Last week in Amsterdam an Irishman called Paul O’Connell staged the Uprise Festival, or UPRIS3, where some 75 start-ups were given time and space to do their stuff. He plans to repeat the feat at an event in Dublin later this year.
When the Dublin Web Summit announced its departure from these shores last September, with the final event taking place in November last, there was the inevitable rush by opportunists to fill the vacuum.
But, for start-ups themselves, was there really a vacuum, at least in terms of space other than a one-metre box?
I found myself wondering that very thing as I wandered into the Uprise Festival or UPRIS3, which was hidden away in a fairly nondescript building in a warehouse district beside Amsterdam’s port that is normally reserved for dance music parties.
‘When I left Dublin there was no start-up ecosystem, I didn’t even know what start-ups were’
– PAUL O’CONNELL, UPRISE
Inside, start-ups were given a handful of wooden pallets to make of them what they will – and they did – and the whole thing felt less like a hawker’s bazaar and quite collegiate and easy-going.
Off to one side were a few table tennis tables. In the centre of the room, pallets were arranged in the shape of a seating area and stage for panels and a final start-up pitch battle, in which everyone in attendance voted for the top start-ups.
The festival vibe was enhanced by a beer brewed specifically for the event called Hoprise and, outside, a few San Francisco style food trucks served up hot food.
Even though the event had support from brands ranging from Rabobank to Microsoft and Facebook, to name a few, there was a distinct lack of corporate branding anywhere in sight.
Start-ups were there for different reasons and, interestingly, quite a few were primarily there to source talent rather than investment. Impressive start-ups in attendance included 3D Hubs, Poopy Cat, Capture Camera, Taglayer, Countr and Tunga, to name but a few.
‘We have a definition of what a start-up is and we follow that – no agencies allowed, nothing over a Series A, it has to be product-based. It’s all about helping young companies grow faster’
– PAUL O’CONNELL, UPRISE
This was Limerick man Paul O’Connell’s third Uprise event in Amsterdam and he plans to hold the fourth in Dublin on 19 and 20 October. A venue has not yet been confirmed for the event.
The former designer said he has taken a design approach to the event, designing it around start-ups fundamentally being able to express themselves.
“I am a UX designer by trade and I’ve been here in Amsterdam for seven years. When I left Dublin there was no start-up ecosystem, I didn’t even know what start-ups were. But I was interested in spatial design and that’s why I came to Amsterdam.
“However, I got bored of working in agencies and I didn’t feel they offered the opportunity to innovate. Designers can be quite focused on specific details, but the capacity of start-ups to innovate and pivot fascinated me. If you don’t like it throw it away, start again. That’s not the design way.”
O’Connell tried his hand at a number of start-ups before striking gold with Dutchstartupjobs.com.
“The idea was to help the Dutch ecosystem – they needed to be more open and inclusive and I’ve been helping the ecosystem for four or five years and sometimes you’ve got to push agendas. I know how stuff works here.”
But now, as he sees it, the start-up bug has gripped Europe. “There’s still a lot of talk of bubbles, and yet people don’t think the idea of young companies growing fast is a trend. But there’s a universal approach of being able to create something, not be precious and throw it away and start again. In most start-ups there is a new focus every six months. I know lots of start-ups who are no longer in business, others that have mutated. But what is great is the ability for start-ups to engage in self-promotion and validate products quickly.”
Honest feedback loop
The outstanding quality of the Dutch start-up ecosystem, O’Connell pointed out, is the Dutch people’s penchant for straight-talking. “You get honest feedback right away and people will tell you if they will use something or not or pay for it. If you can make the Dutch pay for your products then you will have no problem convincing the rest of the world. It’s a great ecosystem for validating products.
“While funding in Europe is still slow compared with the US, Amsterdam has a lot of history in the spice trade and so there’s a lot of old money and trapped value in The Netherlands, trying to release it is the key.”
O’Connell said the direct nature of business in The Netherlands suited his personality. “It’s either black or white, it helps you to make decisions faster.
“A lot of the time when opportunity knocks you either take it or fail. The idea of the festival was to give the start-ups an opportunity and environment where an opportunity is given and they just take it. It’s a chance to actually see the team, let them show you the product and get in with the people.”
O’Connell is also strict on what companies qualify to exhibit as a start-up. “We have a definition of what a start-up is and we follow that – no agencies allowed, nothing over a Series A, it has to be product-based. It’s all about helping young companies grow faster.”
After the Web Summit
O’Connell’s plan is to hold Uprise every six months and Uprise 4 will take place in Dublin.
“I make no bones about it, I built this in answer to why we don’t want to be the Summit. Nor am I Rocket Internet, I don’t want to build the same products in different continents. The Web Summit had a cattle mart approach to start-ups that never sat well with me. These are companies built to innovate, disrupt markets. But saying to them ‘here’s a one-metre space, everyone behave the same’, it just doesn’t mesh.
‘People love to come to Dublin and that was the greatest thing the Web Summit ever had, and now it doesn’t have’
– PAUL O’CONNELL, UPRISE
“My concept is to give them space, ‘here’s a stand you can take apart, we’ll help you to shine’, but you have to come up with the idea yourself and we’ll do it. We work in the best interest of the start-up. If you are there for recruitment and you just sit there with your laptop and poster, you’re not going to get the benefit.”
O’Connell said he selected 19 and 20 October for Uprise 4, or UPRIS4 if you will, because he didn’t want to get caught in the slipstream of the Web Summit, which has departed for the sunnier shores of Lisbon this November.
While he thinks the Web Summit was crazy to leave Ireland – “we will be back,” Paddy Cosgrave said last year – O’Connell said that, in respect to the Web Summit, it changed the conversation in Ireland around technology.
“It helped educate the public about technology and start-ups. At least it planted a seed. Most people in The Netherlands don’t even know what The Next Web is.”
I chastised him for being blunt. “If you come at something directly and say what you mean, you get to where you want to go faster,” he responded quickly.
He said Uprise takes the clutter out of tech events, but not in a way you would think. “We don’t have an app. Our Wi-Fi is patchy but at least there’s nobody searching for a schedule.”
He said that Uprise has been supported by the Dutch government in the form of support from Startup Amsterdam. “Our focus has been to enable job creation and helping companies grow.
“The key here is talent. Money comes to talent, talent doesn’t necessarily come to money.
“My plan is to pick up what we learned in Amsterdam and apply it to Dublin.”
So I ask O’Connell is this a homecoming for him, is Uprise planning to come to Dublin to stay?
Avoiding a direct answer, he said: “We would like to bring Uprise to Dublin specifically because we believe it is also a comfortable place to bring the rest of Europe to. People love to come to Dublin and that was the greatest thing the Web Summit ever had, and now it doesn’t have [that].
“Lisbon is lovely, but Irish people and Dublin are something to be proud of. I know the Dutch love coming to Ireland and so many already have.
“But I also think Dublin could learn a couple of things from Dutch expectations. Straight talking is one of them.”