The tech industry was on its best dang behavior last night at the Crunchies, an annual awards show hosted by the blog TechCrunch. Better than its best, even. Everyone was humbled; everyone was grateful. Investors told startup CEOs that this award was really for them. Uber was a “human logistics” company. The venture capitalist giving out an award to another venture capitalist pointed out that his national reality show got canceled. “Fuck my life,” he said — VCs: They're just like us! Industry insiders had the script and they mostly stuck to it. Before you could take a jab at them, they jumped right in and slapped themselves.
Who could blame them? Facebook just got smacked down in India, AOL is sifting through Yahoo’s carcass, the business world's passive-aggressive PR machine got real-talked down to size, and that’s not even getting into the stock prices. The tech stories dominating the news this week would chasten even Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who didn’t show up to get his award for startup of the year. Perhaps that’s the best explanation for the existence of the Crunchies. It’s the kind of safe space you want when you’re only Silicon Valley famous, and leave behind once you're actually famous. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t show up; neither did Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel or Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield.
This was the Crunchies' ninth year, but the mystery around why profit-driven companies need awards is still unsolved. The show is often referred to as "the Oscars of tech," but it’s so much screwier than that. Imagine handing out a trophy for Best Derivatives Trader or nominating Goldman Sachs’s lucrative securities division for a special shout-out. (Late in the night, a scrappy little bit of software called Facebook Messenger would take home the trophy for Best Mobile App.)
The event took place at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Floodlights led the way to the theater, where the arches lit up in traditional tech-blog green. Outside, a police officer stood guard over a promotional white Prius parked on AstroTurf. Not long before the show began, a luxury Apple shuttle bus pulled up to the Muni stop with an ad for taking photos on an iPhone 6s. San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza was empty at that hour, except for the occasional jogger and the homeless men and women settling in the outdoor walkways of the municipal buildings for the night.
The evening opened with a tech-themed rendition of “La Donna E Mobile.” (Presumably the “mobile” homonym was too tempting to resist.) The customized ditty had a line about Zenefits, the human resources company whose CEO, Parker Conrad, resigned mere hours before the show began. The company blamed Conrad’s abrupt departure on using unlicensed brokers to sell health insurance in multiple states. Zenefits was also a finalist for last night’s Fastest Rising Startup award. In 2015, Zenefits had been a finalist for Best Health Startup. (Theranos won.)
In fact, this year's Crunchies were perhaps most notable for how far they diverged from last year's. In 2015, the crude comedy stylings of T.J. Miller were so offensive that executives at AOL (which owns TechCrunch) had to issue an apology. This time they tapped Chelsea Peretti (sister of BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti), who walked the tightrope of comeuppance and coddling perfectly. At the start of the monologue, Peretti mentioned that she grew up in the Bay Area. “It’s great to be back,” she told the crowd. “This city looks amazing — I love what you did with the poor people.”
Straight out of the gate, reporter Josh Constine, who was presenting the award for Fastest Rising Startup, pointed out that past winners like Snapchat (2013) and Yik Yak (2015) were both sued “by former friends who wanted a piece of the company,” so the category may as well be called “Hire a Damn Lawyer.” The Crunchies were clearly trying harder than one might expect from the home of Titstare.
And there were women. They were onstage! They were accepting awards! Their headshots showed up among the men's as lists of finalists flashed on the venue's massive screen. In 2015, there was only one female finalist for each of these categories: Founder of the Year, Angel of the Year, VC of the Year, and CEO of the Year. This year, the odds shifted. Three women were up for founder of the year; the angel investor and venture capital categories had two women apiece. (Across all four categories, Cyan Banister was the only woman who won, taking the prize along with her husband, Scott Banister.)
All told, it was reminiscent of another tech trend. Ever since Google showed the world its demographic pie charts, with tiny slivers representing the black employees and female managers, tech companies have cottoned to the idea of transparency as a talisman to ward off criticism. Last summer, reporters were suddenly inundated with press releases about rinky-dink startups offering up an interview with the CEO so that he (it was all he’s) could discuss the breakdown of his 20-person staff. Last night’s Crunchies were the awards-show equivalent of a diversity report: It looks like progress, it sounds like progress, but nothing has really changed. There may have been women of color onstage, but the deal-makers are still über-white.
The gulf between wanting to appear woke and still being asleep was not lost on Peretti. For example, this year TechCrunch added a new category and called it the “Include Diversity” award. “Was that a literal note on your to-do list last year?” she asked. “Did you jot that down and forget to name it? Someone has to put that award on their mantle; give it a little pizazz. It sounds more like a threat than a prize.”
Whether or not the Crunchies crowd came to the opera hall caring about diversity, speakers like Kimberly Bryant from Black Girls Code, who won that oddly named award, and the four black female engineers who accepted the Fastest Growing Startup award for Slack made excellent use of the platform.
Slack engineer Kiné Camara started with a DJ Khaled reference to the keys of success and gave a nod to Beyoncé about getting into “formation” before ending the 30-second speech with a sort of IRL group shruggie. Bryant used her time to shout out all the other nominees, and to tip her hat to Tristan Walker, CEO of the consumer goods startup Walker and Co., whom Bryant called “the living embodiment of the dream that the work that we all do is pushing forward because what we’re trying to find is the next black Bill Gates.”
Ultimately, TechCrunch’s attempt to erase unconscious bias came off more like hyper-self-conscious atonement. It seemed like there were two different awards shows, one for the good guys and one for the killer instincts. Bryant drove the point home. The work the nominees are doing to “create opportunity” is so that “in a few years there won’t be a need for this award.”
Peretti addressed it more bluntly during her monologue. “I was seriously asked to speak on the issue of diversity in the tech world tonight,” she said. “Uhhh, lemme float out a kooky idea: Hire a nonwhite host?”
Then Peretti changed her tune. “This audience does look really diverse as I’m looking around.” The crowd swiveled their head to scan the seats and see if they had missed something. “I’m starting to be impressed that the Bay Area has become such an inclusive place for both millionaires and billionaires. That’s so beautiful to see.”
Toward the end of the program, Peretti introduced a prerecorded Saturday Night Live ad to “mobilize people” about “an issue that is really tearing me apart right now”: the potential death of Twitter. Various comedians made pleas directly to the camera in a Verified Twitter Lounge encouraging hedge funds, mutual funds, and institutional funds to “please make a generous allocation” of Twitter stock so that actors and comedians can self-promote or “use more urban slang” than they would feel comfortable doing in person. “A small allocation of Twitter shares, even as little as $100 million,” could help.
It was a telling interlude. Hollywood may be mocking Twitter’s descent, but it still cares enough to study its stock fluctuations.
One of the high-profile founders who didn't show up was Elon Musk. “I’m not Elon Musk, but I wish I was,” said the man who came up to accept the award for Best Technology Achievement, which went to the reusable booster of the Falcon 9 spacecraft. It was Steve Jurvetson, a managing partner with the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, who looks sort of like Steve Buscemi as imagined by Norman Rockwell. He was an early believer in Musk and is a board member on Tesla and SpaceX. The reach of Musk’s ambitions and accomplishments extend so far that Jurvetson kept referencing science fiction; as he said, the booster lands “the way we expected like in comic books — you know, with rocket engines on other worlds.”
While the investor was lost in a reverie about Musk, Bastian Lehmann, the CEO of Postmates, who'd presented the award, started taking selfies next to the statue of a giant monkey, a larger-than-life version of the trophy itself. Jurvetson pressed forward with a shrug. “Anyways, I think it’s more important to think about the big things. And Elon wants to change other worlds, right? He thinks Mars is a fixer-upper planet.”
Peretti came back on the stage after that, but Jurvetson couldn’t seem to leave the podium. A TechCrunch employee had to march out, grab his arm, and escort the investor backstage. Peretti was characteristically chill. “I would luxuriate in the moment if I could build a spaceship with my bare hands...which is what I’m assuming that young man did,” she said. “Guys, take your time, you own this world.”