These events are incredible opportunities for startups to connect with investors, for service providers to find new leads, and, theoretically, for everyone involved to learn from the luminaries of industry via a series of pitches, panels and the inevitable keynote talk while partaking in a rubber chicken lunch.
As a veteran conference attendee (and former conference organizer in my first job post-college), I can appreciate the incredible amount of work that goes into putting an event for hundreds of guests. And I do believe that there are great things that happen at these events - especially during the cocktail hours and other less structured parts of the conference.
It's not often that a company raises money directly off an investor pitch at a conference. But the relationships made at an event can and do definitely aid in bringing in the bucks (either from investors or customers, in the form of sales) down the road.
It seems that most of the value in conferences comes not from the content but from the connections. And yet, for anyone who has attempted to bring an event like this to fruition, organizing speakers and content is seen as paramount.
Which brings us to the paradox about startup conferences - the greater the quality of the speaker lineup, the more attractive the event is to potential attendees, which leads to a higher quality overall crowd. Yet, as the quality of the crowd increases, there is an increased desire to skip out on the awesome content and spend all your time in the networking areas trying to connect in 'real' conversation with the people who matter.
What ends up happening is this: some 50% of the crowd ends up hanging out in the conference hall and skipping out on the talks altogether. These are often the 'cool kids' who everyone wants to see. The other half end up sitting in the panel session, with approximately 90% of their attention focused on a phone and only 10% on the expert speakers up front.
This situation begs the question - is the startup panel session in its current state simply broken? And if so, should we get rid of panels altogether or should we experiment with new or different methods to make them better?
My gut reaction is that content is still valuable, but only if it truly is new or different than content you can get somewhere else or you've seen before. In far too many cases, conference content is simply recycled versions of what everyone has already heard before. This is especially true in today's world, in which it's possible to learn a lot about topical issues - like raising capital or lean startup methodology - by educating yourself online.
What is still compelling, though, is to hear real, personal, potentially unfiltered views from key influencers in the entrepreneurial world. Conferences do a great job of aggregating these kinds of interesting people in one room, and yet we so often waste their time by insisting on having them answer very sterile questions in a sterile 45-minute panel followed by Q&A.
It is way more compelling to me to hear a personal example of how a VC missed out on a deal or to hear their thought process around a particular investment they made rather than a general statement about "the type of deals they like to do" and "what they look for when making an investment." Entrepreneurs are sometimes reticent to share their war stories from trying to raise money (especially if they think they'll need to raise more in the future). Yet, true content value is highly correlated to the transparency and actual insight is the focus rather than vague generalities about startup life.
In summary, conference content is broken. But the good news is that the people who need to fix this problem are entrepreneurs and investors who spend all their time building companies to solve things that are broken!
My hope is that everyone involved in creating these awesome events will not settle for a model which is just "good enough." Instead, we will begin to see harder hitting questions, more honest answers, and different formats to ensure that we're not just consuming the same old story multiple times a year. Let's get creative with how we engage with each other so that our time spent at various events is productive not just during the cocktail hour, but throughout the entire day.