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Tech conference presents new opportunities for New Orleans entrepreneurs

9th May 2016   ·   0 Comments

Hot 8 Brass Band welcomes guests into the 2016 Collision Conference in New Orleans, La. | Photo courtesy of Robert Warren,

Hot 8 Brass Band welcomes guests into the 2016 Collision Conference in New Orleans, La. | Photo courtesy of Robert Warren,

By David T. Baker
Contributing Writer

Collision. For many, the word might conjure images of twisted metal, shards of glass strewn about the street and a choir of sirens rushing to the rescue. But for New Orleans’ growing tech and startup communities, the word is more or less synonymous with opportunity.

Entrepreneurs, investors and businesspeople from all over the world convened in New Orleans April 26-28 for the 2016 Collision Conference, an international three-day technology startup conference launched by the organizers of UK-based Web Summit.

“[Collision] is our sister event for Web Summit, which is our big flagship event in Europe,” said Mike Harvey, head of strategic communications for Collision Conference and Web Summit.

Web Summit, the world’s largest tech and startup event, is based in Dublin, Ireland and hosted in Europe annually. Collision, however, is hosted in the U.S. After two years of growing success, Web Summit organizers, led by Founder and CEO Paddy Cosgrave, created and launched the first Collision Conference in Las Vegas.

The conference was hosted in Las Vegas for two years, but, according to Harvey, because of its rapid growth, and the desire to incubate better social engagement between startups and VCs, the organizers decided to find a new host city, one that could accommodate its growing audiences and provide an environment that would give attendees a sense of community. New Orleans was chosen.

Harvey was impressed by this year’s turnout for the conference as well as the high level of participation in social events surrounding the conference, which, according to him, had been underpopulated at previous Collisions in Las Vegas.

“What he was looking for in terms of the culture and the backdrop that makes a conference memorable, New Orleans has. And we showed that we also have the support of community to make that work,” said Peter Bodenheimer, a partner at software development firm FlatStack and partner at Launchpad. “I think the next day, which I believe was a Saturday, he (Cosgrave) toured the Convention Center, put down a deposit and they booked it, and decided they were going to move here for the next three years.”

The conference took place over three days. There were over 630 startups exhibiting over the three days of the event, organized into sections based on each venture’s stage of development (the stages are ‘Alpha,’ ‘Beta’ and ‘Start,’ and each day a new set of startups was showcased); over 400 investors in attendance; and 332 speakers and moderators featured across three stages and as roundtable discussion leaders.

Beyond the speakers and startups exhibiting, Collision also offered startups an opportunity to learn through workshopping directly with experts in back-to-back 15 minute meeting blocks.

Collision’s ‘Mentor Hours’ gave startups the opportunity to sit with industry veterans to get advice on navigating technical and operational issues they’d encounter in building their businesses. Through ‘Office Hours,’ startups were afforded an opportunity to engage directly with investors, some coming from some of the world’s largest venture capital firms, who might be interested in investing in their startup venture.

One of those investors was Aaron Radez, the founder and managing partner at Boston, MA-based venture capital firm Beacon Hill Partners. Radez said that the benefit to investors to attend conferences like Collision is that they provide them with an opportunity to see what new technologies and companies are on the rise while they’re still in infancy.

“In the venture investing world, there’s something called ‘deal flow,’ where you have to have access to the latest and greatest and the coolest at an emerging stage,” Radez said. “And coming here, specifically within the Alpha companies for where I am and what we do, talking with founders who are working with really baby companies and maybe catching something on the front end, there’s a lot of potential for scale and growth.”

Radez said that because “money’s cheap, right now,” investors are likely sitting on more capital “than you have good places to put it.” Radez continued to say, “finding quality, scalable startups that are going to go somewhere is tough.” Even though he said money is cheap right now, he assured that its unwise to just “put it (money) in everything.”

A company has to be scalable, which means it has the potential to grow beyond geographic borders.

One such company might be Germany-based Caesium, which is developing a productivity software for freelancers. CEO Nikita Gorshkov describes the software as “a one-stop solution for freelancers.”

The software will allow freelancers to start work on and keep track of projects, track time, automate reporting and client billing, and find new jobs and projects. Gorshkov and the company’s chief development officer, Borja Fuente, said that the idea was sparked by past experiences having worked with poor quality freelancers.

“We’re still very solid with our core preposition that there should be only a one-stop solution to the whole work cycle rather than individual bits and bobs,” Gorshkov said. “He doesn’t have to jump between four to five apps to do his job. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here.”

In New Orleans alone, entrepreneurship has increased 129 percent since Hurricane Katrina, according to The Data Center. In its 2015 report, “The New Orleans Index at Ten: Measuring Greater New Orleans’ Progress Toward Prosperity,” The Data Center reports that in metro New Orleans, there were 471 startups per 100,000 adults during the three year period from 2011-13. The report states that New Orleans’ entrepreneurship rate is 64 percent “higher than the national average, and 40 percent higher than other fast-growing Southern metros.”

The hosting of Collision in the city has of course sparked discussion around the potential impact a conference of its scope and caliber might have on the local and regional startup and tech communities.

“Well, it’s exciting,” said Victoria Adams Phipps, executive producer of Idea Village’s week-long New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW).

“On the one hand, of course this is coming on the heels of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which is when the local community gathers. But Collision — it’s a different opportunity because it’s the tech world globally that’s descending on New Orleans, and so it presents a real opportunity for local companies.”

Adams Phipps said that local companies now have the opportunity to show what they’ve got to a global audience: “We’re standing in a queue right now at The Guardian booth, and these little charging cubes on that virtual reality system — that’s an alumni company. That’s a home-grown local company. So, having opportunities like that for local companies to showcase their wares to present themselves with a global diaspora of other companies that are coming, and showing that we’re on the same level. Showing that we can compete both from an investment perspective, from a partnership perspective, but mostly from the startup perspective. I think that’s really what Collision is providing for the regional ecosystem.”

Damon Burns, founder and CEO of Munivester, a five-year-old, New Orleans-based digital investment bank, expects that Collision will present him with a lot of opportunity to learn as his own company plans out its development path.

“I’m actually quite blown away,” said Burns. “I walked in yesterday and was almost overwhelmed at the energy, the types of companies, the diversity of companies and the quality of professionals that are in attendance.”

Burns said his company is currently in a research and development phase. “We’re working on a number of products and brought some to market that we decided to pull, reroute and re-strategize, so we’re kind of back to the drawing board in terms of figuring out next move,” Burns said. “We have that stuff figured out on our own but we just haven’t started executing on it yet. So, we’re kind of starting from scratch, but starting from scratch with five years of experience and information collected. So, it’s not really a new beginning. It’s just a new product beginning.”

Bodenheimer feels that having the benefit of global ideas and experiences will help to incubate the success of the city’s still “nascent” tech and startup communities, and help to bring in talent and resources. As an entrepreneur himself, he agrees that this is a great opportunity for local and regional startups to showcase their brands and products, but believes that it will also serve as a wakeup call.

Having Collision in town, Bodenheimer said, will help to remind local and regional startups and tech companies that they not only have to compete with those regional companies for marketshare, they also still have to compete on globally.

“I think one of the important things for the local community to get out of a thing like Collision, an event like Collision, is you walk through – each of those Alpha, Beta and Start companies, how many are out there? 300? 500 today? I don’t know how many there are but they get one day,” Bodenheimer explained. “That means throughout the three days, that’s 3X whatever that number is out there. So it’s a good reminder to people that you may think you’re the only person doing something, but more than likely, you ain’t.

“There’s a lot of people doing a lot of things that are very similar, and how are you going to rise above the noise? Do you have the proper sense of urgency? That ‘Hey, you don’t have forever to capture whatever opportunity is out there. You have to go out and hustle for it.’”

“There’s a saying in technology: ‘Fuck it. Ship it.’ I heard somebody say at a conference a couple of years ago, ‘Until you ship something, you have no credibility in Silicon Valley.’ And I think that’s something we should bring here. It’s easy to talk about what can happen.”

Overall, though Bodenheimer said the tech community in New Orleans isn’t as open as he’d like it to be, he believes that because of the city’s culture of community, anyone hoping to start a venture or expand an existing one, will be able to find the support they need.

“Anybody can show up at Hack Night on Tuesday night at Launchpad. Anybody can show up to any of the meet ups. And, so, while I know there are barriers to getting involved, there’s a lot less of ‘Who is your mama?” in this world now than there was in New Orleans way back when. And there’s still niches and cliquey stuff like that. It just exists. That’s part of the world unfortunately,” said Bodenheimer.

He continued to say, “I’ll say again, anybody can show up at Hack Night and get involved, and start to figure out what the landscape looks like and if it’s intriguing to them. I think it’s pretty open and welcoming, but I also come from a perspective where I am an insider and I know a lot of people in that community and am part of that community and have been for a while, so maybe my perspective is skewed. But I do believe, certainly more so than a lot of places, that New Orleans is a place—one of our big assets and resources is that you’re only like a degree or two away from anybody in the city, and people are willing to make that intro and help. And I think there are a lot of people in this community that don’t say, ‘Well what’s in it for me?’ They’re like, ‘You need a connection here?’ And if they respect what you’re doing…they’re going to get time.”

Over the next few years, that time and those introductions could be with the powerhouses of Silicon Valley.

You can follow news and updates from David T. Baker on Twitter at @Tadfly.

This article originally published in the May 9, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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