To be or not to be

I spent the early part of this week at ETRE, an unusual IT conference that has been running since 1990.  Organised by ex-journalist Alex Vieux, the conference is for technology CEOs and founders, general partners at VCs and the usual hangers on, rather than for customers.  It moves around to a different European city each year, and this year attracted about 500 people.  The conference is notable for two consistent things: the very high quality of people attending (Bill Gates used to be a regular) and the utter inability of the “organisers” to keep to schedule. This year, it has to be said, the overruns were of more manageable proportions than usual, and indeed the opening session only started 14 minutes late.  John Thompson of Symantec and Niklaas Zenmstrom of Skype were the star names this year.  Skype now constitutes 7% of all long distance calls, which does rather make one wonder at what point the phone companies who generously provide the infrastructure will send the boys round to collect some money from eBay.

The “future of enterprise software” session was definitely the odd one out, since the future was clearly all about social networks, at least in the eyes of investors.  They have a sort of Dragon’s Den session called “meet the money” where early stage companies pitch to a panel of VCs, and this year the company funkysexycool.com (I couldn’t make that up), a sort of myspace wannabee for mobile phones whose business cards feature a voluptuous fantasy woman, had the VCs lining up to throw money at it.  By contrast a shipping ecommerce company, who had been around a few years, had several million in revenues and was profitable, could not have caught a cold, never mind funding.  Perhaps a social networking site for melancholy enterprise software executives?  No takers?  Oh well.

What interest there was around enterprise software was confined to “software as a service” companies.  Rightnow has now reached USD 100 million in revenue, joining salesforce.com in that rarefied air, and certainly there seem to be a few other early stage companies branching out into software as a service for things like HR and ERP.  Given that as much as 80% of technical problems with software are to do with the client environment (often some odd combination of software versions that the vendor had not, or could not, test) then the model certainly makes a lot of sense.  The drawback is that the rental model that usually goes with this means relatively slow growth, though the recurring revenue generated certainly means less sleepless nights near the end of a quarter for software executives.  

One of the few enterprise areas prospering was security, where there was a general consensus that the hackers and spammers were comfortably winning the war.  I was impressed with a company called BitDefender, who are a Rumanian security software firm that has grown since launch in 2001to USD 60 million in revenues.  This has all been done without a dollar of venture capital (there are not too many VC conferences in Bucharest).

The lack of organisational skills of the conference remain legendary.  They denied all knowledge of my booking until I produced the bank transfer details, though they at least seemed embarrassed when I pointed out that they had done exactly the same thing last year.  The conference check-in was a procession of people with lost reservations and people who had booked airport transfers that never arrived.  To be fair, a very helpful gentleman called Farley Duvall did a bang-up job of sorting out my misbehaving video presentation, and the Red Herring people always seem to cope with problems with willingness and good humour. Perhaps they just need some German organisers. 

With its baffling inability to stick to a schedule, ETRE remains something of an enigma.  Attendees wonder aloud whether it is worth the high cost, and yet each year they come back as there is nowhere else quite like this for networking.  If your company is not there, what does this say about you?  With other conferences very much in decline (even Esther Dyson’s US conference just bit the dust) you certainly have to give a lot of credit to Alex Vieux and his team for managing to attract a healthy turnout of people back every year.  Not many tech conferences can claim a 17 year unbroken heritage.