The first day of the Techcrunch Disrupt conference definitely had its share of “disruption”, but I don’t think any of it was the type of innovative product and company disruption people were expecting.
Super Angels vs. VCs
The disruptive fireworks started early with the Super Angels vs. VCs panel that was very anticipated for anyone who had been following the AngelGate controversy that Arrington started with a blog post earlier in the week on Techcrunch that alleged there was a conspiracy of Silicon Valley angel investors who were looking to collude and do various nefarious things. This led to a public denial from Dave McClure who was on the panel, along with “private” emails from Ron Conway and Chris Sacca getting leaked on Techcrunch as well.
Arrington prefaced the whole Techcrunch event with a blog post that discussed how this specific panel and the whole event would not be about AngelGate, but then proceeded to ask his first question about it and made a few jokes that actually started the whole panel off on a somewhat hostile and uncomfortable foot.
The panel didn’t get much smoother from there due to there being too many panelists (7) and various panelists cutting each other off. Arrington also was fairly aggressive in changing topics, cutting people off, and jumping around. It was entertaining, but I’m not sure anyone learned anything from the panel except that there are still some hostilities to be worked out among those involved.
One enjoyable session to me was Clarium Capital and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel’s fireside chat. Thiel is a known contrarian, which made for an interesting discussion to see how he’s currently seeing things differently from the rest of the silicon valley.
His most notable comment of the day was that he thinks Facebook is relatively undervalued at $30B (see my recent post about Facebook’s valuation), and that he would be long Facebook over Google if given the choice. As an investor he benefits greatly if this occurs so he’s obviously biased, but it’s interesting for him to say it so publicly.
Another comment that stuck with me was Thiel talking about how many companies in Silicon Valley are just building iterative products that really only serve the early adopters living in Silicon Valley. We have a recession/depression occurring throughout the country and people are building products in a bubble for the technology elite. He said if you drive 30 miles out of Silicon Valley people don’t care about most of the products people are building. As someone who lives outside of Silicon Valley, I can relate to that. There’s not too many people in Eugene, OR using a lot of the newer iPhone applications for example. Thiel was really trying to remind all the entrepreneurs in the audience to try and change the world with their companies instead of just building a “me too” product.
The next set of disruptions came in the Startup Battlefield which was three sessions filled with companies demoing for 15 minutes to the audience and a rotating panel of judges that mostly consisted of well-known investors. The disruptions were not so much from these companies though, but the fact that almost every demo had awkward pauses as there were almost always troubles switching between screens for the video portions of presentations. It really killed the flow of many of the presentations. If someone wants to build a truly disruptive technology, design conference presentation equipment that works.
The general feeling I got from all the presentations is that there is a whole batch of new companies that are focusing on check-ins to different things, gamification, and rewards. Most of the startups were heavily focused on these, and it became to get repetitive to the audiences and the judges.
I have to give the companies credit though, it’s not easy to stand in front of a smart panel of judges and a very smart audience and do a presentation of your new product and then get questioned and criticized by the judges and the press in attendance.
I won’t go through every company, but here’s some quick thoughts on a few of them:
- Qwiki – This company led off the first session and a had a very impressive presentation. It was polished, had humor, and showed off their product well. It basically builds an interesting visual presentation that mixes pictures, videos, data graphs, and audio on any subject. One judge called it “search with a voice” which they took offense to, but it was definitely very cool. Gina Biachini did ask what the use case for this was, and I find myself also wondering if this cool product ever will get used by a large amount of users, but one of the best demos and it was cool technology.
- Storify – An interesting product that lets you quickly add tweets, youtube videos, flickr pictures, and other pieces of social media together to create a “story”. They presented this a bit as a journalist tool, but I think that was the wrong approach. It seems more to be something useful for WordPress bloggers and social media junkies.
- Gifi – There seemed to be some positive buzz out there on Gifi, which was a product built internally at payments company Venmo as an example of their API. Taken in that context, it’s a very nice use of their API. The concept of leaving money for your friends in different spots they can check in is very cool in theory. However, I don’t see this getting that much traction. When you realize that the number of people out there actively checking-in to places is still quite small (although growing), and then you see how many of them actually want to leave money for friends and will remember to do so, I think that number is pretty low.
- Badgeville – A startup positioned to take advantage of the growing game dynamics on the web, Badgeville is a service that publishers pay for to add what’s essentially somewhat custom game dynamics to their site. Users get points, badges, and rewards for doing things like reading a story, tweeting a story, etc. It was nice that the publisher had a lot of control over what their game is like. I agreed with Joe Kraus when he was judging this though that it feels like this space may get overcrowded and people may get tired of game dynamics. Or, we’ll see a couple of clear winners that come out of this space but that it’s hard to tell who that might be. They also are already generating healthy revenue from selling this service to publishers. Always nice to have good revenue in a very young startup.
- OneTrueFan – Built by members of the MyBlogLog team, OneTrueFan takes some of those features and also combines it with game dynamics to have a competition among website visitors to become the “one true fan” of a website. The idea is similar to being the mayor of a place in Foursqure, except there are more things that help make you a one true fan such as reading an article, sharing an article, commenting on an article, and more.
- CloudFlare – Usually when I see the word “Cloud” in a company’s description my eyes glaze over and I wander off. However, CloudFlare’s founder was very energetic in a controlled way and did a really nice job showing the value propositions of the service. It provides a lot of the benefit of having your site hosted on a cloud as far as speed and reliability combined with added security and analytics. There’s a good free option as well as paid options for more advanced features. I set this blog up on it in under 5 minutes and was really impressed with the signup process and the obvious usefulness. This may was my top startup of the group.
Techcrunch Being Sold to AOL?
The last disruption of the day was the story Om Malik published that sources were saying AOL is on the verge of buying Techcrunch. Obviously this was a tad distracting, as Mike Arrington was absent from his own conference for the 2nd half of the day.
We’ll see what happens on Day 2, could be big news?