March 7, 2013

Launch Festival: ‘We live in the future now’

The panel of judges/venture capitalists at the Launch Festival (Photo by JD Lasica).

Conference brims with innovative tech startups

Target audience: Entrepreneurs, startups, businesses, tech sector executives and employees, anyone interested in innovation.

JD LasicaAfter three days of the Launch Festival, where 5,000 attendees jammed into San Francisco’s sprawling Design Concourse, one can be forgiven for believing that, through some cosmic event involving gamma rays and worm holes, participants were given an exclusive glimpse of what’s just around the corner. (So this is what tomorrow looks like!)

There’s no longer any doubt: Launch and TechCrunch Disrupt are now unquestionably the top startup conferences on the planet. They used to be one event, under the banner TechCrunch 40 (which launched Mint) and TechCrunch 50 (which launched Yammer), before the co-founders went their separate ways. This week I overheard more than a few attendees say that Launch — which has a mega-personality in founder Jason Calacanis where TechCrunch Disrupt now lacks one — has become the most essential gathering of its kind.

I attended as press again, and here’s my Flickr set of 71 photos.

Highlights of the Launch Festival

I’ll leave it to the raft of tech publications to offer blow-by-blows of the conference highlights. For me, attending is about getting a sense of cutting-edge innovations in design and business, of technologies and ideas that are still burbling below the surface but ready to bust out.

Here are a few of the many highlights for me:

• Launch founder Jason Calacanis riffing on the technological marvels that have come out of Silicon Valley: “We used to get lost all the time. We don’t get lost anymore. We live in the future now.”

• At the same time, Jason tweaked Apple for some of its shitty software. When you buy a new iPhone, what do you do? “You get rid of the Mail client and use Gmail, you get rid of Maps and use Google Maps, you get rid of the yellow pad and use Evernote, and you never use iCloud, you use Dropbox.”

• Venture capitalist George Zachary: When Twitter looked for Series A funding, its pitch wasn’t exactly earth-shaking — no mention of revolutions or deciding a presidential race. “It was about, where can we go drinking in the Mission District?”

• Zachary: On the day Google Maps for the iPhone was released, Apple’s top execs “were stunned (by its elegance). That tells me Google is now viewed as a serious competitor by Apple.”

Chamath Palihapitiya: "I was born poor, I’ll die poor. The only thing that matters is, What is the legacy of all that cash?"

Chamath: “I was born poor, I’ll die poor. The only thing that matters is, What is the legacy of all that cash?”

Chamath Palihapitiya of Social+Capital Partnership, a rags-to-riches underwriter of the festival, had some of the most memorable lines of the event. “In success, we will always conflate luck and skill. We always think we’re the best” when luck often plays a big role.

• Chamath, an early Facebook employee, said, “I was born poor, I’ll die poor. The only thing that matters is, What is the legacy of all that cash?” He’s looking for meaningful investments — like cancer research and DIY home diagnoses — that will change the world for the better. Not far away: Instant health tests that we do at home for less than $1 per test, using a $100 device to examine a drop of blood — replacing a $600,000 device and a wait of a week or more.

• More Chamath: “Your chance of success as a startup is one in 100, so you might as well swing the bat on something big and crazy and audacious.”

• This was the first time I heard Twitter co-founder Evan Williams talk at length about the need to go beyond the real-time Web. Just because something occurred 5 minutes ago doesn’t mean it’s no longer important (a point I’ve been making in talks for the past 3 years). Evan’s new undertaking, Medium, seeks to bring more context and signal to our discourse.

• A little over three years ago, Ev said, “We realized Twitter is not just a social network, Twitter is an information network.”

• Ev Williams on climate deniers: “It’s amazing, it’s maddening. Early on we were utopians and thought the Onternet would make us smarter. But we didn’t account for the amount of BS and press manipulation that certain industries would (exert). … Something about our information systems is definitely broken, and our political systems too. One feeds the other.”

• Ev on the Tesla’s electric, no-fossil-fuel, earth-friendly Model S: “the greatest car in history.”

• Ev Williams’ advice to entrepreneurs: “Do something that your really want to exist in the world, focus on it entirely, and something good will probably come of it.”

• There were no questions from the audience during the entire three-day event. I would have liked Jason’s team to occasionally pick a couple of questions from the audience in real time using a Twitter hashtag.

• I loved Whiplash, which is opening a drop-ship service center in Michigan. Send inventory of any kind to the warehouse, they’ll process, pack and ship out the merchandise so you don’t have to.

• Do you know about BYOD? “Bring your own device to work.”

Room 77, a Launch alumnus company, is now valued at $100 million. It’ll tell you what rooms are available at participating hotels.

• Dating sites are broken, so I loved the pitch from MyCuteFriend. After showing hilarious screenshots of anonymous creepy stalkers and concluding that “Dating is usually spray and pray,” founder John Furneaux laid out a concept relying on social proof: A woman vouches for three of her top male friends (real catches), and women in the network opt in to receive messages only from guys she pre-screens.

• The lucky guys from DiscoSync snagged $100,000 in investment funding after wowing the judges in the Hackathon.

• Brilliant idea from Jason during the festival: Next year, part of the cost of admission will go toward investing in some of the startups on stage, if the SEC allows it.

• Phil Gordon, the former professional poker player, has put together a 25-person startup called Jawfish that bills itself as offering the first real-time multiplayer virtual card tournaments. Turns take 5 seconds per player instead of 30 seconds or more. It’s social gaming, not real money.
JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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