How I went to an event at the White House and didn’t file anything

As you might have seen on Twitter, I was at the White House Tuesday for the Obama administration’s first Demo Day. (Yes, I should have added #humblebrag to some of those tweets.) This event was both a diversity-boosting exercise for the president and a chance for the 32 startups in the spotlight, many not founded by the usual crop of twenty-something white dudes, to get some wider exposure.

White House Demo Day Obama entranceMy Yahoo colleague Alyssa Bereznak was already set to write about the diversity angle–it’s a real problem for the industry, as you can see in the testimony from some of these female and minority founders in her story. I had RSVPed after her but figured I could file something profiling some of the more interesting startups.

But then after 35 minutes spent standing the East Room of the White House and watching live video of President Obama talk to various startups in an adjacent room, then hearing Obama’s speech (key line: “the next Steve Jobs might be named Stephanie or Esteban”) and singing “Happy Birthday” to the president (it being his 54th birthday), we were all ushered out past the startups and back to the press room. Oops.

I did manage to get back in, courtesy of Alyssa and I running into a press contact we knew, but by then some of these companies had packed up their exhibits. I wound up only talking to five of them, just three of which were on my own list of exhibitors to check out, before I was again ushered out. That was less reporting time than I expected–nothing compared to last summer’s Maker Faire at the White House— and did not yield enough material for a story.

Am I bothered by that? Not really. Some of the people I did meet will be worth talking to later on, I was only out $4 and change in Metro fare, and confusing friends by wearing a suit for work was its own reward.

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Demo versus Disrupt

SANTA CLARA, CALIF.–I’ve attended TechCrunch Disrupt SF twice and DEMO Fall once, which doesn’t give me much background to judge these two pitch conferences. (The two used to happen on the same days, forcing potential attendees to pick one or the other.) Fortunately, I have no editor on this site to stop me from handing down judgments anyway.

Format: Both events take the same American-Idol-for-startups approach, in which each company gets a limited time on stage to make its pitch to the audience and a set of judges. But Demo (let’s ditch the all-caps) crams in 78 six-minute presentations by startups, while Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield only admits 30 contenders. That made for a grueling pace at Demo. But Disrupt also invites other startups to demo their products offstage–and since it’s a different lineup each day, I didn’t get to see many of them.

Another notable difference: At Disrupt, the judges quiz each startup directly, but at Demo the “sages” have their say after the presenters have left the stage. I prefer the former setup.

Selection: Disrupt seems to invite a bubblier set of startups than its older rival, put on by IDG Enterprise and the tech-news site VentureBeat. Last year’s winner at Disrupt, for instance, was an Israeli startup called Shaker that essentially provides a Facebook-confined version of Second Life–and since seems to have stalled out. Demo had less fluff but was also more boring sometimes; as a consumer-tech guy, I tuned out of most of the enterprise-IT and business-CRM presentations. (I though four interesting enough to write about in a little more detail in this Discovery News post.)

The extra wrinkle with Disrupt is the role of the CrunchFund, the investment vehicle set up by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. Although Arrington no longer runs TechCrunch–AOL kicked him out after he said he’d go back to financing startups with CrunchFund–he still spends a lot of time onstage at Disrupt. And CrunchFund companies somehow won Disrupt’s $50,000 prize this year and last year in San Francisco.

Talks: With fewer startups competing, Disrupt had a lot more time for panels and speeches. The highlight of this year’s event was Arrington’s grilling of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; the lowlight was his cringe-inducing interview of Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, which featured such challenging inquiries as “Are you enjoying life, other than the Fiji trips?” and “I kind of want you to buy an island, that would be kind of neat.” At Demo, we were treated to a mind-expanding talk by artificial-intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil; Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’s substance-starved answers to VentureBeat editor Matt Marshall’s questions were less rewarding.

Location: Disrupt takes place at the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center, a renovated warehouse in the South of Market neighborhood. Demo happens at the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency. So at Disrupt, all the nightlife is offsite, while at Demo I didn’t need to leave the hotel grounds until the last night’s party, half a block away at Citrix’s offices. The Hyatt’s neighborhood is far less interesting, but it is a short ride on the VTA light rail (plus a shuttle bus) from San Jose’s airport.

Internet access: The WiFi at Disrupt was horrible last year and only barely usable for much of this year’s conference (during the Zuckerberg interview, it pretty much cratered). At Demo, the WiFi worked almost all the time. But with 1,000 attendees versus Disrupt’s 4,000 or so (if I remember that correctly), there weren’t as many laptops and tablets to congest the airwaves.

Food and drink: No question, Demo wins this–we had three hot meals a day there, compared to Disrupt’s menu of pastries and yogurt for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and go-find-your-own dinner. It’s a push in terms of booze.

Soundtrack: Both conferences don’t exactly burnish their indie cred with their choice of music played between presentations, but Disrupt occupies its own level of hell by endlessly playing a set of techno songs commissioned for the event. Sadly, typing the previous sentence put those tunes in my head again.