Taking the payola out of DEMO-ing: The TechCrunch 20 Conference (or, I’m back in the conference business baby!)

I’ve always loved DEMO-style conferences (like the one going on in Palm Desert today) where entrepreneurs show off their creations for the first time to an audience of their peers, the press, and investors. In fact, in 1997 I did my first conference called “Meet the Alley” where entrepreneurs did 10 minutes presentations in the “demo-or-die” format (I gotta find the video tapes). We called it “Ready, Set, PITCH!” and it was a huge hit. The New York Times wrote it up… I gotta find that clip too!

Getting a presentation slot at a demo conference can really help launch a company, but the fact is that demo-style conferences have turned into cash cows for big conference companies and the small entrepreneur is now being forced to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to buy their space.

It’s wrong on so many levels (as a lot of folks have pointed out).

First, the best companies would never be able to afford that fee. This means the most prommissing companies who need the exposure the most–and who the audience would most want to see–never make it to the stage. When Kevin Rose started digg he was broke–he could NEVER have afforded demo. When I started Weblogs, Inc. with Brian we were really broke (in fact Brian had taken a second mortgage to build the company!)–we could never have afforded demo. I suspect that most of the great and up-and-coming Web 2.0 companies wouldn’t have been able to cut that $20,000 check (or $12,000 as the case may be). I don’t think a YouTube, TechMeme, Blogger, StumbleUpon, or CastFire could afford the ticket when they were starting up.

Second, even the good companies that make it to the stage have to spend around $20,000 to pay for their six minutes! What a rip-off.

Back in December I was kicking it on Sand Hill road trying to get my groove back after leaving AOL. After a day of meeting with VCs I called my friends Steve Gillmor and Mike Arrington to see if they were up for a steak dinner.

Over dinner Mike and I talked about our equal disdain of the payola model, and I encouraged Mike to start a conference series. I explained to him the things I’d learned about doing conference from back in my Silicon Alley Reporter days. Our biggest conference did $2.6M and cost $600,000 to run–and we never asked anyone to pay to get their speaking slot. Of course, those numbers were during the crazy boom years.

After dinner we went for a long walk and smoked some amazing (NOT) Cuban cigars :-). Mike asked me if I would help with the conference and I figured what the heck–I loved running conferences, I love Mike, and our industry needs a conference that isn’t in on the take.

So, it’s with great pride that I announce that Mike and I are partnering on a conference series called “The TechCrunch 20.” The concept is simple: 20 companies will present over two days to their peers, the press, VCs, and the industry.

All companies will be selected by a committee of expert entrepreneurs, journalists and analysts on THE QUALITY OF THEIR PRODUCT not their ability to write a check.

If two guys in school show us the next digg, stumbleupon, or YouTube they’re getting a slot and their going to pay $0 for it.

If the folks over at StumbleUpon, digg, PodShow, or Odeo show us some amazing new product they’re planning on launching they get a slot–and they pay us $0 for it.

We really want the audience to get 20 presentations that are just amazing. No duds is the goal. To ensure that we have no duds the selected companies are going to show us their final products and presentations 10 days
before the event, and in the case that their demo is not ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT we are going to replace them (we’ll have 2-3 alternates waiting in the wings for this purpose).

How will we make money off the event? Well, frankly we don’t need to make too much money, and we think the ticket sales and a couple of top level sponsors (i.e. one law firm, one tech firm, one VC firm, and one accounting firm) will cover things.

The details are being worked out as we speak. Here is what we know so far:

1. It will be in the San Francisco area.
2. We will have around 250 people at the event.
3. 20 companies will present over two days.
4. The event will take place in the fall.
5. We are looking for a location that can fit 250-500 people. We arehoping we can find a a University that would host the event, or an affordable conference center. Any ideas please let me know.
6. We hope to put together an advisory board of people we really respect to suggest companies.

How can you help?

a) We need a great location.
b) We need top level sponsors who believe in giving the little companies a chance to shine.
c) We need suggestions for companies who will want to break big news in the fall.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about getting back into the conference business, and I really honored to be doing it with Mike and his team at TechCrunch.

If you want to email the “20 conference” team the email is 20 at techcrunch.com.

all the best,


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