Engineering Serendipity

Engineering Serendipity

July 17, 2015 by Anna O'Hare

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It’s taken us 4 years to scale our flagship event Web Summit from 400 attendees to 20,000 and a bunch of physicists have played a big part.

Back in 2010, 3 international journalists showed up, this year it will exceed 1,200. Investors is up from 4 to over 800. Exhibitors from 3 to over 2,000.

With each passing year an increasing number of people ask how has it grown so fast? When I share the answer it’s almost never what people expect, so here it is:

Our growth has been largely propelled by data science. Or more correctly, in my view, network science. While conference companies hire event managers, we hire physicists with PHDs in areas like complex systems and network analysis. They then apply that knowledge and understanding to the task of creating and optimising real life networks. After all a conference is a network, albeit a momentary one. We love stuff like Gephi, NetworkX and Datasift, and algorithms like eigenvector centrality, Force Atlas and Fruchterman-Reingold. But what does that even mean?

Put it this way: While conference companies typically hire experienced event planners, we hire computational physicistsapplied statisticians, engineers of all shapes and sizes, some folks who know a thing or two about machine learning and AI, and then some awesome front end developers.

While traditional conference companies fret over manually curating seating plans, compiling speaker lists and handpicking invites for networking events, we approach the challenge from a technical and mathematical point of view. We build algorithms that take into account who you are and who you might benefit from being on a pub crawl with or at a table with or in a meeting with.

In other words, we “engineer serendipity” at the scale of over 20,000 attendees. The people at your table or on your pub crawl at Web Summit or SURGE are neither a random collection of attendees nor a manually curated group of attendees, but rather the product of algorithms.

Slowly we’re expanding that approach to other conferences around the world. We’re incredibly excited to do this with SURGE in India. Back in Dublin at Web Summit, that engineer-led data driven approach pervades every aspect of what we do: who we focus on getting to Web Summit, who we focus on connecting at Web Summit, and who we help connect post Web Summit. And that approach, that invisible hand, as odd as it sounds at first, seems on balance to work.

This doesn’t mean we’re anywhere close to really truly disrupting the conference industry. Software might be eating the world, slowly disrupting industry after industry. But in our minds, we’re only starting to barely nibble at the giant and antiquated industry of conferences, events and trade shows. And that industry isn’t a multi-billion dollar global industry, but rather a trillion dollar industry.

In the years to come, if we don’t manage to take a tiny slice out of the the big old conference industry cake, then I’m sure many other tech startups will. It’s just a matter of time. No industry, no matter how big, no matter how seemingly ill-suited for software and data science, is immune to disruption over time.

See you in Bengaluru.

About the Author

Anna O'Hare
Anna is a storyteller at heart and is particularly passionate about telling the stories of startups. After returning from a year working in New York City's tech sector, she now writes for Collision, Web Summit, RISE and SURGE.