Web Summit have recently discovered the wrath of the Irish after announcing that, from 2016, they’ll be moving the event to Lisbon, Portugal.

Although a number of reasons for the move have been given, such as “more room for expansion”, it’s clear that financials were the main driver behind the decision. In many ways, this is understandable, after all, Web Summit is a business, and it needs to make business decisions. Understandably however it has left a bad taste in the mouth with many in Ireland, as it had become an integral part of Ireland’s startup community.

Update: Is Web Summit a scam? Well, if you have to ask …

At this point I should fully disclose that I have never actually been to Web Summit, various circumstances have prevented me from going, including my girlfriend’s appendix bursting two hours before I was due to get on the plane a couple of years ago, and now it looks like that will be the closest I ever get, as I have taken the decision to never go to Web Summit.

In Dublin, Lisbon or anywhere else.

No, I’m not secretly half-Irish with a grudge to bear over the recent move, however the underlying motives that played a part in that decision, do play a part in mine.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe startup events should be beneficial to startups, and that their primary goal should be to deliver a valuable experience to the young companies that attend the event. As the event has grown bigger and bigger over the last couple of years, it has been more difficult for the Web Summit to deliver value to the attending startups – so I’ve been told by many of them – and it appears they’ve almost become an afterthought to the glitz and glamour, and the desire to make money.

Web Summit first entered my bad books a couple of years ago, when I became sick to death of their spam. Because that’s what it is, spam. Pretty much daily emails selling tickets to an event. While on one hand you have to secretly admire their aggressive marketing strategy, on the other, it’s incredibly annoying and intrusive.

If I had a problem with their marketing tactics, it was about to get even bigger, as I came across a Facebook advert from Web Summit which contained a flat out lie:

This was right at the beginning of the year, when tickets first opened up for Rise Conference, Web Summit’s new event that took place in Hong Kong in May of this year. Now, I’ve been a part of Denmark’s start-up scene, and I could tell you without a shadow of a doubt that there is no way that over 200 people from Denmark had signed up for a 2 for 1 discount code for a new event taking place in Hong Kong, which with the 2 for 1 in fact indicates that over 400 people were looking to go! I was surprised, and still am, that companies can get away with false advertising in this manner.

In fairness, the CEO of Web Summit Paddy Cosgrave did reply to this tweet (although I had difficulty finding his reply, not sure if it was deleted?) pointing out that it was for a code and not a a ticket, but when I pointed out that this was still not true in my opinion, he said that he personally doesn’t know anything about this particular ad but he has to have trust in his marketing team.

I’m not sure whether it was due to me calling them out on it, or another reason, but a couple of days later the number had halved and the advert ran as over 100 people from Denmark had signed up, which rather than fixing the issue, just proved I was right in the first place.

Despite my problem with their ethics around marketing, I was still considering going this year, but at the start of this week I had my decision made for me.

Jason Calacanis, an entrepreneur and angel investor in the US revealed that he had had several founders emailing him telling him that Web Summit were offering them a package worth $10,000 to meet with angels at the Web Summit this year.

This is where I have my biggest problem with Web Summit: startups should not be where you make your money from at an event. This is harmful to them, and to the wider community. I understand that an event needs to make money, but get that from sponsorships and ticket sales; do not milk the start-ups. By tapping in to the naivety and desperation that can come from raising money for founders, you are becoming a toxic part of the ecosystem, one that puts its own interests first before those of the wider community. And for those startups reading this that have had such an offer:

The most telling part of all of this, is that not one person has come out of the woodwork to defend Web Summit, saying that it’s worth the money or it’s a great event. Not one. Although it should be noted that several said that the price was much lower than this (around $2,000-3000, which is still WAY too high in my opinion) and that this $10,000 offer could be some ‘special package’.

However, several did speak out about concerning offers they’d been made by the Web Summit as well:

By using words like ‘invite’ and ‘won’ Web Summit are using manipulative language to make startups feel special and important, something that all young companies want to feel. In reality, you are just being sold to, in fact, I’d go as far as saying you are being scammed.

Calacanis – who’s been fighting these practices for years – made a good analogy:

Then there was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me:

Suddenly it dawned on me that, as a journalist, I could go for free and even have my costs covered. Normally, I have no problem with this, and I regularly attend events in this manner. However, I can not go to an event where the startups are covering the cost of me being there, as the reason why I write about this industry is because I care about it, not because I need a pay-packet. My opinion is that other players who sit on the fringes of the community – journalists, event organisers etc; – should also have this approach; otherwise we will end up destroying it from the inside. I can not be complicit in an event which preys on startups to make money, so I will not attend while it remains this way.

I have no grudge to bear, I have nothing against Paddy Cosgrave, in fact my dealings with him via Twitter gave me the impression that he was a nice bloke. In fact, I hope that he and Web Summit can prove me wrong and they realise that they’ve not just lost touch with the Irish startup scene, but also increasingly with the wider startup community. Changing location might help with the cash flow, but it won’t help with that.

Update: Web Summit has responded to our post, and we’ve responded to theirs.

Featured image credit: Dan Taylor (Heisenberg Media) / Flickr

  • For a long time already I don’t do a startup booth on events any more. Startup Alleys—a zoo for visitors with no any real value for startups. The only way to do it is if a conference covers at least travel expenses—startups are entertaining animals for the guests. And free tickets + startup booth are a must.

    Yes, they have to carefully select startups that would make conference look good —after all this is the primary driver of a conference founders after making money—and provide these startups with everything for free. Not to mention covering at least some expenses connected with the trip. Basically, startups waste their time and money on conferences.

    There is no real value for startups as to fundraising or PR. A startup could get PR only if get on the main stage at least.

  • Martin Skakala

    Reminds me when Uber got to my city a month ago (Bratislava) – the equilibrium is changing towards a consumer. The similarity I see with the startup events. Do not get me wrong but the Irish hospitality was amazing in Dublin in 2014, and it was great that almost “everyone was there”. However as I speak to lots of startups they either boycott these large events or chose much smaller startup events or industry specific events. With the exception of first timers.. Or the best founders focus on product & sales only.

    The other thing I found out attending Pioneers Festival, PathFounders, LeWeb or TC Disrupt is startup founders benefit from meeting other startup founders (who been there, done that) topped with network tables with industry pros & investors.

    So far the least appealing event for me personally was Collision Vegas (with exception of Techstars & Mike Suster’s workshops) and the best one was PathFounders in London (founders only). However different people different tastes.

  • We’re learning more about what is important to startups, and recognise that increasingly they’re the ‘product’ of an event – as such at the 2016 Fintech Finals in Hong Kong in January (fintechfinals.com) we offer them free booths, and for many a pitch on stage as part of a competition. We’re also seeing if we can help subsidise their travel as well. And we’ll never stop supporting them. Rob.

  • I was invited to cover the Rise event in Hong Kong and pay for my own expense (including travel from India). They made me feel as if I’ve been shortlisted to cover the event. Of course, I didn’t go.

    BTW, I might never come back to this site, 50% space blocked by ads and navigation (check screenshot), seriously?!?

  • I also applied as a startup. At https://websummit.net/startups/alpha, I read that “Each week we’re selecting 25 early stage startups from around the world to exhibit for free as part of our Alpha Program.”. I went through a brief interview, got an acceptance e-mail a few days later, which claimed I need to buy 4 tickets for 2k EUR (and was suggested to try offloading some of them to other people to recover some of the costs). I’ve never been to the event and I’m sure it’s awesome, but that’s just a lot of cash for a bootstrapping startup (it was my understanding that the 2k deal is a promo for early stage, non-funded companies).

  • Rob T

    not a bad article but WTF 1/3 of the screen of the dedicated to ads.
    AND even better an off-topic accelerator CEE program (i’m based in the UK)

    won’t be coming back until resolved

    • Sorry, we’re looking into how we can improve it, first leaderboard we’ve run so far :)

      • Super annoying… I just installed adblock plus because of it :-/

    • RichTrustFundKid

      I applied to WebSummit and it DEF is a SCAM! So as a startup you get an opportunity to win discounted booth pricing (1600). To win the discounted booth pricing you must have a skype call and pitch your idea to someone affiliated with the company. About an hour before I was scheduled to pitch on skype I canceled the meeting. It just didn’t feel right and I have not launched the app yet..(Very soon). I forgot about it until 2 days later I received an email saying I WON/got chosen for the discounted booths. Mind you I canceled my pitch and websummit has NO idea what my startup is…. The email also put an expiration date of the discounted booth offer trying to get me to sign up right away. I got 2 more generic emails from Paddy and finally a 3rd one that looked like he actually wrote, “Are you coming?”.. I did not answer. My opinion and truth: SCAM

  • VivaChe

    They are coming to India with Surge Conference and the tactics are the same ! Price they’ve set for the tickets is ridiculously high ! A startup in India can attend all the events happening in India with that kind of Money…

  • Mike Harvey

    Setting the record straight – Paddy Cosgrave.

    http://blog.websummit.net/web-summit-scam-setting-record-straight/

    Every startup starts small, determined to upset the status quo. At the beginning no one takes any notice. But if you build a product people want and like, chances are word will spread, and you’ll start to grow. As you gain more customers, people might return that call and incumbents will certainly begin to take notice.

    I started Web Summit from a couch 5 years ago. It was born from my frustration as a startup attending conferences. I believed there was a different approach.

    Instead of hiring event managers, we hired engineers and data scientists. We fixated on how data could fundamentally improve the efficiencies of human gatherings. We obsessed about lanyard design, queuing theory, crowd flow, wayfinding systems.

    Web Summit started with just 400 attendees in Dublin. All Irish. Four years later 22,000 people flew from more than 100 countries to be there. Most people seemed to like what we were doing. Now attendees are flocking to our conferences in Europe, the US and Asia.

    We’re still a bootstrapped startup and proud of it. Whatever we make gets reinvested into growing the team and improving our product. From a couch, we’ve moved through 3 offices in 3 years. There are now 140 of us in our Dublin headquarters. We’ve been joined by incredible engineers, data scientists and event producers from all over the world passionate about improving all forms of human gatherings. Our team includes people who’ve helped Apple, Google and Live Nation create incredible products. However, we still very much feel we’re just scratching the surface.

    But as we scratch the surface, and our conferences scale rapidly, incumbents are now very much taking notice.

    If you’ve got a differentiated product that people seem to like, eventually and understandably, incumbents won’t like it. Some incumbents have decided to copy us. From Tokyo to Istanbul to Munich, we find folks who’ve cloned our entire website or elements of it, who’ve copied our stage design, mimicked our pub crawls or even replicated our custom designed booths.

    Some incumbents have looked at our deeper approach using data, which Wired andVentureBeat have written about. They’re now doing what they can to apply computer vision to crowd movement, and recommender systems to table seating plans and everything in between.

    This forces us to double down on what differentiated us in the first place. We had almost nothing going for us at the start, except a different way of organising conferences which we believed could deliver more value to most attendees. And if it did, word would spread.

    Our Garden Party last month at Web Summit HQ where we welcomed our 400 original Web Summit attendees

    And as word has spread, some incumbents have gone on the marketing attack. This has happened particularly in the US where this year our Collision conference gathered 7,500 attendees in Downtown Las Vegas. Next April Collision will be held in New Orleans during the week of Jazz Fest.

    Smart marketers don’t focus on the rival product as a whole. Observations out of context in particular can be powerful. People are busy and don’t have the time to really do their own due diligence on every product.

    So some conference organisers, who have never attended our events, are somehow sure we run a giant scam, hoodwinking startups the world over. They set themselves up as saviours of the startup world. We call it “martyr marketing”. They claim that Web Summit charges startups $10k to meet angel investors. They also say we are a “pay to pitch” or “pay to be accepted” organisation.

    None of this is true. What is true is that Web Summit is now the most influential gathering of startups in the global technology ecosystem. We don’t always get it right and when we look at what we have done in the past, we sometimes wince. But we care about getting it right and about giving startups the best experience we can.

    What is also perhaps true is that, as we have grown, we could have done a better job at explaining our pricing and the value we deliver for startups. This may have allowed this FUD to gain more traction than it deserved to.

    So let me have a go here:

    Here are the basic prices for startups:

    ALPHA (early stage) track: €1,950 – 4 tickets

    BETA (have raised €1-3M or have a proven record of market traction) track : €2,950 – 4 tickets

    START (raised more than €3M) track : €3,950 – 2 tickets, START Lounge, START/Speaker dinner

    In other words, for early stage startups the cost per person is about €500. To be clear, these prices can vary a bit, depending on when you purchase. We have NEVER asked startups to pay €10k to meet angels. To be clear, Web Summit is a premium event and our price are set to help us deliver the highest quality of attendee – which delivers the best experience for everyone.

    This is the value you get if you are a startup at Web Summit and our sister events:

    One exhibition stand for a day (larger stand for START)

    Attendance for three days and four nights of Web Summit, with hundreds of top name speakers across multiple stages

    Chance to apply for PITCH, our world-beating pitch competition. Startups cannot buy their way onto PITCH. We choose the 200 most promising companies for Web Summit, for example

    Chance to meet investors and mentors at our “Office Hours” scheduled meetings

    Access to hundreds of top media and investors during the event and at after-hours parties

    Inclusion in our startup database which is circulated to media, investors, partners and speakers

    Opportunity to take part in curated workshops with leading companies

    Opportunity to take part in curated roundtables with top name speakers and partners

    Here is how startups get into Web Summit:

    1 They are asked to apply or apply on the website – which states there is a cost to attending
    2 We screen them for suitability and state the €1,950 cost at the outset, including on the call
    3 We invite them to purchase or we reject them.
    4 They purchase the tickets.

    For Web Summit 2015 we have rejected more than 1,000 startups that have spoken with us. In the last month alone.

    Finally a word on pricing. Some say that our prices are high for early stage startups. In some cases this is true. We reject some startups because they are not ready for Web Summit. It is too early and they won’t get any value.

    Because what matters is not absolute price, but value. Do startups get €1,950 worth of value out of Web Summit? The evidence of our growth, repeat attendees and our relentless polling seems to suggest that, generally, they do.

    And, of course, we will never make everybody happy. As a consumer your job is to make your own mind up. No matter what the product, even the best-selling product on Amazon, reviews will always be distributed. There is no purely five star product. Why? Because human experience is distributed. We don’t all think in exactly the same way. Combine these realities and you get distributed reviews and varying opinions.

    So here’s my opinion. Web Summit is not a 5 star startup conference. I’d argue it’s a 4-4.5 star conference. And every day we work to make it better.

    And what I want to say to those who feel able to criticise Web Summit with no experience of the event itself is this: Come along to Dublin (and next year to Lisbon). Or to New Orleans. Or to Hong Kong. See for yourself. Talk to lots of attendees and startups. Then write what you like. All 140 of us will be busy trying to improve the value we deliver to startups in every way possible.

    • Lenny Teytelman

      This post addresses NONE of the problems that this article identified. Worse, none of the the damning issues in the comments here and in the followup post are addressed (http://tech.eu/features/6244/web-summit-scam-well-ask/#comment-2285724603). My conclusion – you don’t address the problems because you know you are a scam and you have no answer to the founders you are scamming.

  • Jason Popa

    Had a friend with a similar experience at Next Gen Summit (http://ngsummit.com/). Attendees were friendly but organizers were predators: cost $599 to attend and founders made conflicting claims of anywhere between 1M to 20M in investment raised but no evidence of actual funding rounds. The company that put it on, INC.UBATOR (inc-ubator.co), is entirely fake.

  • Roxane Jurkovskaja

    .. oh dear. So spot on. Same stuff is happening in MENA. Also I really don’t get this whole quantity over quality glorification… they don’t even have the amount of people that they are advertising. I recently attended RiseUP and NO WAY they had 4000+. I think it was really good exactly because they didnt have 4000.. because you could actually meet with relevant people instead of this runaround madness…

  • Joseph Alexander

    Instead of hiring event managers, we hired engineers and data scientists. We fixated on how data could fundamentally improve the efficiencies of human gatherings. Snapback Caps

  • Gonçalo Farinha

    €50 discount code: WSSPR4169f