Paul McDonnell built the startups team at the Web Summit and is now the Global Head of Product Marketing at Intent Media. While he was working with Web Summit, Paul created the Web Summit playbook, an operational manual for scaling conferences in several new territories including Rise in Hong Kong and Collision in New Orleans. Last year Paul featured in the Sunday Business Post 30 under 30 https://www.businesspost.ie/technology/third-edition-30-30-417801
What was it like working for the Web Summit?
As a recent graduate, there’s nowhere better to start in Ireland than Web Summit. When I joined we were a team of five, organising a 1200 person event in Dublin. Three years later had a 40,000+ person conference and several international events. The growth was unprecedented in the industry and with that came a huge amount of learnings on how to build technology, scale a brand, hire intelligently, and manage a growing team. On a daily basis you’re working with the world’s leading tech CEOs, venture capitalist firms, public bodies, and MNCs, it’s a unique opportunity to rapidly become an expert in the industry and develop an amazing network.
How did you build the sales engine for Web Summit and scale it up?
The technology events industry was ripe for disruption and from the outset, Web Summit positioned itself as a technology company. What worked for SaaS startups in Silicon Valley often worked at Web Summit, from viral marketing to inverted sales pipelines, Agile sprints and using machine learning to establish what companies and attendees would make the most impact at the event. We put a lot of focus on word-of-mouth referrals and inviting founders to apply to participate, rather than a traditional outbound sales approach.
You also created the Web Summit Playbook, an operational manual for scaling conferences in several new territories. Did you find that worked in one territory would not work in another?
The goal is to always be iterating and identifying efficiencies that create better user experiences or boost performance. The playbook was a manifestation of this that would collate many of our learnings and best practices with the end goal of growing the most impactful events in the world. Each territory presented new challenges but unlike other events, Web Summit has a global audience and people will travel regardless of location. It’s often best to do an event in a city where you have your attendee’s undivided attention – having a group of Silicon Valley’s finest fly to Dublin for two days is a more meaningful experience than being in New York where they have endless distractions.
What do you think of the current Irish startup scene?
I’m a little removed from the day to day of Irish startups now but there’s clearly a lot of opportunity for small businesses in Ireland. A key change in the last 5 years is the number of success stories that have given back to homegrown startups in the form of mentorship, funding, or connections. Alumni from companies like Intercom, Trustev, Stripe, Hostelworld, Voxpro and more are a strategic advantage that Ireland has over many European competitors. Similarly, the practical ecosystem that has built up around projects like NDRC, Dogpatch, and Republic of Work, is enabling first time entrepreneurs to dip their toes before taking the plunge. Larger seed and venture funds like Frontline, Atlantic Bridge and those run by commercial banks show there’s clear belief in Ireland to produce world-beaters.
What advice/tips would you give to anyone looking to launch a conference?
Don’t do it, unless you have something incredibly innovative to bring to market or have identified a clearly underserved niche. It’s an increasingly saturated marketplace with high barriers to entry in year one. I’ve seen countless conference companies fall in recent years because they existed purely to make a profit. If you fail to provide value and assume people will repeat purchase because you’re the only choice in town you’re destined for failure. The true value of a conference is who’s in the room, not who’s on stage.
You have also been a growth  consultant for several fast growing startups in Europe and North America. What did that entail?
I primarily focus on new market expansion. The companies I work with have established some form of dominance in their home market and are trying to bring that success to a wider audience. My goal is to identify opportunities for automation, building scalable marketing, and forging new strategic partnerships in target markets.
You are now working for Intent Media the data science company for the world’s leading online travel companies how did that come about?
I was approached by Intent as they were establishing their EMEA offices in London in 2015 and looking for someone to help build their footprint in the region. We’re a data science company that allows companies to predict what a user will do on their site and adjust their user experience accordingly. It’s a freakishly talented team in New York and London that’s building pioneering technology with a huge potential to disrupt several industries.

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