TechWeek: Thoughts, Observations, Ideas

TechWeek may have been the most anticipated event in Chicago’s entrepreneurial community in the last decade. Its founders, Geoff Domoracki and Jonathan Pasky, did an admirable job of getting the word out, attracting big-name speakers, and waving the flag of Chicago’s entrepreneurship community. Their bold vision and ambition was turned into something that will be remembered by many people for many years.

I was able to attend the unofficial opening last Thursday during TechCocktail, a partner event; the conference at the Merchandise Mart last Friday and this past Monday; and the S.P.A.R.K. Chicago finals – another partner event – last night, also at the Merchandise Mart. Despite my inability to enjoy the weekend’s festivities and the many other partner events, I believe I walked away with an adequate impression of this milestone event from not only my own experiences but also from what I heard.

Here’s a smorgasbord of thoughts, constructive criticism, kudos, and suggestions.

The Sector. One thing I’d like to see refined (not just at the conference but also in general) is the definition of a “tech” firm. As much as I like the companies and their founders, I’m still having a hard time grasping how BabbaCo and Dabble – both winners of competitions during the conference – are considered tech businesses (same for Groupon but that’s for another day). Furthermore, it seemed like the startups in attendance and exhibiting skewed significantly towards web and app firms. Where were the high-tech, bio-tech, agro-tech, clean-tech, nano-tech, and digital media firms, among others?

The Venue. The Merchandise Mart is an attractive, central, and accessible location with plenty of space and an emerging entrepreneurial identity. However, the confines within which the conference sessions, expo, and competitions were held left a lot to be desired when it came to acoustics, floor plan, and signage. Unless the Merchandise Mart has or builds out space specifically for conference use, I wonder if another venue should be used for the next TechWeek given its breadth of events and sessions.

The Content. I enjoyed the variety in the schedule throughout the conference and the week itself. However, at times it was hard to decipher what was going on, where, when, with whom, and for what purpose, leading me to wonder if there was just too much content for an inaugural event. But I have to admit – I was never bored and it seemed like there was always something to look forward to or something that I was missing out on. One idea for next time – create conference tracks with depth that appeal to areas of interest. I believe that TechWeek can be a great place for young and first-time entrepreneurs to learn how to run a business, for seasoned entrepreneurs to find new talent and strategic partners, and for others to learn about high-level trends shaping our economy and community.

The Technology. This should have been a slam dunk but it was an airball. At the next TechWeek, I’d like to see reliable wifi access, an iPad-friendly app, an accurate real-time schedule on the web site, and a robust social network for conference attendees. Also, it would be really cool if the session videos became available within 24 hours (some still haven’t been posted).

The Startups. When Dave McClure spoke, he asked how many in the packed room were entrepreneurs. My guess is that over 80% raised their hands. While it was a self-identified audience for the speaker, the conference sure did attract a large number of startups through the demos, expo, and pitches. I was very impressed that many of the tech startups getting visibility in Chicago these days were represented in some capacity. Next time, I’d like to see a smaller, more qualified, and stronger group of startups in the competitions.

The Speakers. I was most impressed by the fact that Geoff and Jonathan were able to attract speakers from out of state such as Dave McClure, Craig Newmark, and Aneesh Chopra. They were a better marketing platform for the event than anything else, gave instant credibility to it, and brought fresh perspectives to the conference and the Chicago ecosystem. There were plenty of startup founders on the panels and among the presentations, although the quality was inconsistent. Next time, I’d like to see more serial entrepreneurs, greater representation from the midwest, and increased attention to the business side of tech firms.

The Networking. As with most conferences, this was what I enjoyed the most as well as others with whom I spoke. There were many early-stage entrepreneurs in attendance, along with technology professionals, angel investors, venture capitalists, organization leaders, professors, students, and professional service providers. Thankfully, I don’t believe there were any contrived schmooze sessions or events; instead, most of the networking was informal, spontaneous, and genuine…exactly as it should be. Considering how many companies I’ve seen or heard of that facilitate social networking during conferences, I’d like to see more of that at next year’s event.

If you attended any part of TechWeek, I invite your comments and experiences, especially on any topic that I wasn’t able to cover. And to see the buzz that took place on Twitter, click here.

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