Fifteen Seconds 2018 and the new era of business festivals

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Curiosity didn't kill the cat, it made her a visionary.

Words and photos by Sabina Fratila

 

Stephen Gates calls Fifteen Seconds "the greatest conference nobody's ever heard of".

A few people must have found out about it though, because this June the event gathered no less than 5.000 curious people in Graz, Austria. But it's true that when we checked in at Fifteen Seconds it felt like we ended up at a private party by mistake. Among all the conferences turned business festivals we’d experienced lately, this was a proper rave.

We attended Fifteen Seconds in Austria to discover what makes it special, why people meet there every year, and how this event can inspire you to design better shared experiences. At first glance, what we got from Fifteen Seconds 2018 was:

  • 6 stages with different schedule tracks

  • 100 speakers

  • a startup village

  • a food court

  • a design market

  • an art gallery

  • a sound garden

  • various DJ booths

  • dinners with strangers

  • braindates

  • a lot of technology

  • a lot of good old meeting random people and ending up in a 2-hour conversation about life and motivation.

Here's a short video in which we tried to summarize all of the above: 

Looks massive, right? Yet the most interesting part of the experience was that it all felt very intimate, like being among friends, hanging out with old buds. That, we believe, is the ultimate secret of a really good event: making people feel comfortable in a context that would normally make them feel uptight, want to appear at their best but end up feeling awkward as they try to impress a potential employer or a business lead they've been stalking the whole day.

To find out how they make this magic happen, we asked Stefan Stücklschweiger. He is co-founder of the festival and superhuman guy who managed to personally shake hands and talk with probably half of the attendees during the two festival days.

Stefan giving his opening speech at Fifteen Seconds 2018

Stefan giving his opening speech at Fifteen Seconds 2018

The story goes that, back in 2013, Stefan and Thiemo Gillissen decided to go into marketing without having any contacts in the industry. To meet the right people, they started attending conferences, as you do, and soon realized most of them sucked. That's when they settled on creating their own conference and network. Following the principle of "no egos, no agendas, no bullshit", they managed to convince speakers and industry leaders to join the conference without the customary speaker fee and business class flight. All efforts went into providing a great experience for them. They lured the speakers into sticking around for the whole conference and getting to know each other so, in the end, they got much more out of Fifteen Seconds than 20 minutes of exposure on stage. This trick worked so well that many of them now come back every year from all over the world. They now consider each other their extended family. They keep in touch, create projects together, and can't wait for that time of the year when they get to hang out at Fifteen Seconds again. 

The amazing energy created among the speakers and organizing team transferred to the attendees as well. Many weren't there for the first time, and got drawn back by the unusual vibe of this big, yet intimate gathering. Talking to people, we realized how important it was for them to connect, yet how hard that ussually is in this kind of context.

Isn't it funny how, despite all the societal advances we're making, one of the things we still find hardest is to talk to strangers? 

That's what it's all about, after all. The biggest challenge events face today is recreating the naturally-occurring instances of dialogue and collaboration between people, also known as the key to our civilization. Their job is to solve our human disconnection crisis.

We attend [professional] events because we need to get out of our office and our own head, because we long for the creativity born out of unpredictable encounters and conversations, because we crave new ideas, new projects, new jobs. But as soon as we get to any event, we can't find enough excuses to hide our faces behind our phones. 

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The events industry is finally waking up to the reality that a stage, a renowned speaker, a PowerPoint presentation, a Q&A session, catering and networking are not enough to make an event worth attending. That's why we're seeing a wave of conferences becoming festivals, in an attempt to turn stiff events into informal gatherings, where people can have fun, loosen up, get slightly drunk and finally handle face-to-face interaction. 

Fifteen Seconds understood this challenge, and created conversation opportunities and ice-breakers at every step. Among them, a ball pit you could jump into with someone and ask each other questions, a dinner setup with a stranger, and plenty of braindates. 

"Wait, you said braindates?!"

Braindate is a tool developed by Canadian consultancy e180. It aims to replace the daunting concept of networking and basically engineer serendipity. 

Conferences use Braindate to facilitate the matching and connection of like-minded attendees. Before the event, people create a Braindate profile and list topics they want to discuss. The signup process isn't centered around one's job and position, but rather around the kind of knowledge or skills they want to share and the stories behind acquiring them – in other words, the actual stuff that makes us connect. 

Braindates at Fifteen Seconds 2018

Braindates at Fifteen Seconds 2018

This was by far our favorite part of Fifteen Seconds. It made their no-bullshit, easy-going personality shine through the brightest. Everyone braindated, speakers and staff included. People picked each other's brains on everything from UX design and crypto to time management and the meaning of life. One guy even managed to get a group together and founded a startup while there!

The ad-hoc contract signed between the founders of a yet unnamed startup

The ad-hoc contract signed between the founders of a yet unnamed startup

Other highlights of Fifteen Seconds, for us, were:

  • Kei Shimada running late, so they video-streamed his talk from the car that was taking him to the conference. He made it just in time for his Q&A.

  • The Fifteen Seconds Family closing panel. This is a tradition started a few years back, when the organizers gathered some "veterans" on stage to fill in for a speaker that couldn't make it. They made them drink and share backstage stories, and that became a festival favorite.

  • A group meditation session with a few thousand people during the speech of Matthew Banks, of Oracle fame.

  • Steli Efti using baby pictures to prove a very serious point. 

  • Samantha Yarwood, who on a normal day leads strategy and innovation at Starbucks, being such a charismatic host. Her interventions and commentary in-between speakers were just as insightful as any of the presentations she introduced. 

  • Caroline Samson being a wonderful facilitator of braindates and one of the best conversation partners anyone could happen upon at a conference. 

Caroline and Tom making magic happen in the Braindate Lounge

Caroline and Tom making magic happen in the Braindate Lounge

We'll leave you with more pictures from our two days spent at Fifteen Seconds in Graz, Austria, and the hope that reading about events done right will inspire you to create more opportunities for people and ideas to meet.