Sunday, November 18, 2012

Comparing the big tech conferences

This year I attended three large startup tech confabs--Launch!, TechCrunch Disrupt and DEMO. These conferences are a combination of startup pitches, thoughts from industry leaders, and networking.

Launch! is the new kid, started last year by Jason Calacanis, the maniac (in a good and bad way) who originally partnered with Michael Arrington to put on the TechCrunch conferences. I have been to every TechCrunch conference, but as I explained in an earlier post, this year's may be my last unless I can get cheaper tickets.

DEMO is the longest running, and was the target of the original TechCrunch conferences, which were even held at the same time. DEMO has caught a lot of flack for charging startups to present--up to $20k. That is a lot of money for a young startup, but the exposure can be worth well more than that. Attendees still pay as well, and plenty.

TechCrunch turned that business model on its head by allowing startups to present for free, and running a lower cost conference to make up for it. Instead of holding it in a swank conference center, it is held at the San Francisco Design Concourse, which is basically an empty shell of a building designed for furniture shows. Launch! used the same facility.

So as not to bore you, let me rank them by my criteria:
1. Launch!
2. TechCrunch Disrupt

My criteria are based on what benefits me as an angel investor. I want to see interesting seed stage startups, chat with VCs and other angels, and hear new insights into the world of early stage companies.

All of the conferences feature a live stream of the presentations, so what you are paying for ($1k-$2k for tickets) is face to face access.

Launch! is the clear winner because they have stayed true, so far, to the original formula of the TechCrunch conferences. Cheap and cheerful, with a lot of thought about who gets to present and a roster of luminaries. The wifi works most of the time, and there was plenty of food available, even if it was pizza after they ran out of sandwiches.

TechCrunch Disrupt has become a cash machine, and the quality of the conference has suffered. Some of the talks are just straight up commercials. VCs appear on stage, but rarely out on the conference floor any more. Kudos, btw, to George Zachary of CRV and Vinod Khosla for walking the floor and talking to entrepreneurs. They sell more tickets, and have so many startups exhibiting that they clear them out every day for a new batch. It has made the experience overwhelming. It has gone from a curated experience to a melee.  Just finding a place to park was tough.

DEMO, as the old man of the three, is also the most polished. But it clearly suffers from a cash flow orientation as well. The presenting companies were of lower quality than Launch! or Disrupt. Some of them were just junk. This is to be expected when you charge a lot of money. The top prospects can go to the free options and be selected. That leaves the B players and a lot of foreign companies who don't have the access to get selected to present for free. The speakers at DEMO were also less distinguished, and did not have anything to say that has not been beaten to death by the blogosphere.

DEMO has at least figured out the logistics. All presenters laptops were already on stage and routed into a sophisticated video display system, so there were very few technical issues with the presentations. The wifi was slow but worked, and lunch was fairly efficient. Free parking was easy in the huge convention center lot. These are the perks of having a large budget.

DEMO has also figured out something that I have known for a long time--your conference badge should not hang at navel level. I usually tie a knot in the string upon which the badge hangs, so that it hangs as high as possible (while still fitting over my head). It is just awkward to have people continually stare at your belly button to figure out who you are and whether you are worth talking to. The DEMO badges come with a locking slider that adjust the length of the string.

Have you been to all three conferences? Leave your thoughts in the comments.