Surveying today’s European tech ecosystem conference landscape is an exercise in exclusion. With a calendar that sees not enough room to swing a cat, the question is no longer which ones to go to, but rather, which ones are you going to let slide?
Rewind 12 years ago, and the case wasn’t so. Sure, the odd, and/or, one-off startup/founders-focused event or two would certainly go down, but nowhere at the frequency and somewhat overly polished stadium-sized “fireside chats” we’re accustomed to today. Alas, me hearties, a dream to some, a walk of the plank to others.
Many have come and gone, some have grown, some have been acquired, but one event, in particular, has stayed the course.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Pirate Summit is an annual gathering of scruffy-lookin’ nerf herders (many in full pirate garb, I might add). A gathering of those who descend upon an art-house cum scrapyard cum main stage interrupted by the odd passing train cum … whatever you want Odonien to be, it is … to loudly and proudly sound their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. A time to live, a time to laugh, a time to cry, and a time to fly.
Later this month, we’ll see Pirate Summit hoist its sails. For the 11th, and last, time.
The driving force, or hobbyist as he likes to call it, behind Pirate Summit, Manuel Koelman let it be known that this would, without a doubt, be the very last time the event would take place. At least under his leadership and in its current format.
I sat down with Manuel to discuss the past, present, and future of the Arrrr, and why the time to scuttle the ship has arrived.
“It’s quite simple for me - I have other things on my mind than running a startup event all my life, and really, I want to spend more time with my kids,” explained Koelman. “50% of the time I am a single dad. My biggest responsibility is towards my kids.”
Now before any eyes start to roll, yes, the clichéd “according to sources close to the matter, (insert scandal headline subject here) is resigning in order to spend more time with his family”, is more often than not a smokescreen for something else, after having known Koelman for close to a decade now, and attended 7 Pirate Summits, I can confirm - no matter how busy he was that day, his kids were always there, either running around with sheer delight or asking dad for a hot dog. Every. Single. Time.
Lots of treasure, no coins.
“Back in 2010, the idea was to create something that we would want to attend. I don’t necessarily have to attend every startup event anymore. What I wanted to do was to pass it on, to find a successor, but that never happened, mostly because I ran Pirate Summit more as a hobby, donating my time to it, and it was really not financially stable enough to give it to somebody else.”
Koelman confirmed that the 10 previous editions of Pirate Summit remained in the black, but where the longevity of the business never took root was in financing staff members throughout the year. A small but dedicated team that could stoke the flames in the boiler room and act as a living breathing knowledgebase when it came to all things Pirate.
No passion, no action.
As an organisation, Pirate did seek ways to keep the engine room warm, as noted by the side event series EXEC, as well as the now legendary OMClub events which often acted as the unofficial opening party for Cologne’s dmexco conference.
“We did the other events, not because we were passionate about them, but because we needed to get some other revenue streams flowing in the door,” said Koelman. “Essentially they didn’t really work because we just weren’t passionate about them. The passion was always the Pirate Summit business.”
"It's better to be a pirate than join the navy."
This now iconic message sent from Steve Jobs to developers working on the first iteration of the Mac can be traced back to January 1983 and has arguably influenced the tech industry in one way or another ever since.
As for Pirate Summit, the lowering of the sails can be attributed to dollars and cents for certain, but Koelman sees a very different community alive today and wonders - is today’s format of Pirate Summit still relevant?
“The startup ecosystem isn’t that much of a scene anymore. That feeling of community that we had 10, 14, 15 years ago is not the same anymore. It’s become very very mainstream, you have events all over the place; a community-driven grassroots event like Pirate Summit isn’t that needed anymore."
"That, and all of the remote stuff - a lot of deals are made remotely now. You’re meeting investors through Zoom. It’s a very different landscape now, so I think, why do you need Pirate Summit anymore, or do you need an event like this, anymore?”
While no one will dispute Manuel’s love, passion, and commitment to everything that Pirate Summit is and soon-to-be was, he does make a fair point that Europe has grown up a lot in the past nearly decade and a half now, and it is increasingly difficult to differentiate the new pirates from the new navy, if they, or both, even exist at all.
Dodging death - Open source?
While this will be the last iteration of Pirate Summit as the European startup ecosystem OG’s know it (don’t worry noobs, we were noobs once too), particularly under Manuel’s direct leadership, I spoke to him about the possibility of handing over the reins directly to a community that loves it so.
“It’s funny that you ask because I’ve had this impulse for some time now, all arriving from various inputs,” says Koelman. “The thing is, somebody has to actually do it, but I’m totally open to open-source Pirate Summit.
The trick is, how do you open-source an event? My main idea was that I wanted to turn this into a purpose-driven company which would have been a foundational structure, where people who really do it get to vote on where to take things. I would have loved the community to own a stake in this.
I never had the feeling that this was mine, I always felt like I was just the steward of this.”
Manuel made it clear that he’s more than willing to go down the open-source route, take Pirate Summit to new places, and is happy to sit on a board and provide assistance wherever he can, he’ll only hand over the keys to the ship to someone or someone that can get the job done and done in the initial Pirate Summit spirit. So far, he hasn’t found that person or persons and that person or persons have yet to step up.
From where I sit, Pirate Summit has given, given, given, and rarely, if ever asked, and I’d like to think that most of us are all the better off for it. Not only was the event’s presentation something decidedly different, but so was its ethos and approach. Something that struck a chord and won a special place in a special time in the hearts and minds of so many.
Jobs gave us the idiom of joining the pirates and ditching the navy, Pirate Summit gave us:
The State of the Union That Could Be Address
Likewise, if Mr. Jobs gave us, “Oh, and there’s one more thing,” then Pirate Summit gave us The State of the Union That Could Be Address.
Based on annual themes including purposeful disruption, in the black, solving real problems, raise yourself, once a year, just before The Man was torched in flames and signaled a new beginning, Manuel and Pirate Summit co-founder Till Ohrman would deliver to an eager crowd an often emotional and always inspiring address of where we were, and where we could be headed.
This speech, in conjunction with the burning of The Man has become somewhat synonymous with the unofficial return from summer holidays, the return to business as (hopefully anything but) usual, and truly, the one and only moment over the course of 365 days that Manuel asked of us. To listen. To think. To create a moment that was bigger than him, or bigger than any individual.
Having stood just a few metres away from him on seven occasions, I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when Manuel got to the final lines of that carefully prepared address without a tear in his eye.
O Captain! My Captain!
In conjunction with the hundreds, if not thousands of Pirate Summit attendee alumni, I will miss the annual pilgrimage to Cologne. That early morning walk along a four-lane motorway and then under a bridge and then a left into a junkyard. Those serendipitous meetings with people that I still to this day call some of my nearest and dearest friends.
And I was just there as a temporary staff member - this is to say nothing of the deals that originated over a beer at lunch, the founders who had a Eureka moment at The White Rabbit, found their co-founder while waiting in the queue at the best BBQ any tech conference has ever produced, ever, or the hundreds upon hundreds of other outcomes that sprang forth under the flame shooting jaws of a mechanical T-Rex skull.
I can think of no better words to send off Pirate Summit than those of Walt Witman:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
More images from Pirate Summit: