Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

What Do Startup Conferences Mean for a Startup Community?

There are a lot of startup events and conferences in China and Asia these days (and some burnout from them). Generally, these conferences are a distraction rather than helpful contribution for many entrepreneurs. Yet the question remains: What can startup conferences do for a startup community?

About two weeks ago, a big chunk of Asia’s startup community gathered in Hong Kong for RISE, Web Summit’s first attempt to bring their magic to Asia.

RISE definitely stood out amongst many events I’ve attended, and it can teach us much about how a startup conference, if done right, can help multiply our individual community efforts and how it can periodically bring together the disparate parts of a startup ecosystem into one common effort.

On a statistical level, RISE was a pretty big deal with over 140 speakers, 300 investors and 250 media representatives. Over 500 startups exhibiting and pitching added another level of energy. Combine that with nearly 5000 attendees from 72 countries at the lovely Hong Kong Convention Centre and you start to get to the numerical impact that the folks at Web Summit brought to Hong Kong’s startup scene.

Instead of going to dozens of cities, I was able to connect with hundreds of startup supporters from all around the region in one place. Personally I ran into buddies from Thailand, Singapore, mainland China, Taiwan and Korea, and I made new companions for even wider circle, including Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Likely everyone else my schedule before and during the event was pretty packed.

As a startup community builder and coordinator in Greater China, I am often wondering how best to provide opportunities for knowledge sharing and networking, how to keep the energy and momentum going and how to coordinate individual efforts into a collective platform. Some of the ways I often cite are regular meetups, startup accelerators / incubators like Techstars, YC, 500 Startups, etc. and community innovation events like Startup Weekends and Hackathons.

But after attending RISE and other bigger startup conferences, it is clear that startup conferences and summits are also an important ingredient in a startup scene. An event like RISE in Hong Kong shows a level of maturity the startup scene locally in China and regionally in East Asia.

So, what does a startup summit mean for a startup community? These summits 1. get everyone together, 2. highlight the trends, celebrate some of the amazingness, and 3. provide huge networking opportunities.

1. Get everyone together

“Mapping” a startup community is a difficult task. A startup ecosystem has many players and supporters. Co-working spaces and accelerators are a key aspect as are meetups and any regular events. Universities and training schools are key talent pools. Government groups provide support in various ways. Investors, banks and other professional services and financial companies also are a key “glue” in significant ways. Bloggers and news groups help tell the story and celebrate the successes and challenges. Certain companies and community leaders are particularly forward thinking and are literally the lighthouse for the entire effort.

With so many participants in the startup space, it is difficult to map all of the parts. Even more challenging is bringing everyone together.

For a startup summit like RISE to be successful, we nearly had all the key ingredient in the same room, bringing together a pretty wide range of leaders and supporters, startups and supporters, investors and talented youth.

For RISE, it was clear that not only were local supporters and leaders there. There were a number of key regional players. This density led to a number of obvious (re-)connections but also created a lot of synergy and serendipity. The mass of key players meant you could connect with people from across the world by simply finding them across the hall.

While it is difficult to know when these connections, conversations and contacts will be “cashed in”, bringing them together at RISE was an important achievement for a youth startup ecosystem like Hong Kong and shows a lot of promise of successes to come.

2. Highlight the Trends, Celebrate some Amazingness

Beyond just getting so many great people and companies together, successful startup summits like RISE are able to help highlight trends in our industry and celebrate the amazingness we are building individually and collectively.

We human are storytellers and investigators. RISE brought together a lot of the important stories and probed into the important topics on many entrepreneurs’ minds.

I often have to remind people in mainland China that the goal of a startup ecosystem is to create renewable resources. It’s not a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses. Actually we are creating a greater pool of resources to help make the chance of success better for everyone.

We need to bring startup successes back to share their stories, contribute their brand and hire new talent. You don’t reach success and then leave the community behind; step up a level and help reach back to pull up the next generations attempt to rise.

The organizers at RISE did a good of balancing out interviews and presentations by industry leaders, including those from the CEOs of Line, Kuai-Didi, OnePlus and others. These later stage successes combined with the startup pitch competitions to create a sense of continuity. We may not succeed in every venture, but having these leaders come back and share their trajectory helps us keep the flame alight.

The sheer mass of speakers made it impossible to follow everything that went on. There were just too many people and topics.

Personally, I particularly enjoyed the discussion on “Is the tech bubble about to burst?” and “Does the best product win?” In both discussions they takeaway was yes, no, maybe, and they showed just how little we know (though we got a lot of experts purporting to know) and the reality that we gotta keep going in spite of a lot of uncertainty.

En bref, RISE did a good job of celebrating awesomeness, highlighting trends and poking at stubborn questions we all are dealing with in our entrepreneurial journey.

3. Provide huge networking opportunities

The main value of a successul startup summit like RISE or Startup Week is networking. For Hong Kong and Asia, getting everyone together and sharing so much content creates a fertile space for networking both at the main event and at various satellite events.

For many (myself included), the actual talks and content of the event are secondary to the people you are meeting. While the population and markets are huge, Asia’s startup scene is a pretty small group of people in reality. RISE provided a good opportunity to connect a few more dots in the constellations of our startup kick-ass leaders.

Perhaps my only complaint about a Web Summit or a RISE is the price tag. These are professional conference organizer events. For a first time event, RISE organizers gave a ton of free tickets to community leaders around Asia. This added a huge number of people and meant accessibility didn’t have a price tag if you could hustle your way to one of those tickets.

Unfortunately having a ticket price at all at an event like this tends to limit access. It’s not for the greater community to come and celebrate but for professionals in the space. Though it was an amazing celebration of everything achieved over the last few years, RISE isn’t the event to bring entrepreneurship and startups in Hong Kong to the wider community and general public. This isn’t technically a problem but more of an admittance of the limit of the impact of an event like this.

How do these pinnacle, gathering-everyone-together startup events help the startup community? They get us together, they help us share the stories, trends and discussion points and help us connect a few more dots. Without a doubt, they are an important ingredient in growth cycle of a startup scene.

Thanks to the organizers at RISE for such a great first event in Hong Kong. A few more sparks have taken flame. Looking forward to future ones.

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