There’s nothing like attending a conference: Sweat-stained shirts, brown bag lunches premade months earlier, bad sleep decisions … what’s not to like? Still, it’s hard to put a value on the conversations, the chance meetings, the relationships forged, and in the coronavirus world we live in, their absence has hit the tech world especially hard. No SXSW is one thing. But no E3? Are you kidding me?
Into that void stepped Collision From Home, which kicked off Tuesday not with a whimper but with an explosion: 634 speakers, five channels of programming, people from 140 countries. Thirty-two thousand attendees, the company noted in a blog post revealing the stats behind the show. That’s shocking, for a virtual event during the time of quarantine.
Those speakers are also wonderfully diverse and intelligent: A who’s who of the technology world. I watched Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s chief content officer, talk about the upcoming Joe Rogan show — and plans for new ad formats on Spotify. I joined a press conference with Google’s Sustainability Officer, Kate Brandt, who discussed progress making data centers more efficient and uses for data in the time of coronavirus. Last year’s physical show was remarkable for its diversity, I wrote at the time. The online event has maintained that, with 45.2% female attendees. In a word, it’s astonishing.
So where did it come from? Ahead of the show, I speculated about the future of virtual tech conferences, on the heels of the Microsoft Build event, which was held largely through Teams. I asked Paddy Cosgrave, the founder of Collision and its big brother Web Summit, what he hoped to get out of taking a successful event from Toronto to the Net.
“You can’t replicate what’s happening in the offline world,” Cosgrave told me. “Spotify reinvented consuming music online, but they didn’t replicate a music store experience. They’ve created an entirely new way to consume music in a pretty satisfying way. So when it comes to conferences, to maximize meaningful connections is not about replicating every feature like meeting booths or roundtables we have at the physical events. We’re reimagining what a conference is online.”
Did they ever! In what must have been record time, his engineering team built a fully-realized platform, designed to be a two-screen event, where your laptop or desktop is a window into panel discussions and fireside chat, and the app on your phone acts as your guide, with a schedule, chat features, and so on.
Sure, there were hiccups getting started. Along with several people I know, I spent an hour struggling to log on, greeted by 500 Server Error messages. It’s hard to host a brand-new platform for 32,000 people. Cut them some slack. When it finally loaded, I was amazed. Some features weren’t working perfectly, and others are yet to prove themselves to me, notably the ability to interact.
“In a disconnected world, everyone wants to connect but it’s really hard to meet new people,” Cosgrave explained ahead of the event. “We’ve spent more than half a decade building software to network virtually at our events and connect in advance. Much of those same tools for Collision from Home will be fully at play from the end of June.”
I didn’t really believe him at the time. Many people think virtual events should look and act like some AOL chat room from the 90s. And even Cosgrave noted that, while the goal may be meaningful connections, it’s difficult to do virtually. “Software is very powerful but I don’t think any amount of software will replace the magic of true face to face contact.”
There’s another plus to a virtual event as well: It’s cheaper. It’s cheaper to attend, cheaper to throw, cheaper to expand, notably for start-ups.
“The most expensive part of going to conferences for startups is not the ticket but the travel and the accommodation. For bootstrapped startups that can be about a four-week runway,” Cosgrave told me. “For startups, this now provides an opportunity to connect with people that can have a serious impact on their business that doesn’t cost them the many thousands of dollars that traditionally attendance at a conference did cost.”
This seems like a particularly important point for an event like CES, which has for years billed itself as “the most influential startup event on the planet.” Eureka Park, a zone at CES designed for startups, hosts well over a thousand new companies with brilliant new ideas every year. Sure, CES has helped many of them get off the ground. The show claims to have led to $1.5 billion in funding for startups over the last 8 years. But countless others must have sputtered and failed, after sinking an enormous amount of money into traveling to Vegas. Virtual might actually be better.
In a morning tweet before Day 2 of Collision From Home kicked off, Cosgrave said that he hoped “to open our online conference platform to third parties who in particular, like us, organize large, bespoke events.”
CES, are you listening?
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