"It's not a conference. It's a festival," Arabnet founder Omar Christidis corrected me when we discussed the Arabnet Digital Summit 2012. It also happens to be my favorite yearly pilgrimage, a spring trek to the Habtoor mountain of tech entrepreneurship.
Now in its third year, Beirut-based Arabnet has fully gotten its legs. Coming up in two weeks on the 27th-31st of March, the event is both more hands-on and diverse this year than it's ever been.
From its start in 2010, Arabnet has gathered together heavyweights and idea-stage entrepreneurs in the tech entrepreneurship scene, creating a cozy gathering focused around its two annual competitions, the Ideathon and Startup Demo.
Last year, Christidis, who runs the event through his family event business IBAG, worked hard to to eradicate dragging, soundbite-laden plenary sessions in favor of multiple sessions, developer workshops, and a public community day.
But this year, Arabnet seems to be fully graduating from cozy. As it launches a new five-day format including two Developer Days, an Industry Day, two Forum Days, and a Community Day, it stands not just to own the digital startup event space in the region, but to set a new bar for entrepreneurship events in the region.
It features more young breakouts. The event will position the leaders behind some of the year's biggest stories- LivingSocial, MarkaVIP, FlipMedia, and Peak Games- onstage alongside founders of companies that have recently launched or entered the region: GameTako, DIA-style.com, MobiBucks, Cleartrip, MumzWorld.com, LittleBits.
It's more accessible. The event has broken down attendance fees down by day. Developer days start at just $75 for students, and $100 for entrepreneurs. What does that buy? Access to Facebook's first ever developer event in the region (likely driven by a plan to expand after its upcoming IPO).
It's more diverse. This year the conference is not just focusing on mobile and web applications, but is taking a more comprehensive view on the role of tech in industries across the region.
Here's more on what's new this year:
1) Telecoms. The significant presence of several telecom companies means more potential content deals for startups, says Christidis. Any company producing content on the web could monetize through advertising, but a startup may not have the heavy traffic needed to drive large revenues. Creating a strategic content partnership with an telecom operator, on the other hand, can help startups scale quickly, he points out.
"As operators struggle with decreased SMS and voice revenue, and they're looking for new content," he says. One such telecom, that also has a venture capital fund, is Saudi Telecom Company (STC), which might be looking for startups to invest in.
2) Turkish companies. Both Turkish mobile solutions company Pozitron and Peak Games will be present, as well as MarkaVIP, which has received funding from Turkish serial entrepreneur Çağlar Erol. Peak Games's movement into the region, and recent acquisition of gaming platform Kammelna has signaled the growing trend of Turkish companies looking to expand into the Arab World. Turkey is turning its sights East, says Christidis, looking to the MENA region as a linguistically monolithic, underserved market that's easier to expand into than tackling the diverse markets of Europe.
3) Cutting edge trends in gaming and e-commerce. "These are two of the hottest sectors right now," says Christidis. By featuring startups like Saudi pioneer GameTako and At7addak, whose founder Brahms Chouity spoke to Wamda last year about his vision for a social gaming community, as well as more established players like Falafel Games, Arabnet 2012 is looking to expose new ways gamers can monetize their apps and potentially leverage the power of offline gaming. Major e-commerce players like LivingSocial and MarkaVIP as well as recently-launched DIA-style.com, MumzWorld.com, and Namshi will seed discussions about the future of e-commerce as well.
4) An overnight developer competition. Expanding the developer session from 1 to 2 days, Arabnet this year will feature a developer competition from 8pm to 8am, which is open to anyone who can crack an initial code puzzle. The goal is to showcase developer creativity, says Christidis. "This competition is not about building programs or startups- it's about allowing developers to showcase their skills and ability to do different tasks quickly, robustly, and creatively. In the end, the winner will be a Renaissance developer."
5) A focus on tech integration with other sectors. "We're seeing massive shifts in the banking, education, healthcare, and travel & tourism sectors lately," says Christidis. During the Industry Day, Arabnet will host specialized tracks for each sector, examining the technological needs and opportunities, from electronic medical records and mobile apps for medical care, to interactive educational portals, mobile banking apps and payment gateways, and use of social media in tourism.
6) Hands-on developer workshops. "Everyone should bring their laptops," says Christidis, if they want to partake in in-depth two-hour workshops lead by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Nokia, and other local companies, designed to train developers about specific subjects during the Developer Days. Again, Facebook's workshop will be its first developer event in the region.
7) A Barcamp. During the Community Day, Arabnet will host 40 minute workshops run by SMEX, AltCity, and local NGOs, that bring the community into the picture. . Future of Social Mobile, True community day. Trying out best.
8) A Case Study Competition. In addition to the Ideathon and Startup Demo competitions, the event will also be looking to support independent agencies and freelance creatives, by hosting a case study competition to highlight those that demonstrate an innovative use of technology and new media for a marketing goal.
Was that enough for you? If not, our Wamda team will also be there throughout the entire event to hear your story and interview you live in our booth, in partnership with Arabnet and Aramex.
See more details and register on the Arabnet Digital Summit 2012 website.