“Web Summit is a massive dating festival,” says founder Paddy Cosgrave

Last night Startup Grind sat down in London with the founder and CEO of Web Summit, Paddy Cosgrave, for a fireside chat to talk about the story behind Web Summit, where it’s at, and most importantly, where it’s headed.

In his own words Paddy described Web Summit as a “massive dating festival”, where the whole purpose is to get people meeting each other. While they come to see the speakers, he said: “its biggest value at the end of the day is in being in the same room with other people who are doing the same things: building great startups, growing them, investing in them.”

Humble beginnings

The Web Summit story all started back during his college years when Paddy started making posters for night club promoters. They were promoting their night club events mostly using flyers and posters. That seemed very inefficient to Paddy, so they made a deal. He would get half of the revenue for those who attended, but he would pay for the build of some new events software to get the message out in a better way. It was a simple viral email loop system. People had to be invited by a friend, but the only way to redeem the invite was by inviting two guys and two girls. Since colleges are dense social networks, it spread quickly.

Devil is in the detail

In 2010, Paddy saw there were lots of tech companies in Dublin but there were no interesting events happening in his hometown. When he wanted to attend an interesting conference, like Slush, Le Web or TechCrunch Disrupt, he had to travel pretty far. Early on, he met the people behind these conferences and was surprised to see that pretty much all technology these conferences were using was a searchable attendee list. Paddy realised that conferences need to start applying tech advancements in order to make conferences better.

But it doesn’t end with technology, you can’t simply roll out things like recommender systems for who attendees should meet. The team behind Web Summit also challenges the less obvious elements of a conference, from optimising the distance between exhibitor stands, to applying the latest research in anthropometrics, to looking at the length of lanyards, or using Go Pro cameras to analyse the flow of attendees during the event.

It’s good enough for Disney

An interesting part of making the experience of attending a Web Summit smooth is understanding the mechanics of queues. People don’t like queuing up, they get stressed about it and a great conference organiser needs to understand it. It turns out, as Paddy says, there is a field called ‘queuing theory’ and companies like Disney strive to create the optimal queuing experience and make people queue in a certain way to avoid unnecessary stress. These are pieces of the puzzle that when all combined, make for a great experience. Web Summit knows it and tries to constantly optimise the recipe of a great conference.

Lisbon, get ready!

Today, Web Summit has over 90% of attendees coming from abroad and the conference has a reputation for being one of the best tech conferences in Europe. But this success comes at a cost. In 2014, the wifi coverage at the Web Summit was painfully patchy and almost non-existent. Paddy did not sugar-coat the situation, openly addressing the issue in his closing speech and apologising to attendees. In the coming months we heard that Web Summit might leave Dublin if the situation couldn’t be improved.

They weren’t able to make the changes they needed to and earlier this week we all heard that they are moving to Lisbon in 2016. Well, at least for the next three years. Paddy mentioned in our conversation that a significant part of Web Summit’s attendees come from London, even more than there are from Dublin. Interestingly, London made the Web Summit’s shortlist of future destinations, along with Paris, Amsterdam and Lisbon. But in the end, the sunny Lisbon won.

“London is just too big and expensive for Web Summit,” he told Tech City News. “Your aim should be to build a really great product. Focus relentlessly on just building this incredible product and over time people will self-select your product over any other.”

Marian Gazdik is the director of Startup Grind. The next keynote speaker at Startup Grind on 27 October at 6pm will be Sarah Wood, cofounder and co-CEO of Unruly. Interestingly the $176m News Corp. deal  was born on a panel at Web Summit. Grab tickets for Startup Grind here.