How one conference this year changed the tone of the conversation around the tech ecosystem in Pakistan.
Tariq Ellahi and Tausif Ahmed flew in on separate flights to Karachi on November, 3rd, 2017. Their motivation for visiting the city were quite different but they did have a few things in common. Tariq had been catching up with friends and partners during his recent visits, trying to gauge the local business environment; Tausif was exploring ideas for a new investment vehicle for his in the works tech investment fund.
Tariq and Tausif are Pakistani expats based out of the Middle East. Serial entrepreneurs educated on the US East coast with a strong interest in desi roots. Decades of experience with the regional technology scene and keenly interested in seeing the tech startup eco system grow in Pakistan. They changed their plans at the last minute to include a short visit to 021Disrupt on Saturday after the event popped up on their social media feeds. Rather than staying for a few hours as originally planned, they ended up staying for two full days.
They weren’t the only ones.
The real test of an event and a speaker line up is what happens in the hallways. I missed every single speaker session on my list because every time I would step outside to check up on things, to catch with missed calls and urgent messages, I would get pitched to by an aspiring or current founder. It got much worse on day two when I would get tackled not just on the way out but also on the way in thanks to the prank Sennen (Finspire) and Jehanzeb (MandiExpress) pulled on stage during the startup founders heart to heart session.
The amazing thing was that I wasn’t the only one. The hallways outside the conference venues were packed on both days with impromptu pitching/meeting sessions between speakers, panelists and delegates. And that is the spirit we really wanted to see. Founders feeling free to engage, to tackle, to pitch, shamelessly, again and again. It was, after all, their event.
You can either keep them inside the conference session or keep them outside in the hallways. But you can rarely do both. It is always a positive sign when you have a packed session inside and hallways crammed outside with sidebar conversations; especially on a Sunday morning in Karachi. Quite a few of the delegates came for the content and speaker sessions but a great deal more came to connect. It was the hallway discussions and the action outside in the corners that caught my eyes.
Startups, partners, mentors, investors and influencers connecting, pitching, setting up follow on meetings and exploring deals that really gave 021Disrupt the ultimate boost. In the end startups and founders come to conferences and events to explore, to network and to start conversations. Everything else is a distraction.
If an event generates leads, brings together door openers, creates an opportunity for coverage, books dollar revenue, validates current direction, elicits investor interest or simply inspires and motivates one to carry on for one more day, it is worth attending. If it doesn’t, it’s not. The big challenge then is getting the right audience and mix in. Get the mix right and the buzz will blow the roof off.
All the seats were full at the invitation only investor round table run on the sidelines of the main event on day one. We were expecting less than a dozen participants. 31 showed up.
11 came from outside Pakistan representing the full spectrum of investors from early stage to mezzanine and private equity investors. The geographic mix ranged from London to Singapore with the Middle East in between. 7 ran local family offices interested in seriously exploring the tech space with money coming in from textiles, industrial manufacturing, petrochemicals and fast moving consumer goods. 8 came from local angel funds with active investments and transactions under management. All angel investors came from a technology background. We also had 2 lawyers taking notes, 1 local bank ceo in observation mode and two moderators. The discussions focused on market signals and drivers, exits, term sheets, eco system evolution, investor and founder maturity and shape of things to come.
We started off with posing a simple question to foreign investors. Is there anything holding you back from investing in Pakistan? Do you need anything from us to look at this market seriously?
The surprising answer was no.
You guys are ready, as ready as you will ever be. And we are not just looking, we are already investing.
Conferences tend to suck and tech conferences in the region are no exception.
Sponsored speakers present cookie cutter marketing presentations that bore audiences to death; the content is rarely curated or relevant. After the initial excitement of the opening key note energy levels drop and participants drift away. Panel discussions turn into extended monologues that rarely stick to the agenda or answer questions that are asked. Organizers tend to be so focused on filling up the room, speaking slots and signing up sponsors that everything else takes a backseat. On day two of a two day affair if you do an anonymous random survey of why most of the living dead are still hanging on, you would be surprised by the answers.
Organizers forget the simplest of lessons. The objective is to engage, retain and entertain the audience. Delegates will forgive all other insults and oversights but they won’t forgive boredom.
Which is why it was so refreshing to be finally at an event where every small detail had been taken care of. Someone had finally gotten the mix and the buzz right.
Small things matter. They really do. The photo booth at the entrance. The media wall against it. The backdrop on the stage. The screens sprinkled all across the venue. Real time Twitter and Facebook trends and analytics. The social media feed. The non stop background commentary on all channels. Vibe, buzz, energy; you can’t manufacture it, buy it or bottle it; you have to generate it.
It adds up. A printed conference plan. Help desks on every floor. A dedicated multi camera team. Volunteers to track delegates and nominees. Pre-assigned printed and distributed hashtags. A dedicated speaker room for speakers to step in, take a break and prepare for their sessions. Sponsor standees at every corner. Enough space left around for short huddles. Office hours, panels and workshops on the side. Rooms on the venue for volunteers and organizers to crash for short power naps. An infinite supply of young men and women to keep things going as the week long schedule leading up to the conference begins to take its toll. Trying to start up on time. Strict enforcement of speaker time slots and guarding against slippage. A clued in and in charge MC. A sound system that works. Invisible skin toned microphones and head sets.
It is not easy pulling an event like 021Disrupt.
It begins with planning and curating the sessions around a core theme. Great contents makes or break conferences. But great content is not possible without a central cohesive theme. Once you agree on the theme, you have to give everything on your list the relevance test. Next comes the speakers’ line up. You don’t just need relevant speakers, you need relevant speakers who are interesting, who can engage audiences and who can maintain a positive tone. You need to place content that is interesting in between content that could potentially be boring. You have to check availability and dates, structure the pre and post conference agenda and start working on your obligations as a host. All this needs to be locked down before you start speaking to sponsors.
The 021Disrupt team included the crazy band of individuals collectively known as Nestlings – founder alums of the Nestio incubation program. There was a core team being run by the Big Bird and the program management group at the Nestio but Nestlings became an immediate extensions of the group. From designing brochures, marketing collateral and social posts to organizing logistics, visas and transport. From signing up sponsors to setting up volunteers and social media desks to short listing and finalizing panelists and speakers. The energy and vibe at the event ebbed outwards from this core group and infected everyone within the audience.
One common comment we kept on seeing in the post event feedback was how smoothly things flowed. How well planned the execution was. They flowed smoothly because every single facet of the conference was managed and run by a combined team of Nestio program office and a Nestio founder. Think about it for a second. Every single aspect of the event was backstopped by a technology startup founder. A Nestio founder.
Nestio has graduated 106 founding teams including the outgoing batch 6. Not all of them showed up at 021Disrupt as volunteers but the ones that did were enough to make a difference.
From transports and logistics to social media; from backstage operations to sponsors management and branding; from content curation to speaker line up; the team backstopping the event was formidable in its depth and commitment to 021Disrupt. Much more heartwarming than the success of the actual event was seeing this community of volunteers, colleagues, friends and peers come together at work. It was the perfect illustration of the Vulcan mind meld in real time in Karachi.
For me personally the real winners were neither startups nor investors. Yes we built the conference around them. Both segments felt that the event created the right buzz, conveyed the right message and delivered the right value. It was a big win for every one.
For me the real winners were college students. The youngest of the lot. The generation that comes after students enrolled in university programs. The group that will be taking the SAT and assorted admission tests and applying to universities and undergraduate programs this year and next. The dozen or so teenagers who came from their test week and weekend prep sessions so that they could see firsthand what the fuss was about.
When we were putting aside quota for free and sponsored passes some of us felt that school and college going students were too young to benefit from the conference content. What would a teenage A level student get out of the entire affair?
Here is what 16 year old Sheza Altaf, an A level biology student at Cedar college, had to say about 021Disrupt. Sheza was one of the dozen odd teenagers at the event.
“You learn a great deal about yourself through other people stories. I was supposed to come in for just two hours. I ended up staying till the end. I learnt that you can’t do everything on your own, that I need to start young, that products are built around problems and that failures needs to be celebrated.”
Sheza wasn’t alone in her reactions. Here is the feedback from another 18 year old A-2 student who spent two days at 021Disrupt.
“I walked into the conference expecting it to be a series of lecture with speakers giving key note addresses. Instead I was blown away by the energy contained in the conference Hall. From A level students to CEOs the atmosphere was absolutely charged with interaction, learning and opportunities. I learned about different perspectives, team building, and the difference between having a product that is wanted and one that is needed.”
For the last two decades the central focus of our efforts has been to get more young people involved with the technology industry. If talented and gifted young men and women pick computer science, technology innovation or startups as their preferred profession there is hope for all of us. If they don’t we are doomed.
It’s not about becoming a doctor, an engineer, an artist or a lawyer. It’s about understanding the transformative power of technology to shape and change society, to create impact. The empowerment that comes with that realization and the resultant choices you make when you realize that yes you too can change the world. You don’t have to watch helplessly from the sidelines. You can borrow a laptop, hook up an internet connection and start contributing.
It’s about understanding that good things come to those who try. And try again. When 16 and 18 years old start talking about starting early, about celebrating failure, about product development you have already won.