Rethinking Industry Conferences, Through a VC Lens

While I truly love what I do as a venture capitalist, I regularly find myself playing the role of a contrarian to conventional VC wisdom. Yet, I suspect I share the same wave length with my peers on one topic: industry conferences. I generally dread them. Truth is, most VCs approach conferences with a mix of ambivalence, obligation and trepidation.

It’s a shame, because VCs actually value industry intelligence, networking and fun that industry conferences promise, but rarely provide. Why do so many industry events fail so miserably in delivering value? It usually boils down to three issues:

Content
In its simplest form, venture investing is about using today’s insights to recognize tomorrow’s revolutions. Unfortunately, most conferences serve up little more than yesterday’s news. Rather than inviting actual innovators to unveil groundbreaking new concepts or discuss emerging technologies and trends in detail, conference organizers often opt instead for lineups of familiar faces who merely offer their analysis of current trends and perhaps some broad predictions. It’s a low-risk strategy for the organizers, but as any VC knows, risks are commensurate with rewards.

Networking
While digital and social media have made maintaining relationships easier than ever, growing our personal networks still requires meeting and spending time with new people—face to face. For VCs, that’s more important than ever. As venture deals become more complex, markets more fragmented and exits more labyrinthine, each of us will need to bring more relationships to bear in helping our portfolio companies succeed, or in finding winning ideas for our firms and LPs. Industry conferences promise such networking opportunities, but they never seem to draw a balanced mix of interests. Often, you get either a crowd of service providers and junior folks trying to get access to just a few select attendees, or vice versa. The result is nearly always frustration and wasted time.

Fun
Ultimately, lackluster content and networking drain the fun out of most conferences. The promise of discovery devolves into desperate distraction. Look around, and at any given moment you see most attendees texting, tweeting, emailing or checking flights. For me, this is the height of irony. Venture investing is one of the most engaging, exciting and enjoyable professions in the world. Yet, the vibe at so many conferences resembles detention hall on the last day of school. You don’t want to laugh, linger or mingle. You just…want…out.

I’ve never been shy in sharing such sentiments, which is why I was shocked when NVCA asked me to chair the effort to reinvent the association’s annual meeting for its 40th Anniversary. Was this punishment for past complaints?

Rather than reading into it, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and create a conference that VCs would actually enjoy. To me, that means inviting big-time speakers whose ideas and actions have changed the world in the same ways VCs strive to. It means bringing in the right mix of innovators, policymakers and entrepreneurs to share their ideas, and advising them on how to take those ideas to the next level. It means diving deep into specific investment sectors to uncover true, actionable insights. And, it means having some fun together over great music at a cool venue in one of the world’s premier cities.

We’re calling it VentureScape, and it’s happening May 14-15 in San Francisco. If you care about the state of venture capital then you need to be there. If you care about serving your entrepreneurs and portfolio companies, then you need to be there. If you just want to enjoy yourself and learn with some really cool people, yes you should come as well.

Now if that doesn’t sound like an event worth your time, then I’ve got good news for you. NVCA will be accepting applications for next year’s chair beginning May 16. See you there.

Jason Mendelson is a managing director at Foundry Group and a member of the executive committee of the NVCA Board of Directors. He can be reached at jason@foundrygroup.com.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

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1 Comment

  • Good points, Jason. Especially the ones about conferences regurgitating yesterday’s news and failing to discuss new concepts and emerging technologies.

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