Startup conferences at Silicon Valley and around the globe are becoming more and more performance-like in terms of their formats, speakers, audience experience, and media coverage. As some of the most noticeable events in the startup world, this trend of startup conferences is redefining people's impression of startups and the ecosystem.
When most people think about performance, conferences are not the first thing that comes into mind. However, as there are more and more professional conferences being hosted in the business world, they become more and more performance-like. Some of the conferences have tens of thousands of people attending each year, much more than normal theater can host. They focus on audience experiences - amazing stage lighting, sound equipment, and various tech demo and touchpoint. They have great media coverage as well and can usually spark discussion beyond the events themselves. And like a successful play, both speakers and organizers are trying to deliver a message with the opportunities.
Therefore, in this paper, I’m going to take a look at conferences as performances. I’m going to illustrate why conferences are a performance from the aspects of the format, the speakers, media coverages, audience engagement, and the preparation by the team. I’m also going to look into some of the most successful conferences hosted in the startup world as case studies to demonstrate my points. After that, I’ll try to examine the effects of this recent trend that startup conferences are becoming more performance-like and try to draw connection of it with actual events in the industry. As a student at UC Berkeley, I’m particularly interested in this topic because I’ve hosted my own entrepreneurship conference with my team at UC Berkeley and Stanford, with over 1,000 audiences attending each year. As a result, I got connected to some of the speakers and organizers of other conferences and get more interested in this topic.
TechCrunch Disrupt Conference at San Francisco (Photo Credit: TechCrunch)
There are various conferences hosted every year just in the bay area region. Some of them are hosted by professional organizers of these kinds of events and some of them by established companies, usually serving a more specific field (such as B2B products, mobile development and etc.) Some of the most recognized conference including TechCrunch Disrupt, Slush and more. These conference charge up to $1000 for a general ticket, and even higher prices for investors and startups. They also get expensive sponsorship from numerous companies. With such high profit and competitive landscape, each organizer has the incentive to focus on their audience experience (making the conference more performance like) to differentiate themselves
The format for conferences is similar to the one in performances. There are speakers on the stage delivering messages while audiences sitting below and watching. But if we take a closer look at conferences and performances, we can see even more similarities between the two.
Winner of TechCrunch Disrupt startup competition celebrated at the conference. (Photo Credit: TechCrunch)
In performance, actors/actresses are celebrated, either for their skills at performing the stories or their characteristics. At a startup conference, speakers are usually successful founders and entrepreneurs whose success is celebrated. For example, at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the largest startup conferences in San Francisco, some of the speakers include Michael Seibel, Henrique Dubugras, and more. These people are icons in the startup world and are admired within the startup ecosystem. Michael Seibel is the CEO at Y-Combinator, the largest startup incubator in the world, which has incubated over 3000 startups including Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe and more. As a result, Michael is considered one of the most influential founders and investors in the bay area. Henrique is known to be the founder of the youngest unicorn startup in Silicon Valley, Brex. Within 2 years of founding the company, he has built the startup into a billion-dollar business and one of the fastest-growing startup of all time. And by the time he accomplishes this, he’s only at the age of 23. All of the speakers at the conference have unique accomplishments and are considered successful in the conventional metric.
Besides inviting business leaders as speakers, some of these conferences will invite celebrities to make the positioning even more entertaining. For example, at TechCrunch Disrupt 2019, Will Smith, one of the most famous actors in Hollywood, was invited as one of the speakers. Besides, Maisie Williams, one of the main actresses in the fantasy television series Game of Throne, also join TechCrunch as a speaker.
Will Smith (famous Hollywood actor) speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt conference. (Photo credit: Steve Jennings)
Maisie Williams (one of the main actress at HBO fantasy television series "Game of Throne") speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt Conference. (Photo Credit: Steve Jennings)
Like all performances trying to express a theme or deliver a message, speakers take the opportunity of the startup conferences to deliver messages that are important to them. Depending on the contexts, the messages might be different. I’ll take a look at two examples here. OpenAI is one of the leading company trying to develop GAI (general AI, type of artificial intelligence that not just learn about a specific task but any kind of task in general). It’s founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman, who is previously the chairman at Y-Combinator. Sam Altman speaks at TechCrunch this year to announce a recent investment that they get from Microsoft. It’s also a time when OpenAI is expanding, so as the CEO of the company, Sam takes this opportunity to build more excitement for the company, which will be essential for recruiting. On the other hand, when Michael Seibel speaks at TechCrunch 2 years ago, he announced the newest YC top 100 companies in terms of valuation. This not only creates a lot of excitement for YC as an accelerator but also for the companies in YC, and is beneficial for them in terms of raising funding and recruiting.
Henrique Dubugras (founder@Brex, one of the fastest-growing unicorn startup at Silicon Valley) speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt conference. He has made himself of billionaire at the age of 23 and was one of the most expected speaker at the conference. (Photo Credit: TechCrunch)
Henrique Dubugras at our startup class one year before the conference (Photo Credit: Sophia Shen)
Sam Altman (CEO@OpenAI, one of the leading startup in general AI field) announcing their recent progress at TechCrunch (Photo Credit: TechCrunch)
Startup conferences are also similar to performances in that they value audience experience. Most conferences in Silicon Valley have booths and tables outside of the main venue where audiences can experience various technologies. They also provide catering and networking space for people to hang out and get to know each other. Some other conferences, on the other hand, are known for their parties. SLUSH is the largest startup conference in Europe, happening every year at Helsinki. They are known for the night-club style lighting and all of the after-parties and side events that happen alongside the conference. In fact, if you’re going to SLUSH from outside of the country, the party starts on the plane. For example, if you’re going to SLUSH from San Francisco, you’ll onboard a flight just for SLUSH audiences from SF. The plane is redesigned inside and networking and partying begin on the flights before you get to the venue. Same with other major cities flights to SLUSH from some other major cities.
Slush Helsinki, one of the largest startup gathering in Europe, is known for their night-club-style venue. (Photo Credit: Slush)
Last but not least, just like a good show, a successful startup conference has credible media coverage and generate lots of topics. TechCrunch itself is more than just a conference, it’s also the top brand when it comes to startup and technology news. SLUSH has its own blog with a lot of resources on startup education. Many companies and speakers participating in the conference will post about it on their social media as well.
Michael Seibel (CEO@Y-Combinator, the largest startup accelerator) at TechCrunch Disrupt conference in a pair of shorts. (Photo Credit: TechCrunch)
Michael Seibel at Startup Decal@UC Berkeley (Photo Credit: Sophia Shen)
Being the most noticeable event in the startup world, those conferences actually play a huge role in defining the startup culture and people’s impression of the ecosystem. Startup conferences being more performance-like actually have an effect on the industry.
First, startups are more celebrated than before. There are more and more people starting their own startups or joining a startup as their career. There are over 400 startups coming out of Y-Combinator each year, and many more from the entire industry. Some of the startups are ranked higher than public trading companies in terms of ideal places to work at.
Startup founders have a very high social status in this ecosystem. We can tell this simply from the fact that over 2000 people are willing to show up and pay $1000 to listen to the founder of Airbnb or CEO of Y-Combinator. In fact, YouTube videos of Airbnb’s founder Brian Chesky (either interviews or keynote) can easily hit over 50k views. And founders are constantly the focus on news and media.
We can even see the trace of this effect on campus. Our team is hosting a Decal on startup on campus (Decode Silicon Valley Startup Success) and with little marketing effort, there are more than 200 students apply to this class. Many college students are running their startup projects and classes on entrepreneurship under the IEOR department are getting more popular as well.
At an age where startup and technologies are creating huge wealth and value, startup conferences are evolving to be more performance-like and are redefining people’s impressions about startups.
So what does startup tell us about America?
While most people are familiar with the cultural and ethnicity aspect of America, a very important part of the culture is rooted is wealth generation. Some people called it the American Dream. In the Silicon Valley, people called it entrepreneurship. Nowadays, startups are undoubtedly playing an increasingly important role in wealth generation. Just as Rome was not built in one day, the ecosystem at Silicon Valley is shaped into what it is today by decades. The history of startup in the Silicon Valley says a lot about this part of the American culture.
Brief History of Silicon Valley
It’s commonly agreed that the culture of tech startups started when in 1957, when a group of eight engineers founded Fairchild Semiconductor. While germanium was still the most common materials for making semiconductor at that time, Fairchild pioneered to make semiconductor with silicon. This creation powered that next generation of technological breakthrough in the Bat Area and is how it earned the name “Silicon Valley”.
Besides the ground-breaking silicon semiconductor, the group of eight have also created a valuable network among them. Alumni of Fairchild Semiconductor each went on their own venture to build their next companies, all of which proved to be the most impactful companies at the time. Among the traitorous eight, Robert and Gordon started Intel, the most influential semiconductor chip manufacturer, considered the “Google” in the 90s. Eugene Kleiner founded Kleiner Perkins, which is one of the first and most influential VC in history that has invested in Google, Amazon, Slack, and etc. Don Valentine, a senior executive at Fairchild Semiconductor, later founded Sequoia, also one of the earliest and most successful VC as well as the first investor in Apple. Unarguably, the network among these founders helped them a lot in their own startup venture after Fairchild.
Paypal Mafia Era
In 1998, Elon Musk has just sold his first startup and get 22 million dollars in cash while Peter Thiel was rejected in his application to the supreme court intern position. Each of them started an internet-based payment company in Palo Alto: Elon has started the X.com while Peter started Confinity. The two later combined into one company named PayPal. After its acquisition by eBay for $1.5 billion, each of the founding team member of PayPal, referred to as the PayPal mafia, went on to create what later proved to be the most successful companies in the last decades. Some names among those companies include Tesla, SpaceX, Yelp, YouTube, LinkedIn, Palantir and etc. The total value of the companies created by alumni from the PayPal now worth trillions of dollars.
Members of the PayPal mafia are open about their strong bonding among each other and they acknowledge the name “PayPal Mafia” themselves – Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, use the name “PayPal Mafia” as a subtitle in his book Zero to One. Member of the PayPal Mafia are known to be very supportive to each other’s endeavor to build his or her next company after PayPal. For example, when Reid Hoffman started LinkedIn after PayPal was acquired, both his earliest investor and head of business development were members of the PayPal Mafia. In the case of YouTube, three members of the PayPal Mafia jointly founded the company, which is still the most successful video platform to date.
Some people say that history repeat itself. In the case of the Fairchild and the PayPal Mafia, even if the history didn’t repeat itself, it has proven the importance of having access to a resourceful network when one set on to build a lasting business.
While the decades of success in the startup world demonstrates that America provides an environment for wealth generation, the history of Silicon Valley tell us the importance of network in driving this industry. Networking was and still is a very big part of culture in the startup world. It tells us a lot about how, in this culture, a hidden network is driving a lot of progress that we see today.
Questions & Methods
What does conference talks at TechCrunch, as a form of performance, reveal about people’s dreams in Silicon Valley and beyond?
TechCrunch is an SF-based annual tech conference with more than 5000 attendees. Every year, they invite founders from the most successful startups across the different industries. It’s also the major online media covering first-hand tech & startup news. As one of the most famous events in the startup world, I see the conference as a form of performance revealing the dreams and motivation behind investors, founders, engineers, entrepreneurs, students, and people who attend the event in general.
With this paper, I wish to argue that conferences are a form of performance with high engagement, in that it aligns with audiences’ own career trajectories. To analyze the object, I'll do the following:
- Research online about the history of TechCrunch and how it relates to the tech industry.
- Watch video of TechCrunch conference (who’s speaking, their background, the companies, etc) and observe audiences’ responses and interaction (both online and offline).
- Read related TechCrunch articles.
- Watch videos and compare the same speakers speaking at TechCrunch and other events.
(Here's the bibliography)