The White Lamp : the Magic Behind RISE

An enormous amount of effort by an amazing team goes into producing each of the Web Summit events and I am very fortunate to be part of the team helping to organize the RISE conference now in its 3rd year in Hong Kong.

This year I noticed something about the event, and that is the magic behind it, and I want to share with you and all startups that are building a product a little bit of what goes into producing an event like this and how what I learned can be applied to what you’re doing.

First, some RISE stats to put things into context:

Startups: 435 (2016) Vs 600 (2017) 
Speakers: 220 (2016) Vs 240 (2017) 
Attendee: 8,144 (2016) Vs 14,000 
Hong Kong Startups 2017: 124 (21% of all startups) 
Hong Kong speakers 2017: 49 (20% of all speakers)
China speakers 2017: 53 (22% of all speakers)

Here are some tweets about the event:

And here is a small smattering of news stories I compiled into a Twitter Moments mash-up:

So why and how is RISE such a good event? Why does it and all the Web Summit events stand out so much beyond any other show?

Is it the pub crawls?

The PITCH event?

The speakers?

The length of the lanyards?

Sure, its all of that but its also mostly because of “the white lamp.”

After each day closes, the senior team sits down with founder, CEO and mastermind Paddy Cosgrave to go over good and bad of the day just completed and what we need to do to fix it for tomorrow. When I sit in on a 30 minute staff meeting I learn so much about what makes this company and these events so great — it’s the desire to make sure every last detail is perfect.

In some circles it’s called OCD.

I call it the secret sauce.

The reason why I want to call this out to everyone is because this to me is really what we should all be striving for in our startups, our jobs, our lives. And I wanted to highlight this especially to startups that might be reading this because you’re young, you can adapt this into your workflow and you will be better for it as you scale.

Having run my own events and working on other events — and also startups, businesses and just about every facet of business life I see people cutting corners, taking shortcuts, sloppy, letting the weeds grow.

One thing Paddy doesn’t stand for is lack of attention to detail. And all the time I have spent with him reminds me how important this is — from the length of the lanyards, to the wifi, to the coffee being served.

So what is the white lamp? In the speakers lounge at this year’s RISE there was a white lamp in the corner — I saw it, sat next to it, thought it more of a prop than a working lamp since the room was well lit. But it wasn’t on. It was just sitting there.

Why was it doing this?

Who put it there and why was it there?

If this was there and not turned on, which it was intended to be, what else was like this?

Yeah it sounds like a small thing, but I think this is actually the secret sauce of RISE and I’m going to also guess it happens at Apple, Amazon, Netflix and every other company that builds something people love.

With all the busy work, all the growth, all the insanity — you’ll miss things but other people will notice — it might be as small as a missing icon on your homepage or it could be as simple as a dead light bulb in your speakers lounge.

Now, I’m keeping my eyes open — and have started spotting tiny details that were starting to look like weeds that had to be fixed. Things like chairs not put away making a specific area messy, un-inspired translators, bad food options — you see one bad thing you kind of forget it, but when they start to add up and take away from your attendees enjoyment then we have a major problem.

Paddy recently posted this on Facebook:

“A few years ago we looked at how the best events in music, film and sport used design back of house for staff and crew. None that we saw did. Design was a front of house phenomenon.
At the same time I also checked out some incredible hotels, making my way into the back corridors, to get a feel for how design appeared back of house for staff. There too design was either absent or simply an after thought.
In one sense I think that’s okay. But in another I think great design should not just be front of house, it should run right through every element of your organisation right down to the smallest detail. It has a reinforcing effect on cultural values. And if design is high on that list… you get the point.
Around the same period we were considering pushing design into our back of house during our events, I remember checking into both Google and Apple’s campuses for meetings on the same day. Both are amazing places, filled with incredible people creating phantasmagorical products. But the checkin system for Google hurt my eyes and hands. At Apple it was beautiful. Even though Apple’s checkin system was not a core product, and used only by staff, contractors and visitors, great design was baked in.
Behind the scenes during an event we are far from perfect. It’s organised chaos. It’s like an ER/A&E unit. Crazy intensity, crazy hours, crazy problems. But increasingly we’re trying to ensure that even the smallest of details, all the way down to food vouchers, adhere to our broad design framework for both form and function. It seems massively OCD, but I think it has broader cultural merit.”

How many of you are thinking about the design of the food vouchers for their staff?

Design — speciiflly graphic design — is my background and what I studied in school, so I respect this train of thought more than many others.

So this to me is the biggest lesson I take and share from my RISE journey — always keep an eye out for the white lamp in your startup and your life. Make sure every detail is spot on — its not about being a perfectionist its about the details.

RISE 2017 is by my calculation the 42nd iteration of the original Web Summit (including all events on all days since everyday to me is an iteration) and what looks like magic today took 42 times to get there — and it still isn’t perfect.

One thing I was always asked by my colleagues is to see what went wrong and how to make it better instead of just a sigh of relief that the house didn’t burn down. So that we can identify it, fix it and make it even better than before next time — and next time could be tomorrow or the next few hours.

You should see how many times we needed to expand the Center Stage because we underestimated the demand of our attendees in absorbing that content. And the ability to expand to another stage like we did when Gary Vaynerchuk took the stage.

As a company we’re not perfect; but the striving to be better every day is what makes me excited AND keeps it fresh. That kind of ‘Never Compromise’ mindset does make putting together a conference that much more meaningful. It really is the ultimate human touch to our tech infused world — sorry, but AI will never be able to figure this out.

Yeah, this does sound very OCD but if you’re going to do something why not make it the best. Then I remembered one of my favorite movies Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. If its worth doing, then its worth doing right and with a high amount of attention to detail.

Even if its just turning on a lamp. Because why would you want to pay for and place a lamp in your lounge if it wasn’t doing what it was meant to do?

Many people asked me “How is the show for you?”

I then turn to them and ask them immediately: “How is it for YOU? — its only good for me if its good for you.”

RISE is not just a conference — its a product trying to create the best experience possible for everyone — and we will keep reiterating and improving as it grows. Engineering synchronicity.

No pressure, but see how we iterate RISE again next year July 9, 10 and 11, 2018!

(to achieve this we’re also hiring!)