As the cloud takes over our lives, the future clearly lies in web and mobile apps.  But what’s the future of the apps themselves?  How can you turn your bright idea or innovative start-up into The Next Big Thing?  Clearly, there’s no magic wand, but ‘The Future of Web Apps’, run by Carsonified, is one place to go to get the latest news and information to keep you and your firm at the leading edge.

The event format was a twin-track seminar programme, split between the cavernous track 1 room and the positively inadequate track 2 room (which was standing room only for many delegates not ideal if you’ve paid nearly £600 to go).

Some personal highlights for me were the following talks:

Dorian Selz from Mnemonic gave advice on building a super-lean start-up.  This is all the stuff they should teach you at business school, but don’t.  It was practical, down to earth wisdom from someone who’d really done it.  Far too many times I’ve been begged for investment by geeks with too little experience or insight into cutting the commercial deals on which their business will ultimately depend.  Simple tricks like finding out what day your sales rep’s period ends before buying hardware can make all the difference between paying through the nose and bagging a bargain.

In a similar vein, Eoghan McCabe and Des Traynor from Contrast gave a gripping talk on the business end of web business.  This owed more to stand-up comedy than a business presentation in its style – but was without compromise on content.  They really are a must-see double-act, so do make the effort to look out their talk if you see them billed in future.

One feature of modern conferences is that people spend so much time fiddling with Blackberries and tapping away on laptops that some of them seem barely aware they’re even at a conference.  I’m as guilty as the next man, but to an observer it’s a useful barometer of how well received the speaker is.  All eyes were forward when Ryan Singer from 37 Signals gave his presentation about UX (User Experience) design.  This was a practical walk-through of the real skills that are deployed in developing the 37 Signals way.  If you are trying to build software that works for your users and doesn’t burden your firm’s resources, you need to see this guy.  You could have heard a pin drop as he held the audience in the palm of his hand.

If you’re thinking about doing business on the web, you’ll doubtless have thought about doing business in America – and for most web firms that means Silicon Valley.  If you’re a Brit trying to get out there, the reality is far more tricky than the idea, with tedious practicalities such as visas to contend with on the way.  For an insider’s guide from someone who’s recently made the switch, you should have seen Andy McLouglin from Huddle. He gave his talk about everything from getting a credit card that works to where to find the coolest bars for a beer in downtown SF.  I’ve been out to the valley myself, and it’s a wonderful, beautiful, inspiring place, and so much more impressive than I ever imagined.  If you’re trying to start a World-beating web company, you need to give serious consideration to doing business there, if not moving there.

Rightly selected as a keynote speaker, Jason Calacanis from Maholo captivated me (as well as the rest of the audience) with his punchy 30 point presentation on the skills and abilities you need to succeed.  One of those which most prominently stuck in my mind was ‘Pivot’.  He explained this using the example of Groupon, which came from a completely different business model.

One of the best sessions during the day was Josh Williams from Gowalla.  My enjoyment of this had nothing to do with the talk, which I found tedious, but was instead down to a great article on the BBC News website about social media.  Thank God for WIFi at conferences!

At every good conference, you learn something which genuinely broadens the mind, and makes you thing in new ways.  For me, there was a stand-out victor in this regard.  Eileen Burbidge & Linus Olsson from Flattr gave a talk about how to get people to wilfully pay money for stuff which is free, just because they like it and want to give the originator a financial reward.  With major brands like Radiohead embracing this charging model, you need to sit up and take notice.  The Flattr platform provides a toolkit to enable quick and easy implementation.  You need to check it out.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool social media sceptic.  In fact, I’m dubious of all bandwagons, fads and fashions.  Far too much money is spent chasing irrelevant crazes, and far too little is invested in solid, boring business best-practice.  Despite this, I’m fully open to new ideas, and the elegant Shaa Wasmund from Smarta was eager to dish out tips in her talk.  One of the most stand-out examples of the whole day was her suggestion that a hairdresser incentivises people to sign up for twitter by offering a discount, and then tweets out any cancellations and other short-notice appointments which become available.  Doubtless, this middle-school level technical prowess won’t impress the uber-geeks at the conference, but as a method of actually boosting profits, it knocks the socks of most tech-tweaks I’ve seen.  It really doesn’t matter how cool your tech is, what matters is whether or not you make money out of it.

Ryan Carson from Carsonified (unsurprisingly) gave a presentation which had me taking more notes and scribbles than any of the other talks.  His focus was on web metrics.  You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and this is in many ways the core of the stuff I try to teach to the firms I invest in and work with.  His approach to metrics was different to mine, and I found a novel focus on measures such as churn and cash, which are not normally associated with a web community normally focussed on page-views and conversion rates. This talk defined an interesting middle ground between the various numbers of interest to suits and geeks. If you’ve not seen it, it’s an hour well spent.

A handy little bonus was a lunchtime session from sponsor Paypal, covering their new mobile APIs.  This is a firm I’m very fond of, as it provides both a great service and an exemplar of how to have a good, sensible business model in a web world which too often forgets the importance of actually making money – as opposed to just raising eve larger amounts from starry-eyed investors.  It looks like the latest offering from the firm will continue to build on their reputation for convenience and dependability.

The seminar programme featured Americans disproportionately.  This is somewhat surprising, as many of the firms which provided speakers also have a UK base.  Why do firms like Paypal need to fly in a presenter in from California, when they can just as easily have sent someone on a bicycle from Richmond?  Obviously, climate change is something for other people to worry about.

The event  was held in ‘The Brewery’ near Barbican.  The venue was exciting, seemingly more suited to a wedding or gig than to a conference – but an excellent choice nonetheless, giving the event an aura of class and excitement lacking from so many similar occasions.  Food was provided, which was fairly mediocre.  However, the servery was generously garnished with all kinds of produce for decorative purposes only.  Finding the intended fare largely unappealing, I contented myself by eating the decorations.

The catering area had a few stalls.  One of the stands was a banner printer, which automatically printed out tweets about the conference.  A personal conference highlight for me was finding out the printer had been Rickrolled.  Comedy genius!  Wi-fi access was provided throughout the venue, and track 1 had a large ‘chillout room’ at the back, with comfy beanbags and generous provision of power sockets.  I’ve been to far too many conferences when it’s a real fight to actually work, so it was great to see the organisers had accommodated those who needed to get stuff done in quieter moments (or just catch up on some sleep).

Was it worth going?  Well yes, if it was free it would be.  But is it worth paying for?  I spoke to a few familiar faces, and the general opinion expressed was that the quality of the talks was no better than you might find at an average trade show.  Maybe that’s true of many paid events, but I was given a distinct sense that delegates were underwhelmed by the value for money.  But if someone else is paying, then definitely worth the money!  I personally thought that this perspective was a little harsh, and many of the talks were outstanding.  However, it’s not a cheap conference, and you can get to see many speakers of similar quality free or cheaply elsewhere – so make sure you are really keen on seeing the hard-to-find speakers before shelling out your cash.