Covid-19 shut down many of the big tech conferences in 2020, such as the Mobile World Congress and SXSW, but Startup Grind Tbilisi bucked the trend this past December and took its Europe-Asia Connect event online, broadening participation beyond those who could come in person and placing Georgia center stage as the host of thousands of startups, speakers and other delegates from 67 countries and over 280 cities.
Speakers included the former Chief Evangelist for Apple, Guy Kawasaki, Steve Blank, known as the ‘Father of Modern Entrepreneurship,’ and other investors and founders who have built tens of billions of dollars of value.
“But the event was not just ‘sit and watch the screen,’” Chapter Director Colin Donohue says. “The networking at the event was surprisingly active, with the conference boasting two ‘virtual expos’: one on the conference platform and one in a ‘virtual world’ provided by sponsor Virbela, allowing people to wander around and mingle, ultimately with the aim of being able to meet serious people, from investors to advisors to channel partners.”
There are several regional conferences in the Startup Grind network, but all of them cancelled their events in 2020, including the very large Startup Grind Europe event; Tbilisi was the only host that successfully took it online.
“Startup Grind HQ was not sure it was possible to do such a major event online given there were so many huge free ones competing. But we knew we had the power of community, and they saw what we did in 2019 and let us go for it,” commented Donohue.
In pulling off the conference, Georgia had the privilege of hosting the largest online Startup Grind event ever, drawing around 2,000 participants. But the partnerships are what were most notable.
“It was rough for us financially as sponsors cut back, and many we were counting on dropped out due to Covid. We’re very grateful to GITA [Georgia’s Innovation & Technology Agency], Bank of Georgia for Business, and Adjarabet for being anchor sponsors who stood by us. Also, thanks to others, including GNTA [Georgian National Tourism Agency], which helped us use the event to recruit remote workers, digital nomads and startups to Georgia”.
Tbilisi – where 290 cities come together
“Over the past three years, Georgia has had an increasing reputation in the Startup Grind community, so we used this opportunity to engage chapter directors from across Europe and Asia,” says Donohue.
Co-director Giorgi Tukhashvili was involved in outreach to other Startup Grind chapters. “It was remarkable. It just caught on, and directors were very excited to be included in something important and exciting in these otherwise depressing times. We ended up with an amazing crew of key people who I hope we work with into the future!,” Tukhashvili commented.
“We gave chapter directors who were helping a few free VIP tickets, so we ended up with a very high-quality audience. They invited some VCs, some very experienced mentors and other leaders,” Tukashvili added.
Buzz about the conference circulated around not just Europe and Asia, and the conference ended up hosting participants from every continent – except Antarctica.
“Our main goal was to make the world say ‘Wow! There’s something happening in Georgia!’ Now, people are watching us,” Donohue notes.
A Georgian ‘Supra’-power
But how did Tbilisi become the center of such attention?
Donohue and Tukhashvili laid the foundation for the event several years back, attending a Startup Grind Global Conference in Silicon Valley with a small delegation of Georgian startups that were supported by a travel grant from GITA.
The delegation rented out an Airbnb with a great view of the Pacific Ocean and hosted its first ‘Georgian party.’
For fun, but not only: Donohue has a background in marketing and psychology and was confident the introduction would benefit Georgia greatly, making chapters around the world aware of Georgia and its positive vibes. It was a perfect example of network theory in action: “If you connect the ‘nodes’, you can get great reach across a wide network. Often these are not flashy ‘Instagram influencers’ but trusted people in a community whose advice people listen to,”Donohue comments.
More than 50 guests at the party had their first taste of Georgian wine, Georgian hospitality, and learned about the country, which welcomes visitors visa-free and is making quite the effort to become a home for tech startups. At the European conference four months later, the party expanded to 100+ people including VCs and international journalists.
“We were down the alley from the Tech Week London opening party. We were literally pulling VIPs away from the big event because people wanted to be in our Airbnb loft drinking Georgian wine,” Donohue says, chuckling.
In February 2020 at the last Startup Grind global conference, over 150 people attended the ‘unofficial but greatly anticipated’ party and networking event. By then, the hospitality at the Georgian House was famous. Literally every chapter director who came to the U.S. for the global event was at the party.
Donohue believes the drivers for value in the startup and VC world are missed by donors and governments who focus on academic and bureaucratic approaches. “I believe that what drives success in business, at least in the startup world, is reputation and relationships. There is no way we could afford to hire the people who are helping us for free.”
Indeed, speaker fees for their top speakers would have been three times the entire budget for the conference, but they spoke for free to support Startup Grind Tbilisi’s efforts.
Next up for Startup Grind
“We don’t have any big pot of donor funds like some organizations. GITA and BOG have been solid partners but 2020 sponsorship was way down and Startup Grind HQ took much of the revenue”, Donohue says, noting the organizers are not sure whether they will do a big conference in 2021 due to the difficult financial situation.
“It’s not fair to ask the business community to sponsor what is expensive for them at these hard times. As we grow we can start to attract international companies, but we’re not yet Websummit. We love the grassroots nature of it, we’re working directly with startups and investors not bureaucratic channels. But to do an event that is financially viable we need the help of both startups and institutions.”
Georgian startups have matured in recent years, Donohue says, noting the time is right to leverage their networks bringing top Silicon Valley mentors and investors/influencers to Georgia to help further build up the ecosystem.
In particular, Donohue has been in conversations with Chris Burry from US Market Access Center and he is open to moving to Georgia for much of 2021 to partner in the effort of getting the ecosystem to the ‘next level’. He has been involved in startup growth projects around the world and has mentored hundreds of startups. He also was a founding team member in his own unicorn exit.
“Most donors and governments tend to bring in paid experts for a few days. If you’re bringing someone from Silicon Valley, you have more time wasted with them flying than actually helping people. So we are using the touristic and lifestyle appeal of Georgia to host top people for weeks and even months”.
Startup Grind Georgia is seeking partners for the Mentor in Residence program which can include donors but also companies interested in improving their internal innovation spread and becoming more connected with innovation ecosystems globally. The City of Tbilisi is an early partner, focused on bringing tech “influencers” to Georgia to attract remote tech workers to the city.
Visitors planned include for the Mentor in Residence program include:
- Marvin Liao, top-tier investor who ran 500 Startups flagship accelerator in San Francisco and has invested in over 400 companies
- Amy Peck, international speaker and consultant focused on AR and VR, founder of Everything AR & VR podcast
- Gail Gannon, Wave Edge Capital, Managing Director Andy Schabelman, led Airbnb international expansion
- Amrit Dhir, who worked on Google X projects and led international expansion of Google for Startups
- Bill Reichert, Garage Venture & Pegasus Ventures, world-renowned early stage investor and educator
“We need to show them a great time, and for them to be talking up Georgia in social media and to their friends! It’s actually a cool strategy for hospitality brands. We already have some great fans in the tech community and we want Georgia to be the ‘go- to’ location for the 2020s. Thinking to leave San Francisco? Spend some time in Georgia. Sold your company and want a break to see someplace new and play in the mountains, sea and wine country? Come to Georgia!”
“If someone is here for a month, that really makes an impression on them and they have more time to fall in love. ‘Paid experts’ come because it’s a job and then they leave. We’re not looking for one night stands. We want people to fall in love and ‘go steady’ with Georgia”, says Donohue.