What Happens to Little Startups After Everyone Forgets?

In a week, the next breathless gathering in Silicon Valley's Liturgal Calendar begins: TechCrunch Disrupt 2013, a $3,000-per-ticket gala of business owners, investors, and their wannabe retinues. For entertainment? "Startup Battlefield," where tech hopefuls compete for money and attention. But what happens after? Often, death.

Of the many problems with tech upstarts, beyond bad ideas and worse names, accountability ranks up top. A candid investor will tell you that any unscrupulous startup founder can (and sometimes will) take your money, use it to accomplish very little, and then disappear without recourse. But this process takes years—it's easy to pretend you're at least stumbling along, doing something, making nothing, changing the world. When the entire premise of your startup is nebulous to begin with, faking it is easy.

And then the next wave comes. Startup churn is so fast-paced that everyone is buzzing about the next X for Y before we can question if Y for Z was ever worthwhile.

But what if we try some hindsight? I looked at Disrupt Battlefield's 2011 selections—far enough removed that they had a chance to run out of money, or make it—to see what state they're in today. If there were a class of young businesses with potential, it would be these 32 (selected out of "thousands,") handpicked by people who think about startups for a living, no? In 2011 they were all healthy, viable, and vying for TechCrunch's recognition as best idea. Descriptions in quotes are provided by TechCrunch:

ALIVE:

Billguard, a service "that identifies fraudulent charges on your bank account," is still kicking.

Desmos, a website for teachers, is alive.

Avado, "a tracking and communication platform for doctors and patients," is alive.

InvoiceAsap, "a mobile invoicing app," is alive.

Rexly, "a media recommendation engine," was purchased by LiveNation.

StyleSeat, "a powerful job management system for stylists," looks to be alive and well.

Happy Toy Machine, a "plush toy customization engine" (...Build-A-Bear?) is alive.

CodeGuard, "an enterprise-level website backup system for consumers," is in business.

Finally, Getaround, which won the entire competition, is alive, though today it's just another car-renting app in a world where lots of other companies do the same thing better.

AWOL OR ABANDONED:

Weotta, an app that "plans an outing for you based on mood and intention" (?) is still technically alive, although hasn't taken off, despite investments from Dave Morin and Google Ventures. As of right now, it has under 200 reviews in the iOS App Store, compared to over 67,000 for Path—and even Path isn't very popular.

Smartheart, which promised to make cheap heart-monitor gear for your phone, has yet to actually sell anything.

MotherKnows, a parenting app, appears to be dead—it hasn't updated in over a year, and its blog is gone.

Foretuit, "a platform for collaborating on and tracking projects and sales," is almost certainly dead: its website hasn't been updated in two years.

Tracks, a social networking app, is still available for downloading, but more or less dead.

JUST STRAIGHT-UP DEAD:

Do@ was "a slick search engine that searches using apps instead of the web," and is now gone.

Sonar, an app to "find people by you who you don’t know but should know," was briefly popular, but is now dead.

ccLoop promised to collect "emails into subscribable 'loops,' reducing email clutter," but now it is dead.

Skylin.es, "a personalized photo stream based on topics and keywords," is dead.

Deja, "a flashy interface for video discovery and consumption," is dead.

SpotOn, which once offered " places to go nearby, based on your own social network information," is dead.

Karizma, "a video chatting app that connects you with people nearby," is dead.

Arrived, " a location-aware social planning app that tells you what to do now that you’ve arrived," is dead.

Gnonstop Gnomes and its parent company ChurnLabs are both dead.

SneakPeeq, "a social shopping site that counts down prices until someone buys an item," is dead.

Spenz, "pending tracking app with a reward system for usage," is dead.

Thinkfuse, which made "shareable status reports for your business," doesn't anymore, because it is dead.

ThriftDB, "a powerful database tool that’s difficult to describe but very impressive to watch," (Whoa) is dead.

Lumier, "possibly a skin for Windows," is dead.

Meporter, "a citizen journalism platform aimed at hyper-local news," is dead.

Everything Butt Art, "an iPad app for teaching kids to draw, relying on butt-based drawings," was acquired by Yahoo! for $95 million. Just kidding, it's dead.

CatchFree, "a platform for finding, rating, and recommending free services," is dead.

Kohort, "a unified service for managing groups and events," is dead.

So, that's that.

Out of the original freshman class of 32 startups, 23 of them (71 percent) are either dead or dying. That's an overwhelming majority of promising outfits that bombed, gathering tens of millions of dollars in investments along the way—if not as a direct result of the Battlefield.

I tried to get in touch with the people behind all of these companies—to the extent that their contact information hasn't been wiped away by the sands of time—asking if they're glad they did it. TechCrunch tempts "the very best startups to compete in...Battlefield" with "the Disrupt Cup, $50,000 cash, and gobs of attention." There's an entire post with nine fat bullet points made to persuade attendees. Did it work? Was it worth it? Four replied:

"I'm glad we went though, it was great exposure and a fun experience," said one founder.

"The show gave us a nice boost of traffic plus some longer term SEO juice that drove traffic to us," said another founder whose company ended up dying a few months after Disrupt.

"Yes."

"TC Disrupt was a great experience for invoiceASAP."

Crucially, Disrupt Battlefield works like college early admissions—you can only enter if your company hasn't debuted elsewhere, or is a total newcomer. Your unveiling is something TechCrunch can sell tickets against—it's a marquee attraction. What's required of entrants can be a little confusing. Of course, you have to be in San Francisco, which offers the first hurdle. You'll need a hotel. TechCrunch co-chief Eric Eldon says the site waives fees for selected startups, for the most part.

The Battlefield starts with a (free) application process months before where hundreds of companies apply and then our editorial staff sorts through them and picks 30...Most battlefield companies bring two people, but if they want to bring more, each additional person has to/gets to buy a discounted ticket. We make exceptions on that from time to time based on financial need; we may also help companies make it to Disrupt if they are in need.

So, if you apply and are accepted, you'll either receive free tickets, or be reimbursed for the tickets you already purchased—if not, you're stuck with a $3,000 pass to watch someone else try. But the glitz and glimmer of Disrupt—or any gathering of the hopefuls, for that matter—obscures something you can't buy a ticket out of: lots and lots of these startups end up in the ash pile.