Lanyrd: Twitter Meets LinkedIn Meets IMDB for the Conference Circuit

5/12/11Follow @wroush

Sixth in a series of profiles of Y Combinator Winter 2011 startups.

I’m always on the lookout for technologies that have the potential to help us be better journalists and storytellers, and I find new ones pretty regularly—touchscreen video editing being my favorite recent example. But Xconomy is both a media company and an events company, and the technology of events seems to evolve a lot more slowly. If you took away PowerPoint for presentations and Twitter as an unofficial communications backchannel, most conferences today, even Xconomy’s, would look and feel the same as they did 30 or 40 years ago.

That’s why I’m so intrigued by Lanyrd (pronounced like lanyard, as in the string your ID badge hangs from at a conference). This Y Combinator-backed startup, which consists for now of the husband-and-wife team of Simon Willison and Natalie Downe, is building a user-generated conference directory that has the potential to transform the way we prepare for conferences beforehand and the way we learn from them while we’re there and after we leave. If it catches on, it could make the whole routine of conference-going radically more efficient and productive, in roughly the same way that LinkedIn has made it easier to network with peers or IMDB has made it easier to find information about actors, films, and TV shows.

Already, users have uploaded details on close to 10,000 conferences to Lanyrd’s database, stretching all the way from 1945 (the Yalta Conference) to 2014 (38 people have already signed up to attend the 100th Pub Standards Web meetup in London on March 1 of that year). Downe and Willison successfully battle-tested the site at the mother of all technology events, the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin this March—2,000 speakers, 10,000 attendees. And so far, users have uploaded more than 6,800 conference-related items, such as speaker slide decks, videos, photos, live blogs, and Web writeups.

The central feature of Lanyrd—the core on which everything else hangs—is its ability to show you who’s speaking at each event in its listings and who’s attending. It all revolves around an existing and very robust social network, namely Twitter. If you’re creating an event listing on Lanyrd, you add speakers according to their Twitter handles, and if you’re a user searching Lanyrd, the first events you see are those that the people you follow on Twitter are speaking at or attending. (But you don’t have to have a Twitter account to be listed as an event speaker. I’m pretty sure that Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill weren’t big Twitter users.)

Just as every event on Lanyrd has a list of speakers and attendees, everyone who’s ever spoken at or attended an event listed on Lanyrd has a profile page showing their conference history and all the materials they’ve uploaded. “For all intents and purposes, it’s like a LinkedIn profile for your speaking career,” says Willison.

Which is a brilliant but also forehead-slappingly-obvious idea; the wonder is that no one has done it before. There are, of course, sites that track events, such as Yahoo’s Upcoming, and sites that store event-related materials, such as Slideshare. But nobody before Downe and Willison had hit on the idea of organizing both conference listings and conference materials around the speakers themselves, and making it all discoverable via users’ existing social networks. The IMDB analogy is actually a pretty good one. In the same way that you can thread your way from a famous actor to a recent movie he was in to another actor in that movie to the TV show where that actor got her start in showbiz, Lanyrd exposes the whole tangled web of professional events and the people who seem to jet constantly from one to the next.

Lanyrd’s coverage, not surprisingly, is particularly strong for the world of technology conferences. It’s got oodles of material, for example, about the just-completed Google I/O 2011 conference in San Francisco. But there are also lots of listings in areas like healthcare and government. “We haven’t done any push toward any particular sector,” says Downe. “As we start to grow and fill out the product we think it has a much broader appeal.” That appeal may be limited only by the popularity of Twitter itself, which is estimated to have 200 million users worldwide.

Natalie Downe and Simon Willison

Downe and Willison aren’t your typical Y Combinator co-founders. For one thing, they’re British—and right now the company’s headquarters location is in limbo as the pair try to work out visa issues that would permit them to return to the Bay Area. Also, they got married last year, 10 years after meeting as students at the University of Bath—it’s only the second case of married co-founders in the annals of the venture incubator, according to Y Combinator partner Jessica Livingston. And there probably aren’t any other YC startups that built the first version of their product during a feverish, aborted honeymoon in Casablanca (more on that in a second).

Finally, Willison was semi-famous in the tech startup community even before Lanyrd joined Y Combinator. While working for the Lawrence Journal-World in Lawrence, KS, in 2005, he helped to create Django, an open-source framework since used to build thousands of database-driven websites.

He went on to work for Yahoo, and then for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, where he worked on “data journalism” software like that used by the newspaper to crowdsource the analysis of expense reports for members of Parliament. Downe, meanwhile, was in Oxford managing Web development for non-profit groups and trying to build a tech scene in the ancient university town, and then in Brighton working for a user experience design firm called ClearLeft.

Lanyrd was born during the couple’s honeymoon last year in Morocco. “Ten days after we got married we gave up our flat and went traveling,” recounts Downe. “We took our laptops, because we thought we might find some side projects to make money. After about three months, we ended up in Casablanca, where we got quite sick. It was Ramadan, and there were no restaurants open for two weeks. So we got an apartment with a kitchen, so that we could actually eat, and spent those two weeks working on Lanyrd.”

On the day of its launch, the site attracted 14,000 users and only got more popular from there, which put a kink in the remainder of the Morocco trip. But it worked out all right—the couple played tourists each morning, coders each afternoon. “Ducking donkeys is actually quite stressful, so a lot of people go back to their hotels at mid-day because they’re exhausted,” says Downe. Adds Willison: “Three hours of exploring Marrakesh and three hours of developing means you’ve got a very balanced life.”

Willison says that after having spent so much time on the conference circuit talking about Django, he knew there was a need for a tool like Lanyrd, many features of which “came from our own experiences as public speakers and looking at what was missing from that world.” One of the those elements: a way to avoid missing out on events that might interest you. “There was one event a couple of years ago, a geospatial and GIS and mapping camp, that was organized by a co-worker and was literally held at the office where I worked, and I didn’t hear about it until the day it happened,” Willison says. “It was really frustrating. We set out to make sure that that would never happen again.” If you sign up for Lanyrd’s personalized daily e-mail newsletters, you don’t even have to visit the site to find out which meetings your Twitter friends are going to.

But perhaps you don’t trust your Twitter community to find every interesting event in your field; in that case you can go to Lanyrd.com and browse the listings by date, city, or topic. If you’re a startup entrepreneur looking for a conference to attend in Silicon Valley next Tuesday, or in Boston in mid-June, for example, you might be interested in Beyond Mobile: Computing in 2021 or the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (to pick two totally random examples).

That’s the discovery side of Lanyrd. Then there’s the content side. One of the paradoxes about big professional conferences is that once you get to one, you miss most of what’s said. After all, it’s impossible to attend every session, and it’s difficult to find out what happened at the ones you missed. “Conferences are a quite inefficient way of sharing information,” Downe argues. “The speakers spends hours or weeks preparing and they give their presentation, if they’re lucky, to a couple of hundred people in the room. Afterward, maybe there’s a video on YouTube or slides on Slideshare, but often the conference websites go offline within a year after the event.”

So “there is all of this knowledge being shared that’s just vanishing into the ether,” as Willison puts it. That’s why he and Downe also conceived Lanyrd as an archive: a permanent storehouse of conference materials, such as speakers’ PowerPoint decks or session videos shared by the organizers. “If you can collect videos and writeups and slides and al of that, over time, that builds into a really valuable thing,” says Willison.

So not only could Lanyrd evolve into a one-stop site for planning your conference activities, but it could become the default place where people check back for seminal talks and papers—a combination library, scrapbook, and newsreel.

At the moment, Lanyrd is totally free for conference organizers, speakers, and attendees. But Downe and Willison say there are some obvious things they could do to start bringing in revenue. One would be paid upgrades for conference organizers, giving them access to fine-grained traffic and audience data that could be used for marketing analytics. (If a bunch of Lanyrd users say all at once that they’re attending your conference, for example, you might like to know where they came from and how they found out about the event.) Beyond that, there’s a multibillion-dollar ecosystem around event travel, starting with airline, hotel, and restaurant reservations. Since Lanyrd has a very good picture of who’s going to which conferences and when, it’s a fish-in-a-barrel scenario for purveyors of targeted ads.

But as Lanyrd gets new features, including money-making ones, Willison says he and Downe will try to stick close to their original vision of enhancing the event-going experience for professionals—and, ultimately, helping people be happier in their regular jobs. “There are moments where you flip from just doing your job to being really passionate about advancing in your career, and a lot of those moments happen at events,” says Willison. “People say ‘I thought I was just the nerd in the corner and now I’m meeting all of these other people.’” If Lanyrd can facilitate more of these moments, and become a sort of living repository of them, then Downe and Willison’s working honeymoon will have paid off.

The Lanyrd Leaderboard

The top 20 Lanyard users as of May 12, 2011, by number of events spoken at:

simonw 70
stefsull 58
codepo8 51
adactio 49
AaronGustafson 44
mollydotcom 43
jmspool 42
malarkey 42
meyerweb 41
zeldman 41
rem 39
brucel 39
matthewmccull 38
wycats 37
lukew 36
seb_ly 35
tomcoates 35
tcaspers 33
robertnyman 33
t 31

[Data courtesy of Lanyrd]

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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