I attended the 2009 edition of Red Herring 100 conference in Berlin last week (March 31th to April 2nd). This conference report is a little delayed. Right when I returned from the trip, our family relocated from Zürich to Rapperswil, half an hour away on the coast of Zürichsee, and I’ve been without internet access ever since.

For the entire week I’ve managed the business by sitting at Starbucks and using their wlan, but there’s only so much sitting in a cafe one can handle. Fortunately we can now use our neighbor’s wlan (thanks very much!) to survive until Swisscom gets their act together (to their credit I should mention they’re giving us three months free service as an apology of the delays, but still… I would rather have had a functional internet access from day one!)

As I posted some time ago, XIHA Life was selected as one of the 200 finalists of Red Herring 100 this year. The winners were announced at the end of the conference in Berlin. Attending the conference was not a requirement for being a winner, but I decided to use the chance to do some networking with European VC’s and fellow startups.

The conference was held in a very nice Radisson SAS Blu hotel right in the center of Berlin, walking distance from many amazing old buildings as well as the DDR museum and the Berlin TV tower. While it’s nice to have fancy surroundings, I must question the logic of organizing a startup event at such an expensive location. Especially during economic downturn.

Radisson SAS lobby in Berlin

The fancy location resulted in über expensive admission fee, which in turn surely was one of the reasons for low attendance numbers. I don’t know what, if anything, the VC’s or media paid, but at least for the startup companies the €1700 fee is quite outrageous, even if it appears to be in line with other similar conferences. It makes the awards a little more precious for sure, but I think it would benefit everyone if more people were able to attend.

Two of the best outcomes from the conference: the VC pitch boot camp before the actual conference started, and networking between the sessions and at cocktail parties. Most of the actual keynote sessions carried more entertainment value than anything else, really.

Sami Niemi of scalado networking at Red Herring conference

Something that I didn’t like is the total lack of transparency from Red Herring’s part. Most of the startups (XIHA included) presented in small rooms, and the attendance was just a handful of people (half of which were other startups waiting for their turn). However, some companies were allowed to pitch in front of the entire conference, between keynote sessions. This obviously would have been incredibly valuable, but there was no information on how these companies were selected, and if there would have been a chance for anyone.

Red Herring conference 2009

The schedule was off by 30-60 minutes through all of the first day. I heard quite a few people complain that there was no way to actually see the companies you wanted to see as you couldn’t know what time they would be presenting. This, with the fact that very few people actually were watching the presentations, meant that the pitches were quite useless and the only way to make connections was to be active in networking.

The conference concluded with an awards dinner where the winners were announced. XIHA Life was one of the winners of Red Herring 100 Europe, which is a great honor and receiving the award certificate from Farley Duvall was one of the highlights of the conference for me (this was the first year for Farley to be the host of the show so I’m sure for him handing out the awards was an equally special moment!)

Red Herring awards dinner 2009

At the end of the day, it was still a positive experience. XIHA came out as a Red Herring winner and I made a lot of very useful contacts. The number of VC’s present was limited, but obviously it’s the quality that matters, not the quantity. I think I was able to talk to most of those that could potentially invest in XIHA in the future.

If I don’t think of the price (kind of hard to do when bootstrapping!), the conference would get a good rating indeed. The minor issues (schedule delays, problems with WLAN, etc.) are almost a de facto standard of IT conferences. What was special with the Red Herring conference was the warm and intimate atmosphere. The pitch coaching was a good experience too, special thanks go to Jennifer Hicks, Ari Wegter and Gary Reeman!

Cornelius Claudio Kreusch performing at Red Herring 2009

Worthy of special mention was a fantastic piano performance by Cornelius Kreusch, CEO and founder of MUSICJUSTMUSIC. I think he played improvising the entire performance, and unlike the typical musical guests in this type of events, he was truly able to capture his audience.

Some of the most interested startups, all of which are also interesting to me due to their potential of partnering with XIHA Life in the future, were TellmeTwin from IcelandAnimasher from Sweden and Teacheo and jog the web from France.