'No pants' creator for Webstock

The man behind New York's "no pants" subway rides and the former technology head of micro-funding pioneer Kickstarter will be the among the drawcards at Webstock in Wellington, to be held from February 10 to 15.

The technology conference with-a-difference, which is now in its eighth year, has hit on a successful formula, criss-crossing the blurred boundaries between the internet, creativity, the arts and social change. This year it is expected to attract 750 attendees.

Organisers Mike Brown and Natasha Lampard spend the year "looking for interesting people and then invite them to talk about whatever they like," Brown explains. "We deliberately don't play it safe. We need to have a mix of people who are doing really good stuff that people have heard of, but also every year we try and have people who are maybe a bit left field."

One of this year's speakers who probably falls into both categories is Charlie Todd, founder of New York performance group Improv Everywhere. He has learned to leverage social media to maximum effect, attracting more than 300 million views on YouTube for the groups' comedic "missions of chaos and joy".

These have included arranging 200 performers to freeze in place simultaneously for five minutes at New York's Grand Central Terminal station, and "no-pants" subway days which have caught on around the world. This year, thousands of volunteer performers took to the subways of 60 cities pretending to have forgotten their pants.

Todd will share his advice on how to harness the power of the web to produce and distribute creative work "without ever asking for permission".

Kickstarter's former director and chief technology officer Andy Baio will also hit on a Generation Y theme. He will discuss the opportunities that developments such as micro-funding websites have created for people to work independently without sacrificing creative or financial control over their work, and the challenges that go with that.

Lampard says she is looking forward to hearing from Tom Loosemore, who managed the BBC's online strategy between 2001 and 2007 before moving on to design the British government's web portal.

Then there is Nelly Ben Hayoun, design director at California's SETI Institute, who has worked with cosmonaut Jean Pierre Haignere to create a virtual-reality armchair that simulates the three-stage launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket.

"I feel like every year we are remembering more to be ‘human' and to think about the way we use our time and who we are doing things for," says Lampard. "We need to be reminded to value the traits of humanity and to connect with others."

In all, Webstock will feature 22 speakers. The event has moved to the St James Theatre this year, while its usual venue, the Town Hall, undergoes earthquake strengthening. Brown says that means there will be a single stream, rather than different talks and seminars going on simultaneously, and presentations will be limited to 30 minutes.

"This is our eighth time, but with the different format and venue, it feels almost like we are starting again."

Returning for the third time is Bank of New Zealand's "Dragon's Den"-style competition, Start-Up Alley, which will be held at Webstock on Thursday. Ten new ventures will pitch for two prizes of $10,000 and trips for two to Silicon Valley.

Ryan Baker, founder of software firm Timely, one of last year's two winners, says it benefited greatly from participating. The company, which employs nine staff at its offices in Wellington and Dunedin, sells software that enables service firms to let their customers book appointments online.

"The highlight of the trip to the US was we picked up Yammer, Microsoft's social network for businesses, as a customer and you can definitely attribute that directly to Webstock."

Last year Baker was too busy manning Timely's booth to hear many of the speakers. "The Start-Up Ally event was fantastic. I was nervous about doing my pitch but the crowd was jovial and the judges were hilarious. It was like going to stand-up comedy."

Brown is upbeat about the Wellington technology community, saying it seems to be growing all the time while still retaining the "collegial feel" that has welded Webstock to the city. "People know each other and they share stuff and want to help each other."

Brown and Lampard have a separate business, Lil Regie, that sells reservation and billing software originally developed to manage the conference. "We have all these talks on start-ups and now we are doing our own," Brown says.