My First Time at Websummit as a Startup Founder

My First Time at Websummit as a Startup Founder
Opening night with Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen

It's not often that you'll find the founder of Black Lives Matter,
Ayọ (fka Opal) Tometi, Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen and the CTO of Amazon, Werner Vogels at the same event. But that is the beauty of Websummit. It manages to at once question the role that tech plays in our lives, while highlighting its ability to transform our lives for the better.

So what is Websummit?

Websummit is one of the biggest tech conferences in the world. It takes place in Lisbon and has over 42,000 attendees from 128 countries, 748 speakers, 1333 talks, 1519 startups and 872 investors.

You'll find conversations with VCs about the growth of European tech, a pitch competition with the top startups at Websummit and you might spot Tim Berners Lee, Deborah Archer (President of the ACLU) or Jen Wong (COO of Reddit) under a panoply of pavilions.

I came here two years ago and I'd come away revitalised and inspired by the number of interesting startups, speakers and the ambience. What I didn't know, is that it's a completely different ball game as a founder. It was the first time Ownership would have its very own stand and the first time my co-founder and I would pitch our business in-person. After so long in the humdrum of WFH in the same few rooms, to say we were excited would be an understatement.

Here are my top from takeaways from what is often described as, "Glastonbury for geeks."

1. Websummit Helped to Crystallise Our Thinking

There is a saying I hear a lot that is often misquoted as Lenin, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." That is how Websummit felt. After so long bouncing ideas with our team and advisors, it was really refreshing to be able to share our work with complete outsiders.

Nothing can substitute in-person, direct feedback from peers and potential customers. Having to talk through our vision affirmed we were on the right track with certain areas of business, but it also guided us to a place that wouldn’t have been possible without  early insights at the event.

2. The Investor Newsletter is a Non-negotiable Rather Than A Nice-to-Have

I met with several investors and one point was reiterated again and again. Investors want to be kept informed. It doesn't matter if you're raising now, in three months or in a year, keeping investors in the loop is crucial. VCs and angels meet hundreds of founders every month and so few of them follow up regularly. Anything you can do to stand out is a real advantage.

It can feel like there isn't enough progress to highlight or that there is too much to condense into a nicely formatted email. But that isn't the point. Every business model change, team restructuring, product update is something be shared. Even if an investor’s thesis is not aligned with what you’re building, they will know other investors who are. Why would they introduce you to other investors if they have no insight into how you got to where you are?

Cold emailing when you are raising is not the best strategy. Instead you want to be keeping your contacts in the loop for updates big and small, so that when you raise, they can look back over several monthly updates and see how you’ve surmounted challenges, how you’ve pivoted with customer information and how the team has grown.

3. Night Summit is Just As Important as the Conference

The conference is merely scratching the surface of what is possible at Websummit. In the evening there are lots of events all over Lisbon. Where investors, speakers, founders and attendees alike drink and get to know one another. It’s a much more laid-back atmosphere and that makes it much easier to have frank conversations and find collaborators. You end up bumping into many of the people you’ve met across the few days and opening up much more about genuine challenges and fears  that come with choosing the less secure path of becoming an entrepreneur.

I pitched on the Tuesday night at Black Excellence’s event and met more founders and investors then the whole day at our stand earlier that day. I think next time we’d look to really identify some of the key events in the evenings, as the informal networking lends itself really well to meeting potential collaborators.

4. Diversity and Inclusion Does Not Happen By Accident

I remember first entering the tech world feeling so perplexed by the lack of women and people of colour in many of the rooms I found myself in. Event organisers would sometimes ask me to speak at events and only to feel distinctively that it was merely to improve diversity on a panel discussion of exclusively white men. However, the conversation around diversity is starting to move along since then. Many are realising that it’s important for not only speakers, but also attendees to to feel a sense of belonging in these spaces.

This was the first year that Web Summit had more female than male attendees, with women making up 51% at the conference. It showed. Web Summit encouraged women to join their women in tech network to get tickets for themselves and a friend, relative or colleague for just €85. It was a commitment to changing the gender ratio at an event that offers real opportunities for career and business progression.

I'd be remiss not to add that as a black women at these conferences, I often feel hyper-visible. This time was not quite as pronounced as when I went to Web Summit two years ago. The conference is taking steps to improve the number of people of colour and we attend as a direct result of this initiative. Websummit worked with Barclays’ Eagle Labs to offer free tickets to their Black Founders’ Accelerator.

All of this to say that diversity and inclusion takes a concerted effort and strategy to reestablish the balance that can so often be off in the world of tech. Other conferences should take note.

I left the conference inspired and excited for where our business is headed. I already cannot wait to go to Websummit next year.

Hope to see you there!