The first ‘tech’ conference I attended was SXSW in 2007. Screens in every hallway were showing a live stream of this thing called twitter. Everyone had a Second Life strategy, plan or notion. And no-one, as far as I noticed, was talking about Facebook which had only opened up to the general public six months earlier. I met some extraordinary people, I heard some outstanding talks and returned to London having drunk *all* the Kool Aid.
Last week, at WebSummit 2014 in Dublin, among the hundreds of eager start-ups who pay fancy money for the opportunity to meet more money, I saw a number of startups who wanted to be ‘The Tinder for real life encounters’, all using the word ‘spotted’ in their names. There were dozens of variations of ‘A social network/platform/app enabling friends/family/strangers to share photos/videos/plans’. There was even ‘A social network that allows you to share short updates with friends by answering the question ‘what are you up to?’ – something familiar about that particular concept, I felt.
Clearly, then, WebSummit made me feel old, grumpy and nostalgic and I don’t want to be old and grumpy. Not yet, anyway. It’s very tempting to hark back to 1994 or 2004, when the internet was a wide open frontier and everything was up for grabs and wax lyrical about all the big dreams being dreamt. But as Kevin Kelly says, right now, today, in 2014, is the best time in human history to start something. There are “more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside,” than ever before, and the evidence of this optimism, this can-do spirit was certainly present in Dublin, even if the some of the ambition seemed a little slight.
Of course the majority of the startups exhibiting at WebSummit won’t get beyond year one, let alone year five – but all these young people (and these were young, young people) have all started something, raised a little capital from friends and family, worked late nights, called in favours and launched their own thing into the world. And they are keen and smart and committed and will learn from success and learn from failure and make better things and bigger things. And they’ll solve harder problems than what happens if you see someone you like the in the street but can’t find them on Tinder.
And, because they are not tired and old and jaded and grumpy and nostalgic, WebSummit was probably a great experience for them. They’ll have met their peers, discovered new technologies, allies, funders, competitors. They might decide to go back to the drawing board and start again, or refine their proposition, or perhaps decide that they might need some old-fashioned marketing to differentiate themselves from the other startups who are doing similar, but not exactly the same, things.
But I’m sure they won’t stop starting something new. They’re entrepreneurs, startups, founders, dreamers. It’s who they are and what they do. In Dublin last week there was lots of Guinness downed, but also plenty of a new vintage of Kool Aid. At WebSummit both tasted pretty good.