Reflections on Connect 2010 Vancouver

I enjoyed Connect this year but figured I’d toss my constructive feedback out to the community for discussion, debate, or possibly even confirmation. As you can probably guess I’ve spent almost 20 years attending, speaking at, and even helping organize conferences within technology, business and academia. At this point I could not possibly account for all I’ve attended but the preponderance of these of course was in Technology in the US. In fact, for about 6 years I worked quite closely with the crew of pulver.com as they staged the hugely successful VON conferences.  So that informs my slant on how to put on a good event.

I want Connect and the BCIC to be successful and was very impressed both years, particularly with last year’s conference which was so well-conceived that it was a shock to my system to see such a good conference happening in Vancouver.  So I hope that you, fair reader, as well as the folks at BCIC understand what place these comments are coming from.. purely in the interest of helping stimulate some conversation with some ideas from the peanut gallery.

A few points:

1) More constructive sessions.

At the $50 cost-of-entry, Connect attracts tons of would-be and might-be and first-time entrepreneurs. Invite companies like mailchimp.com, ringcentral.com, 37signals.com and salesforce.com to present short sessions which show entrepreneurs how to use their tools. This is also a good gateway to get them to sponsor, and a cheap way for those companies to get customers. This hands-on stuff is right for that crowd and needn’t be super-technical. I found that some of the presentations were inspirational but very hard to connect to real decision-making for most of the crowd.

2) Fewer politicians.

This is about the only place in the world where the Lt. Gov would show up and keynote at a tech conference. He’s clearly a nice guy but by his own admission was a little out-of-place at such an event.  The speeches from BCIC officials like Greg Aasen and Dean Rockwell; and politicians like Iain Black and Hisoner the Lew-Gov aren’t inappropriate taken on their own, really… but stacked neatly together as they were this year made for a fairly content-free 70 minutes. What did attendees learn there?

3) Cut the fluff.

Also, and although I’m Scottish, the pomp and circumstance with the piper and Seargeant-at-arms was a little over-the-top. In the tech industry we have learned to afford people our respect based on the quality of their ideas and the nature of their success putting those into practise… so the Grand Entrance made by the Lew-Gov came off as pretentious and overstated, even if he is the Queen’s man in the Colonies. We also indulged a precocious science fair winner from Ontario with his own Keynote… this was an eye-roller.

4) Do it in the daytime.

Actually I think you could strongly argue the case for doing it in the evening: soon-to-be entrepreneurs can skip work a little early and attend without fear of discovery from the boss. But “serious” business conferences seem to happen in the daytime. BCIC knows its audience better than I do but hanging in the Convention Centre for 6 hours at night was a bit much for me… particularly with the soul-sucking hour of Keynotes right in the middle of the affair.

5) Sit-down meals are better.

For dinner, delegates muscled their way thru a series of buffet tables and loaded tiny plates with Tapas.  The stand-up dinner isn’t conducive to conversation, and encourages people to gravitate more to one or two people they know. Walking into a dining room and trying to find an empty seat at a table leads to serendipity and forces people out of their shells. It’s a kickstarter. With the stand-up buffet you’re too busy hunting and gathering your dinner to actually have any real conversation.

6) Embrace the lobbyconners.

Lobbyconning is key to any conference. Having big long breaks between sessions gives you cushion for time overruns but also nurtures serendipity and bump-ins, not to mention impromptu break-out sessions. If you’ve ever been to a Web 2.0 conference at The Palace in San Fran you’ll know what I mean about lobbyconners.. it’s a sport there and deals do get done.

7) Open with a big speaker.

You need to make sure people get there on time to maximize the traffic flow.  Most tech conferences begin with the Keynote that everyone wants to hear.  This year’s Connect was the inverse.

8)  Close with a party.

Bar tickets are how you keep ‘em hangin’ in there through the low points (and there are low points in even the best conference).  Folks used to criticize Jeff Pulver for blowing scads of money to hire marquee rock bands to play his parties at VON. But you know, there was genius in this design.  The chance to see a hugely popular band in an intimate setting virtually guaranteed everyone at the conference would attend, as did the open bar.  This made VON parties hugely successful for business development, relationship-building, and sealing friendships.  You knew people would be there.  And there is still a strong VON community as a result of these bonding experiences.  We don’t need Smash Mouth or the Goo Goo Dolls, but we do need *fun* built into any conference design.  And this needs to be compelling and it needs to come as a blowing-off of steam after a long and busy work day.

9)  Share their wares.

This would be a great place for local companies (such as maybe NVBC finalists) to demo their products in front of an interested and sympathetic audience.  And a great way to pre-launch products and services.  I might not have taken up that opportunity but others certainly would have.

On the whole I’d absolutely pop in on Connect in the future, as I think should any local entrepreneur or aspiring company founder.  With some tweaks (not all of my suggestions will hold water here) it could become the perfect local tech industry conference.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Connect 2010 Vancouver

  1. As an entrepreneur who’s relatively new to the community I have one major takeaway from CONNECT that you didn’t mention, although your synopsis really point for point hits on the nuances I saw lacking last week.

    Mind you, this is from the perspective of someone who spent most of those six hours at a booth talking about Foodtree, which was great and I have to say it was refreshing to present a new idea and web solution to a mixed crowd of students (highschool, even), entrepreneurs, government officials, and (presumably) investors.

    My major gripe is similar to my contention with Metabridge; you simply cannot continue to mix web innovation and traditional technological innovation under the same umbrella. I’ve been saying this since I was in Chicago and saw true web and mobile innovation presented alongside droves of ‘social media’ innovation (advertising, pr, etc)…these audiences and entrepreneurs are having VERY different conversations.

    The end result of putting a web startup next to a water filtration technology or a new wave extension for wheelchairs is a conversational affront. At Metabridge I sensed distaste from investors, largely because they seemed interested in the web. At CONNECT I sensed confusion from both sides of the aisle; entrepreneurs facing a much higher learning curve as they present their ideas, and onlookers who really can’t find the concrete vein of quality or potential. The overall mood becomes a misguided, mis-focused endeavor in broad strokes ideas that most have a hard time contemplating in a clear context. Are the sessions appropriate for someone with a web idea, or are they useful to engineers building hard technologies? Who is the audience? The audience isn’t even sure.

    The investment community, especially venture world, is becoming aware of the clear distinction between web and mobile innovation and hard technologies like bioscience, nanotech, and even wind/solar and the like. Conferences in BC need to get smarter about the same thing.

    1. Well.. I see your point but this has been the gripe of folks from various verticals for the last 15 years. Back then it was the Web guys bitching that there was no show for them and they had to exhibit etc. alongside the ISP douchebags at ISPCon.

      The fact of the matter is if you segment too much then you ensure the conversation is inward-looking, whereas when you mix the tribes not only do you attract investors etc. looking across the whole sector, but you inspire conversations outside the echo chamber.