Opposite an eight-story brothel – Cologne’s largest – lies Odonien, an art collective, open-air nightclub and general hang-out for Cologne’s techno-futurist art community. The space is filled with old London buses, robots, dinosaur skeletons, graffiti, corrugated aluminium shacks and limbless mannequins. It’s a post-industrial fantasy straight out of Ridley Scott that serves as city’s creative hub, a brilliantly modern, young, humanist rebuke to the imposition of Cologne’s famous cathedral; a giant mechanical heart beating menacingly from the city’s north-west district.
It’s fitting, then, that the most authentic and inspiring start-up conference I’ve been to in years should have set up shop here, and that the conference should integrate so seamlessly into its haphazard environs. A statuesque robot straight out of Real Steel grasping a guitar (judging by Odonien, that movie is only slightly fictional) rocked out at the end of the show to techno music. Fire spewed from every available orifice of the venue at pertinent moments. Dustbin lids clattered in time with snare drums. Start-up hero Morten Lund arrived on a bike modded out as a rat-faced robotic steed.
The European Pirate Summit is an odd fusion of the naff and the natural: there was no getting away from the contrived sound of “Arrrrrr!”, the comedy hats and the novelty parrots. Yet it achieved an authenticity denied to similar gatherings, in part because it was by invitation and on application only. Everyone in the room was at a similar stage in their entrepreneurial journey. And, somehow, everyone in the room seemed to be operating on the same wavelength.
The production values were higher than the theme might suggest. This was Burning Man’s idea of what a start-up conference might look like, but that didn’t stop the organisers from producing a sleek website, smart programme and attractive brand. Nor were guests expected to make it on their own: I’ve never been treated better than by the Pirate Summit team, for whom no request was too much trouble.
Perhaps it was the relaxed authenticity of the crowd and surroundings that teased out more than might usually be forthcoming from the galaxy of enthusiastic upstarts and established names who graced the stage. There was real humanity on display in one of the four talks I participated in – the “big dogs” panel at the end of the second day. Likewise, speakers who don’t normally rock up to deliver rabble-rousing perorations, such as Seedcamp’s Saul Klein, seemed at ease and livelier than usual.
Geographically, Odonien is both centrally positioned and in the middle of nowhere: a twenty- or thirty-minute walk from the grandeur of German Catholicism. Its displacement is a compelling metaphor for entrepreneurship; of founders who, if successful, cannot avoid becoming what they profess to despise. Enrobed in the cult of disruption must lie ferociously Darwinian and very conventionally capitalist instincts.
But if start-up businesses are a part of the establishment from germination, the ones who came out to play and learn in Cologne this week were sticking two fingers up at the swanky fashionistas and men on the make at F.ounders. You can’t imagine these guys hopping out of cabs in Loro Piana overcoats, however rip-roaringly successful their endeavours may become.
The organisers also realised that there’s no harm in resisting the seductive entreaties that other start-up conferences so lazily ape – the glossy, aspirational production values, the expensive suits. In fact, there was much to be gained. The Pirate Summit revealed a dissonance at the heart of those 3,000-attendee conference behemoths, with their gloating corporate sponsors and subtle insinuations with government departments. This was entrepreneurship as nature intended. And it was thrilling to behold.