Edited by @SimonCocking words by Reuben Godfrey, pictures by Reuben and Brendan O Se

As the dust and glitter of Web Summit settles for the last time in Dublin…

I attended each day expecting to be enthralled; it’s not every day the best and brightest in the tech industry are here on my doorstep and willing to talk… I work in tech, I work with small businesses, my green media lanyard should be a beacon to those with something to shout about; I’m going to have a busy few days.

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First morning – Coffee on board and camera in hand I started at the start; The Town Square. This sounds like a place where some real business will get done, so I begin… diligently plotting my way from stall to stall; genuinely giddy to have my mind blown by the latest irreverent start-up or paradigm-shifting technology. The first morning flies by in a blur of jittery pitches learned by rote and thrust upon me effusively… the narrow aisles and my awkward backpack were not conducive to long conversations –combined with the equestrian overtones of the venue, this quickly becomes unbearable.. ok, regroup, fall-back.

Time to take a look at the schedule and see if I can catch a speaker on the main stage – just missed Mickey Dell, no worries.. no doubt he was spouting the latest justification for him believing that his massive corporation is, in fact, just like a start-up.. up next; not sure who Mike Froepfer is but pretty sure I don’t need to hear from Facebook about ‘Connecting the World’. Hmm.. what about the other stages? The marketing stage are asking the important question; ‘Is the Digital Economy Doomed..?’ My guess is ‘no’. Enterprise stage is talking about the cloud (boring) and the Sport summit (?) has retired, French, soccer journeyman Louis Saha talking; as appropriate and insightful at a tech event as Kim Dotcom commentating at a football match? Probably.. Anyway, it’s lunchtime.

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At this stage I’m going to say that the RDS is not designed for, and performs poorly during, events this size. Making my way around the venue, it is hard to escape the dilapidated, agrarian, atmosphere. However, the organisers seem to have embraced this and even added their-own livestock click-bait. One of the paddocks between halls had some multi-coloured sheep – a visual hook for the obligatory social media activity. The strong visual instantly resonates but, with no explanation one is left to ponder; do they represent Electric Sheep from, like, the dream in Bladerunner? A political dig at the powers that be, something to do with needing ‘Dyed in the Wool’ support maybe? Aha, this is a reference to the Richard Brautigan’s Cybernetic Ecology (it has to be!). Or, more likely perhaps, maybe Google got it as part of their Platinum sponsorship package..?

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I had a new strategy; approach the booths while the main stage is busy. I reckoned the auditorium would be packed to listen to Google’s Amit Singh foretelling of the ‘next great leap’ and I wasn’t wrong.. less traffic in the aisles of the Village Green and Downtown areas meant more time for conversations, more time to delve past the neat, cursive and, even, folksy, branding.. evidently, to be a start-up one must look like a start-up; slick, user-friendly and earnest. Where are the disruptive start-ups though – surely the next great leap is exhibiting here this week..? The vast majority of vendors, however, seem to offer niche iterations of existing platforms; ‘it’s like AirBnB for pets’, ‘it’s like linked-in for healthcare professionals’. The social media, CRM and digital marketing spaces are a blur of ‘one-click lead generation’, ‘integrated platforms’ and bubble graphs. Also, my conversations weren’t going so great. Once I began asking about revenue streams and obvious competitors their attention was diverted over my shoulder, scanning for a more likely investor perhaps.

I arrived on the afternoon of second day and the atmosphere in the exhibition halls had palpably changed. Perhaps it was the 20,000 collective hangovers from the myriad parties hosted the previous night but there was a steeliness about the place today. The event organisers tell us that 1000 ‘investors’ attended this year – post-financial-apocalypse bounty hunters searching through the  for true business DNA.. also, exhibiting at this event is a big undertaking and represents a significant investment of the human and financial resources available to fledgling companies; time to make it pay, time to attract one of these whales to the booth and, once there, prove that you’re made of the right stuff. I wonder, though, how likely investment from a walk-in is. The days of bronzed, silicon-valley execs Han Soloing around taking punts on social media apps is over – investors looking to convert good ideas into real revenue won’t get it easy. Most companies I spoke to need investment to grow their sales and marketing budget. Perhaps their ideas  are innovative but any new business content to default to the 40 hour work week, corporate model and the all too familiar cycle of churn; marketing teams feeding sales teams, sales teams complaining about marketing efforts, investment in CRM and ‘one-click lead generation’, training, re-brand. I thought we were hurtling towards the technological singularity?

Disillusionment was setting in. Where are the Darkweb consultancies? Where are the Blockchain apps? I thought this was a hacker event. Where’s the danger? Then, above the din I saw a familiar sounding name.. BitGold. We did an interview with their CEO, Darrell MacMullin in October but on close inspection, will this be yet another replicant? ‘like Bitcoin but with gold’. Wait a minute… like BTC but with gold? Is this it? Such a beautiful, tangible and accessible concept. Restablishing gold as a reserve currency for savings and payments. This could be really big. I spoke briefly with Darrell but only enough to pique my interest.. so many questions. I intend on a follow-up interview, watch this space.

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I’m left pondering those technicolour sheep and their imminent return to their soft, lush, meadow,  after the experience of the past few days I’ve forgotten about poetic resonance and deep metaphor; sometimes a sheep is just a sheep.


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