1. Fast internet: if there is one thing a tech conference has to get right, I think it’s internet access. Otherwise it’s like a restaurant with great decor and service but terrible food. TC50 nailed it with fast ethernet and power cables at every seat. Absolutely the right place to spend big.
2. Great organization: throughout the application, preparation, and presentation, we got clear instructions on what to do and when. It was like a Swiss train. Jason’s presentation prep was especially helpful.
3. Strong panelists: a good mix of smart and entertaining people asking generally good questions. I want Yossi Vardi to host my next birthday party.
4. Press tags: it was helpful to see the orange press tags so we knew who to approach. I didn’t see a color for investors; they should have been tagged green instead of the startups.
5. Decor: banners, tables, music, visuals, and stage were all well designed. If the startups had to design their own signage, it would have looked like a drunken quilt.
Areas of improvement
1. Democratic judging: I meant to post this before the awards so this couldn’t be seen as a response to how BreakThrough did, so please believe my feedback would be the same even if we won.
As a finalist, I was quite surprised that Jason said the winner was determined by he and Mike alone. I think a great thing about startups is their democratic spirit and judging early-stage ideas is such an art that I think many opinions are needed. I think this is why VCs usually require buy-in from all the partners to close a deal.
I think TC50 can authenticate conference attendees and internet viewers enough that their feedback is fair. The on-site poker chips are a clever example. The winner could be determined by a combination of Jason, Mike, VCs, panelists, and audience. Even if these are gamed somewhat, like any crowdsourced app, I think more involvement is a net benefit for everyone.
It would also be nice to offer mini-awards for more companies; for example, $1,000 for each best-in-session, $5k for two runners-up, and $30k-$50k for the best-in-show.
I don’t really have a strong opinion on which metrics to choose. Since we are mostly early-stage, my guess is we collectively care most about closing funding, so I think investor metrics are a natural way to go: large market, quality product, strong team, clear distribution, competitive advantage, business model.
It may take a little more time to show these, but I think it would be an extra minute or two well spent. I don’t think Sequoia’s billion-dollar potential should be the threshold; I think lower exit, higher-probability ventures like Y Combinator’s are just as valid.
I think it would be great to have panelists quantitatively score presentations like Olympic judges with large cards numbered 1-10. The score could be a simple combination of startup quality (per above) and presentation quality. That would help Jason zero in on judges that especially liked or disliked an idea, even if it didn’t affect the results.
3. More focus on distribution, less on product: As a product manager by training, I like and understand the conference’s focus on product, but I think the one thing that needs more attention is distribution strategy. Like Marc Andreessen and Reid Hoffman, I think there were a lot of startups with interesting ideas and good products but hinged on unclear or weak distribution strategies.
The web is so saturated that distribution is as or more important than product quality. The #1 feedback I heard about companies – including BreakThrough – was “great idea, but how do you get traction”? If startups don’t have time or license to focus on distribution, they really can’t put their best foot forward.
2. Conference services: two in particular would have been awesome: massage therapists and nap pods. I’m sure many founders were like me and running on little sleep. A quick nap or massage might have really helped people perk up. They could charge the vendors or attendees if they wanted.
3. Poker tournament: as a way to unwind, I think a Monday night poker tournament would be fun. I know a lot of founders, including Jason, that like poker. Tournament directors at Bay 101 or Garden City could run it and TC50 could give the winner a sponsor prize or lunch with Vinod Khosla. Phil Hellmuth lives in Palo Alto if they want a star emcee.
4. Feedback collection: TC50 could benefit from collecting on-site and online feedback during and right after the conference.
The whole process was awesome so I intend this feedback as ways to make it even more awesome.
How would you improve TC50 for next year?