Los Angeles has long been a destination for fame-seekers, star-watchers, and even gold-diggers (both literal and figurative). But if the leaders of the “Silicon Beach” startup community have a say, the city will be known as a destination for technologists and innovators for at least one week per year.
LA wrapped up the first annual “Silicon Beach Fest” (SB-Fest) this past weekend. The event was pitched unofficially as a first attempt to create LA’s version of the Austin, Texas based entertainment and technology festival South by Southwest (SXSW).
Taking into consideration that the event was assembled in only two months, it has to be considered a success. In total, more than 2,000 people attended, according to event organizer Digital LA, including registrants from as far away as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and even London and Paris. The list of events incuded expert panels, a demo day, a pitch contest, a hackathon, and several swanky parties. Tracks covered a wide variety of subjects including entrepreneurship, social media, advertising, Hollywood, and fashion.
As a member of the local community, I was pretty disappointed not to have been able to attend myself, but out of town commitments and short notice took the decision out of my hands. The good news for readers of PandoDaily is the I have spies everywhere and have pulled in some informed opinions about the first SB-Fest, as well as the future of the event.
After getting a few responses to the effect of “Here’s what I really think, but please only quote me on the positive stuff,” we’re going to do this anonymous style. That attitude of community support is what makes Silicon Beach great, but at the same time may be holding it back.
Those providing their thoughts included both local and out of town VCs, angel investors, entrepreneurs, and interested but unaffiliated members of the LA beach community. The general consensus is that the event marked a great start, but that, while it has bright future, there’s definite room for improvement.
“While this annual event may be in its infancy, it clearly demonstrated that there is a strong community interest to interact with, and learn from, companies across a range of topics,” says a local entrepreneur. “The event reflected the wide range of industries we have in LA — all with the theme of tech running through each vertical.”
“I heard nothing but positive feedback about the event and the sheer idea,” says another entrepreneur. “It was very reassuring to meet several people who flew down from the Bay Area to attend or speak. Any improvements would really be on continued organization and promotion, as this was a pretty big undertaking to pull together in two months.”
One local angel started off with glowing praise, but had some more biting criticisms than most. He says, “The rooms were overflowing at most of the venues. It was well attended. Unfortunately, many high level executives — the people that others came to see, meet, and hear — only sat on their panel or gave their speech and were not seen again. There were not too many other high profile executives in the crowd. I believe this was due to the lack of investment in diversified promotional effort.” This sentiment was echoed by another who said “the VIP events weren’t very VIP.”
An exceptionally well-connected director of a local incubator tells me, “I had a lot of good people email me the week before, asking if they should attend, which means they heard enough about it to make it interesting [to them] but maybe [didn’t see it] enough as a ‘draw’ to be a no brainer. That said, what [the organizers] accomplished in a couple months is fantastic. This type of event generally needs six to 12 months of planning.”
The most heard critique was the logistical difficulty in attending the many competing events across the weekend. One observer says, “My biggest problem was [that], in its attempt to showcase all of Silicon Beach, it was unmanageably difficult to attend. I had to go from venue to venue.” Another added, “Next year, a shuttle to the venues would help.”
The question I most wanted answered was, “Is having an event like SB-Fest important to the success of the LA Tech ecosystem?” Everyone that I talked to seemed to agree that it was, or at least that it was a positive addition.
Another of the biggest concerns is that of misperception by those outside. “Having an event like SB-Fest is important to the LA ecosystem,” another angel told me. “Having an event that allows LA to showcase its successes and some of the new start ups in the mix is essential to the local ecosystem and its outward perception.”
LA is fighting reputations — some deserved, but more not — for superficiality, disorganization, and fleeting startup success. SB-Fest appears to be a tremendous opportunity to write a different narrative. On the downside, this desire to spin the outside perception can come across as defensiveness or disingenuousness, making it more difficult than necessary to separate the true successes from the hype.
Digital LA founder Kevin Winston is known for his community-building and overall positivity. Of the inaugural event, he says, “It’s great to get the tech and Hollywood communities together to celebrate digital innovation. You could feel the energy and excitement from getting everyone together.”
The ultimate question is what does this all mean for future Silicon Beach Fests? “At the closing party, I kept hearing people congratulate [the organizers] and then say they couldn’t wait for the next one. That’s a pretty strong testimony in and of itself,” I was told. The consensus was that people are eager to attend next year and will be expecting the event to improve on its early success.
So the event clearly wasn’t SXSW. But as I’ve argued previously, trying to duplicate another startup ecosystem is foolish and unnecessary. Silicon Beach Fest is a tremendous opportunity and platform to promote what sets LA apart and in some cases above other technology hubs. The organizers deserve praise for tackling such a massive undertaking. I’m looking forward to next year’s encore.