The Lost Children of TechCrunch Disrupt

The biannual TechCrunch Disrupt conference series is only about money. There are interviews, the exchange of opinions, software presentations, questions, answers, and lots of visuals. But the entire production is a pyramid of money, at the bottom of which are the residents of Disrupt's "Startup Alley," a completely perfect metaphor.

There were two kinds of people to meet at this week's Manhattan installment of Disrupt: people who have money, and people who don't have money, but want it a lot of it as quickly as possible. Many of the latter spent time standing around in Startup Alley, an exhibition space in New York's Manhattan Center, across the street from the Amtrak station. Exhibitors—almost all tiny startups that haven't actually launched yet—paid about $2,000 each for a small circular table, the sort you ditch a soiled napkin upon at a cocktail party. Some paid extra for a banner or cardboard presentation poster, giving it the air of a high school science fair, with only slightly less youthful hope.

I walked through the Alley, which occupied a large bottom floor of the Manhattan Center, filled with uniform rows of exhibitors standing around waiting for financial success. Maybe a venture capitalist will read about them in a blog post (or maybe not—at a Disrupt after party, TechCrunch staffers showed me their secret "get me out of this conversation" signal, used against eager founders). Or maybe that same VC will walk right up to them in Startup Alley and cut a check—they were on the prowl, a few founders told me. "You can just tell who they are," said one, uneasily, surveying the crowd behind me, often because other startup kids suddenly start lining up behind them, as if summoned by invisible pheromone strings.

Some founders demurred, saying they didn't need funding yet and yet there they were, standing in the bottom floor of the Manhattan Center.

Talking to every founder would've taken hours (they would explain their app for about as long as you'd give them), so I tried my best to make it through the first couple rows, asking each startup to make its pitch in just fifteen seconds:

Everyone either pitched in well under 15 seconds or took much longer, but each was carefully choreographed and only sometimes betrayed underlying nerves. When these founders stumbled, I wanted to reach out like a parent at the school play, mouthing, "You can do it, I know you can do it."

The crew actually seemed much more relaxed when I asked if they thought we're beneath a frothy speculative software bubble:

Maintaining composure was impressive on their parts, given that they were all placed literally beneath a giant projected image of aspirational figures in the startup world. The rest of the Disrupt events took place on higher floors, with the successful talking to and sitting next to the successful—those in Startup Alley who were still trying to get an app off the ground could only gaze up at the giant heads of Arrington, Tsotsis, and accomplished tech luminaries. I wondered how it must have felt for these insecure upstarts to look up from their small tables and see Fred Wilson proclaim "too much money is the root of all evil" or Kickstarter's co-founder muse "there are things that are more important than money." Easy to say from the giant screen on the ceiling.

But low morale and digital dread seemed less an Alley affliction than a very pure, very analog boredom. Foot traffic was low, complained multiple founders, who'd shelled out for exposure and exposure only. TechCrunch hadn't made it clear they'd be placed on a floor of their own during the conference, away from the main attraction of keynote speakers. One founder, who regretted shelling out for his small table, called the placement of Startup Alley an outright "deception." Without visitors to pitch, the fledgling startup crews looked like bored mall kiosk attendants. "It's even worse than last year," lamented another. Some were just sitting down and watching the livestreamed keynotes above. But when visitors came by, they lit up—I didn't look like I had any money, but maybe I knew someone who did. "Hey, Valleyswag!" remarked a slightly older fellow who read my ID badge. Everyone was just glad to have some company.