We’re not talking your basic British obsession-with-owls and getting-mistaken-for-Harry-Potter sort of nerd (though he does that too). We’re talking the sort of Grand Poobah ubernerd who is so utterly, terrifyingly smart that he does things for fun like helping to create the popular web framework Django, going hacking in castles on the weekend or, say, building startups while on honeymoon.
Perhaps it’s not as bad as it seems — after all, the startup in question, social conference site Lanyrd, was an idea that Willison dreamt up with his wife, Natalie Downe, rather than on his own. But it did happen while they were enjoying a post-wedding break in Morocco. Fired up by the concept, they decided to build the first version on the road, and pretty soon they’d joined the next Y Combinator program, launched, graduated and returned to London.
Now, precisely a year after that first try, the company just raised $1.4 million in seed funding and is ready to take its next steps.
But before he explains what those might be, there’s a point that Willison feels he needs to make.
“I’d like it to be clear that we had three months of perfectly peaceful honeymoon,” he protests. True, the trip was intended to be a three-year round-the-world epic adventure . . . but he thinks they got a pretty good deal before Lanyrd came along. Still, trading one adventure for another meant they never quite shook off the idea that they were still honeymooning.
“I mean we tried to think of Y Combinator as an extension of it,” he deadpans. “But it wasn’t, of course.”
What Lanyrd does is fairly simple. It’s a directory of events, conferences, speaking gigs, lectures and so on that is highly connected and hooked up to Twitter. That allows people to find events that might interest them, lets organizers unearth speakers who might have something to offer, and gives speakers the chance to find events where they might be able to help. I suppose it’s a matchmaking service, of sorts.
“Basically the English language has let us down,” he explains. “We aren’t just conferences, but we’re not just a normal events listing — we don’t want people’s birthday parties and so on. We did try ‘knowledge-sharing events,’ but that was a horrible phrase, so we’ve settled on ‘professional events.’ It’s basically anywhere you’d go and exchange business cards; where you go to further your professional or personal interests.”
The focus on conferences gave them some early purchase in the tech community, which tends to treat big events like SXSW as spring break for geeks. But I’ll admit that early on, the idea of a site full of information about webby conferences filled me with dread. I had enormous respect for his work — we were sort-of colleagues at the Guardian, although we never really worked together, and he’s just about the smartest person I know at understanding the way the web works. However, the thought of getting excited by conferences seems to me about the same as getting aroused by a bowl of oatmeal.
But over time, Lanyrd has won me over by broadening out. Now it actually is much more about “professional events,” not just a way for web geeks to systemize their social lives. And it’s a much richer environment as a result. The team knows this is important.
“We’re very excited because we have noticed that things like magic conferences are being added to Lanyrd,” says Willison. “Criminology is very popular, too. The thing is, because it’s crowdsourced, you don’t need many people from a community to start adding events before you’ve got something fairly comprehensive.”
Crowdsourcing might be free, but a staff costs money — and that’s why Lanyrd raised its seed round from Index and London’s PROfounders, as well as a host of luminaries including new MIT Media Lab boss Joi Ito.
“We’re blowing it all on people,” he says. “We’re hiring our dream team in London and focusing on keeping them happy and productive.”
But why move to London? Most Y Combinator companies stay in the Valley, even the ones whose founders come from Britain or elsewhere.
“We thought about staying in the Valley, and looked into it,” he says. “We wanted to believe that we could do it in London . . . and because the product’s very international, we didn’t think it needed to be done in California. So we thought we’d come back to London and see what the scene was like.”
“If you want to have an international view, then London is amazing,” he says. “In San Francisco it’s hard enough to concentrate on the rest of America, let alone the world.”
Downe and Willison still rely on their Y Combinator chums for plenty of advice, but being outside the bubble has given them more chances to develop, he suggests.
“And in Silicon Valley, you’re one of a thousand companies doing the same thing. Here, everyone’s working together to make it all work: That energy and excitement is really important. It’s just much more exciting to be a startup in London than to be in Mountain View or wherever.”
Photograph used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Remy Sharp