Even as Benjamin Costantini was helping organize the 2014 edition of the LeWeb conference in Paris, he had a hunch this was going to be the last edition of what had been one of Europe’s largest and most important tech events for more than a decade. Conferences tend to have a natural lifespan, and LeWeb had run its course.
Despite LeWeb’s demise, Costantini’s inbox was crammed full of invitations to tech conferences sprouting up across Europe. The startup scene was surging, and suddenly every corner of the continent was putting together a conference. From Riga to Dublin, from Lisbon to Sofia, the startup calendar has become crammed with an improbable number of tech conferences of all shapes and sizes drawing nomadic entrepreneurs hoping to find knowledge, community, and just maybe an investor or two.
Indeed, sorting through the choices among conferences battling for attendees and speakers is so problematic that it inspired Costantini to launch a new business: Startup Sesame. The company helps startups figure out which of the seemingly infinite events they should be attending, while helping conferences attract the people they need to make their gatherings both relevant and vibrant.
That such a service even makes sense here is a sign of just how heated the European tech event scene has become as everyone seeks to capture a bit of startup magic.
“We want to help people make the connections they need to make,” Costantini said. “We want to help them go faster.”
For even the most active European startup guide, however, it can be difficult to keep track of who is doing what in which city on what day. And finding an open spot on the calendar to a host a new event can be even tougher.
There remain old standard bearers such as Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, which says it attracted 107,000 attendees in February. Among the new crop, Web Summit, which decamped last year from its hometown of Dublin to Lisbon, has become the new Big Kahuna of European tech events, with 53,000 attendees in November. Slush, the Helsinki event, ballooned to 17,500 in December.
But sprinkled in between are an endless drumbeat of smaller regional events seeking international attention, with entrepreneurs left advocating for their favorites and others trying to figure out how to spread a thin budget to make sure they’re present for any can’t-miss moments.
Take this coming June, for instance. Does one go to Vienna’s Pioneers Festival on June 1 and 2? Skolkovo Village, the Russian startup event, on June 6 and 7? DigitalK in Sofia, Bulgaria on June 8 and 9? Or the MoneyConf, a Web Summit spinoff event, in Madrid on June 6 and 7? Or to Paris, which will host the second edition of Viva Technology June 15 through 17, and which organizers claim will attract 50,000 attendees this year? Or wait until the next week to attend the NOAH17 conference in Berlin?
Between now and then, the most ambitious entrepreneurs could wander Europe hitting one conference after another. Just last week, the nonstop parade of conferences saw a new entry from LeWeb cofounder Loïc Le Meur, a Paris-based conference called Leade.rs that was held on April 11 and 12.
While precise numbers tracking this phenomenon can be difficult to find, Openers, a Berlin-based communications firm, maintains a list of 237 global startup and tech events scheduled for 2017, with 58 percent of them scheduled in Europe and 31 percent scheduled in North America.
This feverish need to gather has permeated down to the local level as well. In a report issued late last year by Atomico, the investment firm pulled together data from Meetup.com indicating that the number of smaller, tech-related gathering was also on the rise:
This conference craze is a byproduct of several factors suddenly colliding in Europe. Culturally, startups and entrepreneurship are cool in a way they traditionally haven’t been here. But beyond that, the region’s tech economy remains highly fractured. While London, Berlin, and Paris can lay claim to being fully formed tech ecosystems, most secondary tech hubs need to build bridges across the continent to attract the ingredients needed, such as investors.
Governments here are also making big bets on startups to reboot economies long stuck in neutral. While many conferences are bootstrapped or run by local nonprofits, many others are supported by governments with hefty marketing budgets. The conference ecosystem often necessitates being able to attract large delegations from countries willing to offer travel subsidies to promote themselves as a startup powerhouse.
And large corporations, eager to connect with entrepreneurial buzz and culture, seem happy to write large sponsorship checks.
The result is a big, sprawling tech conference marketplace. And for Costantini, figuring how to make it work for organizers and entrepreneurs has become a full-time job.
Costantini had just completed a master’s program in business management when he was hired by Reed Midem, one of France’s largest conference organizers, in 2011. Although he had organized some of his own events previously, his stint at Reed Midem gave him a taste of what goes into pulling together massive events, including LeWeb.
In the summer of 2015, after LeWeb was officially shuttered, Costantini struck out on his own, searching for a way to be a service that connected entrepreneurs, conferences, and corporations. That led to Startup Sesame, which launched later that year with another Reed alum, Joanna Kirk.
As it evolved, the concept now works like this: A handful of startups are selected to be part of a Startup Sesame class. They get free access to a wide range of events that are partners. Costantini helps them figure out which events make the most sense, facilitates access to pitch events, makes investor introductions, and aids with travel sponsorships.
Corporations can become members, getting advice along the same lines: where they should be attending, who they should be meeting in the startup community, and so on. And the events get high-quality startups entrepreneurs at their events, along with Constantini himself, a well-known and popular figure on the tech event circuit. The hope is that will help events draw other people wondering if they should make the trip.
In short, Startup Sesame is the kind of service that makes particular sense in the context of the European tech event scene.
In the U.S., the tech event calendar tends to be dominated by large, corporate affairs: Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference; Google’s I/O; Oracle’s OracleWorld; Salesforce’s Dreamforce; Facebook’s F8. There are exceptions, like the mega Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, or South by Southwest in Austin, or media-driven events like Recode’s Code Conference or TechCrunch Disrupt, which are all more general in terms of themes. But in general, the biggest U.S. events tend to be closely tied to a platform or technology, and developers know what make sense for them.
By contrast, many of Europe’s events tend to be catch-all in nature. They offer startup advice and hold panels on a wide range of technologies. But mostly, they offer a way for a particular region to get entrepreneurs and investors to visit. And for entrepreneurs scattered across the European Union’s 28 countries, they offer a chance to build networks and community in a way that someone living in Silicon Valley can just by stumbling into the nearest cafe.
“When we talk to people in the U.S. and we talk about our model, they wouldn’t imagine it being relevant there,” Costantini said. “For us, this is just what we have to do here for people to connect.”
Wanted: startup credibility
Tucked away in the northwest of Romania, the city of Cluj-Napoca is not likely to be a major stop on anyone’s tech travel itinerary. So, in 2014, Vlad Ciurca decided to help start Techsylvania, a startup event that will hold its fourth edition on June 17 to 20.
Ciurca, an entrepreneur and product manager, felt that Romania had a lot of tech talent that was attracting outsourcing work, but was underappreciated. At the same time, the region’s budding entrepreneurs needed to see and hear from more experienced founders to learn about how to build a startup. From 400 attendees in the first year, the event drew 1,300 last year.
“There’s a lot of ecosystems that want to put themselves forward,” he said. “For us, we want to get investors and founders to travel to Eastern Europe and see what it’s about.”
That, in itself, can be a major undertaking. Marija Rucevska is CEO of TechChill, the startup conference held every February in Riga, Latvia. The event grew out of a TechCrunch meetup held in 2012, and this past February, it attracted 1,100 over the course of two days.
For Rucevska, TechChill is a major effort to put Riga on the startup map, but it remains a challenge every year. There is minimal government support. The country can often be overshadowed by the neighboring Estonian startup scene. And yet, Latvia has made some headway, creating a new law last November that makes it easier to start a company there and offers new startup tax and investment incentives.
But as the conference calendar has become more crowded, TechChill is facing more competition to win attention, attendees, and speakers. Rucevska spends a fair bit of time traveling to other conferences to promote and recruit for TechChill, while also trying to spread the word about the Latvian startup ecosystem.
“We understood that we need to have this one event that brings all these Baltic founders together,” said Rucevska. “If we all gather in one place, that will give us attention from Europeans and Americans. And if we start to pop up everywhere and brag about ourselves, other people will start to notice. We just need to be loud enough.”
Looking back over the past year, Anna Rose, the Berlin-based CEO and cofounder of Videopath, says she finds it “wild” to realize she was traveling out of Berlin for 138 days. She’d like to stay put more often, but at the same time, as a founder she finds it critical to be presenting at conferences, networking, and telling her company’s story where and when she can.
To help her find and keep track of the growing list of events, she quietly started Conference Hunt last year, a newsletter to help startups learn about speaking engagements.
“We learned that every single startup was creating these event lists, so there was duplication of work going on,” she said. “I missed a ton of opportunities because as a small startup we just couldn’t stay on top of all the dates.”
While the travel can be exhausting at times, Rose said that events are a great way for small companies to gain exposure. And as a native of Canada, she said the extensive travel of being a digital nomad has a strong side benefit: getting to see a wide range of historic and culturally vibrant European cities, such as Dublin, Lisbon, Berlin, London, Gdansk, Barcelona, and Amsterdam.
“I think this is actually quite unique to Europe,” she said. “Would it be as exciting if it was in the U.S. or Canada? The best part is that there is like a crew you see at every one of the big events. Going to these things also means checking back in with some of your favorite people from all over.”
In late February, much of that conference tribe arrived in Barcelona for 4 Years From Now (4YFN), a startup event held in connection with Mobile World Congress. That included Costantini and the Startup Sesame crew, who had brought along some of their startups. Costantini was moderating a panel called “Hacking Events Like a Viking.”
One of Startup Sesame cohort was WeFarm, a London-based startup that has developed a mobile service to help farmers in remote and developing areas connect with a community of experts to get information that can help them with their crops or livestock. The company grew out of a nonprofit initiative, but was now looking to connect with the tech community as it seeks to expand. WeFarm is investing in machine learning and artificial intelligence to help attract and connect the right people to assist its farmers.
WeFarm was selected to be part of the latest class of Startup Sesame, and as such had traveled and presented at conferences like Slush in Helsinki. Kenny Ewan, CEO and cofounder, said the company was getting a wave of invites, but was looking to attend specific events where they could present, meet potential corporate partners, and also generate interest among a tech community where it might want to recruit developers.
At 4YFN, Costantini’s team helped secure a slot for WeFarm to pitch in the startup contest, a move that paid off when the company won the event’s Disrupted by Mobile Award. Ewan said while the events can be fun, they can also be time-consuming in terms of preparation and travel.
Given that his company’s main audience is in developing countries, he said that he has to be smart about choosing which events to attend among the hundreds and hundreds available.
“Startups as a whole have become fashionable and trendy in Europe,” Ewan said. “So there’s this massive ecosystem that has grown up around these events. It’s probably a bubble that will pop at some point. But for us, finding the right audiences is important to help us find the right partners. And these events give us a good chance to speak to a wide range of stakeholders and tell our story.”