James O'Sullivan Web Summit 23

My Web Summit experience

Great expectations?

James O’Sullivan, CEO & Founder, Nuke From Orbit

Date: 20th November 2023

I didn’t really have an appreciation of what we were going to find at Web Summit because although I’ve done trade shows with my other company, Kobas, before, they’ve been very sector-specific, trying to sell to a service to a targeted audience. This felt like everything, everywhere, all at once (with an AI veneer) because it was for anything that utilises the web – and what doesn’t?! But despite its size and over 70,000 attendees, it never felt cramped or jammed in. What also impressed me was the diversity of attendees and how far they’d travelled to be there; Brazil (lots from Brazil), Asia, Australia, and Africa, were all represented and eager to network and learn.

Firstly, let’s talk about production values. Just spectacular. It’s not just the main stage, which is colossal, but the fact you have ten stages dotted throughout the [multiple] pavilions that would probably seat two and a half thousand people each, and even the smaller stages, where I did our Startup Showcase was sizeable and very well attended. Everything ran like clockwork, and the schedule was packed with quality speakers and panels.

Our view of the main arena for the grand opening - Web Summit 2023

Our view of the main arena for the grand opening

Quality speakers, quality insights
Speaking of speakers, there were certainly a few personal highlights. Hearing from Jimmy Wales was excellent, because I strongly believe that the more Wikipedia evolves the more important a resource it becomes for the world. Christina Fonseca from Indico Capital Partners was everywhere, and always worth listening to because as a poacher turned gamekeeper, she understands what it’s like to be on both sides of the startup/investor divide.

You get the impression that the brilliant Christina is very much the poster child for Portuguese entrepreneurship, being that she founded one of their limited (but growing) number of unicorn companies. She’s also, spoiler alert, a woman in tech, an under-represented demographic Web Summit did an amazing job of pushing with about 46% female attendance. I suspect this has something to do with the heavily discounted tickets available to women through its Women in Tech programme, which I’m a massive fan of and would highly encourage other trade shows and industry events to embrace.

Our time to shine…

Our time to shine
It would be remiss of me not to go into a bit more detail on our Startup Showcase on the Wednesday, because it was a brilliant experience. In my head, I was expecting maybe 10/15 people, not what felt like a few hundred, with every seat taken and more sitting on the floor and standing behind. We were clustered with 19 other companies in the Fintech ecosystem, which meant that everyone there was looking for a product that fell into a specific niche. We’ll have the video to share with you in a few weeks’ time (and will probably update this blog accordingly).

James on stage during the Startup Showcase

James on stage during the Startup Showcase

Selfishly, I was a little disappointed not to be included in the 105 startups that got to participate in the PITCH contest, because I honestly believe we have a better product than some of the ones I saw pitching. On reflection, however, the Startup Showcase was the perfect format for us to trial our messaging in a lower-pressure environment. After all, if you can deliver a compelling pitch in two minutes – which I believe I did – then you can do it in three. I also learnt a lot from the pitches I saw and have a good idea of why we didn’t make the contest. Some of those things we could have done better this time round, some needed us to be further along our journey than we are. Next year we’ll be able to present more accurate revenue & growth projections, and a more compelling argument for the size of the problem, which is critical to making it to the final stages of the PITCH competition.

Standing out
The Wednesday was also great for us because it was our day to have a stand! I wasn’t fully prepared for how busy we were, which was probably in part because some people had seen my presentation. Being situated by one of the main stages, the rows of ALPHA start-ups we were amongst were teaming with attendees and we got to have some interesting conversations with potential partners and indeed investors, who wanted to know if our pre-seed funding round was really closed (it is, £500k locked in three days before the show even started!).

Max, Alex and James on the NFO stand

Max Alex and James on the NFO stand

When is AI not AI?
The show’s big theme was AI (artificial intelligence), and you couldn’t move for a stand, speech, panel or presentation that wasn’t talking about it in some way shape or form. And I get it; AI is likely the biggest thing in tech since the adoption of the internet (maybe since the iPhone, a long time either way) but it still felt like a lot. Perhaps, cynically, most of what I saw wasn’t true AI, just machine learning in a pretty wrapper, and it felt like some of it was a solution in search of a problem.

It will be interesting to see how this topic evolves over the coming months and years because there’s a real risk of fatigue if there aren’t more honest conversations about what is and isn’t AI, and what even needs to be AI-driven. In this regard, it was refreshing for us to be an ‘old-fashioned’ SaaS company solving a problem.

Pre-show controversy and overall impact
There’s no getting away from it, former Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave’s comments before the show were, at best, unhelpful. A lot of the heavy hitters in the tech space stayed away, and unfortunately for us, they are the people we really wanted to connect with. It doesn’t mean we can’t pick those conversations up after the show, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.

Hopefully, with the event under new stewardship, those companies will be back next year.

Key takeaways
Overall, if I were to grade Web Summit, I’d give it a solid B. The above point obviously brings the overall score down a bit, but it’s not all on them. We could have utilised our time a little better and had I not picked up a kidney infection that really knocked me for six on the Thursday, I’d have been in a better position to do a little more networking.

I can see the value of doing it again though, and we’re already booked in for next year! This time, we’ll be in a better position to make use of all the startup services made available to businesses like Nuke, like the roundtables (which you need to jump in the queue for well in advance), and the investor/startup meet ups.

We loved the atmosphere of the show (a product of its Portuguese setting), and I came away from it with validation for our product and a renewed sense that we are on the right path.

Until next time, sign-up for our waiting list and watch this space for new updates!

Max and James on the way to the Web Summit

Max and James on the way to the Web Summit