San Francisco stands tall as the AI Capital of the World. If you're delving into the realm of AI, now is the perfect time to be in this city. A significant part of this phenomenon revolves around the surge of AI-focused events.
The past couple of years were challenging for event organizers in the Bay Area, but the fall of 2023 is witnessing a frenzy of AI-centric conferences, meetups, and hackathons occurring nearly every day.
The AI upswing in the SF Bay has lured back entrepreneurs and tech professionals who had previously left due to Covid restrictions. The city has witnessed a groundbreaking $10.7 billion in funding for generative AI startups announced in the first three months of 2023.
Whether you're a founder, venture capitalist, or corporate employee, if you have even a remote interest in AI, you're likely to find yourself at one of these events. Connecting with like-minded builders and investors is a key value, and there are specific business goals achievable through active participation, including fundraising, recruiting top talent, acquiring best-in-class teams and startups, exploring revolutionary products and services, and more.
To illustrate, the SF Tech Week by a16z is a week filled with numerous events hosted by VC firms, corporations, and prominent startups. Any business objective you have in mind can be fulfilled here. Personally, I hosted an AI Tea party in collaboration with DVC, M12 and Microsoft for Startups. We had a panel with a VC, a founder, and a corporate executive sharing their perspectives on how most GenAI projects and corporations lack a moat – “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” was the motto of the event which represents the fact that it’s not enough to create an AI product, but rather you’ll have to be twice as fast and resourceful to acquire the user or client base to succeed in this red ocean of AI startups and technologies.
Only in the Bay Area can you attend a 100-person hackathon and witness Sergey Brin or Eric Schmidt in person, delivering inspirational talks about the fundamental shift in technologies and business to builders. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a free event hosted by the Robot Heart Foundation where Sam Altman was discussing the challenges and future of the intersection of Art and AI with Android Jones. Sam addressed concerns artists had regarding their intellectual property and the future of Generative AI. The main subjective takeaway for me was that the next leap in AI would involve generating entirely new knowledge beyond what humanity has already created and achieved.
Most meetups and hackathons are free but often have limited spots, so act quickly to secure your spot and present yourself well on the registration page. Some conferences can be expensive, but one effective way to participate is by volunteering. I know people who gained access to the $1500 Ted AI Conference by assisting organizers – as an organizer myself, I can say we appreciate help and support.
Another aspect to consider is how to kickstart an AI event in the Bay Area. Let's examine the simplest format – meetups. It's not easy, but my suggestion is to work within your budget. If it's limited or non-existent, consider one of the many coworking spaces or academic organizations, some of which are willing to host events for free or at a very affordable price.
The next crucial element is securing good speakers. You don't need many, but the event won't succeed without at least a couple of known speakers. Even if they're not widely popular, having speakers from prominent startups, corporations, or VC firms can make a significant difference.
Marketing is typically the most challenging part and relies on the first two items. The better the venue and speakers, the easier it is to attract people. An important first step is listing the event on as many free platforms as possible to generate organic traffic (Eventbrite, Lu.ma, Partifull, etc.). Second, send personal invitations via email and LinkedIn – there are plenty of tools to automate this process.
Monetization is another consideration. Since we're talking about a meetup, tickets are typically free, so the only other option is attracting sponsors. The main value for sponsors is the guests, so, for example, if the meetup focuses on developers and founders, the main target sponsors would be cloud providers and companies aiming to sell their products and services to those groups. If it's a corporate meetup, vendors should be interested. It's not trivial, but once the relationship is established, it gets easier. No connections? No problem – attend other AI events and meet sponsors.
Food and drinks – people usually don't expect fancy dinners at meetups, so the most common fare will be pizza and a variety of canned or bottled drinks.
This is the simplest way to kickstart a meetup, but with larger ambitions and budgets, anything is possible.
I've successfully organized conferences with 50-150 speakers in less than 2 months, and I'll share perhaps the most important takeaway – try to involve as many people and organizations as possible. Community partners can assist in various ways, such as bringing in speakers, sponsors, and promoting the event. I've experienced a lot of success with partnerships, and that is the single most important advice I would give to anyone planning to host a tech event.