Global #Webit Congress, one of the more influential tech events on the global conference calendar, attracts over 10,000 attendees from more than 110 countries. It brings startups, corporations, vendors, agencies, investors, media, and more to Istanbul annually.
And yet, six years ago at the inaugural event, many of the attendees were expecting DJs and music.
“The first event was a disaster,” Plamen Russev, the founder and organizer of Global Webit Congress, said to VentureBeat in a phone interview. “Over 30 percent of the 1,000 people we attracted thought it was a techno music event, not a technology conference.”
Russev, who is based in Sofia and Varna in Bulgaria, is a serial entrepreneur, experienced consultant, best-selling author, and public speaker, and he’s used to thinking on his feet. His response to this first-year marketing mix-up?
“We found a bunch of DJs to come in and save the day. In fact, that is exactly how the famous Webit party got started! This year, it is being hosted by Fashion TV,” Russev said.
I took some time with Russev to look at how the congress has managed to become a world-leading event in a relatively short amount of time; it now boasts over 200 speakers from organizations such as MasterCard, AOL, Ubuntu, Y Combinator, SAP, Coca-Cola, and Cisco.
“I started Webit Congress for two reasons,” Russev said. “It was both an entrepreneurial project and a way of helping to change what was happening here in Eastern Europe.”
Before creating Webit Congress, Russev noticed that many of the smart, switched-on entrepreneurs, developers, and technologists in the area were leaving their families behind to find their fortune in other countries, such as the USA, U.K., and Canada. He couldn’t understand the rationale behind the exodus and wanted to offer them a chance to stay home.
“It’s digital. You should be able to be wherever you want,” said Russev. “Why leave and go to other countries? Why leave your families behind?”
The subject of family ties is close to Russev’s heart. “Webit wouldn’t be where it is today without the help and support of my own family, including my wife, Aniela Russeva, who is SVP of business development,” Russev said.
He also said, “I wanted to change the balance and give people the opportunity to stay here. I asked myself, why not get the world to come and meet the talent in their homes so they can stay where they’re happiest?”
And so an entrepreneurial dream was born.
Keeping the party going
In the early days of Webit, the event was in Sofia, Bulgaria. At the time, Sofia did not have a stake in the global digital market, but there was clearly a passion for learning and education. Despite the first-year mix-up with the rave crowd, the event grew quickly.
Year two saw 2,500 attendees travel to Bulgaria for the congress. In the third year, 5,000 visitors arrived from 22 countries, speaking 19 different languages. But then Webit hit a snag that could have threatened the growth of this nascent tech event.
“Sofia was just too small for the event at that point, so we had to make a difficult decision and relocate,” Russev told me.
“Dubai and Barcelona were almost chosen as the new location for Webit — in fact, Dubai made a great case for moving the event to the U.A.E. — but in the end we decided that Istanbul was the best destination,” Russev said. “Turkey is truly the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and has a special significance historically; the former Constantinople was the capital of four empires, the center of power and influence.”
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The move proved to be the making of Webit.
“That first year in Istanbul was incredible,” Russev said. “We had higher-level contacts than ever before; 6,800 people arrived at the event and 40 percent of them were C-level attendees. The next year, we had to move to an even bigger venue in Istanbul, and we were rewarded with 8,200 visitors from 103 countries.”
How big is this “bigger venue?” The Haliç Congress Center boasts 110,000 square meters of event space and even has a marina. The more seafaring visitors can even arrive at the event by boat, and both vendors and investors turn the harbor into something reminiscent of Monaco or Cannes. The after-hours lineup at Webit has become as important as the conference itself.
To put Webit’s growth in context, SXSW Interactive is currently only three times bigger, and that event has been going since 1995. It took SXSWI fifteen years to get to where Webit have in six.
In addition to the 200-plus speakers who create a challenging and informative agenda across two streams — the Digital Marketing and Innovation Conference and the Leaders of the Future Tech Summit — Webit Congress is also host to the Founders Games, a chance for startups to get their hands on a share of a 1 million euro (U.S. $1.32 million) grant.
Over 1,600 startups applied for this year’s games, and up to 200 of those will receive a free expo table at the Congress, free tickets to the event, and a share of the grant money to use within advertising.
“Our Founders Games are not for profit,” Russev said. “Some people think it is a business. Some believe it is evangelism. Actually, it is both.”
The future for Webit looks bright. In the words of Gary Liu, the head of labs at Spotify, “It is so large and so incredibly diverse. There are very few conferences around the world that look and feel like this. Webit has captured something really special here in Istanbul.”
For Russev, the realisation of his vision means more than just ever-growing visitor numbers and heartfelt testimonials.
“Six years ago, people didn’t know the word ‘digital’ in this area of the world — no exaggeration. Now the dream of bringing the world to our doorstep is coming true. The one thing everyone here has in common? They’re all in search of talent and great ideas,” said Russev.
Global #Webit Congress takes place on Oct. 1-Oct. 2 in Istanbul. Early Bird discounts expire at the end of August.