Sundance for Silicon Valley
The TechCrunch50 conference generates a lot fewer than 50 great ideas.
TechCrunch50, the three-day tech conference that took place in San Francisco last week, bills itself as the Sundance of the Web start-up world. Like the film festival, TechCrunch50 attracts a clutch of celebrities to a beautiful city. While Ashton Kutcher did show up to pitch a celebrity gossip site, he's not the kind of celebrity that makes waves here—the conference's real draws are billionaire tech entrepreneurs looking to pry open their wallets to fund the new new thing. TechCrunch50's organizers, bloggers Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis, aim to replicate the indie ethos of Sundance's early years. Out of more than 1,000 applicants, they select 50 new tech firms "based purely on merit." Founders get eight minutes on stage to present their businesses and then a few minutes to spar with a panel of judges, who decide what company wins $50,000 in seed funding.
Film buffs perennially complain that Sundance has been corrupted by the mainstream forces of Hollywood and that new filmmakers increasingly try to replicate last year's big hit. Because there's no such thing as an "indie" business world, TechCrunch50 is even more vulnerable to such banal corporate demands. Yammer, this year's winner, offers a case in point: The company is Twitter for the office. People use Twitter to tell their friends what they're doing; the company's founders hope people will use Yammer to tell their co-workers what they're doing ... at work.
Not that there's anything wrong with copying. Some of the biggest names in tech—hi there, Bill Gates!—made their fortune by co-opting other people's ideas. Twitter is popular among geeks, but it's been hobbled by constant technological difficulties, and it doesn't offer a feature set customizable for corporate use. Yammer lets companies restrict people's conversations to a group of co-workers who share the same e-mail domain (everyone at Slate, for example). It also does away with Twitter's 140-character limit on messages, and it displays conversations in a handy threaded view. (Here's a video of Yammer's TechCrunch50 presentation.)
Plus, unlike Twitter, Yammer has a way to make money though the tactic is pretty outrageous: The company plans to charge companies to silence their employees. While Yammer allows any worker to join his firm's Yammer network, the company's bosses have to pay to manage that network—to restrict certain topics of conversation, for example. Google's HR department, say, would have to pay Yammer if it wants to stop people from talking about Google's stock price or controversial day care plan. (Alternatively, as several Yammer skeptics have pointed out, Google could just send down an edict to its employees: Stop Yammering.)
Many of the founders on the TechCrunch stage tried the same tack as Yammer, promising a better or more targeted version of something that's already been successful online. There were two social networking sites for kids (TweeGee.com and Hangout.net), one for people interested in fashion, another for people into bird watching, and another for people who've died.
Of those, the bird-watching site, Birdpost, looked most promising. Its target audience is less narrow than you may think: There are 18 million birders in America, and they spend $32 billion each year on their pursuit, according to the company's founders. Birdpost allows users to share data on where they've made their finds. If I'm birding at Lake Dell Valle in California and spot a bald eagle, I'll add the bird to my Birdpost profile. (I can do it from my computer or my phone.) If you've been looking for a bald eagle, you'll get an alert telling you where I've just spotted one. Birdpost also has a way to make money—it's free for now, but it'll begin to charge a subscription fee once it attracts many users.
A handful of TechCrunch50 presenters did offer groundbreaking ideas. Searching through videos for specific images—for instance, looking through all of YouTube for every scene in which Mandy Moore appears—has long been considered the holy grail of search engines. A start-up named VideoSurf showed off a site that solves that problem pretty well; it can identify people's faces and other characteristics in a video and allow you to search for those characteristics.
Another company, Swype, offered a novel way to enter text on a touch-screen device—instead of tapping at on-screen buttons, you slide your finger across the keyboard from each letter to the next. Say you want to type "macaroni": Trace a path from m to a to c to a ... and so on. Incredibly, even though you've touched many keys along the way, the software can guess the word you wanted. Why Swype instead of tap? Because it's much, much faster. You can trace 50 words per minute as opposed to fewer than 20 if you tap; if you find that hard to believe, watch this amazing video.
But firms like Swype were an exception at TechCrunch50. What was remarkable about the conference was how many ideas seemed destined to fail—how many had no strategy for making money, or were replicating sites already on the market, or seemed to be solving problems that few people had. A company called Alfabetic promises to automatically translate Web sites into foreign languages, allowing publishers to make money in other countries. That idea sounds interesting in theory, but would a machine-translated Slate—with its focus on American politics and culture—attract readers in France or China? Probably not very many; most publishers looking for an international outlet choose to build dedicated sites for those readers. Another firm, iThryv, built a very slick online banking site for kids. I suppose some 10-year-olds will find it useful to track their earnings and spending on the Web, but I have a feeling that most of them would rather just hang out on Facebook.
Last year, TechCrunch50 was TechCrunch40; the organizers expanded it this year to satisfy the huge number of start-ups interested in joining. But this year's conference proves that finding 50 great ideas a year is difficult. If we're lucky, Silicon Valley spits out two or three great Web companies a year. Next time, a downsizing is in order—let's make it the TechCrunch10.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Michael Arrington by Brian Solis.