The truth about conferences: there’s one room that matters and most of us aren’t in it

There are seven rooms in total and you’re in the first…

That’s how Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s Editor-In-Chief, is said to begin his anti-pep talk on New York society, bringing arriviste young hacks back down to Earth.

If we transfer the same principle to tech conferences, founders floundering around in the startup village aren’t even in the first room, they’re out in the car park, peering in through the window.

Perched in pokey booths – often little more than a shelf nailed to some branded plywood – startups in those desolate villages are forced to become the chuggers of the entrepreneurial world, swooping forward keenly in the hope of catching the attention of passersby.

Organisers will tell you the hustle and bustle is “buzz”, the truth is: it’s tech Darwinism at its most depressingly raw.

At best few startups rise above the noise, the rest linger on as a logo on a stray sticker or a fading t-shirt found in the back of the wardrobe.


Tech conferences sell themselves with a mix of egalitarian cant – a hollow hangover from San Francisco’s sad hippy heritage – and celeb worship (“Come! See these titans of the industry talk and perhaps some stardust will stick to you”).

In most startup villages, you’re below decks, the paying cattle class that subsidises the voyage for the speakers and their hangers-on who come for free.

The real action happens in the speakers’ lounge and at the speakers’ dinner, the final room you can access only with the right combination of hype and hustle.

They barely notice you’re there.


Britain’s got startups

Pitching competitions come with the same pitfalls.

Most startups are unprepared and over-confident in the originality of their idea, as embarrassing as competitors in the early rounds of a TV talent show.

Sadly-deluded singers desperate to be picked up by Simon Cowell share the same basic urge as startups hoping Dave McClure might not mock their idea – they’re looking for a fast route to success.

Conferences know very well how to play on that desire. It doesn’t do to let the minnows realise they’re trying to swim in the wake of the whales.

Playing the game

Serendipity always has a part to play in success but when you’re in amongst a mass of startups all jumping up and down for attention, you’ve got to be better prepared.

It’s time to take an Arnold Palmer-like approach (“The harder I practice, the luckier I get”) and arrive at the conference with a list of targets you want to talk to and a way of getting in front of each of them.

Waiting for them to waltz by is never going to work at a massive event like The Summit, which plans on pulling in more the 20,000 attendees this year.

Getting in front of the right people matters but only if you have the right product at the right time. Without that combination you’ll never reach the necessary escape velocity to rise above the ranks of also-rans scurrying around the startup village.

It takes exactly the same thing to reach the final room whether you’re in Graydon Carter’s New York or Paddy Cosgrave’s Dublin – a potent mix of fortune and fame.