Success brings its own problems. I am reasonably sure that whatever Marco Rodzynek thought he was doing in 2009, when this blog amongst others reported on NOAH ’09, a conference of less than 300 free-loading delegates in the Park Lane Hilton talking for a day about internet services companies in Europe, it was not about running conferences. NOAH, founded with two other ex-Lehman managers in the wake of that outfit’s collapse, was pitching for advisory business, and now has a good deal of it if the founder is to be taken at face value – and he certainly is, with deals like Bigpoint to show for it. If you check this blog you will see that I attended NOAH ’10 last year, in an enlarged audience of 650, still free.

This year’s invite required a fee, so I anticipated less people, and thought the move to the Old Billingsgate conference venue probably meant that less sponsorship than in the first two years had diminished the budget. How wrong could one be? Marco produced a two day show, in a larger venue, with 1180 attendees paying over £300 each, and greater sponsorship. Some 97 people and companies spoke and sat on panels. Sessions ran right through breaks and meals when necessary, and outside of the auditorium there was as much chatter around the six or so booths of an incipient exhibition as there was in the conference hall. So the whole British investment community was represented? Well, broadly, but alongside their European peers. For a meeting held in London, this was as European as they come. One subject of debate centred on the idea that Europe now has an equivalence in start-up and development terms to Silicon Valley – but then we all disagreed on whether that was best represented by London’s 800 companies in the Silicon Roundabout at Old Street, or by the powerhouse of software development that is moving things in Berlin, or by the design talent and entrepreneurial drive of Barcelona. I took a straw poll in one group and Berlin won, but, then, there were a huge number of German players on display.

Those of us who filled the hot and airless evening sessions of the late nineties would have recognized the flavour in the room: this was First Monday or Last Friday or whatever they were called playing out on a large scale. It was important to be there and to be seen, and just as important as doing deals was promoting the investor’s image as the right player for an outstanding opportunity, while desperate developers asserted that they did not really need the money – unless of course someone wanted to help them go faster, further and right past their competition. Outside the doors last week, equity markets were lurching like a trawler in a gale, and two governments in Europe fell while we enthused about opportunity. And that is the essence of Marco’s magic: he has persuaded us to suspend judgement for a moment and observe how, even in difficult times, a group of mostly consumer-facing network service are achieving really interesting growth rates, how audience transfer to these services remains rapid, how the smartphone challenge is now at last being met with some worthy service responses. And while he does this it is noticeable that very few services from the traditional vendor community are making much headway (interesting to see both Axel Springer and Schibsted looking so mundane in this company) and that there are relatively less pan-European services than I would have expected from the first two events.

If there was an exception to that rule it was perhaps HomeAway, which predates its US owners in the UK and is the secret giant of holiday bookings (larger than TripAdvisor at 4.5 million bookings per month), or Softonics, or eHarmony (re-inventing relationship management). Or even ZooPlus, selling unconscionable amounts of dogfood despite depression. But in some ways the most impressive players were the niche operators. It is a moot question whether indeed these service companies scale globally. Groupon was on the platform talking about rediscovering local internet, and this is surely true if we are to get beyond the whole business of classifieds – looking at this meeting like a very flat place to be – and re-ignite geographical community with service offers and hyper-local interest. The man from FourSquare clearly had aspirations to do this, but they always seem to get overtaken by what I suspect are the less lasting joys of finding out that your friends are all drinking in the pub you are just passing. But then the focus shifted again: here is good Sverre Munck of Schibsted, who I thought once would create the first real digital newspapers, rightly saying we should watch the Indonesians, and see how a society behaves when its primary link to the Internet is Smartphone, without any precursor experience of other technologies. And did I hear someone say that online recruitment is now a 27 billion dollar business globally? There were some good niche examples on display here. And there was also a splendid man from Lehavi who used his brain, working through his computer, to move his toy remote car around. And Tony Castells of Barcelona produced great incidental music of his own composition to fill the breaks that Marco was so anxious to deny us.

In short this was a very diverting conference. But less is more, and greater variety of investment fields (where was music, or personal finance, or sport, let alone business!) will be welcome as it develops further. It could be that the advertising model is not the entire answer, though you would have thought it was the ultimate in business model development here. More on hybrid models, and less on old-fashioned classifieds. And a final recognition that old media are not going to cut it here. But keep tapping the vein of frenzy that makes this such a fascinating area for so many investors – and keep giving them a place to meet and talk and, as in that first rush of internet blood to the head in the late 90s, to stimulate and force each other to compete.


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