Sith Lords, Supermen And Cheerleaders
The tech and web gathering held in Vienna last week brought together the startup scene. Also, there was beer. But with the culture of ‘awesome’ and ‘kickass’ taking over, we wonder: are we being Americanised?
“Networking” – that’s the answer the inventures.eu team mostly get when inquiring fellow festival punters about their motives for attending the Pioneers Festival last week (29-31 Oct). Indeed, with about 2500 participants, potential business contacts are definitely not lacking at the web and tech festival organised by STARTeurope. So, while big names like Adam Cheyer of Siri fame and Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, lecture and startups compete, there is a considerable amount of business card exchanging and backslapping going on beyond the tracks.
With its mix of aspiring as well as seasoned European and American techies, hackers, entrepreneurs, investors and – of course – journalists, Pioneers brings together the international startup scene. It does feel like an extended family reunion, as even German-speaking entrepreneurs and investors chitchat on first-name terms (yes, that is still a bit unusual to otherwise hierarchically inhibited Austrians).
Beer, wristbands, t-shirts
And then there is beer, wristbands, more t-shirts than dress shirts and a young international crowd that appears to be having a good time. If it weren’t for the opulent venue – the Hofburg palace, the relative lack of music and the entrepreneurial fringe events, we’d almost be led to believe that we’re at an actual festival. As we follow the tight schedule of speeches and pitches, we are reminded that this is still a conference – in a palace at the heart of what once used be one of Europe’s major political and cultural capitals. Considering the history-charged choice of location, we sense a certain wishful symbolism in establishing Vienna as a new European startup centre. It might even be a sign of imperialist tendencies reawakening at the edge of the “Silicon Alps”…
Seriously now, Austrians and entrepreneurship? Ich don’t think so! That’s also the result of a study presented prior to the Pioneers Festival. The “Austrian Startup Report 2012“ conducted by the festival organisers shows the downside of the local business environment: While Austrian startups are slowly increasing in number, funding is still of comparatively limited availability, particularly when it comes to second and third round financing. This is attributed to the lack of entrepreneurial spirit and risk affinity among Austrian investors and society as a whole. It seems Vienna still has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to position itself alongside the startup meccas of London and Berlin. And let’s not even mention “the Valley”.
Are we being Americanised?
Cheering up. Source: Heisenberg MediaThe Pioneers team and crowd beg to differ – at least judging from their enthusiasm and belief that the startup scene could actually shake up Europe’s otherwise dim economic outlook. Both participants and speakers are impressed – if not by the line-up itself, then by the sheer size and positive vibe of this conference gone festival. As one Forbes magazine contributor puts it: “The capital city of the former Habsburg Empire is the new hub for a tech festival that’s neither Austrian, European or American“ – that’s an interesting point, there.
“Lessons from Silicon Valley” – is the topic of one of the “insights” presented at the festival’s Startup Academy. It appears as though the organisers did their homework in that respect. With the grandeur of the venue, cheerleaders, base jumpers as well as the general amount of awesome, kickass and game changing excitedly exclaimed by hosts and speakers alike, one cannot help but wonder whether this is still Vienna – AKA the capital of mediocrity and nagging (oh, not to forget: it’s also the world’s most prosperous city) – or whether we are in the middle of some über-enthused off-campus event in Stanford.
Is this still Vienna or are we at some über-enthused off-campus event in Stanford?Source: Heisenberg Media
Yes, the Pioneers Festival feels positive and international, if not a little Americanised. This may well have to do with the fact that the European tech and web scene still very much looks beyond the Atlantic for inspiration – and who could blame them for that. Yet, it leaves inventures.eu to ponder whether there could ever be a genuinely European approach to entrepreneurship or how that would even look like.
Sith Lords unite
We don’t want to underestimate the positive impact a professionally organised event like Pioneers could have on the scene. There is a genuine sense of solidarity among the entrepreneurs and there is demand for exchange with like-minded people. Christian Derwein and Sandor Herramhof of Austrian app-startup evntogram are thrilled with the vibe of sharing and caring. However, when I tell them that I just talked to the founder of eventorium – a Polish app offering similar services to evntogram – they are curious to find out details: “So, how many users did you say they had?” It’s almost comforting to see that despite the communitarian mood, these people still think in entrepreneurial terms. Yes, there is even demand to meet investors.
Sith Lord Dave McClure is awaiting your pitches. Source: Heisenberg Media“I have to pitch to Dave McClure”, Lukáš Hudeček, a Czech entrepreneur and – like McClure himself – self-proclaimed “Sith Lord”, announces (read Lukáš’ business insights here). Attending Pioneers as an “Ambassador”, the 30 year old who is currently running his fourth startup – node5, a tech workspace and accelorator in Prague intends to propose his latest ideas to the angel investment icon and co-founder of 500 startups. Without success, as I later find out. After all, face time with McClure, like with other high-profile speakers is highly sought after at Pioneers.
Mouth wash, male egos and a triumphant female
“It’s amazing but a little too crowded”, Hudeček and Mike Reiner of the Estonian Startup Wise Guys later sum up their thoughts on the festival. That – as far as social events are concerned – is not a bad thing in itself, of course. The atmosphere is easy going as we have a chat at an after party in the basement of the Hilton Hotel. The welcome drinks, which are suspiciously reminiscent of mouth wash – at least in colour (blue) – are on the Austrian fitness app wunderkind runtastic. What’s more, its co-founder Florian Gschwandtner’s earlier appearance on the festival’s main stage makes for good gossip.
“81 push-ups? I can do that”, one undisclosed (male) participant analyses Gschwandtner’s live demonstration of his app and, not least, personal fitness (check out his stats here). “He reminds me a little of Clark Kent.” – “Patrick Bateman, more like”, as other commentators throw in. Do we sense some envy, there? If it weren’t for Eleonor Watson of Poikos, who wins the Pioneers Challenge with an impressive pitch of her FlixFit technology, we’d be led to believe that the European tech scene was still entirely male dominated.
More than just business cards
Guys, I thought that we would all dress up for Halloween! Source: Heisenberg Media Talking of good presentations, events like Pioneers tellingly demonstrate how important the right exposure and publicity is for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. When Fredrik Debong, co-founder of diabetes app mySugr (see profile here) and last year’s winner of Startup Week – the Pioneers Festival’s predecessor – takes to the stage to hand the award to an equally ecstatic Watson, it feels like actual rock stars are making an appearance. As the crowd give standing ovations in the festive setting of the Hofburg’s grand ceremonial hall and Watson triumphantly sprays the audience with champagne, we actually believe.
Whether European or American(ised), wishful thinking or positive encouragement – kudos to STARTeurope and the Pioneers team for creating an event that leaves us with more than just a pile of new business cards and additional LinkedIn contacts. There are people out there who commit to the entrepreneurial spirit that our region still seems to be lacking. And then, there is also free beer.