Running from one European tech conference to the next has the unfortunate side effect that everything tends to become a blur. At events, ranging from small meet-ups to large summits, forums and festivals (the term ‘conference’ has definitely fallen out of fashion), I would meet with startup founders, investors, policymakers and other industry stakeholders, never quite certain where and when exactly I met them if run into them a second time.
And yet, I find it important to attend and occasionally speak at events that have a crucial role in developing a local ecosystem, whether it is a regional or a national one.
Over the years, I’ve stopped attending most sessions from other speakers and panels at conferences, and rarely sit through hours of startup pitching competitions anymore. Not that I no longer enjoy it, mind you, quite the opposite actually, but because in my mind tech.eu’s mission is to find out where the European technology industry is heading and passing on that knowledge to others in various ways. And that means spending time meeting people one-to-one is often better spent than sitting in an audience in a dimly lit auditorium.
As much as I’m fascinated by, say, blockchain technology, I will gladly skip a presentation by the president of the Bitcoin Foundation in favour of talking to a first-time founder of an early-stage startup or a local investor with a seed fund the size of a Silicon Valley VC’s annual management fee. To truly understand the European tech ecosystem(s), and to be able to compare local hubs with one another in terms of maturity and future potential, it’s simply much more worth my ever-limited time learning from those people which opportunities they perceive and experience in the places they live and work, and what the main challenges are.
It may be trendy to attract celebrities like Kevin Spacey (who opened last year’s Bits & Pretzels in Munich) or the likes of Usher and Pharrell Williams (who both attended/spoke at Brilliant Minds in Stockholm recently) - and this is not criticism; I can certainly see why it’s appealing and commercially sensible for organisers to put them on a stage - it’s definitely not helping tech.eu and our audience for me personally to see or meet with those headliners.
Bringing me to my point that, with events like TNW Conference, Web Summit, Slush, Pioneers and 4YFN growing bigger (and, in my opinion, more unwieldy) every year, the risk of only attending those would be to lose sight of what’s really happening ‘on the ground’. Hence why it matters to me to also attend events like TechChill in Riga, LevelUp in Belgium, infoShare in Gdansk and DigitalK in Sofia, just to name a few.
Earlier this month, I spent a few days in Bulgaria’s capital for the latter event, and I was struck once again how important such events are for the region and how much more helpful they are for me to grasp what makes smaller European tech hubs tick - but also how difficult it still is for those smaller conferences to attract a wide range of top-notch speakers, high-potential startups and international investors. And yet, all of the above would be wise to not only seek out massive events to find interesting opportunities or explore business deals.
DigitalK stood out in terms of production value (those screens!) and networking opportunities, and I’m confident its best years are still ahead - much like central Eastern Europe which is where the conference’s influence shines. For that, the event doesn’t need to get bigger; its organisers rather need to double down on finding ways to connect local with international stars, to put it probably far too simply.
In the past week, I travelled to London to find out who got the awards at The Europas, and who was invited to rub shoulders with famous tech celebs, royalty and current and former British politicians at the impressive and expertly curated Founders Forum. But next week, I’ll also be heading to Luxembourg to learn more about the startup ecosystem in the capital city of one of Europe’s smallest countries, by talking to local entrepreneurs most of you (and I) have never heard of. And I’m genuinely equally excited about that too.