Photo credit: Dan Taylor, Heisenberg Media
What happens when you mix Twitter and an ancient form of Japanese poetry? For me the result was a ticket to TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the most anticipated tech conferences in the world. Girls in Tech had a ticket to give away to the finest tweeter, and so the task of producing a 140 character tour de force came about. So into the frenzied stream I sent forth what would be the most successful 17 syllables of my life so far, praise be to the ever-efficient haiku:
‘For it’s in the name –
Tech Han goes insane for this.
Help the finalist.’
A few hashtags and a couple of days later, I found myself on a train down to London from Durham, where I’m currently finishing my degree. Having worked in a Parisian tech startup last year, I knew that Disrupt was a big deal. It’s like the tech world’s most dangerous concoction of fresh startups, groundbreaking innovation and big-name speakers (with a healthy helping of VCs on the side) ready to shift the scene… which makes for one pretty exciting conference.
Amidst the sea of Macbook Airs, I sat and listened to some really inspiring talks over the two days. To name just one, Neelie Kroes, the outgoing European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda. This remarkable woman who has worked wonders for the European digital age, including making substantial progress towards creating a single European telecoms market, spoke encouragingly to the startup community, urging ‘all those youngsters who have interesting business models’ to apply for EU funding.
Another of my favourite speakers was Michael Acton Smith, the founder of kids entertainment company Mind Candy. Acton Smith could be described as the Russell Brand of the tech world, but underneath his eccentric demeanour is a serious business mogul, whose company was valued at $200 million in July 2011. That said, Acton Smith talked honestly about the difficulties his company has faced of late, with a significant drop in revenues and cuts of almost 50% to his workforce. But he insisted that being an entrepreneur is a mixed bag: ‘There are crushing lows and soaring highs… it’s exciting and terrifying, but it’s the best job in the world.’
One of Disrupt’s most famed elements is the Startup Battlefield, which sees a select few startups pitching to become Disrupt’s annual winner. It was so fun to watch small groups of motivated individuals from all over the world presenting their new ideas. To name a few, I thought Lobster seemed smart – a marketplace that allows you to buy images from social media platforms for commercial use. I also liked IO, a social concierge offering lifestyle and travel recommendations that talks to you in a messenger app (if you’ve seen the film ‘Her’, you know what I mean). But the Battlefield’s winner saw the great German guys and their brainchild, Crate.io (a service to set up big data backend servers), take away the £30,000 cheque and the Disrupt Cup.
If you’ve caught wind of HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’, then you might already have a visual idea of what Disrupt looks like, thanks to their parody at the end of season one. I kid you not, HBO’s version isn’t too far from the truth. The buzz and the feeling that the people at the conference actually have the power to ‘disrupt’ the status quo is real. I loved every minute of the two-day whirlwind, and being amongst some of the most influential people in the tech world was an incredible opportunity for me. About 250 tweets and a train-ride later, I’m now back in my quiet university town of Durham, wondering whether it was all a dream. I met some wonderful people working on some really great projects, who I hope to get properly involved with when I graduate in June. In the meantime, it’s back to Twitter, and back to my dissertation.