Yesterday, one hundred aspiring entrepreneurs were joined by a few VCs and angel investors for MeshWalk, a walking conference organized by MeshForum and sponsored by Mohr Davidow Ventures. VentureBeat’s Mark Coker in the following personal account, says the innovative “unconference” has a few kinks to work out…
I must admit, when I received VentureBeat’s invitation to attend MeshWalk, I was intrigued and excited. I had never heard of a walking conference before.
I’ve always enjoyed startup-focused conferences – virtually all of my coverage for VentureBeat has been conference-related. I’m constantly amazed at the myriad networking opportunities the aspiring entrepreneur enjoys here in Silicon Valley. At least weekly, there’s some sort of entrepreneurial event where experienced tech veterans share their knowledge with the next generation.
The MeshWalk event was billed as an unconference, the buzzword du jour in conference-going circles. The label is often associated with BarCamp, O’Reilly Media’s FooCamp and more recently, David Hornick’s The Lobby. The word “unconference” itself has a hip aura to it worthy of any Madison Avenue jingle-master – it sounds fun, forbidden, and avant-garde.
MeshWalk takes the unconference idea a step further by moving people outside. The event strives to deliver a more unconferency experience than plain-vanilla unconferences.
The thinking behind MeshWalk is that if conference attendees are exposed to outdoor environmental stimuli such as fresh air, trees, sunshine and architecture, attendees will find the overall experience more invigorating, profound and insightful.
MeshWalk’s manager and creator, Shannon Clark, tells VentureBeat the idea for MeshWalk draws upon multiple inspirations, ranging from the Open Space Technology movement to as far back as Socrates. He says outdoor conversations are different in tone, and the shared experience of the natural environment and the format make it easier to have more and deeper conversations than even a traditional unconference or BarCamp type of event.
My MeshWalk experience started by parking in the assigned parking structure, which was over a mile from the event’s gathering point.
After I arrived to the assembly point, my fellow MeshWalkers and I gathered in an open courtyard to form a semi-circle around MeshWalk’s Shannon Clark. “Let the world around you inform your conversations,” Clark urged the attendees like a new age messiah.
The only message I was getting from the hot sun beating down on my skin was that I’d rather do this in an air-conditioned building.
We were provided 4×6 inch index cards on which Clark asked us to write our first and second most pressing entrepreneurial challenges. Most questions related to the mechanics of a starting a successful startup, such as how to identify a startup-worthy idea, attract funding, choose co-founders, hire good people, or how to market and sell a product.
Next, Clark separated people into groups of individuals with common problems. In other words, people who lacked a solution to their own problems were offered a chance to advise others with the same problems. This struck me as the blind leading the blind.
I imagined the poor folks in the large “desperately seeking funding” group, trapped with others who hadn’t figured out the secret either. They probably wished they were instead spending quality time with some of the notable VCs and angels present — like Jeff Clavier of SoftTech VC, Trevor Blackwell of YCombinator, and Katherine Barr of Mohr Davidow – most of whom were stuck in some other group talking about their own problems.
After an hour, I began to dread the day before me. I envisioned an entire day of outdoor activities. I imagined the terrible sunburn I’d have at the end of the day after my sunscreen melted away from all the sweat.
Before Mr. Clark released us from the sunbaked courtyard, one of the women attending the conference publicly thanked Clark for getting her outside for, as she put it, “this wonderful and exquisite experience.” Has she never been outside, I wondered? Or was the sun just making me grumpy?
Clark then informed the group we were finally going to start MeshWalking. We would walk back to the parking lot, he said. Apparently, several attendees entered the garage though the main entrance on the main street, thereby missing the lone MeshWalk permit-guy lurking at the hidden entrance in the back. Fun.
Once back at the parking structure, I approached Jeff Clavier of SoftTech VC. I’ve heard Jeff speak at recent conferences such as Web 2.0 Expo and TiECON, and was always impressed by his no-holds-barred opinions. He personally attends more conferences that you’d think is humanly possible. Surely, I thought, he must share some of my reservations about this event?
“MeshWalk is cool,” he said. He said he has done lots of unconferences because he enjoys the unstructured face-to-face discussions he can have with entrepreneurs. And compared to other conferences and unconferences, he appreciates how with MeshWalk, he can move around and have multiple conversations. He told me MeshWalk is like a live, in-person version of blogging. Oh, and he said his wife appreciates he’s getting exercise. Was Jeff just speaking kindly of the event because Shannon Clark, the father of MeshWalks, was standing right beside him?
The two of them spoke a few more minutes about why MeshWalk was so wonderful. Shannon piped in that the relaxed, fluid nature of MeshWalk made it easy to join conversations or even stop conversations without seeming impolite. Shortly after that cue, Jeff and Shannon wandered away to speak with other people.
I chased after Shannon and asked if I could capture a short 30-second video interview of him for this story. He said he was busy trying to gather people up, and asked if we could do it in 30 minutes.
After I tired of standing in the sun waiting for the other attendees to put the parking passes in their rearview mirrors, I decided to visit my own car to apply a fresh layer of sunscreen.
This is where my story gets embarrassing. Although I usually have a strong sense of direction, I had difficulty finding my car. Concerned it was taking me too long to find it, I peered down from the third floor of the structure and could see my fellow herd of conference-goers had already trundled down the street without me.
I was faced with an important decision. Should I give up on the sun screen and run after them, only to get even more overheated than I already was? Or do I head to the cool comfort of my car, hidden somewhere in the parking garage? The decision was easy. Find the car.
As I drove back home, I reflected on MeshWalk. I thought back to Shannon Clark’s encouraging words about finding inspiration from our outdoor surroundings. I tried to imagine the perfect conference, one that optimized the knowledge transfer process between those that know and those that want to know. I thought back to Jeff Clavier and the other vcs, angel investors and veteran entrepreneurs who volunteered their entire day to mentor MeshWalk attendees. Each of these experts probably got asked the same questions twenty times by twenty different entrepreneurs. Although they had the entire day to walk and talk, they’d be unable to spend the one-on-one time necessary to help these eager entrepreneurs develop even a surface understanding of the same startup 101 questions they had asked earlier in the courtyard.
Unconferences are all the rage lately, but I wonder if MeshWalk pushes the unconference envelope too far.
MeshWalk destroys the notion of one-to-many communications. I can’t help but think these knowledge-hungry entrepreneurs would learn more about the startup process by attending a half dozen hour-long panel presentations than by navigating a narrow sidewalk to catch quick twitterisms of wisdom.
Despite my criticisms, I believe the interesting ideas proposed by Shannon Clark with MeshWalk hold merit, and are worthy of further tweaking and experimentation. In the future, for example, MeshWalk should consider dropping the long distance walking aspect in favor of shorter strolls in a more natural environment. A more sedentary outdoor experience might also better accomodate persons with disabilities.
The next MeshWalk is planned for August 12 in Seattle after Gnomedex. A MeshWalk for New York City is under consideration for September. The Bay Area’s next MeshWalk is tentatively scheduled for this Fall in San Francisco.
Mark Coker is a contributing writer for VentureBeat. He’s an avid hiker and successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2006. He’s founder of Dovetail Public Relations, a Silicon Valley technology marketing firm. He has no clients among the companies mentioned in the story, nor among their competitors. More on Mark at http://www.linkedin.com/in/markcoker