This Week's Tech Conference: Three Days Inside the Bubble

by Chadwick Matlin

By the time I took my seat at [TechConference] on Monday, I had already seen its host’s logo 51 times. The name was printed twice on my conference badge, five times on the lanyard holding that badge, 16 times in the conference agenda, nine times on the side wall of the conference’s main hall, and finally all over the 20-logo tessellation on the stage background. (A giant wooden statue outside the front door spelled out its initials, but we won’t count that.) As I sat down for the first panel, heavy synth-and-bass beats shook the speakers overhead. It was the conference’s theme song. The only lyric: The conference’s name, recited — not sung — over and over again.

It’s the bubble-era tech startup conference — a self-promotional bazaar. In the main alley, you’ll find four aisles of startups, most of whom paid anywhere between $2,000-$30,000 each to set up a booth and hawk their wares. Like Greenpeace canvassers, they stalk the floor in branded t-shirts, waiting for you to show the first moment of weakness. Just as quickly as they grab your eyes they’ll reach for your hand, and soon thereafter you’ll have their business card, fingering it with the anxiousness of a man who has nowhere to go but who wants to be anywhere but where he is. This is why they’ve paid their thousands of dollars, so that you can give them venture capital, press coverage or a new employee. The potential for a million-dollar check is worth the price of admission; the price of admission might be more than the startup will ever make in profit.

But no company is as interested in your attention as the conference’s host, [GatekeeperBlog]. For years the blog has proved expert at perpetuating its own legend as the sun around which all of technology orbits. [TechConference] is designed so that reporters and toadies and entrepreneurs will, for three days at least, be forced to say the host’s name over and over. Attendees have no choice but to become complicit.

Led by its ill-tempered founder, [AngryBlogger], [GatekeeperBlog] has become the Variety of Silicon Valley, a force really so dominant that one must read it if one wants to be informed, even if the publication itself has metastasized. One post on the blog can turn perceptions of a startup from fledgling to fast-rising, and in reality too: a shortcut to finding both validation and funding.

On Day 1 [AngryBlogger] interviewed both of his bosses, [NewsMogul] and [EmbattledCEO]. [GatekeeperBlog] was purchased by [EmbattledCEO’s] [OldDotComCompany] in September, and soon thereafter [EmbattledCEO] also purchased [NewsMogul’s] startup, a risky decision that has only served to piss off seemingly everyone who has ever written for [NewsMogul]. “Will it work?” [AngryBlogger] asked [NewsMogul] about their shotgun marriage, before wondering whether he’ll have a performance review this year. [NewsMogul], never shy about staring at her own navel, told him “I’m going to get you drunk and then see what happens.” The audience laughed, voyeurs to an inside joke. Likewise, [AngryBlogger] began his interview with [Embattled CEO] by saying, “It was awkward when I found out I was working for [NewsMogul]. I don’t like working for people.” For some perspective about how much else there was to talk about, note that [EmbattledCEO] runs a $2.1 billion company. [GatekeeperBlog] was purchased for tens of millions.

On Day 3, a founder of [CompetitorBlog] was brought on stage via [VideoChatService] to discuss why he raised $6 million in venture capital. But the questions were only about [CompetitorBlog] in relation to [GatekeeperBlog]. A [GatekeeperBlog] employee asked, “Are you building a very different media company than we did?” Later [AngryBlogger] spent 60 seconds on stage with [GoogleHigherUp], recounting his best April Fool’s jokes, one of which was at her expense: “I thought it was really funny.” She chuckled. The audience remained stoic.

The genius of the conference is that it’s a three-day event built around this power dynamic that also costs thousands of dollars to come watch. (Attendees were asked to pay anywhere between $1,795 and $2,995 per person, with special deals for exhibitors, sponsors and the like. Journalists, including this one, got in for free — they spread the word.)

Its other stroke of genius is a main event: a “startup battlefield,” a tournament where 31 startups compete to win the conference and $50,000. Somebody from a health care startup told me that just being selected to participate in the battlefield is “a badge of honor.” Badges! There’s a startup for that.

The startups knew that the people with the checkbooks are watching. That’s why there were testimonials. The winners from past iterations of the conference got on stage for “Alumni Updates” on Day 3. One, a startup whose name is even more nonsensical than its plan to create automated encyclopedia entries about any topic, explained that cable news covered their launch live from their makeshift office/garage in northern California. It’s also raised $10.5 million. It’s a pretty wonderful tale; all of this year’s contestants are hoping the same can happen to them.

The contestants this year included: an app that notifies your friends when you’re visiting their city (an alternative: email); an app that “algorithmically generates plans tailored to your occasion” (an alternative: deciding for yourself); an app that lets you keep track of everything you spend (an alternative: a journal); a new operating system that for now can only run within existing operating systems (an alternative: said existing operating systems); and a “social publishing service for the mobile generation” that creates “real world stories through photos” (an alternative: inviting your friends over and telling them the story in person, or, you know, sending them photos).

When startups aren’t making their pitches (best described as six-minute cocktails of various parts dreams, delusion and desperation), attendees are left to listen to navel-gazing conferences or wander the conference floor. Out there, [TechConference] isn’t just about self-promotion for the attendees and the hosts, it’s also a canvas for its advertisers. Hang out in the sponsored [DatingApp] lounge, a porously walled-off section of the floor with luminescent tables and metallic stools. Don’t like the aesthetic in there? Then leave and take 20 steps into a different one sponsored by [EnergyDrink], complete with a MAC International truck retrofitted to fit a DJ in the flatbed and a [VideogameSystem] in the taillights. Exhausted? Have a seat on the bean-bag chairs in the corner. But make sure not to cover [PotatoChip’s] logo that’s printed on the upholstery.

By the end of Day 3, it’s a cocktail sponsored by [PrivateCompanyStockExchange] right before the [TechConference] Cup winner is announced. (The winner gets an actual oversized silver chalice.) Who will it be? [CarSharingApp]? [MobileInvoiceApp]? [ContactIntroductionApp]? [MobileSearchApp]? [FraudProtectionApp]? Or the darkhorse: [EmailEnhancementApp]?

[AngryBlogger] got up and without much suspense announced that the crowd favorite, [CarSharingApp], had won. Employees screamed in excitement, hugging one another and swigging champagne. Cameras at the foot of the stage clicked to capture [CarSharingApp’s] big moment. The only other thing sharing the stage: a cartoonishly large $50,000 check with [TechConference’s] logo in the upper-left corner.

Chadwick Matlin is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter, but would far rather you just email him.

Photo by Frank Bonilla.