One Year and Two ASU GSVs Later

The markets are cooling. But one wouldn’t know it during this week’s ASU GSV conference. Crowded hallways, jam-packed sessions, and happy hours around the clock attest that the energy is alive and well. Judging by the hustle and bustle of sports coats and suits scurrying to and fro, one might forget we were in a time of belt tightening and valuation resets. Or a pandemic.

The event was a release valve for all the pent-up energy accumulated over too many Zoom calls during remote work. Even more so than the gathering last August, when lingering pandemic variants had people still edgy and limited international attendance. It was a reminder that no technology comes close to replicating the power of face-to-face interactions.

What was buzzing? COVID was certainly a popular discussion topic (though as a safety precaution, perhaps not so much). Early childhood, K-12 and higher education are facing greater challenges than ever before, with enrollment declines and educators departing the system. Talent remains hard to develop, attract and retain. Tack on immediate crises across mental health and climate change, plus this thing called web3 on the horizon, and there was no shortage of dire warnings, calls to action and optimism for a better future. Everybody got an NFT for attending.

That’s what was on the program schedule, at least. I can’t confirm exactly, because I didn’t attend any session other than the one I moderated. Between the keynotes and panels, expo arcades and demo booths, sponsor suites and poolside lounges, meetings and catchups, ASU GSV has always been a choose-your-own-adventure experience. There was no shortage of hustle to find or become the next great deal. The most masochistic of them hold court at the same table and power through 15-minute meetings from dawn to dusk.

This year’s event came with free books, a free NFT, and classic N64 Smash Bros.

All this is rather exhausting, of course. Though not as exhausting as it used to be. There are some things I do miss from my former life as a journalist covering events like this. Stumbling back to my room late at night, showering to sober up, and filing a story to recap the day’s highlights for next morning’s newsletter is not one of them.

But writing, after 48 hours of straining my vocal cords to levels not experienced since my pre-parent, pre-pandemic, is a nice relief.

Historically, ASU GSV has been where splashy deals wait to be announced, such as 2U’s $750M acquisition of Trilogy Education in 2019. No such deal headlined this year’s event. LearnitEdSurge and the Chronicle of Higher Education are publishing summaries of sessions and conversations overheard.

But no big deal is no big deal. The biggest story may be that people are back in force, and the industry is humming with new money, new faces and familiar ones in roles old and new. Entrepreneurs from across the globe mingled and danced into the night. (Kudos to the crew from India and Latin America for taking our party up a notch!) Seeing friends and former colleagues — many interested in what my transition to the “other side” has been like — and being on the other side of interviews with reporters, is a reminder of how tight knit these circles are, and how they often come full circle.

A few other notes I’m jotting down mostly as a reminder to myself, and which others may find helpful:

  1. Meet anywhere other than the Hyatt lobby. Yes, it’s a natural ground zero for meetings: bright, airy and bustling with people and activity. It’s also rife with distraction and cacophony. It’s essentially the Times Square of the conference. There are two pools, a park and Seaport Village nearby. Enjoy the San Diego sunshine!
  2. With little time and so many things to do, most people’s schedules are pretty much set before coming to the event. Allow at least a 10-minute buffer between meetings. Of course, it’s wise to not overbook oneself and allow time for unplanned encounters and conversations. That said…
  3. Serendipitous conversations are a joy. Serendipitous pitches — not so much. Please don’t be pushy and spring an ambush demo.
  4. Stay hydrated, but beware of being over caffeinated.
  5. Your phone battery will drain faster than you think.
  6. Business cards are still a thing?

LinkedIn reminds me that it’s been a year since my transition move to Reach Capital. I’ll save those reflections for another post. Suffice to say: the people who I work with matter just as much, if not more, than the work itself. And this week reminded me that that extends to the people across the broader education community as well.