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Maya Baratz

Maya Baratz

Posted: September 14, 2009 12:42 PM

A Sundance for Startups


In the somewhat congested realm of tech conferences, TechCrunch50 has quickly distinguished itself as Silicon Valley's "American Idol"-esque competition for entrepreneurial hopefuls. Fifty early-stage, hungry startups are selected from a pool of around 1,000 applicants to launch for the first time in front of a panel of 20 of the tech industry's most influential, deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, VC's and media. One winner claims some seed money ($50k) to get their company off the ground.

Creating Something Out of Nothing

But if you were to compare this conference to anything related to Hollywood - a comparison folks in the tech industry love to hate - it's probably more like the Sundance Film Festival, circa anytime before this decade. Which is why it isn't surprising that conference co-host Jason Calcanis, CEO of Q&A site and search engine Mahalo, claimed he'd like TechCrunch50 to be just that: The Sundance Festival of the tech industry.

See, the self-proclaimed "full-contact conference" for startups highlights a key dynamic that was best described to me by Jay Bangash of indie film production company Shooting Gallery Entertainment, back in 2000 when he released the film that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, "You Can Count on Me." When I asked Bangash for his definition of the quintessential independent film, he sighed, "production must be difficult - and yield something unique out of that difficulty." The difficulty implied here, of course, is shared with many tech startups: An infringing budget.

The Indie Startup

The companies that have emerged from TechCrunch50 typically emulate the same type of niche that Sundance films used to embody. Odds are you'll probably never hear of or use any of the products or services that get featured until they are ripe for mass consumption. And that process can take years. Nope, Twitter wasn't launched at a TechCrunch conference; it's actually older than the conference, as are most products and services we currently use online. But you may be familiar with personal finance application Mint, which won the conference's top prize in 2007. Just last night, news broke of Mint's acquisition by Intuit.

When Niche Meets Mass

The problem with Sundance, and the indie film industry as a whole, is that the more attention it got, the more saturated it became, often with filmmakers who already had the competitive advantage of resources and connections. This shift widened the gap between truly unconnected, hungry artists and the power structure required to distribute their films.

TechCrunch50 highlights the same dilemma for the tech industry. In just its second year, Ashton Kutcher pitched a startup. This year, magician tag team Penn and Teller will be headlining with their own. And the companies these celebrities pitch may be good, but their very presence somehow seems to take away from unveiling the artistry required for a budding entrepreneur to create that something out of nothing.

Mike Arrington, co-host of TechCrunch50 and founder of leading tech blog TechCrunch, is well aware of this encroaching dynamic. It's a byproduct of too much of a good thing: The conference aims to not only reveal the best of what's to come from Silicon Valley, but provide a platform to help these budding businesses grow. So it isn't all that surprising that its gathered so much interest already - from entrepreneurs all over the world hoping to make the next Facebook or Twitter, to media giants looking to cover the next big thing. In fact, this year, CNBC will be covering the conference live, which will probably open the floodgates.

HuffPost Live at TechCrunch50

Since the conference is only in its third year, we have yet to see how this attention will ultimately pan out. TechCrunch50 2009 starts today, and Huffington Post will be covering it from downtown San Francisco. Stay tuned for more.