When I received a press invitation to one of Europe’s hottest tech conferences, Web Summit, I jumped at the opportunity to check it out.
The Web Summit team made a very public, and fairly successful, effort to attract startups and attendees from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia; they brought over 80 attendees from these regions and 9 startups from Egypt alone. With ticket prices of 700 Euro and up (about US $1000), plus travel expenses, I was especially interested to see whether my fellow North African attendees got their money's worth.
Before revealing their verdict, let’s first take a look at the conference itself, which took place on October 30-31, in Dublin Ireland. The two words that best encapsulate my experience are ‘energy’ and ‘buzz.’ There were hundreds of companies exhibiting for over 10,000 attendees, four times the number from last year, and twenty times the number from the first event just a few years ago. The rapid year on year growth of the event is impressive.
Bigger is better
But what was perhaps more impressive was how the conference was able to keep all 10,000 attendees engaged. There were multiple pitching stages and workshops running simultaneously, speed-networking sessions, media events, speeches and panels throughout the conference. Factoring in the food and after-hour parties, the organizers made sure all those attending had something to do from the moment they woke up until bedtime.
During the event proper there was a varied selection of workshops to choose from; most panel discussions were also engaging and varied. Although there were many great speeches, the highlights were definitely from tech blogger Robert Scoble, Mind Candy founder Michael Acton Smith, and 500 Startups founder Dave McClure (who came on stage wearing flip-flops). The best entrance was definitely from entrepreneur legend Elon Musk who drove into the arena with the rest of the panel in his famous Tesla. What stood out about these speakers, other than their status, was their humility, offering a lesson for some in the region’s "egosystem": achievers don't need to brag.
In the mix
The main hall contained a mix of multinationals and NGOs with large stands lining the center space and more established startups sharing stands at the back. I spent most of my time among the early stage startups in the “Alpha Village.” This area was like a beehive; every startup had toughly one meter of space, and everyone had to hustle to stand-out.
This is where all of the startups from our region exhibited: from Egypt I chatted with Eventtus, Naqeshny, F16Apps, Advan Tag, Josoor, Skills Academy, Webkeyz, Arab Hardware, and Sirkil; from Morocco I spoke with MySportner, VIP-Only, and Maroc Annonces; I also connected with Insidify from Nigeria and Get Guidance from South Africa.
The responses to the event were certainly varied. "It's been a great experience," MySportner CEO Kenza Bennani told me, "I've made some great business connections." This view was echoed by Skills Academy founder Bassem Fayek who also found a few possible clients. Others however weren't so positive.
Some complained about how difficult it was to find specific stands as there was no directory. A few also complained that the event didn’t live up to their expectations, especially in the investors department. VIP-Only CEO Mohamed Amar noted, "I came because they promised investors interested in our region, but when they finally sent the investor list, later than promised, Francophone investors were few, this trip will not bring a ROI (Return On Investment)."
Insidify CEO Emmanuel Okeleji spoke of a similar frustration, "a few investors have come by and been interested by the company, but as soon as they saw that we're based in Nigeria they shied away." Arab Hardware media manager Kareem Mazhar took a more direct route and simply scribbled on this sign that they were looking for investors, as you can in the photo below:
It was a worthwhile experience, for me at least, and I'd love to return next year. For a regional startup however, the overall consensus was that, although they enjoyed themselves tremendously, from a purely financial perspective, there wasn't enough return on investment.
This is the first year Web Summit has actively sought to include startups from the Arab world. With more regional startups expanding into Europe, if they want more to come next year, the Web Summit would do well to offer more regionally relevant focus.