Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reflections on Ten Years of the Nantucket Conference

The energy level was surprisingly high at last week's Nantucket Conference, given the general economic malaise. The best theory I heard: entrepreneurs are innate optimists, and when you get them away from the office and introduce them to other entrepreneurs, you get a multiplier effect. And the event was sold out, with a lengthy waiting list. Not sure I can explain that...

The discussions ranged from the importance of keeping promises to build credibility during the sales process (Bob Metcalfe) to the need to be "data-driven, tenacious, and gracious" (Boston-Power CEO Christina Lampe-Onnerud). Chris Zannetos of Courion defended the need to continue rewarding top performers, even in a downturn, and Aron Ain of Kronos said he'd chosen to cut about 300 jobs (out of 3300) rather than cut salaries across the board. Doing the latter would likely have caused the company's best contributors to start mulling other job offers. Paul Ricci of Nuance talked about some of the challenges of doing successful acquisitions, and said his company was adding engineering jobs in Montreal, rather than Massachusetts, because of favorable tax incentives in Canada. Nick d' Arbeloff of the New England Clean Energy Council listed climate change, energy security, and diminishing fossil fuel reserves as some of the defining challenges of our time, and said, "These problems have got to be wrestled to the ground."

Jana Eggers, CEO of Spreadshirt, said one of the company's mantras is, "Hope is not a strategy." And Robert Keane, CEO of Vistaprint, said his company is determined to transform printing and other online services for small businesses (signage, e-mail marketing, etc.) by looking to companies like Dell, Staples, FedEx, and Intuit for inspiration.

My favorite metaphor of the 10th edition of Nantucket came from Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital. He talked about the option of getting on the express train from Philly (near where he is based) to NYC, versus the local, which makes lots of stops on the way. Entrepreneurs and VCs who pour many millions of dollars into a start-up have essentially bought a ticket on the express train to an IPO. "You can't get off," Kopelman said. "And most entrepreneurs don't realize they've bought the express ticket." Kopelman said his preference is to invest smaller amounts in companies and keep valuations reasonable, which gives him more options for a profitable exit. "When there's smoke on the train, and we're at the [local stop where someone is offering us] $25 million [in an acquisition], I want to get off," he said, to lots of laughter.

And I think my favorite moment was when we successfully linked up with Skype COO Scott Durschlag via Skype. Durschlag couldn't make it to the island because of Skype's planned IPO, so he was in London, and we used the WiFi network at the conference venue to conduct a video chat. The quality, using Skype's new Macintosh beta client, was surprisingly good, and Durschlag talked about how Skype tries to pursue paying customers even as it serves freeloaders (people like me, who've never given Skype a dime of revenue.) Toward the end of the chat, Durschlag said the company had benefitted from Metcalfe's Law in its run-up to 400+ million users. I quickly turned my laptop around to the audience so that Durschlag could see Bob Metcalfe sitting in the front row and smiling proudly. (I don't think Durschlag necessarily knew that Metcalfe was in the audience.)

For the first time, there was really a lot of Twitter activity during the event. We showed Twitter posts on the screens at the front of the room once or twice during the sessions (which some people found annoying.) You can see it all here.

We started planning the very first Nantucket Conference in 1999. The original impetus was that lots of the entrepreneurs and investors (and journalists) who powered the innovation economy here in New England would bump into each other at events on the West Coast (like PC Forum, Agenda, TED, etc.) Why didn't our region have an event of its own explicitly targeted to the people building and running technology companies? Over the years, we've tried to constantly ask what we can do with the conference to make sure it remains valuable to execs at big companies, CEOs of smaller companies, and investors. We try to mix war stories, inspiring case studies, looks at new research or emerging technology areas, explorations of market dynamics, and insights from industry leaders. We clamp down on self-promotion, puffery, and PowerPoint slides.

The event has unfortunately developed a reputation for being exclusive mostly because our venue is small, so not everyone who wants to come can fit. We try to focus primarily on CEOs and founders, partners at VC firms, and executives at larger tech firms. The upside to that is that the event is not overrun by VPs of bizdev (like many conferences), and the only service providers in attendance (attorneys, commercial realtors, bankers, etc.) are those who underwrite the event. This year, there was a pretty good number of first-timers in attendance, and so we organized some dinners on the first night of the conference to help plug them into the Nantucket community.

The next two events I'm helping out with are the Convergence Forum, a life-sciences "spin-out" from Nantucket, and "What's Next in Tech," which takes place June 25th at BU.



Anonymous Matt Lauzon said...

This was my first year at the conference and I could not have been more impressed. The organized discussions were meaningful and the impromptu discussions were also filled with valuable nuggets of wisdom. I think the smaller format, where it felt like almost every attendee could have been a credible speaker, is part of the magic + appeal. I hope this doesn’t change! Thanks Scott + others for putting together a great event.

PS – I have to admit that I was not a Twitter user prior to the event but I finally had the “aha” moment when the screens were up during one of the fireside chats. @mattlauzon is now up and running!

May 4, 2009 10:30 AM  

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