Why European Startup Events Need to Evolve
Who’s been to a terrible startup event? At some, awkward small talk, posteuring panellists and limp moderators are the order of the day. At others, high production value and rockstar-esque keynote speakers serve are on hand to make participants feel awed but small in comparison. These events are now a dime a dozen in the European start-up world. And many cost a mighty sight more than a dime to attend, putting them out of reach for most startups. But do they actually serve a purpose for those who attend? And what can we do to make them better?
The answer is simple: Don’t put anyone on a pedestal.
Truly great events are ones that foster human connection. It’s a rare breed of human that feels entirely comfortable walking into a networking event. Approaching strangers to strike up a conversation feels increasingly alien in our Slack and WhatsApp powered world. A study of MBA students at a networking event found that while 95 percent of attendees wanted to meet new contacts, they spent over half of their time with people they already knew. It’s natural to gravitate toward those we already know or feel the least intimidated by.
The best startup events, therefore, recognise this and work to ensure attendees are empowered to approach, engage and debate with as many people on the guest list as possible. And that includes keynote speakers and VIPs whenever possible. While people may want to be inspired, they don’t want to be intimidated. Creating the conditions for an egalitarian event where connections can be made and ideas properly explored is therefore vital.
For a startup founder with a game-changing idea, the chance to talk shop with a FTSE CEO could be a pivotal moment in their fortunes. Likewise, CEOs of large corporations crying out for innovation to protect their businesses from external disruption are keen to explore new ideas. Yet in many of the spaces these two people might find themselves, they will be treated differently. At the events start-ups can afford to attend, the corporate CEO will most likely be on the stage, the founder in the crowd. Where the CEO is an attendee rather than a speaker, chances are the price tag holds all but the most well-funded founders back from attending.
I’m not saying we throw out the networking event rule book and replace it with a flower-adorned alternative where self-love and group affirmation are the only items on the agenda (and not only because Gwyneth Paltrow already has that market niche cornered). Instead, we need to preserve the driving purpose that gets people through the doors at start-up conferences and summits - opportunity - and couple it with a fresh take on how to foster it.
Knocking over the pedestals is the only way to do this. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have keynotes, panel and addresses - there’s huge value in these if pitched well and moderated properly. And it doesn’t mean forcing your headline speakers to talk shop with every founder that rocks up. But it does mean ensuring that every single attendee is made to feel they are bringing something of worth to the event and creating the conditions in which such an approach can flourish.
If they are a founder or an early stage startup employee, they should know there are people waiting to pick their brains about their innovations, hiring practices or funding round horror stories. Decision makers and impressive guests should be fully briefed that they’re attending a forum for ideas and information exchange and so should try to build in time into their schedules to speak with delegates. Junior employees should be mixed in with CEOs on roundtables, then given the opportunity to speak (and be listened to) by moderators. Politicians should seek out entrepreneurs and get their take on how to foster more innovation through two-way Q&As. Much of this can be encouraged through the organisation and structure of the event.
Sure, you can’t force a shy founder to strike up a conversation, nor can you subject a leading investor to an endless stream of mini pitches. And you shouldn’t make promises to attendees that you can’t keep. But you can work to create as many opportunities as possible for such connections and conversations to happen organically.
Events that bring together different perspectives, ideas and experiences have the potential to change the world. But only if we can subvert standard industry practices and shake up the rules of the game. At the inaugural GovTech Summit last November, it was pure magic to look around the room and see MPs discussing Government tender processes with smart cities pioneers, EU Commissioners discussing the diversification of fintech funding with European Angel investors, and top-tier tech journalists shooting the breeze with healthtech founders. We cannot unlock the power of such connections unless we look to empower everyone to strike up the conversation.
It’s time to start calling out events that waste our time or dent our confidence. Our economies are operating in uncharted waters. This means we must rethink how we create the connections and understanding needed to allow the best businesses and innovations to thrive. And replacing the pedestals with a level-playing field is a good place to start.