Martin Ferro-Thomsen , CEO and co-founder of the digital tools for conferences startup Conferize, took time out of a busy schedule for an interview with us. I was able to dig into the background for Conferize and their recent progress as well getting an exclusive sneak peak of the brand new Conferize platform that will be released this summer! It was a long interview, but full of lessons about entreprenuership and it’s rough as well as good patches.
We started out talking about his background – and how the idea came to be.
So Martin, tell us how you got to this point where you are now with Conferize?
I have a background in the humanities and I did my Master Thesis in the early 2000s as kind of a small research project at a place called Learning at Denmark, which conducts a lot of research into learning. I shared an office with some researchers who did a really cool project called The Learning Meeting, which was finding more effective and engaging meeting formats for professional events and meetings. I helped them a little bit with articles and industry research.
During his time there, he got some very interesting insights into the industry that is meetings and conferences.
I discovered that the meetings industry is huge, almost twice the size as auto manufacturing. It’s also a big industry in Copenhagen, where we’re ranking very high on international meetings per capita. Most people don’t realize it’s a DKK 20 billion industry in Denmark alone. So I got a sense of the industry’s financial footprint, but also realized what an important role it plays in the knowledge economy. It’s very much still at professional events that new knowledge, research and products take center stage. It’s also where we conduct the networking that makes us successful in the workplace.
He also explained why he believes meetings and conferences are so important – and the role he sees them play in the society.
I think of professional events as the backbone of the knowledge economy, and I believe this industry will stay big, as meetings in the real world won’t be replaced with technology anytime soon. I also believe even more sponsor money will be poured into events, especially in the US, as meetings present so many unique opportunities for marketers to facilitate real interaction with potential customers.
But Martin is not only Conferize. He has a past in the startup scene, being one of the co-founders of the highly successful startup Issuu.
How did Issuu fit into the picture?
In 2006, I was partly pursuing an academic career and had attended a lot of conferences, both academic and professional. It was very clear to me that conferences produce unique and irreplaceable value, but I also realized a lot of things could be improved around how the interaction and knowledge sharing is facilitated. The same year I was granted an international PhD fellowship. But we also managed to raise almost $ 2 million around the same time to start what soon became known as Issuu, which is now probably the world’s leading online publishing platform. I was a co-founder there 2006-2011, and I learned a lot about how to build a global online platform for a legacy industry.
And how did you get the idea of Conferize after Issuu?
It was certainly a crazy ride. And I thought – wow – where else could I try and do that, and I naturally came to think of meetings because that interest was never lost. For instance, in 2008 at Issuu, I made a big list of events I should attend or sponsor. I spent two weeks googling and searching on these crappy web portals, without ever getting the overview that I wanted. I realized there’s this humongous industry right in front of us – which plays this crucial role in culture and business – and not even Google knows how to find it! That’s just insane and wrong, right?
He elaborated on how he decided to start a new startup, while Issuu was still growing a lot.
In 2011 Issuu had grown to be massive and I thought it was time to do something else. I couldn’t think of a better and more rewarding thing to do than to start Conferize. So I found my tech co-founder Martin Wulffeld and we just started prototyping with no money in our pockets, and got into DEMO which is a big launch event in Santa Clara. We were really lucky to get in, out of 1,000 participants only 70 get to present their product. We didn’t even have a product at that stage and it’s called DEMO because you can’t show slides. That’s how the first pre-alpha version was made, made really fast in a few months and that’s what we demoed. Martin built the very first product near singlehandedly, and that’s no small feat considering the amount of data we’re handling. He’s one of the best all-round developers I’ve ever met.
Later came our two awesome co-founders, Jesper Vestergaard, an old colleague friend and product director, who I persuaded to quit his job before we had raised any money. And my good friend and former Issuu colleague Jon Schäffer, who’s by far the best business developer I’ve worked with. We bootstrapped a long time and gradually closed a small seed round last year from brave investors who share our big product vision.
But Conferize is not just Martins personal story, it is also the product itself. We wanted to know some more about how it is going for the startup. They have been in the press many times, and are mentioned in together with other renowned startups. But that does not always reveal how it is actually going.
How many users does Conferize have right now?
Around 3.5 million and growing fast. This is just from 12,000 events, which is a strong indication of the volume and engagement that events produce both in the physical and online world. You can follow people you know and care about, to see which events to consider. Or you can of course search and get a very structured overview of relevant events just for you.
But Conferize has more unique features.
There’s also the networking part, where you can actually assess an event based on the people who attend it and how excited they are about it. If you’re going to the event, you can filter out the people you shouldn’t miss. Most events I attend never get this right, even after I pay the ticket. Unless they’re on Conferize, of course.
Finally, there’s the content side of things. Coming from publishing, it was amazing to dive into another content producing industry, that 99 % of the times did not have a digital strategy for that content. And if you consider events to be where new knowledge often comes into our culture, it’s very radical to think about what the world would look like if you have structured access to any presentation, paper, video etc. coming from events. That’s the big picture of Conferize. Instead of attending an event five times a year, you will keep up with the people and industries you care about, five times a week. And from that you’ll be inspired to attend more events, some of which you’ve probably never even heard about. That’s the beauty and simplicity of our business model – helping increase awareness and attendance at events, and we’ve proven that it works.
We are now in a really unique position in the market, but it also took us some heavy lifting and a few million lines of coding to get here.
Some impressive numbers, reaching 3,5 million users. We wanted to learn more about challenges along the way.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the past 6 months?
In the beginning it’s always uphill with a startup, that’s a given. But it’s mostly been good. We are doing no marketing, and we have more than doubled the number of events coming to us, and the majority of them come back and refer others. So they really appreciate what we do for them, and more and more are paying for our freemium services.
Once people started buying our product there is of course a lot that follows. For example, invoicing, support, feature requests and stuff like that. I think it happened a little faster than we expected. But that is a positive problem, as long as you can still keep a focus on your big product vision.
What is one of the biggest discoveries you have made?
With all the events using us actively, we also had to make sure the product was truly stable and user friendly and that’s an ongoing process, of course. TEDxCopenhagen is a good example. They had tried to build longer-lasting communities around their infrequent events, but had failed to find the right platform to do this with. They liked Conferize so much, that they referred us to the main TEDx peole in the US. Now we have an official partnership with TEDx, so more of the world’s TEDx events will be available on Conferize, and we’ll help them spread their ideas even further through the community.
Being a global partner of TEDx is certainly no little feat. Martin also mentioned TED as an inspiration in the event sector.
For me TED is the gold standard of events, so it’s something I’m personally very proud of. TED was founded in ‘84; it was back then a very closed event, offline, hard to get in to. Now, with TEDx and how they embrace online platforms it’s become a movement, profoundly impacting hundreds of million of people. That only happened because they started opening up to the world. That is essentially what we do for events, and it’s an effective way of revitalizing this industry, that we love so much, in the online era.
You have mentioned TEDx but has anything else been a significant milestone for you?
Well, we were surprised to see Forbes mentioning us above LinkedIn and Twitter as the best networking platform for professional events. That’s some serious performance pressure. It’s also been encouraging to see how the top brands are actively using Conferize, such as AdTech, The Guardian, and Phillips. Normally it takes longer for a new platform to be embraced by the big guys.
Martin, tell us a bit what will happen in the next 6 month at Conferize, for example the change from Beta to Version 1 of Conferize?
One of the things I’ve been most excited about is that we finally have had the chance to put a stronger focus on the design of Conferize. Not just how it looks, but also how it works and what it does. After a very long search we found two awesome designers to help us solve what it actually means to take a conference online. In my opinion that’s an unsolved problem.
How do you create an engaging online platform for an industry that is essentially offline? And not only that, it’s an industry that’s somewhat locked in time and space, unlike for instance music and publishing that are free from those constraints. Looking at the event itself as a content object, it’s basically made up from all types of media and it has this highly specialized type of social interaction around this content. It’s all very tricky and complex.
Martin followed up by saying that until now, Conferize has actually only been a long beta. They are finally planning to launch the first real version, version 1. A big move of course, and with the new design it will definitly stand apart from the current version.
Version 1 of Conferize will be released this summer as we’re leaving beta. I can tell you a bit about it now but you’ll have to wait until it’s live to share it with your readers. It is very different from the current version, much more visual, much more modern, simple and beautiful. It’s focused on rich content that we’re able to handle in a radically different way now. We also have some pretty unique networking apps as well, designed to drive engagement.
What features are you working on at the moment?
So when an event comes to Conferize they will already today invite a lot of people to join the event community that they are building with Conferize. For instance last Monday we sent out about 5,000 emails on behalf of just a few events, so you can imagine we’re getting a lot of people on the platform.
So we’re thinking long and hard about what it actually means to be part of an event community? Of course, a big part of that is networking, see who you know, who should you meet, who should you follow, and so on. And part of it is content, showing the coolest presentations, the most interesting photos or videos. But we also made some new apps where we start collecting the ideas of the community. I think that is the most precious human resource: great ideas and the engagement around that. It’s a radical form of democratization of the event community, that’s been going on for the past decades, ever since open space, and that we’re now seeing with other formats such as the unconference phenomenon. We’re just hypercharging that development and making it easily available across the board.
Version 1 will have all these unique features of event communities and content structure?
One of the biggest technical achievements with the release is that we can serve a mixed media feed for an event that’s structuring information from around 20 or so content platforms, from Youtube to Instagram to Slideshare, and then rank it by interest. 10,000 tweets will be available if that’s what you want, but sometimes you just want to have the 5 best videos. We’re now able to serve that both on the event level and the level above that according to a special interest area.
Is there anything else that is important for you at Conferize?
And this is the learning aspect of Conferize that fascinates me so much. Let’s say you are interested in startups and you want to see what is going on in South America or elsewhere. Whatever your interest is, there is now a place to keep up with your passion, both in terms of content and social circles. It is highly dynamic, highly relevant, and completely unique. It’s of course never going to be the same as the real event, but certainly we’re going to connect you with many more events, many more people, and much more content than what previously was possible. That’s a good thing. And I think this is really the biggest achievement: unlocking the potential of this industry on a massive scale, and making it relevant in the digital world too.
This also became a discussion about analog versus digital, where some lessons learned from Issuu also are relevant for Conferize.
As with any other digital platform, not least Issuu, we’re often asked if we’re competing with the psysical events. And my answer is always the same: No more that a web shop competes with the physical store. Online and offline has proven time and again to complement each other, when they’re done right. We live in a digital world and no one wants to turn back the clock, so all industries needs to embrace the online world as well as the offline. If they don’t, they’re missing out on a great potential and may even become extinct.
The best marketing you can do for any great product is to actually give customers a taste of it. And that’s finally possible for events to do with Conferize: Show how great you are, don’t just tell it. We’ve proven that our content and community-building approach really helps sell more tickets and I’m just so excited to show people what we’re releasing this summer.
It was a pleasure to get to know Martin deeper, and his thoughts and plans for Conferize, as well having him sharing insights from his years as an entrepreneur.
If you want to know more about Conferize, sign up and try it out.