Le Web is often called the “grand-daddy” of European tech conferences. Now in its eighth year, we feel the moniker is still deserved.
Being in Paris certainly influences the style and attendees of LeWeb. There are more suits here than any other tech conference I’ve ever been to. But where else do you get served delicious wine with your gravlax luncheon?
The food at Le Web is legendary, actually. Loic and Geraldine are themselves French so this is a part of their conference they take seriously. In the food department at least, Dublin Web Summit this is not. France takes food seriously.
And while Web Summit is probably more start-up friendly (in pricing, at least, as Alex reminded us on Monday) it’s arguably also a little harder to find those internet power-brokers which as a scrappy founder you may be desperate to meet – particularly since this year f.ounders ran in parallel to the main Web Summit event. But I’ll leave that discussion to others.
Le Web aims to be the glossy Vogue of the tech conferences in Europe: absurdly over-the-top video clips play as each speaker arrives on stage. It looked more like a homage to the Olympic Games than a tech conference intro. The vast, flashy set is worthy of an MTV Awards event. Even the start-up stage looked like something from an upmarket Scandinavian game show.
The event is also well attended by corporates. All the European VC’s turn up and many of the Silicon Valley crowd too (not that the former may be much help, given how few of them have active funds these days). In fact the speaker list is often dominated by Americans, too. That’s not a negative, by the way.
In my entrepreneurial career, much of the value from conferences like this has come from the networking. But you could always gate crash an evening party to network, right? So what about the conference sessions themselves?
The Internet of Things
IoT struck me as a great choice of topic for the conference, so up the steep stairs I went in the main hall, past Renault announcing proudly above their stand that “Renault love start-up” (car ignitions or early stage businesses?). The steeply raked seating gives a great view, but the gentle sway of the supporting scaffolding is always slightly unsettling.
Smartthing is a box which sits between your iPhone, the cloud and physical things. The founder, A Mr Haggiss proclaimed proudly that “with the paradigm shift to the internet of things those that will be successful is the one that you can apply applications to” and promptly turned on a Christmas Tree by opening a cupboard door in Minneapolis, all from his iPhone. Impressive, in a way.
Thanks to a gadget attached to another piece of furniture he could also see that his liquor cabinet had been opened. It was a demonstration of the future – although probably due to a lack of audience Q&A at LeWeb, no mention was made of the potential for hacking.
SoundCloud did a blow-by-blow tour of their new website. I know they’re slowly owning sound online, but was this really the best use of 15 minutes in front of over a thousand people? I was underwhelmed.
In fact, too many of the speeches were commercials, rather than talks. And there isn’t much in the way of proper questioning on stage. The best way to tell an audience’s engagement with a speaker is whether the WiFi stops working. A few speakers fell into the blackout category.
That said, some content was deeply impressive, both technically and emotionally. It demanded your attention.
Few if any heads were stuck in their laptops as Benjamin Cichy talked us through a brief history of adventures to Mars, culminating in the delivery of a 1-tonne rover and lander combo to the red planet with technology and panache worthy of a sci-fi movie. (The WiFi at this point was lightning fast. People were gripped.)
Then the artillery rolled in. Scott Harrison spoke of his personal transformation from soulless Rolex-wearing night club promoter in New York to Founder of charity:water. The facts are numbing: 80 per cent of disease is directly caused by bad water and lack of sanitation and 40 billion man hours a year are spent fetching unclean water each year in Africa.
Hearing the story of watching a 7 year old girl repeatedly vomiting as she tried to quench her thirst with water so dirty her body immediately rejected it, the auditorium was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
charity:water, often called Silicon Valley’s favourite good cause, has raised $77 million thus far, 100 per cent of it going to build water wells and GPS and other internet-connected monitoring equipment so that the loop can be closed, communicating back to givers the tangible results of their donations.
I was left feeling rather pathetic for what I’ve thus contributed to the improvement of the planet. As a feeble start I’m going to donate my birthday this year. You should too.
The usual suspects
Then it was back to what – on the surface at least – feels trivial. Katy from Twitter talked of “only on Twitter moments” when one celebrity talks directly to another and how it gives you a fly-on-the-wall experience. I’m not sure it does. I’m not sure how it differs from a TV interview. I’m not sure I care, either. Again, we needed some real journalists on stage doing some grilling – about Saudi Arabia, Guy Adams, whatever.
As I mentioned, LeWeb is more often than not dominated by American speakers and softball interviewers. This isn’t necessarily bad, given the industry a chance to share knowledge and do business with the Silicon Valley posse.
“Facebook has gone native” said Peter Deng, Director of Product Management, speaking of Facebook’s fundamental refocusing on mobile. Apparently now their designs, wireframes and UX are all created using a ‘mobile first’ policy. About time too.
That probably will resolve Facebook’s mobile app issues and potentially turn them into a truly mobile company. (It won’t deal with the bigger issue for Facebook, which in my view long term requires them to become more a distributed social platform and less a destination play.)
Facebook changing its Messages feature to allow it to be used without a Facebook account was also discussed at length. This really means without a Facebook profile, as you still need to give your name and phone number to Facebook. It will be interesting to see how that impacts WhatsApp, which is about the only mobile messenger I’ve seen used (reluctantly) by people on any type of scale.
Half-way through the day, Loic tagged-in Marco Montemagno to emcee, a sort of Loic mini-me. Positive, energised and with an appropriately thick accent (this time from Italy) I found him ultimately a little grating to listen to. The fact is being an emcee – interviewing, moderating and presenting – is simply a lot harder than it looks and you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. A few would have been nice.
Speaking of grand-daddies of tech, Yossi Vardi gave a typically lively talk. He comes across as a frustrated comedian, which is certainly better than taking oneself too seriously .
Yossi is a seriously experienced Angel Investor with over 80 investments made over the last 16 years (mostly in Israeli start-ups: his focus and promotion of Israel tech has been tireless) but his presentation slightly rambling. It’s a pity as there’s so much experience locked away in that mind of Yossi’s I felt it was rather a wasted opportunity.
He also had the modesty to admit he’d had many failures. Perhaps a fire side chat with a high quality interviewer would have been a better idea. Great speakers, big tech industry names do not always make.
Should you go to LeWeb 2013?
In summary then, LeWeb maintains its feeling of being a big budget, slick operation. Set over three large halls, those of consequence in the European tech scene attend. And that’s the point. Given you can watch online, the cost seems high. But if you get just one business deal, investment, or meet your co-founder, what is that worth?
You can say that of any conference but the difference is with LeWeb, you have a fighting chance of meeting those people in the lobby, over the extravagant food and copious coffee. And the speakers are world-class – because most of them are Americans.
Canny entrepreneurs can always find ways around high ticket prices. Yes, the tech conference scene is more crowded now. But LeWeb is still king. See you next year.