2014 Web Summit

This was published by the Irish Times on 3rd November 2014.

Whilst building a global business headquartered in Dublin, I quickly discovered an advantage over my larger international competitors: people love to come to Ireland. From customers, to prospective customers, to partners and allies, Ireland was an allure.

Bringing people together yields competitive insight. The speed of change in the high technology sector reflects how transparent most of its people are. It is difficult to imagine staff from competitors in, say the automobile industry, very openly discussing with one another the merits and drawbacks of their respective employers’ business models and trade secrets: in fact doing so might lead to instant dismissal. But in the high technology sector, professional social engagement is key and is in fact what makes it the industry so dynamic. Individuals share insights, observations, and opportunities with one another in person at social events and online. New technology and business models do not usually emerge from pizza-fueled all-night sessions coding at the computer, but rather from exchanges and war stories shared together.

The 2014 Web Summit starts in Dublin this morning, and it is an extraordinary validation of the perseverance, vision and courage of one Irish entrepreneur. Paddy Cosgrave has acknowledged that the inspiration for the Web Summit series came from both his father, who encouraged Paddy to comprehend computing, and from his sister Anna who wanted to bring successful internet leaders to Ireland to meet students in her university society. Inspired by both, Paddy has quietly and gently insisted to many high tech entrepreneurs worldwide that they should join together in Dublin to informally share ideas, network, and perhaps most of all just have fun.

I have had the honor of attending both prior Summits and some of the Government’s Farmleigh events. The parallels and contrasts have been obvious, but perhaps partly captured by Paddy’s early ambition that “geeks can come free but the suits pay”. Since then, many professional services organizations feeding the tech sector – legal firms, management advisories, recruitment agencies, venture firms, investment bankers – have competed to pay handsomely to host events for the global geeks attending what has become known as the “tech Davos”.

This year, some 20,000 individuals will attend the Summit, hosted at the RDS. This is an unbelievable number of visitors, making the Summit one – if not the – most important technology conference worldwide in the annual calendar. The sheer numbers create challenges of course: can Dublin’s transportation cope with the volume of trips to and from hotels and entertainment venues to Ballsbridge ? How do you efficiently offer lunch to 20,000 visitors to the RDS? Actually, a simple answer: invite Ireland’s food industry to lay out its best to a captive international audience who may not have previously sampled Irish cuisine. Thus the Food Summit was born last year.

Then there is also the Night Summit, in which a breadth of Irish musicians and artists entertain in the foreground, rather than – as at many other international conferences – just background mood music. This year, sports personalities will also join the fun, increasing the cross-fertilization of ideas and particularly as the global technology sector realizes opportunities in the health, fitness and fashion markets.

Nevertheless the Summit has had its challenges. Earlier this year a six million dollar lawsuit was settled out of court in the US. Elliot Bisnow alleged that Paddy Cosgrave had encroached on certain rights related to Bisnow’s Summit Series, duplicating his concept. Paddy dismissed these assertions as ‘spurious’.

The Summit has also had serious warnings from Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner. No doubt so as to drive attendance, the Summit in the past used the personal profiles of individuals to advertise their attendance to potential attendees, when these individuals had not given their consent and even in at least one case had not actually agreed to attend. It caused embarrassment that the Irish Government, and its agencies, joined the Summit in promoting Ireland as a global centre for digital technology innovation when European data protection laws were concurrently being openly flouted.

What next for Paddy Cosgrave and the organisation he has created, now more than 100 staff ? Certainly there are opportunities and international solicitations, and the Summit has already been brought to London and Las Vegas. Indeed, there may be interested buyers from the global conference hosting circuit to acquire the rights to the Summit, but many suspect that Paddy has much more ambitious goals.

Intriguingly, Paddy has assembled a team of software developers and data scientists, to mine data (eg from Facebook) about attendees. A “match-making” app is now available at the Summit, allowing individuals to find others with interesting overlapping interests and profiles. The value in this data is potentially very high indeed: a global perspective on 20,000 individuals from the industry enables, as examples, a paid-for introduction and referral service or recruitment or head-hunter agency.

There are undoubtedly other opportunities. Bringing together high net worth individuals, with highly successful fund managers and investment professionals creates the possibility of a branded new venture investment fund targeting the best of the industry. Given the right profile, raising investment finance for the high technology sector is arguably not too difficult. The real challenge would be subsequently, in putting the money intelligently to work and so yielding eye-watering returns to the investors concerned.

Paddy Cosgrave and his team have already willingly given so much to the nation. Perhaps it is only right that they should also commercially exploit their success.

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About chrisjhorn

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