Iterations: My Disrupt Takeaways In Three Words: Enterprise, Celebrity, And Khosla

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is an EIR with Javelin Venture Partners. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil

As a long-time contributor to TechCrunch, I again had the privilege of hanging out backstage and seeing the TechCrunch team put on what was, in my mind, the best Disrupt conference I’ve been to. In addition to having a really good time, the content generated both on stage, during the battlefield, and backstage with TCTV was astounding, a great place to reconnect with friends, and a special setting to monitor the pulse of Silicon Valley in this moment in time.

In that spirit, as I’ve done for the past conferences, I wanted to reflect on the key themes I observed during Disrupt. As a disclaimer, please note this isn’t an objective summary of the three days, but rather reflections seen through my own lens. I’m also not going to discuss the excellent Battlefield companies, as they were well-covered this week and the quality of pitches in the finals were very good. A few days after the event, these three themes continue to ring in my mind.

First, more attention was paid to enterprise IT than previous Disrupts. Of course, TechCrunch coverage traditionally focuses more on consumer-facing startups and news, but a large, perhaps quieter, audience remains deeply interested in computer science, advances in programming languages, changes to the enterprise IT stack, and all sorts of traditional B2B services and applications. This time around, a few months after Facebook’s public offering, more attention has been given to enterprise. The reasons for this are a bit misleading, as many well-known consumer investors in the ecosystem, from angels all the way up to billion dollar funds, have been happily investing money into the IT stack for the past 7-10 years, if not longer, and as recent IPOs in the space signal, those show no signs of slowing down.

CrunchFund partner and TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington conducted two high-profile interviews in this space, which were fascinating and worth watching. First, he sat down with Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, who shared candid views about his company’s prospects, as well as his opinions on other enterprise players. Second, Arrington’s conversation with Yammer CEO David Sacks was fascinating for the debate they entered into about where entrepreneurial focus should be placed: directly attacking incumbents, or cutting in from the edge? (It should be noted that Arrington’s ability to interview these leaders creates such dynamic content. He is at his best in these interviews.) Not to be left out, Box’s Aaron Levie chaired a lively panel on the enterprise space with leaders at successful startups in the space and artfully explained why this is a unique time to reinvent the IT stack and services. Finally, a long-time entrepreneur and investor in the enterprise space — Sequoia’s Jim Goetz — called the area “blue ocean” and also spent some time backstage with me to discuss interesting techniques enterprise SaaS startups are gleaning from how their consumer-facing counterparts handle customer acquisition, retention, and cohorts.

Second, the power of celebrity was on display. Right off the bat, Tuesday’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg was a big deal. There was more than enough coverage on this, so I won’t go into that here, other than to share a little story. I talked to my father on the phone Wednesday morning, and he doesn’t really know what TechCrunch is and lives on the east coast, but he does watch CNBC, and he mentioned he saw a very cool interview with “Zuck” that was broadcast from TechCrunch. I can’t overstate how hard this must have been to orchestrate, as well as the presence of mind to tie in a feed to a national television station. It’s also indicative, as one of TechCrunch’s co-editor’s pointed out in The New York Times, that technology continues to move further into the mainstream. I knew something was up when I casually went backstage during a presentation and literally walked right by Jessica Alba. That was a notable event, to be sure. Alba, teaming up with Brian Lee, has started The Honest Company, and discussed how she started and their vision on stage.

Separately, I had an great time hanging out with one of Pitbull’s technology advisors (I’m a big Pitbull fan), and it was quite random to have this happen backstage. The flirtation between traditional celebrity and this wave of technology startups isn’t news, and in many ways is taken for granted, but celebrity confers with it brand, audience, and distribution, so it’s a natural progression for both sides to get closer. A generation ago, Pearl Jam’s lead singer is writing songs about the downsides of getting free corduroy jackets, and a few decades later, Justin Bieber has his own dedicated servers at Twitter and uses Instagram. Finally, all three of Twitter’s co-founders, celebrities in their own right, were on stage, but taking very different styles. Jack Dorsey delivered a powerful keynote, and Biz Stone and Evan Williams, now co-founders with Obvious Corporation, sat down with Hunter Walk in a very casual, understated discussion about their time at Twitter and their new products associated with Obvious, such as Medium. The distance between traditional celebrity and tech celebrity continues to close.

Third, the Valley’s powerful investors were remarkably candid. As is the case with these kind of conferences, investors enjoy the chance to broadly share their thoughts and interests in their quests to find the next big thing. Again, Arrington was involved in many of these discussions, knowing how to draw out interesting information from folks he’s known for a long time. One of the most selective investors, Benchmark’s Matt Cohler, has yet to make a new investment in 2012. Google Ventures smartly spread out its team at this Disrupt, with Wesley Chan and Joe Kraus on separate panels (Kraus’ blog is excellent, by the way) and new partner Kevin Rose in a far-ranging, candid discussion (Rose’s “Foundation” interviews are really good). Combining this coverage Google Ventures appears to be making more public moves in what is already a very competitive venture capital climate.

Ultimately, however, after the Zuck interview, passing by Alba and hanging with Pitbull’s crew, in my mind, it was Vinod Khosla who stole the show.

As a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and long-time venture capitalist, Khosla has the background and personality to articulate whatever is on his mind, and he did just this in conversation with Arrington. After leaving Kleiner Perkins to start his own fund, Khosla Ventures, Khosla is at liberty to say and do as he pleases, as anyone who follows this Twitter account and/or reads his insightful guest posts on TechCrunch knows.

Even at the tender young age of 57, to listen to Khosla speak so freely about industries he’s passionate about, it’s fascinating to watch, whether you agree with him or not. I’d recommend watching the entire interview, where he discusses old investments in clean technology, and new investments in healthcare, agriculture, and data — one of these is Ayasdi, a promising data startup in Palo Alto that he just invested in. Khosla explains that he likes to lead investments and actively help them. This runs counter against the philosophy that venture investors should be accessible but generally stay out of the way of entrepreneurs. Khosla, you could say, gets in the way, specifically focusing on recruiting the early team. He doesn’t coddle entrepreneurs or tiptoe around them for fear of being disliked, but wants to deliver honest feedback to help all parties get better.

Khosla shook the ground in the Valley with the most force, however, when he shared candid thoughts on the hype generated by some companies coming out of the Valley’s powerful incubator, Y Combinator. Those soundbites alone generated coverage across many publications and and may have encouraged a few other investors to publicly share their opinions on Twitter, as well. At the end of the day, he may be right or wrong, but the important thing is that he shared his opinions freely and in a direct manner, and given his range of experience, brought attention to an issue that is often discussed only in private.

So, there you have it, Disrupt SF 2012 in a nutshell. Congrats again to the Battlefield Startups, the Battlefield winner, and all the TechCrunch writers, staff, volunteers for curating a great lineup and putting on a great show. I can’t wait until New York for 2013!

Photo Credit: sdbj / Flickr Creative Commons