Searching For Signs Of Life At TechCrunch Disrupt

"Can I show you my technology?"

At TechCrunch Disrupt’s Startup Alley, no one looks at your face. Instead, gazes rest about six inches to a foot lower. Badge height. At Disrupt, the badge — or more importantly, the text on the badge — is all that matters.

And why shouldn’t it? At $2,995 for the three-day pass, the badge is a very expensive ticket inside the startup trade show that’s considered to be one of the biggest events for entrepreneurs. For some, the Disrupt badge is a Wonka-esque Golden Ticket — a chance to share the same rarefied air as tech’s hero entrepreneurs and listen to them dispense their wisdom from the keynote stage. For most, however, the badge is quite literally a lottery ticket: a gamble on a newly formed idea and the hope of turning that idea into a business and — maybe — even actual money.

And so, all eyes are on the the badge: Each name and company represents an opportunity. For those looking at mine, it was the prospect of coverage and increased visibility. And for me, it was the hope that each badge would bring me closer to understanding where the next generation of technology is headed — if such a question can even be answered. Each badge — and the human attached to it — had the potential to tell me why people are leaving paying jobs to build out copycat apps, or why money, when it comes to things built by code, doesn’t feel real anymore, or why tech industry forecasting has become essentially worthless.

I made it six feet past the door before my badge caught the eye of an eager attendee, who shouted my publication’s name (into my badge, avoiding my eyes) from two feet away. “BUZZFEED!” was his only preamble before launching into a well-rehearsed pitch. Walking the trade show floor, I realized his greeting was common custom: At Disrupt, you are your company and your company is you.

In “Startup Alley,” a snaking maze of folding tables that serve as stripped-down booths for roughly 100 young startups, the press badge made my job easy. Simply strolling through the rows set off the same interaction, over and over again: awkward introduction followed by earnest, well-executed pitch, after which I’d ask if the pitcher had been to Disrupt before and what he thought of the pageantry. Timothy Chen of Sereneti — “think Keurig for food using robotics” — was in good spirits, but by no means enamored with the scene. “I come here to see the trends, and it’s interesting to learn a lot about the on-demand economy, but there’s also just so much noise,” he said gesturing to the bustling startup alley floor.

The cause of the noise — and the reason why thousands make the pilgrimage to Disrupt (both the San Francisco and New York iterations) each year — is the chance to get in front of venture capitalists and potential investors. Of the dozens of entrepreneurs I spoke to, many, even those who’d already raised some capital, listed the chance of meeting these roving innovation ATMs as a primary motivation for buying a ticket. Plenty were at least a little disappointed with how it was going.

“I think it's a bit of a joke, to be honest,” Farid Haque told me after showing me an app that is part of a suite of educational games his company, Erly Stage Studios, is building to help kids learn new languages. “I should be out there talking to schools rather than being here. The reason we're here is to meet investors, and we've met just a couple.” At one point during our talk, Haque pointed up to the large projection screen hanging high above Startup Alley’s wide-open conference floor, where a TechCrunch writer was interviewing an unidentifiable, well-dressed, heavily gesticulating white male. “What's happening up there is completely irrelevant to most people in this hall, and it's a fucking joke. To me, that’s just people who want to hear themselves speak. Nobody else here seems to have an interest in that if you take a look around.”

When I ask him if the trip was worth it, Haque smiles and does some calculations. He’s from London; the flight and Airbnb alone add up to more than $1,000. “Let’s just say I'm glad I got these tickets for free because I wouldn't pay for it,” he chuckles.

A booth inside Startup Alley costs at least $2,000 (though it comes with two badges). Ideally, these deliberately steep prices are a good thing, as they discourage fake startups and companies whose founders and products aren’t ready for the public from taking up valuable real estate. But in an industry driven by the siren song of multiple billion-dollar valuations, plenty of early entrepreneurs feel pressured into ponying up for the event.

Tuckered out from all the disrupting.

Jon Katz, the president and co-founder of the online beauty product swapping marketplace eDivv, noted that a ticket to Disrupt is “a big risk for a startup company with limited resources.” And while he readily admits there should be no easy way to succeed in startupland, he also confessed that it’s hard to stay away. “The hype from all over the place about TechCrunch Disrupt makes it difficult to say no,” he wrote via email the day after we met. “They really market it in a way that leads to FOMO for entrepreneurs.”

“Fear of missing out” was a common theme during my conversations in Startup Alley. In fact, spend enough time at TechCrunch Disrupt and it becomes apparent that fear is the central organizing principle of the conference. The fear of missing out. The fear of being late to market. The fear of a similar-but-superior idea coming along at the perfect moment.

The rhetoric of the conference is the language of violence and rending. Entrepreneurs aren’t just supposed to build a competent product, but to disrupt and turn their chosen industry on its head. The TechCrunch theme song features a gurgling robot voice shouting “disrupt” over and over on top of an assaultive EDM synth line, as if to will the sea of entrepreneurs toward their inevitable moonshot ideas. The big, $50,000-prize startup competition is called the “Battlefield” because this is war and, as anyone who’s been around the tech world long enough knows, there are casualties.

The fear also keeps people from criticizing Disrupt itself, at least not on the record. When I asked what he thought of Disrupt’s spectacle, one entrepreneur, well-schooled in reporter-speak, gave me two answers: one on the record, the other on background, without attribution.

On the record: "Great for New York. Great for the startup scene. TechCrunch is great and it’s good coverage for startups. You see great startups and others that aren't so impressive. Like copycats. But all of a sudden you'll get some real major ones. It's not Silicon Valley but it's got huge attendance. It's a step forward."

On background: “You see a lot of startups here that are launching at Disrupt and they're not even funded. And to spend money on this — I just don't think it’s the wisest thing. Again, with investors walking by — there are a hundred booths there. He's walking by. How do you capture the attention? There are very few people who get to captivate the interest of investors. Betting on that off-chance is not a smart decision.”

But still: The enthusiasm is unflappable. A former investment banker turned entrepreneur in attendance seemed certain the industry was headed for another bust — “We're probably another two years away,” he told me — and yet, he still made the leap. “If you stay in your day job as a boring banker you'll retire and wonder what you could've done differently,” he said. FOMO, basically.

The tech world often serves to reinforce the outdated and entrenched institutions the industry should aim to destroy. This behavior, especially at Disrupt, has been well-documented and lampooned. It’s absolutely what I came to the conference expecting. But what I noticed more than the tech bros was a peculiar, particularly disarming vulnerability. On my second day, a curly-haired founder who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old tapped my shoulder and, in his thick Austrian accent, asked, “Can I show you my technology?” His company, Visual Vertigo, specialized in instantly rendering 3D photos and videos on your phone’s camera roll. It was impressive, as was the fact that he’d ponied up the cash and boarded a plane to pitch any stranger who would listen.

Encounters like these were unsettling. I was prepared to hate it all and cry “bubble!” and indict the whole spectacle. But that proved more difficult than I thought.

This is the TechCrunch Disrupt theme song. I highly suggest you give it a listen.

TechCrunch Disrupt, like the industry it represents, is more than a little broken. The fear that runs Disrupt runs the whole industry. It’s the same fear that drives monster investments — better to lose a little money than let someone beat you to the next Facebook or Uber or Apple, right? — and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. It’s the same fear that moves even those well-versed in the precarious economics of the industry to jump headfirst into what could be another catastrophic bubble.

And it’s the same fear that elicits the worst in what should — and could — be a progressive, welcoming industry. That creates insular, homogeneous communities and cultures and then silences the voices that don’t sound like their own. It’s a collective fear that can lead to the embrace of mediocrity and copycats and rhetorically bankrupt jargon, all of which were on display this week.

But it’s also a fear that motivates people to create. It pushes and empowers intelligent people to take big swings and labor in the service of something, however lasting. It’s a fear that forces the awkward to attempt to shed their uncomfortableness and be vulnerable and do. At its worst, that building and creating and doing is lazy, self-satisfied, alienating, and small-minded. But at its best, it’s world-changing.

TechCrunch Disrupt is a success in spite of itself. It acts as a high-definition biannual still frame of an industry that usually moves too fast to be captured or understood. To immerse oneself in the sea of badges is to see the tech world for what it is: broken, confused, vulnerable, exciting, inspiring, and very, very nervous.

In other words — and for better or worse — terribly human.