WITTC50?: Want me to ignore the ridiculous conflict of interest and write a glowing review of TC50? There's an app for that

monkeysHuzzah! It’s that time again! Time for TechCrunch50: where thousands of struggling entrepreneurs spend three grand they can barely afford to watch fifty of their peers dancing like malnourished bears for the approbation of Jason Calacanis! It’s like Christians and lions meets Satan’s own version of speed dating, with added Scoble! What’s not to love?

I’m sorry – you’ll have to forgive my cynicism, it’s just that I have to prove to you that I haven’t gone native.

You see, one of the main reasons I was hired by TechCrunch was for my traffic-driving habit of hurling faeces at unsuspecting industry conferences. Conferences like Jeff Pulver’s inexorably ill-planned 140 Characters in New York or Loic LeMeur’s très froidLe‘ in Paris – both of which saw the sharp end of my tongue when I was at the Guardian. I learned there that no-one cares when I talk about interesting start-ups or noteworthy trends – but when I textually assault a hard-working event organiser, the page impressions flow like gravy.

And so you can imagine how worried I felt when I realised that the very first major conference to come along after I moved to TechCrunch would be the one that pays my wages.

For weeks friends have been responding to my protests of impartiality with wry looks and knowing chuckles. “Sure,” they said, “even if the wifi’s shit, the venue’s freezing and there’s no food, you’ll still have to say nice things. Arrington’s not going to let you publish a hatchet job about his cash cow. The man is a renowned megalomaniac; worse than Stalin and Kim Jong-il added together.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I argued back, “that’s just propaganda put about by jealous rivals at lesser blogs. Arrington hired me for my fierce independence, not just because he wanted to make sure I’d toe the line when it came to the most important event on his calendar. No one would be that cynical.”


Well, we’ll find out soon enough. In a bold journalistic experiment, this week’s column is split into several installments, of which this is the first. The others will be filed on Monday and Tuesday, live from the conference hall, or from whichever after-party or fringe event I find myself at when my deadline hits. I’ll be working overtime to bring you a true and complete picture of the event, so if you spot a hyper-focussed figure, hunched away from the main throng, obsessively pecking away at a laptop when he should be drinking and having fun, that’ll be me. (Or possibly Gabe Rivera; you’ll know for sure by the shoes.)

My original plan was to use this first installment as a prologue, to preview some of the companies that will be launching on Monday and Tuesday and suggesting which pitches you should definitely check out. I wouldn’t give too much away, of course, but hopefully I’d give you an idea of the 50 amazingly revolutionary products that will be competing for the $50k grand prize, plus $4.7bn in advertising credits, 3.76m Beenz and a share in the fortune of the late Dr Clement Okon of Nigeria.

There are just two problems with this plan. Firstly, with the exception of Penn and Teller, I have absolutely no idea what start-ups will be pitching. Really. In the interests of impartiality – and laziness – I’ve kept well away from TechCrunch HQ, where I understand frantic last minute preparations are underway to make sure this year’s event is the best ever. MG is charging his iPhones, Arrington is practicing his cynical stage-stare, Lacy is ironing her ‘I *heart* Brazil t-shirt, Daniel Brusilovsky and the interns are doing all the actual work – that kind of thing. But I’m staying behind my Chinese wall. Until yesterday I hadn’t even bothered checking that the venue was the same as last year, or confirming that I actually had a ticket.

(It is. I have.)

The second problem is that I strongly suspect this year’s companies will fall into the category of evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Which is probably a good thing. The market being what it is, it makes a lot of sense to play safe: develop something that users and investors can easily get on board with, make some revenue, keep up repayments on your home, ride out the storm.

The fact that last year’s winner, Yammer, was an evolution (‘clone’ is such an impolite word) of Twitter is a case in point, and it wouldn’t suprise me if the selection panel have chosen similar kinds of businesses this year. Which is great for those who value tried and tested ideas and solid business models but terrible news for a columnist who gets off on mocking the sick and jeering the lame.

But, then again, I could be completely wrong. I mean, if this year’s selection really does err on the side of caution, how does one explain Penn and Teller? These are hardly men renowned for safe ideas; the last time I saw Teller thinking inside a box, Penn poured in a swarm of bees and did something decidedly innovative with a can of gasoline. So perhaps their presence is a hint that this year’s event will be one filled with ridiculously bold ideas, chosen to inject a much-needed shot of adrenaline in the arm of an industry flirting with the doldrums.

And yet that possibility doesn’t quite feel right either. No, actually, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that Penn and Teller’s attendance is indicative of a much more cynical plot altogether.

Just consider the evidence: a few weeks ago when Arrington asked for my bio for CrunchBase, I mentioned the odd factoid that I used to be a magician. Four weeks later and – lo! – Penn and Teller, the magicians’ magicians, are slated to pitch at TechCrunch50. Coincidence? I hardly think so.

A far more likely explanation is that my friends were right about Arrington all along. The poor man really is so desperate to ensure that my TechCrunch50 review is positive that he’s selected each of the participating companies based purely on how likely they are to appeal to me, and me alone. The other 1999 attendees be damned, all that matters is getting my journalistic thumbs up.

It’s an audacious plan. And you know what? It might just work. Especially if he’s chosen such me-focussed companies as…

  • DoucheBall
    An evolution of the Foursquare/Dodgeball concept, designed to appeal to men who, for whatever reason, want to avoid running into any of their ex-girlfriends. Whenever a previous flame checks into a venue, an alert is pushed to the man’s phone allowing him to stay well clear until the danger has passed. Much like Foursquare, there’s a fun game element too, with badges to be won based on certain patterns of behaviour. By default, all users are awarded the “Player, please” and “Coward, grow up” badges at sign-up.
  • Am I Fired Or Not?
    You know how it is – you have multiple freelance gigs, any of which you could lose at a moment’s notice by writing unforgivably navel-gazing columns about yourself and your friends. Combined with industry-wide budget cuts and publication closures, keeping track of who still employs you can be a full time job. But not any more! Introducing ‘Am I Fired Or Not?’ – the Friendfeed of firing; the RSS of redundancy. Simply add each new employer as they hire you, and be instantly notified when – a few weeks later – they come to their senses and remove themselves.
  • WhoreSquare
    Sure, services like Skimlinks provide a neat way for site owners to make extra revenue by turning key words and phrases into affiliate links. But some editors are uneasy at the idea of shilling to their readers under the guise of producing impartial content. If you’re one of those editors then WhoreSquare is your perfect compromise. Simply install this free plugin and every single word on your blog will be instantly transformed into an affiliate link to my brilliant book, Bringing Nothing To The Party: True Confessions of a New Media Whore. As an added bonus, every image, including your site’s own logo will be replaced with a gigantic animated gif of me holding the book, and waving. Sure, your readers are still being sold to but, trust me, they’ll thank you for it.
  • BlackoutCast
    Heading out for a quick drink? Want to record everything you say and do after 10pm so you can play it back in the morning and remember all of the people you need to apologise to / pay damages to / add to your avoid list on DoucheBall? There’s an app for that.

Exciting products, all, as I’m sure you’ll agree. And each absolutely guaranteed to get a much-needed positive review from me next week.

Perfect! See you all on Monday! I’ll be the cold, hungry one in the corner, swearing about the fucking wifi.