It is harder to make money at lower scale as sponsors so often want raw numbers but we think the attendee experience is far higher and as we have a no quibble money back guarantee to attendees, we keep focused. 🙂 We also publish the talks online – they can be viewed free from the website but I don’t wish to infringe the community guidelines here.

Michael
Michael

For me the Tech Tour events in Europe are just what I need. Very targeted industry events with 100-150 people. And it has been that way as far as I can remember. Thank you Tech Tour!
Other events that I can think of are the meetings of the ECHAlliance. Regional community meetings. Again valuable.

Nikolay Mihaylov
Nikolay Mihaylov

Attending such events also means you’re not working with your customers on deals. The promise of new investors and clients if the event is not specific to your niche is always doubtful. That’s why I’m always asking if there is any success stories or showcases related to our region or industry.