Yesterday USA Today suggested Collision was a “threat to SXSW” and that it “might eventually supplant” SXSW.
I’ve just arrived in New Orleans where Collision will get under way tomorrow and I want to be clear: Collision is definitely not the new SXSW.
I’m a huge fan of SXSW, but we’ve got very different approaches to conferences. I believe both approaches work and I think both of us will peacefully co-exist far into the future. To explain why, I want to first provide some background.
Collision is part of the Web Summit family. Web Summit started in 2010 in Dublin, Ireland, with 400 attendees. It was born from my frustration attending tech conferences as a startup founder. I felt there was a different way to organise conferences. That different way seemed to work. Web Summit grew incredibly fast. From that very first Summit in 2010, word spread across the world, aided to a large degree by social media. In by 2015, just over 42,000 attendees flew to Ireland from 135 countries.
Collision is growing even faster than Web Summit did. Web Summit had 4,000 attendees in its third year. Collision has over 11,000, despite our move from Las Vegas to New Orleans this year.
So that’s some background. The real question though is what makes Collision so different.
First and foremost, it’s not about the rate of growth. SXSW Interactive took 15 years to grow to 11,000 attendees as compared to Collision’s three. This is a meaningless fact by itself. Growth is too often a false god that leads the best of products astray.
Our focus since 2010, our different approach, is engineering serendipity. In my eyes, networking is king at conferences. And if you can fundamentally improve networking at scale then you can become a kingmaker. And that’s where software comes in.
VentureBeat and Wired have written about our approach at length. While conference organisers typically hire experienced event planners, we hire computational physicists, applied 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 organisers fret over manually curating seating plans, compiling speaker lists and handpicking invites for networking events, we approach the challenge from a technical 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. We “engineer serendipity” at the scale of thousands of attendees. Put another way, the people at your table or on your pub crawl at Collision are neither a random collection of attendees nor a manually curated group of attendees, but rather the product of algorithms.
The invisible hand
In truth, there’s an invisible (engineer led data-driven) hand at work before, during and after Collision helping improve serendipity. If you watch a lot of movies, it’s a sort of “MoneyBall for Conferences”. Most importantly, it seems to work.
Some people say great things about Collision and Web Summit, and at the core of this is our mobile app. It suggests the best talks suited to your interests and automatically finds the most relevant people for you to connect with out of the 11,000 plus attendees.
We’re also obsessed with details
As many small details as possible at our conferences are informed by both our own research and testing, as well as academic research carried out by others. We’ve obsessed about lanyard design, queuing theory, crowd flow, way-finding systems and so much more.
Take a look at your lanyard. The height at which it hangs around your neck is informed by the fields of anthropometry and way-finding. As is the font selection, kerning, line spacing, letter height to width ratios and then some more.
And then there’s Kaizen
We don’t assume for one moment that we have conferences figured out. We believe in constantly improving, constantly tweaking and constantly changing.
Every conference we run is like a new software update. We’re not just adding or improving features, we’re also bug fixing. It’s relentless, but so far it seems to have worked in Europe, the United States and now Asia.
I hope you enjoy the coming days in New Orleans or online if you’re watching our live stream. I am falling in love with New Orleans and I have been here only a short time. I hope you do too.