After two years online, bringing Startupfest back to an in-person format was an adventure. We questioned every part of a live event: What classics should we keep? What should we throw out? And perhaps most importantly, what new things had we learned online that could be adapted to the physical world?
We’ve often detailed formats like Oxford Debates, Circlesquare, and Chain Reaction Panels that we’ve invented (or unabashedly stolen from gameshows and podcasts.) I want to explain another format we invented, this one in real time with the help of the audience, which we’ll definitely be doing again. It was one of the highlights of the entire festival. We call it a Hive Mind Debate.
Three key factors
Three things made this possible: A tech stack; an experimental mindset about bringing online tech to in-person formats; and a willing group of participants.
The tech stack
As Betakit rightly observes, Embrase—the company behind Startupfest, Scaletech, FWD50, and other events—is a tech company now. Over the last year, we’ve built an entire event stack that lets suggest conversation topics, provide real-time agendas, and simplify much of our behind-the-scenes event operation process.
But our tech stack isn’t just the things we’ve built ourselves. It’s also the tools we’ve tested and come to love over the past couple of years. One of these, Mentimeter, continues to be a solid offering with lots of adaptability, and we’ve deployed it across many events.
Online in person
Online interactions have plenty of challenges. It’s easy to get distracted when every other tab has something interesting going on. We miss many of the subtle cues—intake of breath, proximity, and body posture—of face-to-face conversations. Without a lot of effort, there’s no way to ease into and out of discussions. People forget to unmute.
But online also has huge benefits, because it’s digital, and can distort time and space. Setting aside the obvious advantages of being able to join from anywhere in the world with very little effort, online platforms have many novel patterns that let us connect in new ways. We can easily break people into groups and reassemble them; we can poll and upvote and solicit questions; there’s a side-channel for discussions; you can see fellow attendees’ interests and backgrounds; and so on.
So we needed to be open-minded about new ways to run things. Sometimes that meant old-school tools: Handing lettered cards to attendees that held their place in line; creating a wall for people to send post-it messages to suggested contacts. And sometimes it meant using things in ways the creators didn’t intend.
A willing posse
A third, vital factor was having a group of participants willing to experiment. Rather than the usual lineup of a hundred speakers who arrive, talk, and leave, and live backstage in the meantime, we had only six keynotes on the main stage—and they were all interviews. “Less talking heads, more heads talking,” was our unwritten mantra for 2022, and we enlisted the help of over 20 mentors. Many of them have been past speakers; all of them are superb human beings and leaders in their fields.
Throughout the week, this posse connected. They met with founders, served on panels, and hung out together. By the third day, their level of comfort and familiarity was way up, which made them much more likely to adjust and adapt to what we had planned for them. What I’m about to describe will not work if the participants aren’t smart, funny, and comfortable with one another ahead of the event.
Hive Mind Debate
One of the great things about using tools for audience Q&A is that the audience can suggest questions, but also upvote the questions they like the most. We posted QR codes so attendees could access our voting tool, and as I interviewed our speakers, I could see the questions flooding in. It quickly became clear which ones the audience wanted answered. This immediately made the interviews more interesting, because the audience was involved.
We’d used the Q&A-then-upvote model for talks throughout the festival. But on Friday afternoon, we had something different planned: Hive Mind.
Kicking off the Hive Mind format. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/52226330547/in/album-72177720300658105/)
The goal here was to let the audience ask the room, rather than the speaker, a question:
- The audience proposes questions, such as “what’s the best opening line for a pitch?” or “how do I choose a good co-founder?”
- The audience then votes on these questions as I approve them (my role was to make sure they didn’t violate our code of conduct, and weren’t repeats.)
- Then I choose the most popular question and ask the crowd.
- The crowd replies (using another Mentimeter format in which answers scroll across the screen.)
- Our panel of 12 mentors riff on the answers.
In all, some simple good fun. It required a lot of behind-the-scenes Mentimeter management, but it went smoothly.
Some of our mentors ready to riff on audience answers to audience questions. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/52227338191/in/album-72177720300658105/)
And then some magic happened.
A polarizing response
One of the questions the audience asked the room was, “should I care about Intellectual Property?” The responses were incredibly polarized—some saying absolutely, and that patents and legal protection were vital; some saying no, and that investing in IP was a distraction and didn’t make a difference anyway.
Smelling a polarizing topic, I decided to change the format. I indicated the space in front of me, and described one end as “I won’t invest without IP” and the other as “I won’t invest if you wasted time on IP.” And then I asked our twelve mentors to line up according to where they stood on the subject.
Making a human Likert Scale out of mentors, in front of the stage. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/52227818630/in/album-72177720300658105/)
Then I split them in half, making two debating teams, and we ran a debate. As with the Oxford Debate format, I first polled (with a show of hands) how many people agreed with the statement “IP is essential for a startup.”
A real-time poll. Next time I’ll use tech, instead of a show of hands, but this was good enough. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/52227336276/in/album-72177720300658105/)
And then I let each side make opening arguments, rebuttals, and closing arguments.
At first, it seemed fairly dry. But then, suddenly, one of our mentors—Jaethan Reichel—got the memo. He leapt from his chair, and with a wave of theatrics, dressed down his opposing team.
Jaethan brings his A-game and debating club kicks off. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/52227346473/in/album-72177720300658105/)
When it sat back down, his teammates applauded. Thanks to the amazing Eva Blue, this exact moment has been immortalized forever.
From this point on, we had a new game. The teams stopped equivocating, and dug into their assumed positions. After their speeches, I took another vote, and the team that moved the needle won.
We quickly found another polarizing topic from the crowd: “Firing matters more than hiring.” I sorted the participants again according to where they stood on my made-up spectrum. This time, the sparks flew.
Chris Shipley schools her opponents on why firing is an essential skill. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/52226325817/in/album-72177720300658105/)
The audience loved it. And as we left the stage, the mentors were almost vibrating with excitement.
What I’d change
This is definitely a format we’ll use again, with a few tweaks:
- I’ll ask the audience to come up with prompts for controversial statements like “clouds are secure” or “sales is more important than product” or “governments can’t innovate.”
- I’ll build polls before and after the debate, so we can measure who changed the audience’s mind more accurately.
- You need nerds with drama school experience. They have to be able to pivot to a number of different topics; this is team improv.
Note that this is not an easy activation to run. I had two screens in front of me, a headset mic, and a comms channel in my ear. And I’ve been using Mentimeter at live events for a couple of years now.
The results, done right, speak for themselves. The amount of energy and engagement this brought to a tired crowd on the third day of a packed conference was unmistakable. We experiment a lot with formats and tools, with varying degrees of success. When something works, we like to share it with the world, because events can be awesome when we take risks.
I’ll wrap up with this quote from a post by Ray Luk, a 2022 mentor and one of Startupfest’s most staunch supporters.
We’ve assumed the ‘startup’ in Startupfest refers to the target audience. But the event itself is the startup, and every participant is an early adopter, advisor and equity holder in an ongoing 11-year social experiment.
Startupfest 2022 was a fresh start not only for founders and the startup ecosystem, but for events themselves. Here’s to many more years of experimentation.