Surf Summit, Where Technology, Entrepreneurism & Surfing Meet

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Imagine a conference that combines surfing, technology and entrepreneurship on Ireland‘s magical wild coast. A subset if you will of Dublin’s Web Summit, the first ever held Surf Summit brought 200 attendees to the west coast of Ireland to join in discussions, surfing and other adventurous and cultural activities.

When I told people I was going to an event where they planned to surf in Ireland’s coastal waters in the middle of November, they looked at me as if I was a bit mad, unless of course they happened to be Canadian or from a Nordic or Celtic country.

You see, the Scots, the Welsh, the English, the Scandinavians and the Canadians thought this sounded perfectly normal, for when you come from a country where it is cold and rainy, you need to have a “can-do” attitude regardless of the climate or you simply won’t experience anything at all. I learned this from living in England many moons ago and it has made me a lot more resilient because of it.

Iceland is another great example of where their personal and cultural life infiltrates into their business life in a positive way and adds to the entrepreneurial spirit, rather than detracts from it.

I was born into water — in other words, I grew up on lakes, was thrown into one before I could walk and was waterskiing by 5. None of that quite prepares you for the cold waters of the Atlantic, however the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs at the Summit made it easier to embrace it all. Below is a beginner lesson on the shores of Keel Beach on Achill Island which is part of West Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

Achill Island is the largest island off the coast of West Ireland. The island is a magical place where the light seems to bless the Irish coast regardless of whether its foggy, cloudy, raining or clear blue skies and sunny, a rarity, especially in November. That said, we had our moments.

Other adventurous activities took place as well such as zorbing, rope climbing, zip lining, and archery thanks to the guys at Wild Atlantic Way Adventure Tours. I had oddly never heard of zorbing and when they told me it involved getting thrown into a massive inflatable ball and being thrown vigorously down a hill, I was thankful I was on the archery team.

That said, when I walked past the ball on my way to Archery, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized, so much so that I looked at Jenni, the Finnish girl I was hanging with at the time and said, “let’s do this.” Next thing you know, we were inside a massive inflatable ball, strapped in on all sides and yes, thrown down the hill. Needless to say, it was a blast and our screams surpassed all the others we were told.

I decided to go ziplining as well, since I’ve always loved the sport. While it may not have been as invigorating as the times I flew through the jungles of Costa Rica, Ecuador or Hawaii, it was fun nevertheless.

Below, people threw themselves towards a target hanging from a tree, with both themselves and the target connected to ropes.

Archery wasn’t quite like I had learned it as a child at summer camp in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.

Instead, there were two teams and rather than shoot an arrow into a target (speaking of targets, check out my most recent encounter with guns in Kentucky), you shot rubber objects into the opposing team. I felt as if I had signed up for a history lesson on what it was like for the Scots to win a war before there was ammunition. Only in a Celtic Land I was thinking to myself throughout the entire process, but with a smile on my face.

Speaking of Celtic Lands, it wouldn’t be a conference in Ireland if it didn’t have plenty of beer and pub culture. On the main drag of Westport lies a few renowned pubs my old friend Peter told me about, which is worth having a pint or two if you make it to Westport. Enter McGings on High Street and Matt Malloys on Bridge Street, both popular favorites among locals.

Matt Malloys is known for its live traditional Irish music and Matt has purposely kept the pub small, so that they can congregate – as they do, from all 32 counties – to enjoy a pint and a tune.

At the evening sessions of the event, they served Guinness on tap which is always a treat, since regardless of whether you only like Guinness or love it (I’m in the last category), it always tastes better in Ireland. Ask anyone who has been to Ireland and is a regular Guinness drinker and they’d have to agree.

In the midst of all of these physical activities which we never seem to incorporate into our more stationary tech events in the states, was a series of talks over meals. We heard from John Huikku who has done everything from lighting and compositing, to 3D matte painting, environments and look development. He spent 15 years working at Disney and worked on Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in New Zealand of all places.

Edgars Rozenthals talked about drones, Airdog and Kickstarter, Andrew Cotton talked about surfing but also big ideas and equating his daredevil life riding the waves (such as him tackling the surf created by the St. Jude’s  Storm in Portugal recently), to taking risks and chances in business and life in general.

While you may only think risk behavior on waves that could kill if you hit them wrong may only be a male choice, think again! Anastasia Ashley, who was drawn to the ocean as early as she can remember, was body boarding by age 4 and surfing by age 6.  She has since become a prodigy and has won over 200 amateur events, including the NSSA National championships at age 16, before she turned professional full time.

She loves the immediacy of digital media for reaching fans. She says, “I could be shooting something for a brand or a magazine and it can be up within a few days” which is a great way to deepen the engagement. She adds, “when you’re in the media, you read everything about yourself,” but has learned to love it all — the good interactions and the bad.

When you’re a celeb female surfer and do a twerking video, you shouldn’t be surprised when it suddenly goes viral and gets 7 million views. While there are lots of positive sides to what she has accomplished, she acknowledged that “females in any sport get the short end of the stick,” referring to men who still tell her she doesn’t deserve her fame and notoriety.”

Jimmy Gopperth and Jonny Golding talked about what you can take from rugby and apply to business, of which trust and teamwork were his top two. Decision making was another biggie, particularly making decisions under pressure, which happens as much on the field as it does in and out of the board room.
Niall Harbison encouraged people to take risks.

Being a true entrepreneur says Niall, means that you can’t be afraid to fail.  Other tips to entrepreneurs included banging the door down no matter how hard it seems, not taking no for an answer, having incredible focus on your main goal, instilling amazing culture into your business and thinking globally beyond your own geographic borders.

He has high ambitions for both PR Slides, which recently raised €500,000 in funding, and Lovin’ Dublin. The latter sells Dublin as a hipster paradise somewhere between London, New York and Berlin, but it has been accused of loving Dublin and not Dubliners.  He said that he learned a lot going through this process, including that even if you hear people on the street using words like ‘knacker’ and ‘junkie’, it doesn’t mean you should write it.

Below, the film panel…

We also heard from Ireland’s prime minister Edna Kenny who talked about a very proud Mayo county.

He also stuck around for awhile to chat with entrepreneurs, take photos and share what he does well – storytelling with a dry and charming sense of humor.

Below is a snippet from his talk.

And, of course, there was traditional Irish music wherever we turned — from the classic pubs in downtown Westport and nearby villages to our evening sessions at the Hotel Westport, which is known for hosting conferences and events.

Below is a snippet from their playing.

What was so unique and special about Surf Summit was its intimacy and its location, which almost has spiritual qualities.  The nature, the air, the skies, the rainbows, the breeze, the sand, the long dry grass – all of it was magical!

Combine that with a couple of days of fascinating conversations about start-ups and entrepreneurship with founders from nearly every continent, and apps and products that cross a myriad of industries, from gaming, drones, digital entertainment and mobile social apps, to luxury, lifestyle, healthcare, travel, transportation and insurance, it was all there.

Ultimately, smaller and carefully targeted and curated events are going to win as we see a proliferation of tech events in the same on-stage session formats with crowds too large to make sense anymore.

I think choosing an out of the way location is also a great idea, since it shows commitment on those who sign up — and its not easy to leave, encouraging intimate talks and connections during the days and evenings. And, in this case, I got to see a little bit of West Ireland, which was as beautiful and special as I thought it would be. Bravo Achill Island, Wesport, Wild Atlantic Way and Mayo County!

All photo credits: Renee Blodgett, except for Malloy’s pub, which is from their website. Both video credits: Renee Blodgett.

OTHER GREAT RELATED POSTS TO READ: See our other posts on Ireland,Food & Wine in Ireland (including Dublin restaurant reviews), Web Summit 2014, the Top Travel Apps from Web Summit this year and Ireland tech events and top Ireland festivals.

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