The expo war over startups

First, a disclaimer. I’m a judge on TechCrunch 50, but not getting paid by TC50.

Last week while I visited the IFA expo in Berlin, Germany (a huge consumer electronics show) I was traveling with a bunch of journalists. Stephen Wildstrom from BusinessWeek. Harry McCracken (formerly of PC World). Eric Lundquist from eWeek. Larry Magid from CBS News. Nicholas Deleon from CrunchGear.

The talk last week in the evening? Other than politics? Well, it was the upcoming Demo vs. Techcrunch event choices they are having to make. The consensus around the table was that they would probably be going to Demo (not everyone was, but a majority was).

Why is that? Well, there’s a lot of loyalty among this group to the Demo conference. They’ve been going for years. They like Chris Shipley. They like the event. Plus, the old school likes to hang out together, the same way us new school types like to hang out at SF parties and tech events around the world. Look at attendee lists of people on my’s tech event calendar and you won’t see many of these journalists attending many of the newer parties or going to SXSW.

Another factor? Several mentioned they didn’t like Mike Arrington and Jason Calacanis’ decision to put TC50 on the same dates as Demo. They saw this as an attack on something and someone they like (Demo and Shipley).

But, I did notice that change is in the air. A couple said they are still deciding which one to attend. Why? Because CTIA (a sizeable mobile show) is also in San Francisco that same week. And Office 2.0 is the week before. So, there’s a huge pull to San Francisco that is hurting Demo as well, even if you forget the fight with TC50.

Look at the numbers of people who say they are going to these two events on (which is the best place to guage where the early adopters/influentials/passionates in the tech community are going). Demo? 71 people have saved the event. Only 6 of my friends say they are going. TC50? 274 people have saved the event. 34 of my friends say they are going. The new school has spoken and they are going to TC50.

That, alone, will cause the kind of PR that new companies will want.

But it goes back to the stick that Mike Arrington has in his hands that Chris Shipley does not have: the Techcrunch blog.

See, if you are in tech PR you do not want to spurn Mike Arrington. Why? Because a typical PR person will help several companies a year to launch. Imagine that you decide to take your companies to Demo. Will they get coverage in TechCrunch? The chances are less and the PR people know it (Arrington has thrown out stories from companies that let other blogs or journalists go out with news first, so they know there’s consequences for not playing Mike’s game).

This fight and the stick in Arrington’s hand is making everyone in the industry pick sides, which gets back to the journalists above. They are feeling uneasy. Uneasy enough to talk about this over beers.

Don’t expect Shipley to give up without a fight, though. She’s already partnered with popular blog ReadWriteWeb to produce several sessions and Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg are hosting an event there too (they host the D Conference).

Finally, this is hardly the only fight over startups going on in the industry. There are a ton of events who need startups to choose them to build their businesses. Here’s a rundown:

Showstoppers. Their big show is at CES, the annual consumer electronics show. They bring hundreds of companies to the world’s top press and bloggers.
Pepcom. They do the Digital Experience series of events at the Consumer Electronics’ show as well as the MobileFocus at the upcoming CTIA show.
Office 2.0. This is where a raft of new services are launched for the new worker.
Under the Radar. A great small show designed for early stage companies to get access to VCs and influentials.

I spent a lot of time last week with the three brothers who put on the Showstoppers series of expos, which has been very successful at getting both old-school big-name tech journalists like Mossberg to show up as well as the new school Engadget and Gizmodo teams.

They gave me some real insights for startups and how to build hype that’ll be up on a video on FastCompanyTV soon, but co-founder Steve Leon said that startups are really being forced to think strategically about which events are best for them to attend. His secret weapon? Be nice and make sure that both press and new companies have the best experience at his shows. He told me that while it’s a competitive business he often guides companies to other shows where they’ll have a better outcome than his own show.

Then there’s the other school of thought, which is that you don’t need to launch at one of these shows at all. Laurent Haug tells me about when we launched CoComment with this simple blog post from a Swiss Chalet. He wasn’t planning on that (he didn’t have his PR team’s approval), but got tens of thousands of signups in the first 24-hours. Or, how we launched Qik from an Apple store without even having a company employee present. Proves you can always launch a new company, even by accident.

Anyway, I’ll be at the Office 2.0 Conference this week and TechCrunch 50 and CTIA next week. See you there and keep the news coming!