Lessons from Disrupt SF

Last week TechCrunch hosted Disrupt SF, one of the start-up tournaments that are really worth following because they can at the same time reveal and determine trends in digital entrepeneurship, given how much VCs are subject to the bandwagon effect.

There was no real groundbreaking innovation (assuming we can tell one when we see it, and I know that at least with Twitter I didn’t), but a few considerations can still be drawn.

Linkedin is the Godot of the Web 2.0. It has the scale, the resources, the talent and a clear set of users cases, but everyone’s still waiting for its true coming. It seems like some people are tired of waiting, and Namesake, Opzi, Sumazi and Gild are all trying to take advantage of some of its shortcoming and carve their own (hopefully) profitable niche. None of them pose any threat whatsoever, but Linkedin better sorts itself out before it makes any real plans to go public.

Virtual currency is still a tad too virtual: the technology is here and is getting better by the day (MobilePay USA doesn’t require a physical accessory like Square does), but noone seems to be able to put the right infrastructure in place to generate mass adoption. The elephant in the room is Facebook credits: it could really be a game changer, but by doing that it would lock almost any other player out, so it’s easy to see why some entrepreneurs are trying to cash in while they can. I’d be curios to see if mobile operators and banks will let a newcomer disrupt their business like the music industry did, or if they’re going to do something serious about it. (By the way, I also wonder what the Fed, the ECB and other central banks think about this.)

Check-ins are the most popular answers to questions nobody asked. Inspired by Foursquare, there are now zillions of startups that ask you to check in everywhere: check into websites (Badgeville, OneTrueFan), shops (Checkpoints), and even individual products, maybe in exchange for comics featuring a supposedly-witty dragon (if you don’t believe me check out Snapdragon). The problems with all these services is that they’re meant to address commercial interests and not user needs: that’s why they have to come up with artificial rewards (aka bribery). However, bribery is not enough to get people to adopt new tools: I may tweet what I’m having for breakfast if and when I feel like it, but I’m not going to install an app and check into my cereals in exchange for a badge and a funny comic. Sorry, I have better things to waste my life on.

All in all, too many start-ups want to cash on a business need, so they create a new product and then try to devise reasons why people should use it, while it should really be the other way around. It seems like they would benefit from a business 1.0 lesson: “Marketing is producing what you can sell, not selling what you can produce”.

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