This event had no speakers, no fancy stalls and no organised schedule. It was in no way an easy event for a tech journalist to cover, but for early-stage startups this “unconference” was perhaps the perfect forum.
On Thursday at Stockholmsmässan, the biggest conference hall in Stockholm, the format of the event was that chunky pillars added to the room got covered with large pieces of brown paper.
Kindergarten application, smart coding, employer branding, market places for anything, lego housing, plastic catchers and AI-powered medical devices against sleep apnea — whatever you were into — there was a company doing it.
We had speakers for two years running before we realised it was completely pointless. The people did not attend to listen to speakers but to talk to each other.
Martina Klingvall Nordström was there for the second year running. Last year she didn’t exhibit her startup but this year she and her colleague had done their best to show off their mobile operator company Telness.
“It is nice that they have a thing about the brown paper. We don’t attend events if we need to have a proper stand and invest lots of money to be next to Klarna”, she says laughing. “That just makes you feel a bit stupid and it’s not the right prioritisation.”
An “unconference” is trying to be the opposite of a conference. Its content is not organised by leaders but by the attendees. There are no planned panels but the attendees can shape their own round table discussions.
Instead of participants being passive spectators, unconferences are designed so people can come up with new ideas, try out ideas on others and share experiences.
“This is about tearing down boundaries for meetings between people”, says Johan Jörgensen, who started the event in Stockholm in 2010.
Unconferences are not (yet) as big within the startup sector as one might imagine.
Most conferences are more or less based on having well-known speakers, founders and experts to tell the audience the lessons learned from building their unicorns or how to really build that success that so many dream of.
The reason early-stage startups attend these events is most often to network.
Free to attend - free to exhibit
This Sweden Demo Day in Stockholmsmässan is completely free to attend and exhibit at, regardless of whether you are a startup, an investor or just a random person wanting to hang around. When it first kicked off in a basement in central Stockholm in 2010, the goal was to create a meeting place between startups and investors.
“That was the starting signal for this kind of unconferencing event where people did not have to plan months ahead,” says Jörgensen. “If you are an entrepreneur you may not even have a company but just a crazy idea that you want to share, then you definitely cannot have a stand at a serious event.”
Jörgensen says that “unconference” format has been around for a long time, only not in the Nordic startup world. “The question for us was how to do an unconference in this context,” he says.
Unconferences are mostly used for slightly smaller crowds to make networking more like collaboration. In San Francisco, the model has been used by the Lean Startup movement when organising meetings with 50 – 100 people.
According to Tillväxtverket, one of the government agencies responsible for this year’s Sweden Demo Day in Stockholm, the event had about 500 exhibiting startups on the day and more than 2,000 attendees, many of them investors.
Apart from investors from British venture capital firm Blossom Capital, Swedish Luminar Ventures and Wellstreet there are many angel investors. Neil Murray, who recently raised his second fund from the likes of Atomico’s Niklas Zennström and Sophia Bendz, was also there.
“This is my first time here. I like this kind of events for what happens on the fringes but they are also good because it brings all the people together,” he says.
There is a really cool environment to see how different technologies are being used.
Jörgensen says that the event actually used to have speakers.
“We had speakers for two years running before we realised it was completely pointless. The people did not attend to listen to speakers but to talk to each other. Speakers don’t make the conference. There may be one or two who you want to listen to, but most of the others you have already heard or know.”
There is, however, a pitching stage where about 100 startups have been scheduled to pitch. Anna Norrevik, the chief executive of the games company Antler Interactive (formerly known as Svrvive), used her one minute to focus on the company’s augmented reality games.
“It was a great investor jury, so good to get up there and talk about what we do,” Norrevik said afterward.
Antler Interactive was one of very few games companies that attended.
If games were unpopular among the startups exhibiting, security was not. Among the companies, the cybersecurity company Baffin Bay stood out from the crowd and not because of the blue balloons but because the company has the Swedish based venture capital firm EQT Ventures as backers since Baffin Bay raised $6.4m last year.
“We are looking at financing our series B-round and there are a lot of investors here that like to talk to us,” says James Tucker, director of system engineering at Baffin Bay. “And also we have a lot of potential customers here. There is also a really cool environment to see how different technologies are being used.”
If you are an entrepreneur you may not even have a company but just a crazy idea that you want to share, then you definitely cannot have a stand at a serious event.
For Tucker, who exhibited at Sweden Demo Day for the second year running, it was an enjoyable event.
“The brown paper thing is fun. We are standing here and laughing and having a good time as opposed to some of the other events where you put up your roller banner and you drink coffee and you just wait for people to come by. This is a more active event.”