Let me start by first saying that I generally like conferences. They are often a great way to connect with colleagues and service providers to the venture business that I typically only interface with sporadically during the year — and even then, often via email, conference call or through some other quasi-technologically enabled medium. That said, conferences can be a time sink. I also find the “content” at these affairs to be on the wane, particularly those events targeted at venture industry professionals and the businesses that service them. Put bluntly, the modern venture industry conference is hewing dangerously close to becoming an irrelevant echo chamber. There is simply too much filler, too many of the same faces every year saying versions of the same thing at every conference, too much marginalia, too many self-congratulatory tributes, too many resume recitations and thinly veiled fundraising pitches. Not enough self-reflection, not enough contrarian thinking and challenges of conventional approaches, not enough panelists challenging others about basic market assumptions and predictions. Not enough mea culpas.
I realize conferences are not intended as exorcisms of past demons, or a recitation of misdeeds, or of great deals missed, or of lousy investments green-lit. Indeed, who would want to attend such a thing, much less to do so at $3,995 a pop? But a true “trade” conference, as opposed to an emerging company forum like DEMO or TechCrunch50, are supposed to be opportunities to convene an industry to network, re-connect, combine on opportunities, address industry challenges, and sometimes commiserate on the state of the profession. If a trade conference strays too far from that mission, it ceases to become an assemblage of the industry’s top professionals to meet, discuss and network and risks becoming just another ‘pay-to-play’ trade show .
Trade conferences have some work to do to re-invigorate the medium and re-establish its relevance in an industry clearly going through some re-calibration and re-inspection. I am confident the main conference exhibitors can meet the challenge, but doing so relies heavily on the assumption that they realize there is a problem.