DEMO Traction: A day with the future-builders

In an overcrowded world of tech symposia and expos, I was somewhat skeptical of how “new” the NEW “DEMO Traction Enterprise” event (Boston, September 16, 2015) was going to be. What a pleasant surprise! The promised convergence of investors/26 startups/prospective customers/strategic partners did take place with its own flavor. While the event organizers’ proclaimed obsession with growth was evident, what stood out to me was not any “rah rah” but the thoughtfulness of the event. You got a clear view of where investors and entrepreneurs stand in today’s consumer and enterprise space for new technologies.

The opening discussion was with Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital. Eric Schonfeld, the Executive Producer of DEMO was the ideal interviewer. He used to be Editor-in-chief of TechCrunch, and also did the Disrupt conferences. Bijan spoke about how the characteristics of the consumer and enterprise space have changed over just the last five years. Product is now first, and sales second, which was not the case earlier. Design and market fit of “beautiful” products is now the key. It is not surprising that product CEOs have been replacing business CEOs. Bijan is known for his early investments in Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and other unicorns. To hear his reasoning and see his passion for new technologies like Virtual Reality (he is a huge fan of Occulus Rift) was persuasive. Among what excites him now is drone technology in the consumer space. He sees crowdfunding as evolving to a new level, with major impact in the world of finance, medicine and other areas. For Marketers Bijan’s advice was: appreciate the difference of each platform. Don’t use the same format when the demographics of the users are different. For entrepreneurs just starting out, his message was: if you can tell the story in an organized way, you don’t need a pitch deck.

Cloudera’s Chief Architect, Doug Cutting spoke next. He talked of the data revolution that is underway and the need for society to capture and use this data, to shape its requirements for this century. He spoke of three trends: hardware availability (Moore’s law as the great enabler), data value (the need to understand data in order to improve it) and the Open Source paradigm (the new production model that people have chosen to avoid single-vendor lock-in). Doug spoke of IT as the enabler of business and data as the enabler of IT.  He then gave the Cloudera story. The quintessential “find a hard problem and solve it” was what created Cloudera, marrying Big Data and the Cloud. Offering speed and scalability for Hadoop so that enterprises could manage their data centrally was a game changer for many who had struggled to bring agility to business models. Also what Hadoop offers: affordability. For a tenth of the price, using commodity hardware, companies can get meaningful value out of data.

I was pleased to find “Bitcoin and Beyond” on the agenda. There is just so much hype and love-hate anecdotal press around bitcoin, that Jeremy Allaire’s talk was a welcome antidote. Jeremy was CEO and founder of Brightcove, and co-founder with his brother of Allaire Corp (bought by Macromedia which was then bought by Adobe) that gave us ColdFusion. He has now formed Circle, a consumer finance company disruptor that uses mobile and social technologies for users to send money: safely, instantly, and for free! It works with both iOS and Android devices. US dollars and bitcoin can both be used. We saw a demo of money sent from Jeremy’s mobile device to Eric Shonfeld and back again in a neat and simple few clicks. Clearly, this technology is a global economy enabler whose time is NOW.

On the Marketing front, the morning had a parade of insights. First, Donovan Neale-May, head of the CMO Council, spoke of the imperatives of mobile, high-connectivity data-driven marketing, with its adjacent concerns around security and privacy. Using social data and predictive analytics to find and convert leads was a focus, with many newer technologies identified. A concern voiced: that Marketer effectiveness in using data remains difficult, that ways must be found to use data well. This was taken up further in the next session team panel run by Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe. Katie Butler, Marketing Director at GE Measurement and Control, spoke of the need to find ways to leverage connected devices, the need for better user experiences and real-time customer service, and the overall requirement for value-based decision making across all assets. Atif Rafiq, SVP and Global Digital Officer at McDonalds spoke of consumers wanting transparency and the need to make time work for people. Illustrating the latter he spoke about a hospital billboard that actually shows patient wait times! Donovan Neale-May made a point about people being inundated with offers, and the need for merchants to configure custom offers and deals that are not abused. Katie spoke about predictive analysis of customer assets to improve their ability. Atif suggested that it is not enough to have just paid channels. For efficiency you need to have your own channels. Donovan suggested that smart employers use their employees’ networks for visibility, engagement, celebration. He also emphasized that localization was a new frontier. Companies must develop local content, e.g., a national bank must customize to cater to its local ethnic environment including user interfaces.

The “Traction Watch” events were the start-up-centric highlights of the morning and afternoon. There were seven themes: “Marketing Technology, “Big Data+Analytics”, “Enterprise”, “Cloud/SaaS”, “Hiring”, “Security” and “Mobile Work”. Four or so start-ups in each category were given 4 minutes each, followed by 4 minutes of Q&A from a panel of judges. Highly efficient! I have seen this approach also used successfully at Mass Innovation Nights where the questions come from the audience after each presentation. The final session of the day, before cocktails, was of course the DEMO Traction Awards ceremony for the lucky start-ups who had won. The winners: Emotient Analytics, that does real time analysis of human pre-conscious expressions for marketing research; Greenhouse, who optimize the recruiting process, LiquidPlanner, who do project management tools designed for predictive efficiency and ease of use and Treasure Data Service, who provide an analytics platform-as-a-service aimed at Big Data.

Interspersed between the “Traction Watch” sessions were additional stellar presentations. HP’s Chief Creatologist (yes, they have coined that title!) Joe Batista gave “Five Insights into HP’s Innovation Culture”. He spoke of the focus on culture (maintaining the innovation spirit), protection (new security defenses against the bad guys), immersive browsing (to understand the way people interact with the world), “business rules in the cloud” (HP fights counterfeiting using cloud infrastructure), collaboration (through leveraging of data). There was a panel discussion on “Finding New Business Growth Engines”, with American Securities, BDP International and IDG Communications represented. Crawford Del Prete, EVP and Chief Research Officer at IDC, spoke of “The Technologies Transforming the Enterprise”.  Steve Papa, who sold Endeca to Oracle for $1.1 billion, and is the founder of Parallel Wireless and an angel investor, spoke about “The Power of Data” and where he sees the data revolution headed.

Anand Sanwal, CEO and Co-founder of CB Insights spoke of “The Next Billion Dollar Startup”. Amazing insights were shared for the 110 or so “private” unicorns valued at over $400 billion. Anand was joined by Frederic Kerrest, COO and Co-founder of Okta and Dan Primack, Senior Editor of Fortune, to talk of the “Rise of The Private IPO”. A new phenomenon – but one that is gaining (dare I say it?) traction. Companies push back IPOs further out while amassing large amounts of equity through private rounds.

“Killer Demos: MIT Media Lab Startup” was talked about by Leonardo Bonnani of Sourcemap Inc., Grace Woo, Co-founder of and David Strand, President of E14 Fund Management, Inc. The demos highlighted supply chain visualizations, camera communications and other new technologies coming out of Media Lab, well known for its breakthroughs.

I didn’t go to the After Party at General Assembly, my mind saturated enough to not want any additional saturation. Driving back, I reflected on the day I had just had: a glimpse of the future being shaped and listening to the shapers of that future.