Five Trends That Marked TechCrunch Disrupt Conference 2010

There Was Passion, Creativity, but What About the Disruption?

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I approach many trade events with a mix of dread and anticipation, dread that I may waste my time or be bored to death, and anticipation because it holds the promise of great discovery. My frame of mind for the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference, though, was shaped even before I got there. I saw an early tweet about how the men's room was crowded but at the ladies room "it was clear sailing." "That's a switch," I thought, and with that, I knew this conference was going to be different, maybe even disruptive.

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
The first difference to strike you is that the conference was held in an abandoned Merrill Lynch office. The sweet poignancy of a new industry emerging from the wreckage of another was not lost on most attendees.

Then the conference happily was different in that it had an unusually good mix of presentations, surprises (e.g. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who announced a new tech fund) and topical subjects. But the highlight (for me at least) was the afternoon sessions where startups had just five minutes to impress the judges. Aside from the flashback moment I experienced, which took me back to circa 2000 when, as marketing director at Bell Labs New Ventures Group I would hear pitches of Bell Labs folks who wanted to commercialize their technology, I was mesmerized. I felt their nervousness when they started to present and saw them wither when judges showed disapproval. I recognized the adrenaline rush that overcame some that I actually felt woozy as though I had been assaulted by the fragrance of chocolate in a small chocolate shop -- heady, intoxicating and slightly nauseating.

But the conference had in store one other big difference. By virtue of its size, it allowed a concentrated view into the mega-trends that will define the tech scene for the next few years. It was a bit like cruising in NYC's Alphabet City to spot the hot fashions that will inevitably work their way into mainstream stores within the year. Here was a tech runway full of genius and it was inspiring to see it all.

Here then were the trends that spoke loudest to me.

Tech Trend #1: Social media is quickly becoming the newly evolved direct marketing engine. Many of the new companies at the conference were focused on gathering and acting on social media data. This disproportionate focus was noted by not a few tweets who wondered what's up with that. My tweet response: "#tcdisrupt -- social media is about data mining because social media is really one big direct marketing engine." Think about it for a moment. Direct marketing was developed to curate the user experience by moving prospects through a conversion process. Social media is direct marketing on steroids because all members in some way are self selected and thus highly "curate-able." From this foundation, marketers can build an evolved "Interaction Engine" that effectively curates the user experience within the trusted space of social networks.

Tech Trend #2: Mobile, social, commerce and proximity-based marketing will be mash-ups in new integrated ways that curate user experiences. If you are following the storyline so far, this next trend is the next logical step. The conference exhibited an abundance of ideas around how to execute this new Interaction Engine, especially in the areas of merging social media with commerce and content. We also saw ventures focused on harnessing the intelligence or market potential of social networks.

So many of the ventures created interesting variations using content, community, reward systems, topic-based services and proximity technology that it reminded me of boys with giant tinker toy sets -- so much fun, so much imagination. Yet buried beneath the boy toy fun, were sophisticated and disruptive new ways to use the fundamental elements of an Interaction Engine to curate the user experience.

Tech Trend #3: New space will emerge for a systems approach so all these interactive technologies can operate within an integrated, marketing "Interaction Engine" model. The current state of new technology in this space reminds me of CRM before CRM became CRM, circa 1998. I was at Lucent at the time, and there were lots of disparate technologies to manage sales, support, service and call centers. But there was no effective way to integrate all these technologies to execute lead-generating call center programs. This is what stimulated Siebel (among others) to create the systems integration approach we now call CRM. The similarities to today are striking -- lots of cool technologies that don't work together in any operational marketing model. What's needed therefore is a technology platform to manage different interaction mashups so these cool applications can move from niche to mainstream.

Tech Trend #4: The deconstruction of major hubs as trust purveyors in favor of a "trust layer" delivered via social networks. It's hardly surprising that one of conferences undercurrent topics was Facebook and its recent controversy over privacy. While much of the debate centered on whether FB went too far, I was more interested in the larger, emerging trend where "Judy Consumer" is starting (very slowly to be sure) to shift away from the "mega-hub" sites as her trusted portal in favor of self-created, trusted portals based her social interactions and networks.

Evidence of this trend can be detected by the new pressure facing larger e-tail sites like eBay to Amazon as they combat the more social aware and savvy "Zappos-es" of the world. More dramatically, though, the anti "mega-hub site" sentiment spilled out with a fury when, in barely a few weeks, Facebook went from social media darling to devil. This backlash helps explain why four NYU kids over at The Diaspora Project tripled the amount they wanted to raise since people wanted to express their anti-FB sentiment (kinda similar to Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize). The future successful "hub sites" will support "Judy Consumer" as she creates her own "trust web" delivered via the credibility of her social networks.

Tech Trend #5: The continued, embarrassing lack of women in the startup, tech entrepreneur world. The conference's lack of women entrepreneurs was noticed early on and that theme carried forward throughout. Heck, most of the women there were either staffers or part of startup teams and there were barely a handful of women over the ancient age of (er ... dare I say) 40. The count was zero for women-led ventures (in a few instances, women were co-founders).

Having lived in the tech world for decades, I am used to a definite gender bias -- but this exceeded even what I was used. And I don't buy the standard; "Oh that's always been a problem" answer either. There's more going on here.

My theory is that today women are starting new tech companies but their focus is on creating businesses in some specific industry that serves some need. As a result these women tech-entrepreneurs hang in visible, industry-specific watering holes appropriate to their space. They're not rubbing shoulders with the tech 20-something guys who huddle in Dumbo-land's tech sandbox. So, they often are not networked into the tech scene as well as they might be. To find women tech entrepreneurs means looking for them in different places than the guys, like in Ladies who Lunch , a group started by Carolina Fernandez in cooperation with the Cornell University. (Note to TC -- Need a list? Just ask me -- I will happily provide.)

But I sincerely hope that their absence at TechCrunch was not indicative of any trend but rather more a measure where they put their time.

There you have it, folks -- why the #TCDisrupt Conference delivered. It inspired me to think about the world differently, to disrupt my current modes of thinking for new, different ones perhaps. It even inspired me to think about creating my own new venture (at least there would be one woman presenting next year!).

But mostly, it disrupted my simplistic notion of tech development as a steady, predictable progression over time. Nope. The coming disruption is not just about social media or mobile. It is about how "Judy Consumer" will transform herself into a digital citizen and in the process displacing many aspects of her real-world life -- but in a good way.

How's that for disruptive?

P.S. If you are wondering why I did not mention any startups by name, it was because all of them are exciting and noteworthy. Take the time to learn about them all. Here is the full list of startups from TechCrunch.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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