Demo confab holds its own against upstart rivals

As Demo Spring 2011 kicks off today, the old stalwart of the start-up conference circuit looks as strong as ever. But with new efforts from Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis elbowing in, can Demo survive?

PALM DESERT, Calif.--In 2008, when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington told CNET that the venerable Demo conference " needs to die ," he ushered in an era of extreme competitiveness in the tech start-up-oriented conference world.

Arrington issued his sinister words as part of a conversation about why he had scheduled his own conference--the TechCrunch 50--directly against Demo that year, and his general argument was that shows that charged well into five-figures to let start-ups present their wares to investors and press needed to be dispensed with.

Flash forward three years later, and the TechCrunch 50, or TC 50 as it was known, is no more, the victim of a falling out between its two main partners , Arrington and Weblogs founder Jason Calacanis. Now, Arrington is behind the Disrupt conference, which will take place in May, and Calacanis just hosted his first Launch conference in San Francisco. And all through it, Demo chugs along, the wizened veteran of the bunch.

As Demo Spring kicks into gear today, with more than 700 attendees on hand, including representatives of 52 companies, most of which ponied up nearly $20,000 for the privilege of giving a six-minute presentation on their new product or service, some might look at a landscape that is brimming with these kinds of shows and wonder if there might just be too many of them.

Of course, others see the fact that there are so many such conferences, Launch, Disrupt, Demo, and several others, catering to start-ups or small companies with new products, and see it as a sign that the economy is getting better and that the companies want and need the choice.

"I have to look at supply and demand," said Matt Marshall, one of the lead organizers of Demo. "As long as there's enough companies, there's going to be enough business to meet that demand. I haven't seen (any market) saturation."

Neither Arrington nor Calacanis responded to requests for comment for this story.

Marshall, of course, has a dog in this hunt, so he's not likely to be the one to acknowledge start-up conference overkill. Then again, he's also in a unique position to be able to see where the market is heading. And so his assertion that the spring version of Demo--which like last year is being held here at the Desert Springs resort--is bigger than last year, is a good sign that Demo, at least, is finding a way to appeal to its core audience.

Launch, meanwhile, seems like its inaugural effort was aimed heavily at young entrepreneurs, and it may well be too early to tell if it's the kind of show that will stick around for a while. Arrington's Disrupt has seemingly sought out the big fish, and when it takes the stage in New York, it will likely set out to capture as much buzz as it did last year when Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz told Arrington to "f--k off," and PBS personality Charlie Rose interviewed legendary venture capitalist John Doerr.

So trying to pit the shows against each other may well be the wrong question, as one PR professional on hand for Demo this week put it. The better question may well be, what's right for the start-up ecosystem?

Why Demo?
Still, with Demo getting started today, it's always worth looking at the question of why companies are willing to pay so much to present here and why so many media and VCs show up twice a year--Demo has spring and fall versions--for the shindig.

To Marshall, again a man with a bias, it's a no-brainer. Demo is "no doubt the most professional," Marshall said, pointing to the level of coaching presenters get, to the amount of social media help they receive, and even to the reliability of the Internet during companies' presentations.

That, unfortunately, is not part of Demo's legacy, and Marshall's assertion of it as a selling point for the conference seems to speak to his not having been around for much of its long history. Indeed, for years, Demo was famous for having the wireless Internet die in the middle of presentations, leaving some companies stranded on stage.

Hopefully, that's a legacy that Demo has left behind.

Still, it's clear from talking to people who are here this week that they do feel the show offers them a lot of bang for their buck, and professionalism is a big part of it.

"I'm attracted by the professionalism of the people running" Demo, said Al Schallop, a VC here with Inlab Ventures. Many companies that present here seem "very happy with the experience."

Another investor here, Jim Brandt of The Brandt Organization, is here for his Demo "maiden voyage," and last night, with only the opening cocktail reception under his belt, he already had reached the conclusion that Demo is worth the investment of time and money he had put into coming here.

"I was encouraged to come by other...angels," Brandt said, "who had come in the past and found it really terrific." In large part, he said, that's because he had already met enough people representing quality companies that are looking for funding to feel he could find suitable recipients for his funding.

Another reason to come, explained Charity Hisle, the national business developer for North America for a start-up called Fetch, is the mere opportunity to identify and meet potential strategic and product development partners. And that, of course, is in addition to getting in front of investors and press.

Hisle added that just as important to a company like Fetch, whose early target market is in the real estate industry, is the luster that a company can get just by being at Demo. "I think this conference will give us the credibility we need," Hisle said, referring to Demo's reputation as a launching pad for successful technology companies, "just participating in this conference."

For others, being at Demo has everything to do with the calendar. Grant Hall, the CEO of JetStream , which is unveiling its new video content streaming product here today, said that for his company, coming here "was really just timing and opportunity...It's just those two [things] lined up with our product plans and our release schedule."

All of which means one can draw the same conclusion that Marshall did, especially when he recalled Arrington's fighting words of three years ago: "I guarantee you," Marshall said, Demo is "not dying."

 

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