Why I Hate Conferences But Love TechCrunch Disrupt

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Conferences can be dull, soul-sucking enterprises. Too often, the stage is filled with the same speakers saying the same things and providing too little value to the people who’ve paid to attend. Those sessions are sometimes complemented with sponsored messages from universally bad companies touting their latest new thing that probably sucks.

They’re a necessary evil, I know. Conferences are how businesses like TechCrunch actually make money, because display ads ain’t gonna pay the bills just on their own.

At best though, most conferences are just an opportunity to see people you haven’t seen since the last conference you went to, and to discuss all the things that haven’t changed while you’re chatting over lunch. Which is a horrible way to network, because most conference food sucks.

There’s something different about TechCrunch Disrupt, however. Last year, I joined TechCrunch about a week before Disrupt NY. They flew me out to attend, and it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to. We had Fred Wilson and David Karp and John Borthwick on stage. The U.S. Government announced its open government thing. Josh asked Tim Armstrong how he felt about looking like a dark overlord. I drank Adrian Grenier’s beer.* Anyway, it all kind of blew me away.

Then a funny thing happened. Last year’s Disrupt SF was even better. I mean, Zuck. I could probably just drop the mic right there, but what about Ben Horowitz, Jack Dorsey, Kevin Rose, Matt Cohler, Reid Hoffman, Ev and Biz? Jim Dalrymple’s beard, on our stage to talk about the iPhone 5?

This year’s Disrupt SF promises to top both of those, and I’m not just saying that because I work here and Alexia assigned this story to me. I mean, look at the agenda and see for yourself. I’ve been told this might be a good place to put in a link where you can buy tickets. Anyway, here are the things I love about Disrupt:

There’s no bullshit

Unlike so many other conferences I’ve been to, Disrupt doesn’t invite big name speakers to get on stage and say nothing interesting for 20 minutes. Or, worse, to trot out all the same talking points that we’ve heard from all the same people over and over again.

“The reason I find [Disrupt] worth attending is that I want the people on stage to be on stage more than they do,” my colleague Alex said the other day. And this is coming from a guy who was our competitor until about a month ago.

The other thing about the speaker lineup is that we have people coming out for Disrupt who don’t normally do these things. I mean, we’ve somehow gotten folks like Sir Michael Moritz and John Doerr to come out of hiding for this one. (Maybe this time I’ll have the guts to corner him?)

The speakers are also attendees

Last year at Disrupt SF, I saw something pretty amazing. At some point during Arrington’s interview with Reid Hoffman, I look over and there’s Marc Benioff sitting in the front row, taking the whole thing in. I mean, how often do you see the CEO of a company with a $20 billion market cap just hanging out in the audience at a conference?

It’s not just Benioff, though. Folks like Mike McCue and Vinod Khosla don’t just come and sit on stage, they also can be seen walking through Startup Alley, meeting with entrepreneurs and seeing what’s new. Which is pretty damn cool.

Startup Battlefield

There’s nothing quite like watching today’s technology leaders for half a day and then seeing a group of fresh new startups coming up to the stage and presenting for the first time the thing they’ve been working on. As Ingrid said the other day, the juxtaposition of the two “creates a spark.”

And then there’s the quality of the startups competing, which is just so, so good. I mean, where else are you going to find a motorcycle that can’t be tipped over** competing against a peer-to-peer marketplace for mechanics?

Arrington

Love him or hate him, the man is a pro. He’ll do five or six interviews at one of these events and he’ll always be the best-prepared person taking the stage. Oh, and that no bullshit thing I was talking about? A lot of it comes from Arrington, because he’s not going to let you sit there and say nothing interesting for 20 minutes.

Everyone loved the Zuck interview last year, and it was pretty great. But for my money, the highlight of Disrupt SF 2012 was watching Arrington grill David Sacks about how there’s supposedly no more innovation happening in Silicon Valley.

To do so, Arrington reads off a long list of famous quotes that ended up being disproven, much like Sacks’ much-maligned prediction that “Silicon Valley as we know it may be coming to an end.” Spoiler alert: It’s not.

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* It was not delicious
** Lit Motors was robbed