Congregate, CongRegation, County Mayo, Social Media, Tech

Eoin Kennedy interview, creator of CongRegation & the challenges of a rural tech relocation

By @SimonCocking

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It was great to learn more from Eoin Kennedy about his relocation to Co Mayo, and his attempt to continue to make a living in digital marketing and social media. CongRegation #2014 recently took place, to great success, and a date has already been set for 2015 too. He has had an interesting life of it, and has some interesting stories to tell.

Your back ground?

I started life as a Spanish teacher.  After a brief stint working in China I did some lecturing in marketing before jumping into the public relations industry.  I was on the board of the Irish Internet Association for about 6 years and have been fascinated by Digital and how it is constantly changing the landscape.  About 3 years ago I moved from Dublin to Mayo and focused on a start up which was on the Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start Up scheme with a developer partner.  One became two when we pivoted, raised money and moved towards commercialisation.

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Why did you move to Mayo from Dublin?

My wife is a Mayo native – I was told I would lose this battle.

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Congregation is a great idea. What was the story behind it?

The idea behind Congregation is two fold.  Last year was an experiment to see it it would be be possible to create a new structure to enhance how people share knowledge and connect with each other.  I have been lecturing for a few years and presented at a reasonable amount of conferences and although the one to many model is very efficient – I am not sure its the most effective.

With Congregation there was a chance to create a level playing pitch (everyone has the same status and has earned their way in) and also to create small groups in social locations that could jar people out of the normal conference format.  I have always been amazed by how much distance you travel for a chat with someone over a coffee.  With Congregation I was hoping to take this type of interaction, put more structure to it and add some scale.

The second idea behind Congregation was to prove that a rural location could run this type event without the need to have a large physical conference venue and expand the business season.  A congregation type structure could be used for lots of different type events once the logistics are tight and someone is bringing all the venues/traders together.

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Where would you like it to go? To grow in size / stay the same?

The Dunbar number for the amount of people you can have in your real world network before they become fairly meaningless is around 120.  It would be fascinating to see how this number would work in Congregation although I suspect that 70-10 is the optimum number.

If it grows too big it become something different and less personal. It is tempting to keep adding numbers in order to grow.  There is a physical constraint on the number of venues but up to 120 could be accommodated without changing the culture of the event too much,

Happen more often? Become a moving event?

I honestly believe that this model could help many small villages around the country become more viable in off peak times.  I also believe that there are many non technology type events that could utilise this type of model.  Following last year I had conversations with some individuals interested in running similar structure in Dublin – makes sense in that cities are composed of many villages stuck together with urban glue.

You have Web Summit on your CV, did you work at it this year? (any comments on it’s growth, could Mayo / Cong do something fun similar in the future)

It was fascinating to work at the web summit this year especially as its probably at opposite end in terms of types of events.  I have previously attended the web summit and also exhibited at it as a start up.  The growth shows what can be achieved by being brave and relentlessly focused.  As it is such as large event you need to be extremely organised and focused to get the most from it.

The large size means that there is huge opportunity and a giant cauldron of influential people and fascinating technology but leaving serendipity to chance means you are competing against 20,000 other people and 3,000 other start ups with the same hopes.

I think there is real appetite to do something different and break moulds.  All events large and small take an extra ordinary amount of energy and resources but I personally really love the idea of an event taking over an entire town or village.

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What is it like trying to make a living in a more remote / rural area?

On a personal basis I really enjoy living in a remote location and really do make the most of the forest, mountain and lakes on the door step.  In theory location does not matter but the reality is that I need to travel quite often (I particularly like the train).  Although I have use of an office on a hot desk basis, I find my working days in coffee shops, to trains, to working in the car beside a lake/sea. The other reality about working in a remote location is that you need to be chasing and finding work – in that the demand and low hanging fruit is else where.

Some of the participants spoke about the constraints of the broadband on trying to develop a rural social media living. Your thoughts?

This is a really funny one for Congregation.  That fact that the broadband is patchy at times of the day is beneficial in that people are forced to discuss rather than just document.  Outside of that the low speeds is very disappointing and I generally work from another town with better coverage.

I do understand the financial considerations with lighting up a town but the chicken and egg approach generally means that things remain static.  Despite different providers being used in the town broadband speeds can suddenly drop to below analog dial up speeds.  Much as I would love to have an office in Cong this aspect makes it very unattractive and just delays or even makes it impossible to do certain cloud based work.  I also believe I am not alone. Picturesque locations could attract hot desking, incubation, collaborating individuals that could act as an engine for rural development.

Will the rural broadband roll out get there in time?

It can but at what cost.

Any tips to people considering try to set up a tech / social media business in non urban areas?

  • – search hard and find people to collaborate with locally
  • – build a support base and ensure you have real face time with like minded people
  • – be prepared to travel but try to minimise for important delivery times
  • – test and utilise the full range of cloud based tools that enable you live remotely
  • – be comfortable with video conferencing
  • – get the work life balance right, get out and enjoy the environment – otherwise you might as well have stayed in the city 😉

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CongRegation, what would you do differently next time?

Start earlier with attendees and sponsors.  The level of sponsorship will effectively drives the other things that could be done at Congregation.  I would love to organise childcare/family activities on the day to make it easier for parents to attend, I would love to dress the venues more and expand to use more venues.  I would also love to have additional activities for people the next day – cycling through the woods all the way to out door persuits from surfing to mountain walking.  I would also love to broadcast the different huddles and engage a much wider group in the conversations.

Tell us what the reach was like? Was it being followed live in the US? 

I am crunching the figures for this year as I type.  Over 1,000 tweets in the run up from a very wide grouping.  Lots of informal notes from people in diverse locations following #cong14.  Last year Bernie Goldback organised a very successful Google Hangouts which lead to a big jump in the amount of US followings.

What’s your new definition of success now you have relocated? Any different from when you lived in the city?

I have always been driven by learning new things and experiencing things – a very curious mind.  I enjoyed living in the city and as I regularly travel to Dublin I still feel connected.  However its hard to compete against the extra ordinary access to nature that my children have the privilege of enjoying and we make the maximum of it.

The biggest break from moving from the city professionally was the move from paid employee/director to a completely entrepreneurial environment.  I have learnt an incredible amount and done things professionally that I would never have done if I stayed in the city.  In some way I should have probably done it sooner.   Very little just lands on your lap and low hanging fruit are hard to find so you hone your business instincts as you dont have the security that a big city offers in terms of opportunities.

Work / life balance ? Tips, strategies? Better in a rural area?

Undoubtably.  However if you dont get out of the house and explore you might as well be living in the city.  Yes you have to travel for a lot of thing.

Connect to the local community, volunteer for things but be patient and done rush integration.

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Any final thoughts?

I keep thinking of extra things to add. I think next year we will have more overseas speakers which will add flavour. I intend doing a crunch through the people and posts to find missing areas e.g. I would love to get an artist and poet involved to further add to the flavour. I will be dropping the social media tag as the topics submitted have naturally broadened it.

 

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