This past August 7th marks the 10th anniversary of the first startup conference in Hong Kong – we did it on a Saturday so it was adeptly named “Startup Saturday.”
We got the venue Cyberport to sponsor the venue for 300 people, Microsoft sponsored the lunch, Rackspace did some lucky draws for that first iPad and we had an astounding (for the time) 18 startups pitching that day.
It was the same room that I heard from a panel of Silicon Valley VC’s the year before talking about startups and ecosystem. A friend of mine raised his hand and asked “what do we do after you go back to the Bay Area?”
The answer seems easier to comprehend today: “start your own ecosystem”
Between that time and Startup Saturday we held weekly meet-ups at coffee shops that asked us to come back because they grew bigger and bigger every week and there was a lot of coffee and baked goods to sell.
So, since we were “selling out” cafes in Hong Kong, we decided to take it up a notch from these informal meet-ups and “do a conference.” The six co-founders at the time of StartupsHK now StartupsGBA, decided to host a one-day startup celebration of panels, keynotes and pitches – none of us had been to any Bay Area events but we assumed this was how it was done. HK is famous for trade shows with exhibition floors bigger than some amusement parks but not thought leadership conferences unless you were in banking. We had heard of TEDx in Taipei that was very successful and the more chaotic Barcamp, but we would make something in between.
We hoped to fill the room of 300 seats, I can’t even remember if we used Eventbrite yet or just had a Facebook event page but either way, the word did get out and not only did we fill all 300 seats we had to have a second room open for the 200 extra people that showed up. Yeah, pretty sure we didn’t use a proper ticketing platform for this.
Apologies for the small images, it was shot on whatever iPhone number it was in 2010.
It didn’t look any different than any other small local startup conferences these days (and I’ve been to many from Ho Chi Minh City to Fukuoka to Honolulu. But it was the first in Hong Kong and according to the brochure we made it was also “the best.”
I haven’t really kept in contact with everyone but I know that, of course, many of the startups died (all 6 of the co-founder’s startups didn’t make it) a few of the startups that pitched went on to sell their startups for big bucks, but most amazing to me is that some future unicorn founders were just attendees at this event.
(It’s interesting to look back in hindsight and see that only five years after this event, Paddy Cosgrave the founder of Web Summit had already picked and was planning his first Asia-Pacific event called RISE in Hong Kong and that I would play a big part in it. Web Summit at the time was already 20,000+ in Dublin, and self-funded but growing like crazy and had already started a North American show in Las Vegas called Collision (which as you know from my last post is now held in Toronto). How this turned out will be the subject of a future post.)
Yes, that is Hannibal Buress in the audience at RISE 2019. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/RISE via Sportsfile
We had done a Startup Saturday every year and they got bigger and bigger but we didn’t think about expanding them across Asia. Singapore had two large startup conferences run by tech blogs and that’s about it at the time (now every government across Asia and Canada are running their own) but the point was that they were all very regionally focused which is good and bad.
Good because international guests can come in and see what’s happening in an ecosystem over a few days and bad because everyone in a region usually knows everyone already so the ecosystem that should be there to meet the international guests doesn’t even show up and they end up meeting government officials and salespeople and report back “no sign of life.”
So as this happens, the events start to turn into cheerleading tournaments to the already to keep the media informed (which was the main goal at the beginning and it did put Hong Kong on the map) and for startups to get exposure albeit to other founders and would-be founders, still good training for when they would move up to the bigger conferences or pitch events.
My advice for doing regional events (ie showcasing a local ecosystem like Vancouver Island or the Okanagan) is to be able to have a reason why people from overseas would want to attend, not who you think should be on stage. Thinking about your audience is probably the most important and I think this is overlooked at most events. They end up becoming more back-patting events for people who already know each other and that doesn’t allow for more open communication onstage or off.
Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned doing these events is that the moderator, not the panelists, is the most important person on stage. A good MC can keep the momentum from the last panel to the next is good, but a moderator is gold. A good moderator will act in the audience’s best interest and push the panelists to provide thought-provoking answers and behind the scene information, you would love to ask but don’t. Bad mods softball questions that don’t provide anything than a verbal press release that’s been padded by marketing. The worst place I’ve seen this is in China – but that’s for another post.
Center stage audience at RISE 2019. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/RISE via Sportsfile
The third element to these conferences, as we all know, is networking. First: Don’t invite speakers that are there to get a notch on their speaker belt – you need speakers who will mingle with the attendees and other speakers. And second, the organizers are actually the party hosts – there are two books I read that are good on networking. Taking the Work out of Networking by Karen Wickre which is great for attendees (you need some skills to attend a conference too) and The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker for those looking to do this – it reads like social butterflying for the elite but when you get down to the brass tacks her ideas can be applied to any tech gathering – especially in a more introverted field like tech.
You do need that social lubricant that isn’t alcohol, to say something as simple as “Hey Jennifer, have you met William – you are both trying to solve mobile payment problems in different countries” to something more personal that opens the door to a conversation. I would literally make my way from one side of a networking floor to the other connecting people and dragging people across rooms to make sure they met. There is definitely some thought about how you position yourself at a conference.
I have seen hosts make it seem like its all about them, and others it’s all about the guests and they are behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz – but the best ones are out front on stage creating energy and then off-stage mingling and introducing. It’s not an introvert vs extrovert thing, it’s a skill you can learn just by knowing some of your attendees and getting ready to listen.
One thing Paddy always told me about Web Summit is that if an attendee, who flew a few thousand miles and paid X amount of dollars to attend made 3 honest connections – just 3 – it was worthwhile and they will come again next year and recommend to their friends but if they fail to hit even 3 then you’ll have trouble next year. You can now do that using technology! But that is, again, another post.
Investors networking event at RISE 2019. Photo by Seb Daly/RISE via Sportsfile.
I know this is all harder in the pandemic and that is why a lot of people are bemoaning these online events — but it’s only because the networking features aren’t being built properly. The startups building online conference SaaS have never built an offline real human event and only see what I saw putting on that first event – speakers and pitches – when really all you have to do is reverse that camera and put attendees first that you will create something special.
If you missed Collision from Home, we are doing Web Summit Online in December.
If you are interested in digital entertainment my new podcast Sandwich Society is live with new tech leaders in the space being interviewed every week.
I wrote this Medium post about last month’s Comic-Con at Home to give a handful of insight on the biggest pop culture conference in North America’s first online conference.
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