We managed to talk with the men behind the Startup Iceland project: Bala Kamallakharan – investor, entrepreneur and journalist and Frantisek Borsik – project manager and one of the main figures carrying out the annual Startup Iceland Conference, Hackathon and Mentoring Day, for which Confrenz delivered an official app.
Our chat revolved around the Icelandic startup community, the conference at the center of it, and, of course, mobile app adoption at conferences.
EVENTSKILL: Tell us a bit about the Startup Iceland initiative.
Bala Kamallakharan: The onset of 2008 financial crash changed everything in Iceland, as the bank I was then working for had to close their entire international division.
It was a tough time. I asked myself, “Where and how do we create value and equity?” I had an epiphany; the answer was entrepreneurs and startups. I got to work and met every young entrepreneur and startup in Iceland. I catalogued all of them and saw that at the grassroots level there was a change happening that was not obvious on the surface. I made a personal mission statement that I wanted to help entrepreneurs and startups. When I started on this I really thought the only thing the entrepreneurs and startups needed help in was in raising money. I was so wrong in that notion.
It was painfully obvious to me that what the Icelandic entrepreneurial system needed was not just money but also mentoring and a bridge to a larger market. I started doing research and found out this thing called TechStars. I was blown away by the idea and started my campaign to move Iceland toward a startup culture, what I now call startup Iceland. Startup Iceland’s mission is to build a sustainable startup ecosystem.
(You can look more into that in Startup Communities: building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in your city/)
E: How did your audience adapt the conference’s event app? What was the most popular feature?
Frantisek Borsik: The app fit perfectly into our type of conference. The vast majority of our attendees used it actively for a variety of purposes: to check the agenda (adding stuff to calendars is the hit!), to network (see who else is there & strike up a conversation) or find their way around. Although the app was built literally a few days before the conference, it got an impressive number of downloads and we’re sure to make use of it again. It’s also a great channel to disseminate presentations and other conference materials, replacing the costs of paper and letting the attendees access the most up-to-date information.
E: What’s your perspective on the event app technology’s influence on events now that virtually everybody carries a smart device in their pocket?
F.B: I believe in the MOBILE FIRST philosophy (courtesy of IBM & Apple). The impact of smart devices carried everywhere is huge. People can tweet some catchy words said a second ago on stage and it can go viral in a minute. We are living in the NOW world. And this NOW is happening everywhere. Mobile event apps like Confrenz are a perfect reflection of not just a trend, but a way in which essential things are perceived.
E: What’s the startup community like in Iceland? What are the main challenges you’re facing?
B.K: Startup community in Iceland is young but thriving. As any young community there are growing pains, obvious specific problems of currency control as well as with geography (being an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean :). However, most of the challenges in Iceland are no different than any startup community. Iceland is inherently a rich country and there is sufficient local capital, but experience in building global technology companies is still in the early stages. Every challenge in Iceland, like developing a marketing and sales organization, deep technical expertise and scaling startup companies to mid-size to large scale business are tremendous opportunities as well. Iceland is a small island but it is a country so there is broad access to established businesses and opportunities to build new companies that offer valuable services. Any startup can get access to any established company or even to the President of Iceland, as everyone knows everyone else. Very few places in the world have that kind of access. Here is an article in Forbes that describes it from an attendee’s perspective, another article by one of the speaker Ben Kepes and the original post by Brad Feld about Startup Iceland in 2012. A number of people have written about the Startup Community in Iceland, here is a post in Huffington Post
E: What was the difficult part of organizing event of this type? What’s your experience in this field?
B.K: Organizing an event is always difficult as one has to sell the vision and value of why anyone should participate. The first year was the most difficult part, but it was organized, people understood the value and the participation has been growing year after year. This year had by far the most participants. We tried many new things this year and when you try new things, you usually stumble and learn from the experience, not any different than building a startup. Project management and coordination between many volunteers and getting people who are volunteering to prioritize the event ahead of their day job is the most challenging part. However, with enough sponsorship and funding we can resolve that challenge. We have been very fortunate to have so many volunteers who put their heart and mind into organizing the event and that has made the event really come alive.
F.B: My part in organizing of Startup Iceland 2014 Conference was mostly concerned with project management of our SI2014 application. The hardest part was supposed to be getting other people to deliver what was needed to make it all work out at the very last minute, but all went surprisingly smoothly.
E: What’s in store for Startup Iceland? What are you up to?
B.K: We are planning to hold 2 events in the second half of August/beginning of September: A meet up and hackathon. The main topic will be Bitcoins and how we can utilize them here in Iceland. There is one interesting idea “How to release the Currency Controls in Iceland” and Bitcoins have a significant role in it.
Find out more about Confrenz event apps at www.confrenz.com