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Highlights from Slush 2023: community building, intuition in product development and an impending platform shift

Our Head of Product Marketing, Mo Backer breaks down some themes that caught our attention at Slush 2023

Portrait of Mo Backer
Mo BackerFriday 8 December 2023

Once again, this year, Grifflings went up north to the Daughter of the Baltic for Slush 2023. In usual tradition, we wrote about our time there (see our Slush 2021 and Slush 2022 recap).

Slush always brings their A-game and this year was no different. The stages dazzled with neon laser lighting and unusual props like sand pits, hanging plants and even a waterfall! The optimism and can-do attitude was palpable. Sanna Marin, former Prime Minister of Finland summed it up beautifully in her rallying cry for European countries to come together and match the USA in innovating and spending on research and development. This was typical Slush at its best!

While the AI hype was real and present, Slush did a great job at balancing this with content focused on innovation in other areas, including the less talked about but no less important areas of Healthtech and Hardware.

Here are some interesting themes from this year’s event:

Be bold. Really, really bold.

Startups are by their very nature deeply ambitious and adventurous, but this year has definitely been next level! The likes of Linear, Nothing and Arc talked about taking on the giants in their respective fields. As Josh Miller, CEO of Arc puts it,

“Of course, we’re scared. It is crazy what we’re trying to do. We’re really out here trying to compete with Apple, Microsoft and Google on their home turf! But that was always the idea, we wanted to assemble a dream team and that meant we had to do something that was really ambitious. ”

Building community makes you stand out

Nothing’s CEO and Co-founder, Carl Pei, spoke to Ted Persson from EQT Ventures about how they’re competing with Apple, Samsung, Google and other giants in the smartphone industry.

He described their approach to making their brand stand out in one of the toughest sectors on the planet in three simple words:

“Marketing is arbitrage”

Nothing uses their small size to their advantage, creating really authentic video content and building a community around that.

Tristan Handy, CEO of dbt Labs described the array of user benefits that a vibrant community unlocks‍—‌from helping each other out with free documentation, code or blog posts, all the way up to getting better paying jobs. Of course, all of this is only possible when you foster the right community:

“That well will dry up if you (as leaders) are not being good members of the community. You can always sense what your members are thinking‍—‌are the leaders being good stewards?”

Sometimes you have to go with feelings over data

We’re always hearing about how companies are “data led” or “data informed.” However, this year at Slush, there was a lot of focus on intuition in product development. As Josh Miller, CEO and Co-founder at Arc shares:

“We optimise for feelings, not metrics. The brands that win make you feel a connection. It is a bit like Disney, think about what they make you feel when they create things.”

Josh noted that while relying on feelings and intuition can lead to getting things wrong, it was also a significant driver of growth as it helped Arc stand out.

AI will lead to a huge platform shift

This was the first Slush since the launch of ChatGPT, and as you’d expect, there was a lot to be said about AI and its implications.

Benedict Evans gave a fascinating talk that broke down the consequences of AI for computing and society at large. He described how AI is changing personal computing, and how we’ve gone from the command line and learning the right instructions, to the graphical user interface giving us options to pick from, and now AI, giving us the ability to tell the computer what we want it to create.

He carefully dissected how things might play out‍—‌incumbent players trying to make a feature from generative AI, startups unbundling use cases to create more powerful products, and eventually someone coming along and completely changing the nature of the market. But as he said,

“The Apollo engineers knew how far the moon was, but we don’t know how far AGI is.”

And on that, here are our key takeaways from Slush 2023:

  • Think big, even bigger than you were thinking!
  • We’re on the precipice of a paradigm shift in computing and no one knows what it will look like. Let’s create it.
  • Trust your gut instincts and don’t be afraid to mix intuition and data when building a product.
  • Community matters and can make or break a brand