What did we do to deserve the Web Summit?

Reflecting on my few days in Lisbon at this year’s Web Summit you’ve got to think we did something pretty good to deserve such a technology treat. Whether it was our just desserts for enduring the lockdowns or playing our part in our respective countries’ fight against the spread of Covid, we certainly were rewarded in Lisbon.

I’ll leave the weather and the city’s metro strikes out of it; nothing was dampening our tech loving spirits.

This was the first in-person Web Summit since the inception of 4i-Mag, but I’ve been lucky to attend before, so I knew, within reason, what to expect when I arrived. The noticeable changes were, obviously, we were all masked and the huge halls where not as packed as they usually are. A pleasant change I’ll admit if you don’t dwell too much on the why.

The Web Summit does attract some pretty big named speakers in the world of tech and more than its fair share of celebrities and sporting heroes too, but I wasn’t necessarily here for that.

Opening night treated us to learning about NFTs, or at the very least hearing about them, also an introduction to the inception of Black Lives Matter by its awe-inspiring co-founder Ayo Tometi and show topper Facebook Whistle-blower, Frances Haugen. As you can imagine she also wasn’t complimentary about her old firm’s recent endeavours which you can read about in 4i-Mag here.

You know, the Web Summit is not all about the big stages although there are some excellent chats and keynotes some of which you can watch back on YouTube here.

For me all the talks and stage sessions are great, inspiring even, but what gets my boat a float at Web Summit is the earwigging you can do as you wander through the stands of start-ups and scale-ups. Here is where I learn a lot and the real action happens. There is no more pitching what they want to tell you, no controlled line of questioning approved between moderator and founder, nope, this is the place where all the raw conversations happen and it’s a real treat.

This ‘overheard at Web Summit’ portion of the event is not necessarily information I feel like repeating but it gives a wonderful insight to what investors are really looking for, which start-ups came prepared to bare all and which businesses are ready to put competition aside and collaborate across borders with their foreign counterparts. With this window to the start-up soul, who even needs a Forum ticket?

I was of course looking for interesting start-ups to feature in the magazine and with that brings its own set of wonderful conversations. One co-founder stopped me and said he had an interesting tale if I had a moment to listen. That’s a tall task he gave himself because you can believe in my job, everyone thinks they have something interesting to say. Luckily, he was the wheat not the chaff and I’ll be relaying his story shortly.

Everyday as the Web Summit closes it spills out into Lisbon nightlife for more tales, talks and general networking. For some of us it was the first glimpse at a social activity since the curse of Covid descended upon the world and I’ll certainly admit to having the absolute fear as I rocked up to my first dinner invite – the fear soon subsided as the conversations flowed and lips became looser, it’s still shop talk but with the guards down, suddenly you realise how lucky you are, to be in such company.

If you are in Lisbon wearing a Web Summit ticket around your neck, regardless of ‘rank’ it’s safe to assume you are all the very best of friends, many a taxi ride was shared with complete strangers who by the time the ride was over it was like we’d always known one another, such is the delight of Web Summit, networking can be done anywhere.

Reflecting on this year’s Web Summit, it wasn’t the big names and big tech that blew me away, it’s the connections I made and uninhibited conversations I got to have. Moving away from the pitches there is just so much more to these founders and tech wizards than we ever get to know from their few minutes in the spotlight.

One of my favourite chats was with a young woman who sat down at my table at lunch. I began to quiz her about what brought her to Web Summit, it was written all over her face, I knew she had to have a story. Turns out she’d been working in corporate pr before the pandemic, it was a job which wasn’t fulfilling her passions so at the beginning of lock down she started to learn how to code with an online course. Now she’s working with a start-up and was attending her first Web Summit. Her sense of achievement was beaming across her face.

Beneath all the politics, controversy, and high-profile investments other real magical moments happen at Web Summit. Whether you are a headline act or a start-up all the way from Longford in Ireland, the conversations you are privy to at Web Summit is what it’s all about and I’m really blessed to get to witness them. What a treat for the soul.

Fiona Alston is a freelance journalist based in Ireland covering tech, innovation, start-ups and interesting SMEs. Alston is also passionate about athletics, health and horses having competed in triathlons, equestrian events and horse racing, and her lived experience comes through when covering sports personalities or fitness features. Growing up on the family farm in Scotland, Alston graduated from the University of Sunderland with a BA (Hon.) in Broadcast Journalism, and is frequently published in The Irish Times, The Business Post, RTÉ and 4i Mag.