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Lisbon the New SF? My Observations from Web Summit

I recently had the chance to travel to Lisbon, Portugal for Web Summit 2021. Web Summit is Europe’s biggest tech conference, bringing together many of the world’s technology leaders for a four-day event. I was lucky enough to be able to attend this year; especially since this was my first in-person conference in one and a half years. Here are a few of my observations from the trip.

The excitement was real

Web Summit welcomed 42,751 attendees at the kick-off, with many more people likely joining for side events and other happenings. Attendees represented 128 different countries, and for the first time in the 10-year history of Web Summit, there were more women in attendance than men. This is incredible and definitely something to be proud of.

If I were to describe the event in one word, it would be ‘energizing.’ After conducting much of our business virtually for the last year and a half, the sheer energy of 40K+ people at one event was incredible. Video conferencing is an amazing tool for certain situations, but it is hard to recreate the serendipitous magic that takes place when so many interesting builders, thinkers, leaders interact with one another IRL (in real life). The energy of the conference was infectious and it made the days fly by.

Lisbon is an emerging tech hub

Lisbon certainly has a lot going for it – it is beautiful, the weather is amazing (although it was raining during most of the conference ☹), and everyone seems to be so genuinely nice and happy. While the quality of life is high, the city is also much more affordable than many of the other tech hubs across the globe. It also has a high level of English proficiency. I met at least 50 entrepreneurs and investors alike who had relocated to Lisbon in the last 9 months.

I also think it is worth noting the interesting similarities between Lisbon and San Francisco. For starters, both cities are located on the coast near beautiful outdoor activities. The Ponte 25 de Abril bridge in Lisbon was designed by the same company that built the San Francisco Bay Bridge and is painted the same color as the Golden Gate. Lisbon is also a city of many hills, just like SF, and has trams that even resemble the famous cable cars of San Francisco. Could Lisbon be the next SF? We will have to wait and see, but with the rise of remote work, I think Lisbon will continue to see an influx of tech talent and capital given all that the city has to offer.

Climate is a top priority

Climate was still one of the top trends discussed at the conference, even though the COP26 Conference (different event) was occurring at the same time. There was still a huge appetite to discuss climate tech, with talks by Brad Smith (President of Microsoft), Ariane Thomas (Global Director of Sustainability at L’OREAL), Markus Villig (Founder and CEO of Volt), and many others focusing on this specifically.

Personally, I think we are at the beginning of the tipping point when it comes to climate awareness and action. We see this across NEA’s current portfolio, in both enterprise and consumer, as ESG initiatives are growing in prominence within many large companies and consumers are aligning themselves with brands that share their values (of which sustainability is one of the leading). Many of the climate goals for countries in the G20 are also coming to maturity in the next 5-10 years, which will only act as a further accelerant. And entrepreneurs are taking note, and building companies to ride this wave.

Taking aim at Facebook

Facebook (aka Meta), was probably the most mentioned company at the conference and this started from the very beginning with Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, speaking on Day 1. Facebook’s reach has never been greater, with its user base growing across all of its digital properties seemingly every quarter. And I think it is safe to say that the most used app during Web Summit was WhatsApp, as almost every meeting I had ended by exchanging numbers on WhatsApp.

But Facebook has also never been more vulnerable, with increased public scrutiny on the company and an increasing shift toward new devices and media types (hello TikTok!). All of this is to say that it has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur building in consumer social. If you look at the evolution of social media over the last decade and a half, it started with Facebook friend groups on desktop, then Twitter with short messages, Snap with ephemeral photos, and most recently with gaming chats like Discord. The metaverse is likely the next chapter in this evolution, but just because Facebook rebranded to Meta, I think it is as good a chance as any that we will see a set of new companies that emerge in this category.

Another strong theme at the conference was Web 3.0. The momentum behind Web 3.0 is undeniable and the possibilities are endless. One of the most interesting ideas I heard during the conference involved a design for a new NFT that would potentially move us away from the construct of time zones. I have been thinking about it every day since the conference has ended.

Different style between US and European founders

I had the chance to talk to several seed stage entrepreneurs during the conference, and one of the most common questions I was asked was, “what do you look for most at the seed stage?” I think storytelling is the most important skill that early stage teams must master. As an early stage company, you have to hire employees, win new customers, and raise capital, all with little more than a grand idea and a plan. How do you convince the early adopters that you will be successful? You tell the story of why it will work, why it will be really big, and how you will get there.

This answer is the same for me regardless of geographic region. But what I noticed is that there is a different style between US pitches, which tend to be more aggressive and optimistic with more emphasis on the big swing, and European pitches, which I’ve noticed are more conservative in their projections and focus more on immediate operating goals as opposed to the grand vision. This is a generalization, yes, but many of the entrepreneurs I spoke to at Web Summit were aware of this difference in style. Which style is better? I don’t think there is a right answer. But my advice to entrepreneurs that are raising capital would be to take note of who you are speaking to, because a US VC might be anticipating a pitch that incorporates a grander 10 year plan over the finer details of the next twelve months, and vice versa.

Traveling during Covid

Finally, I thought it might be helpful to share what it was like to travel internationally during Covid. My travels on this trip took me from San Francisco to Lisbon, then London and back to SF. Before each of my flights into a new country, I had to have a negative Covid test at most 72 hours prior to departure. I also had to show my vaccine status and passenger locator form for each new country before boarding each flight. Note, if you are flying to the UK, you need to book a day 2 covid test to be taken after landing, and you need your booking confirmation number for this test for your locator form. I had to book this test three separate times from the departure gate in Portugal because the booking code never arrived, so make sure you leave yourself time!!!

PS – if you do visit Lisbon, I highly recommend trying a pasteis de nata. I think I had over 100 of them while I was there. Another common Portuguese dish is Francesinha, but as a local waiter said to me “it is not for everyone” – so friendly warning before you order it (I only managed 2 bites!).

PPS – I made these (pasteis de nata, below)!