Tech Dispatches from Davos: The Escher-Like Hierarchy of Davos

By Matthew Prince , written on January 25, 2012

From The News Desk

There is more snow this year in Davos than any year since 1952. Big, fluffy flakes have been falling continuously since I arrived here Tuesday afternoon. Every conference attendee's bag includes strap-on shoe spikes to keep you from slipping and sliding on the ice. While a good, practical idea in theory, I think the sharpened spikes are unlikely to make it through the airport-like security checks that gate every hotel and venue.

The conference officially began this morning, however Tuesday night there were several pre-events. The World Economic Forum (everyone here refers to it simply as "WEF" -- pronounced as a single syllable, not spelled out) hosted a dinner I attended for the Technology Pioneers last night.

Looking around the room of the hundred or so people in attendance, I was struck that at least three played roles in CloudFlare's success. David Ulevitch, CEO of OpenDNS, helped my understand the possibilities and limitations of DNS -- the Internet system which underpins CloudFlare. Marissa Mayer, Vice President at Google, was on the TechCrunch Disrupt judging panel where we launched. And Robert Scoble, video blogger extraordinaire, published one of our first reviews after we launched. Outside our office, it's rare I find myself in a room where such a high percentage of people played a meaningful role in our startup's success.

At dinner I talked with someone at my table who had been coming to the Annual Meetings for the last 10 years. I asked for advice on surviving Davos and he said, "The thing you have to realize about this event is that its success comes from its Escher-like hierarchy."

I gave him a puzzled look and he continued, "People like you, who are surprised you were even invited, spend your time thinking about how you can find your way into the meeting with the world's power brokers. Meanwhile, the power brokers you're trying to meet are all sitting at some dinner tonight trying to figure out how to get in the fun party where the next Mark Zuckerberg will be hanging out."

After dinner Robert Scoble, toting a slick 3D camera, and I boarded a shuttle to the Piano Bar at the Hotel Europe on the central Davos Promenade. I'd gotten a text from a friend that some of the Young Global Leaders (the 30-somethings) and Global Shapers (the 20-somethings) had occupied the bar and it was the place to be on this first night.

When we arrived the party was in full swing. The piano player, who looked like he would have been more at home in a surf shop in Santa Cruz than this Swiss village overrun with CEOs and government types, belted out Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. The crowd was young, casual and, surprising to me, split almost evenly between men and women. There were lots of familiar faces from the San Francisco tech scene: young VCs, startup CEOs, tech journalists. Talking to several of them we lamented there wasn't a bar like this somewhere in San Francisco.

As I left to walk home to my hotel around 1:00am there was a line waiting to get in, mostly of gray-haired guys in suits and ties. I recognized one as the well-known CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The bar was full and the piano still hopping. The power broker types, who must have gotten word of where the fun party of the evening was a bit late, were stuck standing in line waiting to get in.