11 October 2023
Within the space of three years, Imran Khan was at the heart of two monumental IPOs. In 2014, heading Credit Suisse’s Global Internet Investment Banking team, Khan worked on Alibaba’s public offering, then the largest in US history. As Snapchat’s number two executive under Evan Spiegel, Khan helped take the company public in 2017—an offer that was 10 times oversubscribed, and the tech sector’s largest since Alibaba’s.
Khan remains active as an entrepreneur and investor. He is co-founder of Verishop, which allows people to shop from independent brands and creators. He founded and leads Proem Asset Management, a hedge fund, as its Chief Investment Officer, and he chairs Aleph Group, a multibillion-dollar digital advertising sales company. Khan also advises a select group of founders on growing and building their businesses.
This year, Khan decided to take on yet another role: conference creator. His first conference—Khanference, actually—saw 120 people gather earlier this month in Dallas’s Design District.
Attendees included 30 CEOs—including X’s (formerly Twitter) Linda Yaccarino—and another 30 founders, including Sun Microsystems’s Scott McNealy. Also gathered were investors collectively managing roughly $1 trillion—including Founders Fund General Partner Keith Rabois—all-star tech reporters—like CNBC’s Deirdre Bosa and Axios’s Sara Fischer—executives, academics, and former government officials, among them Admiral Mike Rogers, former Director of the NSA and Brunswick Senior Advisor.
Attendees ate barbecue, drank coffee and cocktails, and listened to conversations that touched on everything from space exploration to AI, geopolitical shifts to investment trends. Brunswick Partner Ash Spiegelberg, global co-head of the firm’s technology, media, and telecoms group, spoke with Khan as he—and the conference—were winding down.
Khanference felt different than anything else I’ve been to. You personally invited everyone here, so the first question we all asked each other was: “So, how do you know Imran?”
The idea was “community meets conference.” Typically, conferences start by finding a headline speaker, then they get other big names, and then they try to get people to come and listen to those speakers.
We started with the community: Who do we want to come hang out, meet, connect? Then we thought about who would be interesting for that audience to listen to. Linda [Yaccarino, CEO of X] was on my invitation list before I asked her to speak.
When I was at Snapchat, very often someone I’d never met—a head of programming, let’s say—would reach out and ask me to speak at some conference. So I’d go, speak, then leave. That’s pretty normal.
One of my ground rules was that anybody who came to this conference, I had to meet them in person. Some people here I’ve known for 32 years and others I’ve only met recently. But nobody is going to come unless I’ve met them in person at least once. That’s part of the reason why almost every single speaker stayed for the entire conference. They wanted to be here, to be around these incredible people.
What stood out was the diversity of that community—diversity of experiences, nationalities, ages …
First, the range of issues that founders and leaders are facing today are like nothing that we have seen before and cut across government, geopolitics, finance, and technology. That’s the community I want to build, the kind of people I want to bring together in conversation. At the same time, we’re connecting generations. There’s people like Scott McNealy, who you could argue is a grandfather of tech—Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] and Eric Schmidt [formerly Google CEO and executive chairman] used to work for him. Then we have the newer generation—people like Peter Sellis, the SVP of product at Discord, or a16z partner Bryan Kim, speaking here as well.
How do you sustain that community after everyone’s left?
We’re thinking of doing a monthly content series for people who attended. Longer term, we’re looking into how we can create a safe digital environment to continue the types of conversations that we had in the hallways here. And we’ll be sending out the invite for next year’s event by the end of the month.
The idea was 'community meets conference.'
What big themes or ideas did you take away from Khanference 2023?
There were three for me.
The first is that people are very cautious on investing. We heard from multiple people that capital deployment on private investment is down 80%, 90%. It’s not quite so drastic, but there’s still a lot of negative sentiment even toward the public market.
The second was, for the first time, I heard a lot of skepticism about investing in AI. Everyone agrees the technology is great, but you heard doubts about it being a great investment opportunity. There’s been so much talk about AI’s innovation and its impact, which are very real, but there were hard questions about the investment returns—a very different picture.
The third takeaway was concerns about geopolitical dislocation. If this conference happened 10 years ago, you would have heard a lot of talk about the opportunities in BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China]. Now you’re hearing a lot more caution around globalization. It’s not anti-globalization, but it’s a hesitation about the openness that was once taken for granted.
Do you think it leads to more parochial investing strategies?
I think so. I think people invest closer to home.
In your opening speech, you mentioned that almost everyone who attended flew in to be here. Why hold the conference in Dallas, then?
Number one, selfishly, I live in Dallas and I want to promote Dallas.
But also, Dallas not being a tech hub is an advantage. If you want to build a community, you don’t want people to be distracted. And people here aren’t distracted by other meetings. Nobody has a tech entrepreneur they have to go meet. We got two days of people’s undivided attention. That’s rare.