Internet Summit 16 begins Wednesday November 16th in Raleigh. Billed as the “Definitive Digital Gathering” and now in its ninth year, IS16, as it’s known, brings digital, marketing, and tech speakers from across the nation for two days of in-depth content and networking.
I remember the very first Internet Summit. Launched in 2008, this annual conference has become one of the largest self-contained events to hit Raleigh every year. It regularly brings in a few thousand people these days, and has evolved and transformed itself as much as the digital aspects of business that it covers.
Internet Summit has always had a place for startups, and while that place has also evolved over the years, it remains one of the better events in the region for entrepreneurs to attend, especially those on the marketing or branding side and/or those who cater to those kinds of companies.
The top tier of speakers includes celebrities like Morgan Spurlock and Al Madrigal as well as higher-ups in the ranks of Facebook, Hubspot, Salesforce, and even the Onion. They’ve got an after-party that will feature the Original Wailers. That’s also a thing they do very well, mix in the right amount of fun and excitement in what could otherwise have been, like most conferences are, a pretty grueling if educational eight-hour marathon.
Internet Summit is the jewel in the crown of tech-event company TechMedia, and I’ve actually known TechMedia co-founders Eric Gregg and Scott Hedrick since forever. This, and a coincidental alignment in where each of us were taking our careers, means I’ve been to every single Internet Summit except for last year’s when I was traveling, have spoken at four, and have sponsored two.
So I can speak to the history of Internet Summit as it relates to startups, and lay out what you, the entrepreneur, should expect from this massive-but-still-growing event. I sat down with Scott Hedrick, and I can admit sheepishly we hadn’t done that since a few drinks after IS 2014, and after a little catching up, I asked a few pointed questions.
JP: It’s 2008, at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, Bob Young is the keynote.
SH: Wow. Yeah,
JP: That was the first time I ever seen Bob speak to a group. I had known him from when Intrepid Media did a deal to sell books through Lulu a year or so earlier, but I’m pretty sure he fired up everyone in that room.
SH: It was completely jam packed, oversold. That was the kind of job we were doing at the time, trying to put a face on the digital side here in the triangle. But we were pretty green at putting that event on, so we’ve come a long way. We’ve added more fun elements, it’s more professionally run now. I’ve got great memories of — what wasn’t that long ago — but everything was different. We didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, the SEO algorithms have been changed 10,000 times over since then. It was certainly a different landscape.
JP: Yeah, and if this tells you anything, outside of your preference to work with startups, Intrepid Media sponsored the second one in 2009 as media sponsor. How’d you let that happen?
JP: Then in 2010, marketing and digital media start to become the focus of the event. Was that a proactive move or were you just following where digital was going?
SH: It was where the space was going. It was starting to be about storefront acquisition, conversion, retention — That’s what they were talking about from a business sense, so we started tailoring our focus on that as an important element of the digital side.
JP: In 2012, you added the first Startup Summit as it’s own mini-conference attached to and then integrated into Internet Summit. ExitEvent was a part of this, we did like a guerilla-style kickoff with a Startup Social in the lobby of the Convention Center, where you had moved by this time, and I did a panel with investors talking mostly about early stage.
SH: Yeah, our roots are heavy into the startup side, coming out of Techjournal days and having covered that space for years. Startup is always something we see as a part of the our ecosystem here in the Triangle and we wanted to put more of that into the event.
We also added more general appeal, things that appeal to other folks with the music (IS 2012 also included a mini-music festival) and we’re keeping that up with the Original Wailers and the Shakedown this year.
Startups are super important to the entire landscape. A lot of the things we discuss are applicable to those folks. Whether you’re Fortune 50 or a 3-week-old startup, you’ve got to find customers, convert customers, put your best foot forward — we try to build the program for both of those audiences.
JP: Forward to 2014, Startup Summit goes away as a standalone conference, but that was the year I did “Mostly Legal Marketing,” with Aaron Houghton, Justin Miller, and Eric Boggs. So definitely still a big, and maybe even more punk, startup presence.
SH: We didn’t think of it so much as doing away with the Startup Summit but we fully integrated it into the event, and now it’s fully a part of Internet Summit, with the content mixed in rather than broken out into its own event. It’s more about not putting them at the little kids table, but make it a part of who we are as the greater event.
JP: That’s a good way to put it. I missed last year’s Summit because I was out of town. What did I miss – me, specifically, as an entrepreneur?
SH: You specifically? Well, you’ve been to every event we’ve done so maybe the answer is a little bit different. This is a space that changes rapidly, or if you’re a newcomer, it’s about the latest best practices and trends.
In general, every year we want to give you new things that you take back to the office and implement. That’s the most key piece, the content and the learning, and the great connections. It’s a huge crowd and there’s a lot of opportunity to have a beverage and shake a couple hands. But first and foremost, it’s about converting more customers, removing friction on the digital side of business, whether that’s B2B or B2C and everywhere in between,
JP: What should I be looking forward to the most this year?
SH: We think as have a really well-rounded lineup here. The top of the lineup is fun and interesting. Morgan Spurlock is Academy Award nominated. Al Madrigal from the Daily Show is hilarious. The Original Wailers go back to Bob Marley. LaShawn Merritt is an Olympic gold medalist..
But there’s also the learning — fantastic brands — Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Nasdaq. We’ve been doing these events around the country and we can cherry pick the best of that stuff for this event. We’ve got some speakers who can really provide value — How do I get better at my job? How does my company grow?
We have 90 sessions and 7 stages, there’s going to be a whole lot of content going on.
JP: Man. That’s a long way from 2008.
SH: (Laughs) Yeah, it certainly is, right? It just keeps getting bigger in terms of the number of folks, so we want to give them a good environment. Taking up more space can combat that, but in the digital sphere there is so much going on, in order to do it justice, you really have to have a lot of content. This is our best effort at that.
JP: You alluded to this earlier but you go to all these different cities now. What have you learned from other places as to how the tech and startup scene compares here?
SH: Sure. There are 13 events now. That’s a good question. It’s a pretty exciting time in the space in general. Every market out there has a nice hub and things bubbling up. As a Raleigh guy, I appreciate what we have here, the talent, the diversity, the startup scene, the great support from cities, counties, economic development folks. It’s exciting to see the space growing everywhere, but always refreshing to come back here and see the Triangle still kicks ass at this stuff.