November 8-11, 2016: Web Summit at MEO Arena

Portugal’s economy is not doing so great and so this conference was a really big deal. Not only is it supposed to bring in thousands of visitors for the conference itself, but it is supposed to inspire people to invest in Portugal and to bring their startups to Portugal. I actually got a very good impression of Lisbon while I was there because it was lively and the streets were full of people. Apparently, it’s not usually like that. The neighborhood our Airbnb was in was allegedly pretty dangerous a few years ago. But it seemed fine to us.

Lisbon was not adequately prepared for the number of visitors. The trains were super packed. The trains were not coming frequently enough nor were they long enough. The have the whole platform but the trains don’t all have the full 6 cars. You would think they would know that there’s more people yet they were sending half trains. Megan and I got split up because the station was so packed.

The line to get into the arena was horrendous. We figured we must be getting in line to go to security, but actually the line went straight in, but it looped around the entire grounds first. The problem is that the train station is on the opposite end of the entrance. And now that I think about it, there really should’ve been a security check. No metal detectors or anything. With that many people at a big event, including important CEOs, they should have checked us. Because of the long line, we missed the beginning of the Facebook CTO talk. The arena itself was not even full cause the upper ring was totally empty. People simply couldn’t get in because they had to wait and go around the whole place instead of going straight in. At least they gave us pastries: pastel de nata, my new favorite egg custard.

I saw some cool talks. The biggest problem is that there are so many talks such that each one is so short. The don’t really get a chance to say anything of substance, it is all very surface level. It is not as in depth or frankly, interesting, as a TED talk. Some of the talks have multiple speakers and they do a discussion, but then they only get to say even less. Quite frankly, executives do not make interesting speakers, they just have the star power. And there are just so many talks going on all at once that you can’t see them all. When you have a good seat at one, you don’t want to give it up to go to another stage. And you don’t know when is the best time to walk around the conference space or to just sit and listen.

I also walked around a bit, got some free stuff and talked to people. The primary question everyone asks is what brings you to Web Summit. And it is a legitimate question to ask me, because I am not entirely sure. To be quite honest, I didn’t really belong. I didn’t get too much out of it personally. I can see the value in it if you are running a startup and trying to get funding. But other than that, there isn’t too much for someone like me. I have to justify my presence to everyone and at the end of the day I’m there because it’s cool. If I had to pay for it myself, it would definitely not be worth it. It was not a recruiting kind of conference. The average age actually skewed rather old. I guess tech isn’t as young as it used to be anymore.

There wasn’t even that much free stuff. I grabbed all I could, but I came away with relatively few T-shirts. There’s not enough free stuff relative to the number of attendees nor relative to the enormous size of the venue. Actually, there aren’t even that many booths because it’s mostly talks and stands that rotate with startups trying to get funding, not giving away stuff. Only partners have booths, and there are few partners sponsoring this somewhat-of-a-scam of an event. The most common giveaway they had was pastel de nata. Cause who doesn’t love egg custard? Also, I was just grabbing stuff. I accidentally took a box of someone’s business cards thinking it was something. I felt bad, but not bad enough to go back and return it.

Some of the talks I saw on the first day: CTO of Facebook, Former President of EC, CEO of Renault-Nissan, CEO of LINE, Amnesty Secretary General, Wikileaks Defense Team, CEO of Twilio, CFO of Square, CEO of BlaBlaCar, CFO of Booking.com, EU Commission

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That evening, Megan wouldn’t go to dinner with me. She was tired and not really hungry, so she just stayed in. I think she was also sick of me by this point. I am a stressful person to travel with. I understand. But I went into town to find something to eat. At first, I was kind of nervous going out on my own. I’ve never really traveled alone before. I don’t have a problem eating by myself, but a little, y’know? I was messaging Alwin while I was alone, just to be talking to someone. I went to Bairro Alto, which is the nightlife area of town and it was packed with Web Summit attendees. The restaurant I wanted to go to was too crowded. They apparently have really good, cheap steak. I instead found another restaurant on the street that looked kind of nice. The man standing outside said it was good as I stared at the menu. So I went in and was told there was a wait. But the man outside was with two others and sat down at a table for 4, and they invited me to join them. This might be the most out of character thing I’ve ever done (other than climb a mountain). I’m not the most personable person, and I sat down to dinner with total strangers. But I made friends with Elisabeth from Austria (who had like a recipe blogging app), Joao and Sergio. Joao wasn’t attending the conference, but his business partner Sergio was. They are locals and they knew the restaurant. Elisabeth had just met them earlier too at the conference. Joao was very funny, when he wasn’t sure of the word he wanted to say in English, he’d just say “fuck it” and laugh.  I actually had fun meeting new people. And I had this amazing duck rice (arroz de pata). Miguel recommended I eat duck rice, and it is basically fo op fan. Portuguese food is like European Chinese food. And tea is “cha”. I love it. Afterwards, Joao got us into a bar. He got invites from a friend and we hung out there for a bit. They played the trashiest European techno music and. The bartender was literally fifteen. Couldn’t have even been in college. The local beer is Super Bock. It is ultra cheap (and actually pretty good for such a cheap beer), but we got it for free with our invites anyways. In general, Portugal was really cheap—and that’s why I like it.

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Day 2 of the conference was the moment of truth, American election day, the day we had been building up to for months. It looked like Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump (what a joke) and so I went to sleep around 1am. I was not going to stay up the whole night. I just happened to wake up around 5 on my own and checked my phone and it was blowing up. It was devastating. By that time, she had just lost Florida, after losing one swing state after another. Her chances were getting slimmer and slimmer and all my friends were posting all over social media. I couldn’t fall back asleep for another hour. When I did fall back asleep, I had a glorious dream in which Hillary won South Carolina and we had free gelato for some reason. I woke up again when Megan screamed having checked her phone. The Democrats lost everything, both houses of Congress, the White House, and consequentially the Supreme Court. We couldn’t leave in the morning because we were just glued to the internet.

All the talks that day mentioned the election. How could they not address the elephant in the room? There was supposed to be lots of happy talks about the election, but instead they were all somber. There was this doom and gloom atmosphere that permeated the arena. People just didn’t know what to say. For some reason, Shailene Woodley was tapped to talk about politics, like she’s some expert. It was a depressing day to say the least.

I had lunch by myself (Megan already ate/avoided me) at FIL Pateo Velho, a restaurant above the conference center. It was recommended to me by Joao. It is a real restaurant open year-round. It was actually a kind of fancy place. I tried looking up a menu before going in because I wasn’t sure how expensive it’d be. But I had no luck. And then I said “fuck it” and just walked in. I waited for a table to open up and then seated myself. There were a couple of other lone diners, but I wasn’t really in a mood like I was before the election. I really just wanted to simmer in misery alone. Being at the conference was a lot of stimulation. And I just wanted to be alone and to think.It was an excellent recommendation. It was cheaper and better than the vendors brought in for the conference. And it was a real restaurant. I had the two course meal offered to me by the waiter that everyone was eating: vegetable soup and steak with potatoes. The daily menu is incredible. I didn’t know the price, but I didn’t think about it. I got a coca-cola, which they didn’t charge me extra for. My meal literally came out to 7.50! I was pleasantly shocked. I had steak for 7.50. I got back change in small coins cause the credit card machine wasn’t working.

On Day 2, I saw Shailene Woodley twice, CSO of Facebook, George Papandreou (the former prime minister of Greece), some movie talks about virtual reality. And I saw the Prime Minister of Portugal walking the floor talking to startups. He had a whole crew following him around. I had no idea who he was but he must’ve been important. And then someone told me. So I joined the throng of people following him and took out my GoPro. But by the time I knew who he was, I don’t think I ever got close enough to get a good shot.

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Shailene not looking at me…

On Day 3, we woke up pretty late. But we were still able to catch some of Ne-Yo and Tinie Tempah in the morning. I saw a bunch of music talks. That was the theme of Day 3, how technology is shaking up the music industry…again. There was less free stuff today. Or it was more of the same.

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Remember Ja Rule?

I saw Ja Rule (who I didn’t know was still relevant), Ne-Yo, Man v. Food, trans model Andreja Pejic, Joseph Gordon Levitt (my fave), Papandreou again, and the CEO of Eventbrite. I saw the President of Portugal walking the floor today. My favorite talk of the conference was by the Founders of Hyperloop One. It was the last talk of the conference and perhaps the most inspiring. Hyperloop is a total moonshot.  Elon Musk is a risk taker. They are building basically pneumatic tubes to transport things and people across long distances. The first project is Dubai to Abu Dhabi in 20 minutes! It is a perfect location—it’s just flat desert. There is nothing obstructing the tubes. But the vision they showed us was really beyond belief. It is not just getting from one city to another, it is getting from door to door, solving the last mile problem. The pods are autonomous vehicles that will drive themselves on the road. That means they will exit the station, without you ever leaving the pod, and take you to your final destination, so you don’t have to find a bus or taxi. The tubes themselves are a feat of engineering that they are making genuine progress on. But self-driving cars are another thing entirely and they’re tackling it all.

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J!G!L!

I had lunch by myself again today. I went back to the 7.50 two-course meal restaurant.  They had pork. Not steak, but the pork was excellent. And today, the credit card machine worked, but it was out of paper. Just my luck, right?

Megan and I had dinner at the mall across the street. And she did some shopping at the mall. She is a good shopper, and by that, I mean she is a fun and agreeable shopper. Salespeople have a hard job with people ignoring them all day. But she engages with the salespeople and they have fun. She asks questions and asks for different things and they show her different sales and she gets excited. Probably made the salesperson’s day. She got some good deals too.

Megan was a lot bubblier after we met Jeffrey on the train, an Asian American from San Francisco, now living in Copenhagen. He went to Berkeley and is now ~23. He did a summer internship in Copenhagen and then he stayed. We finally made a friend on the last day of the conference, after it finished. We were going to meet him in Bairro Alto, but we ended up never finding him. He was further downtown than we wanted to go. We went to a Cuban bar instead where it was perpetually happy hour, so the drinks were even cheaper than Portugal-level cheap.

I am glad that Megan invited me to attend the conference. Even if I didn’t get much out of it, I really loved Portugal and I had an excuse to miss a week of school.

Here is the final tally of my haul from the conference:

7 T shirts
3 Pens
2 Pencils
1 Mints
2 Portable Chargers
1 Notebook
1 Bag
1 Magnet
1 Stand
3 Stickers
1 Converter Kit
1 Badge
1 Keychain
1 Postcard
1 Highlighter
1 Ball

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