Is the European Tech Community ready for its own Burning Man?

Aug 29, 2013
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European Pirate Summit

This week I found myself in a converted junkyard across the street from what was formerly Germany’s largest brothel. Previous trips had included tech entrepreneur Morten Lund riding in on a fire-breathing half-dinosaur half-motorcycle, a band of robots playing heavy metal music, and an unlimited supply of beer.

While they wouldn’t specifically refer to themselves as a European Burning Man, the European Pirate Summit certainly rides the line in terms of similarities, though the differences stand out. Replace ‘Nevada desert’ with ‘junkyard in the outskirts of Cologne’ and you’ll hardly realize that the giant wooden man they are burning is not quite to the scale of Burning Man, but still packs a punch.

Trains, Ziplines & A skewered Pig

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One speaker wore his presentation slides, circumventing a “no-powerpoint” rule

The European Pirate Summit advertises itself as a tech conference, though it is more of an un-conference. Corporate venture capitalists, entrepreneurs &  journalists are dressed as pirates, and the conference is less about the presentations than it is about grabbing a beer (which is served from 11AM on) and chatting with anyone. First-timers marvel at the venue while veterans of the conference, now in its 3rd year, greet each other as old friends, though many of us only see each other once a year.

The diverse crowd, seemingly united only by its desire to attend a pirate-themed tech event, loses interest & patience for the talks as the 1 1/2 day event marches forward – this may be because, despite best efforts to make a game of it, the regular train passing just across of the street from the venue makes it quite difficult to listen to talks. Luckily, the event really doesn’t begin until dinner, which consists of two entire pigs, cooking all afternoon in an outdoor oven, ends. The conference lasts into the early hours of the following morning, with even the event’s chief organizers Till Ohrmann and Manuel Koelman staying until 5:30AM with guests.

The reason I’ve returned each year cannot be summed up in words, but is often better summed up in a video:

There is something to the fact that this event is NOT about the conference, and yet, somehow, it is, that brings me back with curiosity. It seems that the most intriguing parts of the conference are those that have the least to do with the ‘business’ part of the conference; and yet, I still find myself connecting with amazing professionals, learning about scoops on fundraisings, with an ROI comparable to LeWeb or DWS. It is, indeed, the event’s quirkiness that leaves people vulnerable to creating such good connections, when we are usually guarded at a traditional conference.

Are Un-Conferences sustainable or ephemeral?

On its 2nd day, co-organizer Manuel Koelman spoke to attendees in a candid manner, saying that the organizers were worried the conference wasn’t sustainable. He invited the audience to join him on stage and give feedback, but the overall tone might not have been what he was looking for. Veterans, team members, and first-year attendees applauded the event for being different, though Koelman seems to be battling with the desire to keep the conference “unconventional” and the desire to make the event profitable, something the organizers have been battling with since its beginning.

All the while during this event, European & American techies have paid thousands of dollars to travel to the Bay area, rent an RV, and travel to the desert to experience Burning Man for a week. Like TED & SXSW, the festival has been organized by the tech community, with attendance now becoming a rite of passage for anyone looking to join the technorati.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Koelman and Ohrmann struggle with questions like “should we continue to pay for speakers to come, or should they pay as well?” with the inevitable fear that, if they don’t pay, the big players won’t come out. “Event organization is a shitty business” Koelman repeated time and time again on stage, to an audience of 200 people who had paid to hang out with him for two days.

1149539_606152469430029_1753897240_oThe event will certainly see a 2014 edition; however, as with all things, the future beyond that is not so clear. The event’s theme, which has been the backbone of its existence, has been based off of a 2010 Michael Arrington article called “Are you a Pirate?” in which the TechCrunch founder compared entrepreneurs to pirates, who are more enthralled with the plundering and adventure than with the booty that they tell others they are chasing after.

It may be time for Captains Koelman & Ohrmann to embrace their event’s philosophy, to take the event to its extreme, to leave behind the islands of conferences around Europe and embrace the rocky waters of the Un-Conference. Because it might just be that Europe is ready for its own elite, un-conference.

Photos courtesy of Heisenberg Media