I recently had the opportunity to sit down face-to-face with David Hornik, one of the most knowledgeable conference goers I know. After a brief catch-up, which I would have gladly extended into hours -- our conversation ranged from the song "Schadenfreude" from the musical Avenue Q to his thoughts on the new role of VCs in the Web 2.0 era -- I explained the Conferences That Matter series, and we got down to business.
The idea behind the series is simple: my colleagues at Conferenza and I will be talking with a wide and eclectic group of frequent conference attendees, a diverse and eclectic group of frequent conference goers, and reporting on their insights, plans, and never-agains. We will be talking with entrepreneurs, researchers, VCs, and journalists, trying to tease out the best bets for 2006.
I was glad to hear that David and I would be overlapping at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology (ETech) conference. In this case, he will be presenting his thoughts about email there, but he would have attended, anyway.
His other choices are unsurprising, considering his role as a tech VC. He is attending both of Chris Shipley's DEMO conferences (February in Phoenix, and September in New York). He is also planning to attend CES, PopTech, PC Forum, TED, the Wall Street Journal's D4, The Entertainment Gathering, GNOMEDEX, and Web 2.0.
David's conference experience sounds a lot like mine: it is not about sitting and listening to the sessions. David believes that 90% of his time at most conferences is spent outside the formal sessions, although this is less true at DEMO or TED. Part of his rationale is structural: "I hate multitrack conferences." The fracturing of the conference into multiple tracks means that the attendees don't have a shared experience, which is a mistake, he feels.
David likes conferences where 'distant analogies' are possible -- where people of very diverse backgrounds are brought together, and strange but wonderful connections are made in the head. In part because you can't predict what is going to be the most enlightening. He singled out Etech as a good example of that: they have a wide range of speakers and topics, to the degree that they almost seem arbitrary, except for the caliber of the speakers. It becomes difficult to predict what is going to matter, but the stretching to makes sense of it all can make it worthwhile.
David has strong feelings about the flabbiness of panel sessions. For example, he believes Ann Grimes' Ventures Outlook conference needs to drop that format. Despite having been on Outlook panels in the past, the panel session format is pretty uneven in quality, and rarely leads to many Aha moments. David serves on the DEMO Advisory Board, where he has unequivocally recommended no more panels, ever.
David is drawn to some speakers, like Steve Jobs and Larry Lessig, who are always fun to watch. He considers them performance artists, and is always open for one more mind-boggling presentation from either of them.
He returned to the DEMO format, where he thinks the six minute moment in the spotlight has led to real invention. On the same note, he likes the format of the Under The Radar series, where companies present for short periods of time and are then critiqued by a panel of judges. This is, perhaps, the exception to Hornik's Death To All Panel Sessions rule. I concur: like haiku, the constrained format can lead to an interesting presentation artistry.
David stressed that high production values are crucial, although so often missed. He used examples of missteps at the Web 2.0 conference as a case in point, singling out the oddly shaped demo room -- both was extremely wide and extremely short -- the worst possible shape for demos. And then, to add insult to injury, the Knownow alert tombstone that ran across several demos following Knownow's. That could have been caught with a full run-through before, which was presumably not done, he believes.
David averages about 15 conference per year, but also makes time for retreat-style get-aways, like FOO Camp and The Gathering, which is a weekend off in the hills somewhere with a mix of artists, technologists and musicians. A recent Gathering was held at the home of Guy La Leberte, founder of Circ du Soliel. David looks forward to this more intimate event each year. Hey David, wrangle me an invite, will you?