Memo to Start-ups: You’re Supposed to Be Changing the World, Remember?

Far_from_Dull--DullI did interviews with most of the TechCrunch50 experts backstage and there was a common gripe about the companies launching there: Not enough passion, not enough swinging for the fences, not enough trying to change the world. There were too many people building safe businesses, too many companies just trying to make existing things slightly better, and too many people wanting to be the next, not the next Google. Nothing against Mint, but Silicon Valley wasn’t built on $170 million exits.

Web visionaries like Reid Hoffman and Sean Parker struggled to come up with positive feedback on stage. Robert “I-get-excited-by-nearly-any-start-up” Scoble was so bored he was playing Hangman via Twitter with Paul Carr. Marc Andreessen praised Udorse—a company that he joked would make the world a worse place if it succeeded—because at least it was a new idea. Tim O’Reilly said he didn’t care whether Cocodot, one of the companies he judged, succeeded or failed because it was so meaningless in the world. And Tony Hsieh just said it blatantly: “I didn’t see anything that was trying to change the world.”

One big exception was CitySourced—a company that excited Kevin Rose precisely because it was trying to build something that doesn’t really exist today and would make a huge difference in people’s lives. It was the most excited I saw an expert about anything over the two-day event.

I don’t say this to knock the conference or the selections we made. But the truth is I heard it too consistently backstage to ignore it. To be fair, we’re at that point in the start-up cycle where this is to be expected. Web 2.0 start-ups that are going to break out mostly have and others are running out of time and money. With fatigue setting in around the Valley, most new companies are looking to play it safe. We saw the exact same thing in 2001-2002. Then and now, press outlets compliment this type of thing as “sensibility” or being smart. Jeering ledes get written with told-you-so lines like “Remember profits, Silicon Valley?”

Those people just don’t understand the Valley and what makes great start-ups great. They’re the same people who write about Facebook and Twitter once the companies have raised loads of money and gotten huge audiences. The people who extol the virtues of “sensibility” are never the people at the core of the next great companies. Whether press or VCs, they’ll be late to the next wave, just like they were too late to this one. But the experts at our conference do get it and that’s why they left mostly un-wowed.

Here’s why this matters: Start-ups by definition don’t have the experience, market position, funding or resources to tackle obvious market opportunities. If what they’re trying to do makes clear business sense, a bigger, better-positioned company would do it. A start-up’s only edge is that it’s not built into legacy businesses and preconceived notions and can do something, well, crazy.

There are entrepreneurs somewhere building the next big companies. But it’s probably just a wonky side-project that no one—not even the entrepreneur himself—realizes is the next big thing. That’s who we need to drag on stage next year.

Ten years from now I don’t want to look back on TechCrunch50 and see that our winners had a string of $100 million exits. For a conference that seeks to ferret out the most exciting startups in the world, that’s failure. I want to see huge audacious failures and huge gaudy wins. I worry if we play it too safe as a conference we’ll lose the attention of the Andreessens, the Hsiehs, the Tim O’Reillys and the Reid Hoffmans and eventually, the audience that stayed glued to their uncomfortable seats even in the event’s final hours hoping to see something that could change their lives.