Web Summit co-founder Daire Hickey talks building a global conference empire from Dublin. The Big Read, powered by Vodafone.
Will the ‘fastest growing conference in Europe’ ever slow down? Following their recent Collision event in Las Vegas, next week sees the launch of two new events from the team behind the Web Summit: MoneyConf (June 15-16) and EnterConf (June 18-19), both taking place in Belfast.
First things first – can you give us a quick rundown of how the Web Summit started?
Well, we started almost five years ago on Paddy’s (Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit founder) sofa. I was a working as a freelance journalist, and Paddy mentioned to me that he’d convinced the founders of YouTube, Skype and Twitter to come to Dublin. I ended up doing the PR –it was my job to build the narrative around the Web Summit in that first year.
Did you know what it was at that stage?
No. My main job was to attract journalists. It was a big deal to get people of that level to come to Dublin, so startups and tech companies here were interested. We had 600 tickets for the first major Web Summit in 2010, held at Chartered Accountants House. That was the turning point. I remember right before the event turning to Paddy and saying, “We’re going to fuck up on a major scale… There are international journalists coming to cover it, TV crews, and they’re all going to see us fuck up.” And he just turned to me and said “I know.”
But you didn’t!
Surprisingly, for people who had never put an event together on that scale. We came from very different fields: Paddy had built a tech company, Dave (David Kelly, the other Web Summit founder), had a finance background, and I was there fiddling around with press and the speakers. But we realised that we’d created something really special and unique.
The Web Summit blog talks a lot about your use of data science as a way to keep growing…
We’ve spent a lot of time growth-hacking the Web Summit over the years, the same way that tech companies approach acquiring new users. We have a team with trained physicists and data scientists. We use Facebook marketing incredibly effectively, Twitter, email marketing… Online marketing has been a lot more effective than offline marketing. At least we think it has, because it incredibly hard to measure offline marketing. We use data science to target the right people, we A/B test everything, we look at the colours of the ads that work the best, we look at the click-through rates…
That must create a really specific profile of the kind of person who attends the Web Summit. Has your target market changed much over the years?
One of the key things with the Web Summit is that it’s always been relatively broad. Back to when we were starting off, our audience was startups and the tech industry. But then I remember meeting an accountant from the midlands who brings his entire team to the Web Summit every year. I asked him why he goes, because it costs a lot to do that every year, and he said, “The energy there is just incredible. My whole team leave with a spring in their step”. I think that’s why a lot of people go. The talks follow a pattern of triumph over adversity: people who maybe reached the verge of bankruptcy, but persevered and succeeded.
And then there’s the parties…
We spend a lot of time thinking about evening activities. A lot of conferences will say ‘Oh, there’s a party’ – a party. We do lots of parties for lots of different groups of people. If you’re into cyber security, we’ll have a dinner especially for that. It gets really, really niche.
That must demand really granular analysis of the kind of people attending. How do you work that out, and how do you quantify whether it’s been a success and that they’ve made connections?
We’re at the early stages of doing that. Signing up for a ticket you can run your LinkedIn and your Twitter through the application. We can analyse those details and try to pair people up based on that. But we want to get to the stage where we can make people’s trip through the Web Summit incredibly efficient, where we’re recommending which people to meet. We’re constantly thinking about how we can make sure that people do business and end up getting something out of it.
Is there an element of building on what’s there already as the Web Summit, with these new conferences, only under different names?
RISE and Collision are quite similar to the Web Summit back when it was that size. It took the Web Summit five years to get to what will be 30,000+ people this year. At Collision we had 7,500 people in year two, and at RISE we’ll have almost 5000 people in year one. So clearly we’re getting better at bringing people together. But we’ve been very careful with branding, because say if you go to RISE, a conference with 5000 people is not going to be the same as one with 30,000. There may come a point in time where RISE will be the same as the Web Summit, maybe bigger, and it’ll make sense to have a unifying brand. But hopefully as the conferences grow, people will realize that this is a company which goes beyond the Web Summit. That’s why the name of the company is Ci, something a lot of people don’t know.
What led to the two new conferences in Belfast?
With Belfast, it’s a well-connected city with a really supportive government – Invest Northern Ireland have been really supportive to the Web Summit, since 2011. And you can take people out in Belfast – it’s a city like Dublin, in that it’s great craic. As we grow we want to see what other cities are like, to see which incentivise us to go there.
People always talk about the Irish hospitality element to the Web Summit, but there’s also this lingering fear that it’s just a conference limbo, that guests just see the event and not the city..
That can be the danger with a lot of conferences. One thing with the Web Summit is that it really involves the city. Parts of Dublin end up really coming alive on a Monday night: I remember hundreds of people at the Market Bar at one in the morning, some of them having nothing to do with the event, but who just go out more in Dublin during that week because there’s a buzz.
I remember walking down South William Street during it a few years back, and ending up walking behind some very distinctive, very tall backcombed black spiky hair…
Ha. People were saying to me last time, ‘it’s a very attractive bunch of people’.
Web Summit Tinder is definitely a thing.
I heard that! Web Summit Grinder too.
We didn’t stop at 15,000 people and say ‘Hey, we’re the best little conference in all of Ireland…’ We’re always striving to be better, always striving for excellence.
And now you have food and music fringe summits attached – people have drawn the comparison to SXSW quite a lot.
It’s not us specifically trying to emulate SXSW: some of that just happens naturally. Like with the Food Summit, we’d brought all in the different stages, then we realised we’d also need to feed people. So we worked with Food Ireland, who brought together all these incredible artisan producers, who are essentially food startups, and we thought it would make more sense to put some content around this. The same with the Sports Summit – we had Misfit Wearables, and the CTO of Nike. With music we had Soundcloud, and this year we have Nas speaking. So it just made sense.
Such a big part of the Web Summit identity is as ‘fastest growing’ conference in Europe. Is the plan to keep growing?
We’re very cautious with Dublin. We’re working with Dublin City Council, with the Gardai, with the Taoiseach’s office, with Failte Ireland, making sure the infrastructure for the Web Summit is in place. It’s interesting; you can have a match in the Aviva Stadium here with 50,000 people, much bigger than the Web Summit, but the Gardai get that audience all the time and know how to handle it. At a match, people will know to walk into town or get a bus, but with the Web Summit you get people coming in taxis from the airport, filling the streets… Our audience is a little bit different.
One last odd question – one of the Collision blogs mentions how you have GoPros hanging from the ceiling at events to monitor the crowd. What do you use those for?
We monitor people’s patterns. Where they go, what talks they’re attending, we look at how we should rearrange the floor plan. It’s about looking at how we can improve, questioning ourselves constantly. We didn’t stop at 15,000 people and say ‘Hey, we’re the best little conference in all of Ireland. That’s enough now, we can just do the Web Summit a couple of months of the year and spend the rest of our time on the beach.’ That’s not the attitude of our company. We’re always striving to be better, always striving for excellence.
Daire Hickey portrait: Kevin Abosch