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Time for Demo to change--a lot

Rafe Needleman loves the Demo conference but says it needs to adapt to the times. He offers some suggestions on how to do that.

The 13-year reign of Chris Shipley as the Diva of Demo is coming to an end. The writer, consultant, and longtime content chief of the conference series, started in 1991 by Stewart Alsop, is leaving the show. Demo is now coming under the direction of Matt Marshall, founding editor of the VentureBeat blog.

I've been going to Demo since 1992, when I was working at IDG, the conference's owner. It's been my favorite conference for years. But it's an old structure and it's time to give it a thorough inspection and probably change out some of the foundation. Here's what I hope Marshall and his team consider as they take the reins of this warhorse.

Make the Web site work
The Demo.com site is a half-decent archive of Demo info and videos of presentations. But with that killer domain and with what the conference stands for--innovation in technology and risk-taking in business--it could be so much more. Demo.com could be a hugely trafficked site for consumers interested in the next big thing, a competitor to TechCrunch, or an active community of starving entrepreneurs and the moneyed elite. Any direction would be better than the brochureware the site is today.

Take the show on the road
Shipley was responsible for kicking off Demo conferences in Asia and Europe. That's ambitious and difficult, and I'd rather see Demo focus more on the U.S. start-up community. A series of "farm team" Demo conferences around the country could help entrepreneurs elsewhere hone their skills and might be a good way to improve the breadth of technology and ideas that make it to the big mother ship Demo conferences.

Move the main show to Silicon Valley
It's fun to travel to sunny San Diego or another warm location for this show, but it's wasteful and the era of fancy-pants resort-driven conferences for the tech industry is over, at least for now. Thirty percent of the presenting companies this year are based in Silicon Valley. Probably more of the venture capitalists are from the area. Move the conference to a more central location.

Dissenting view: co-worker Daniel Terdiman says, "They should definitely do it in Hawaii."

Clear up Demo management
The Demo conference is not, strictly speaking, Shipley's, and it never was. Demo is run by tech publishing company IDG, and for bizarre reasons probably having to do with corporate politics, it's now run by the group that publishes Network World. That's strange enough, but the core work of choosing the content for Demo is outsourced, until recently to Chris Shipley's Guidewire Group, and now to Matt Marshall, who's keeping his gig as VentureBeat's publisher. Demo deserves to live in a group that is focused solely on it and not split between two companies.

Donna Dubinsky (left) and Jamie Niemasik (center) prepare to demo the Numenta Vision Toolkit. Rafe Needleman/CNET

Loosen up with the press embargo nonsense
Demo, and other start-up conferences like TechCrunch50, jealously guard their lists of presenters so as to not spoil the big reveal they get when companies hit the stage. That might have made some sense in the time before blogging, when writers could take a day or two to file a report from the field. Today, the strategy makes it difficult for journalists to write cogent commentary timed for publication when the conference starts; and after the conference is over, interest in the show fades rapidly. So readers get weak commentary and writers get limited traffic from their efforts.

At least the Demo companies often reach out to writers ahead of time; TechCrunch50 companies are so terrified of being dropped from the presenting lineup they won't talk to anyone before that conference. But it's time for conference organizers to let their presenting companies decide if they want advance coverage or not.

Presenters must be understandable
I hate this rule but I'm making it anyway: I don't care how cool the company is and how much a company has paid to get on stage after they were accepted to present. If the person who's slated to speak has an accent that people don't understand, or a noticeably weak command of English, they should not present on stage. Once up there, the amplification system and the presenter's natural nervousness will make things worse, and the already overwhelmed audience members will just tune out.

Real themes, please
Often, Demo presentations are grouped together in the program by a theme that just doesn't hold up. For example, there is just no way that "Life is a Contact Sport" justifies putting the real-estate management portal MyOwnRealEstate.com on the program in the same block as crowdsourced mapping and traffic company Waze. They're both good companies, and that's enough for Demo attendees. But don't force a thematic connection where none exists.

More alpha pitches
Matt Marshall instituted the "alpha pitch" concept at Demo: Companies younger than traditional Demo companies get to present--for only 90 seconds--in the middle of the main program. It lets the audience see what the really new start-ups are doing. Previously, Shipley has a section of the audience reserved for entrepreneurs not on the main program and some lucky few of them would be able to "stand and deliver" their pitch from their spot in the audience when their names were drawn. Same effect. Keep it going. But, Matt, let the young'uns up on the main stage next time.

Be more selective
Everyone would like to see better companies. Personally, I'd like to see only new companies on stage, not refreshes of existing companies. I also find it odd to see giant companies like HP presenting in the main flow of pitches. They're not raising funds, just advertising.

Figure out what to do about the fee
Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis of the TechCrunch50 conference make a big deal that Demo charging companies to present is a conflict of interest at best, "payola" at worst. I disagree with them and believe that Shipley selects companies to present honestly, and I'm pretty sure Marshall will exercise his good sense for start-ups to select companies as well. However there's no question that the free-to-present model is a serious competitive threat to Demo and that the loud Arrington/Calacanis duo is effectively using it as a marketing wedge.

The Demo producers can't ignore the competition, even though the presenting companies I talk to about their Demo experience believe it's worth the $18,000 fee. Even three kids from Weels, one of whom is still in high school, decided to put down the cash because they felt that the exclusivity of Demo ensured them a better chance for success. People value what they pay for, not what a thing is worth. The cost of coming to Demo ensures a certain level of discussion at the show.

The TechCrunch50 conference, with its lower cost structure and more fan-boy-like audience, is a better place to pick up on the real pulse of Web innovation. It's a more exciting environment. Attendees have to work harder to find the gems, and presenters have to work harder to be heard. That's not a bad thing.

For CNET News' latest coverage from DemoFall 09, click here.