Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering a steak, and the waiter asks, “Do you want that Disrupted?” Odd as it might sound, you’d almost expect to hear this considering how often some of the most well-known entrepreneurs, investors and pundits use the term “disrupt” or “disruption” to describe lots and LOTS of products and services. 

My team at Microsoft is all about startups…identifying a select number of founders and teams that we think are truly “high potential” and working closely with them to have a high-value relationship with Microsoft as they build solid products and services and a killer business that will rise above all of the noise and crush it in the marketplace.

Given that, we go to a lot of tech conferences—they’re great places to meet interesting people doing interesting things. While I’ve had the opportunity to attend lots of tech conferences in many places around the world, I particularly like the spirit of TechCrunch Disrupt (Disrupt). Why? One word…”Battlefield”.

IMO, Battlefield gets it right.  The term “disrupt” is used as a forcing function to put these startups on a path to become a lasting, sustainable business…disruptively entering a market, addressing a real need for real customers. I love the premise of the Battlefield, forcing those pitching to have crisp answers to the questions “what [market] are you disrupting?” and “how will you successfully disrupt the market”.

While at Disrupt NYC I made some observations with a "disruption" lens…thought I would share my thoughts.

The Battlefield

I’d say that overall the quality of the Battlefield contestants was very good.  There were, as always, a few I just didn't get but most of the presenting teams were pretty impressive.  Some additional color below;

- Who won

  • Uberconference.  Founded by the core team that gave us DialPad and Grand Central (became Google Voice), aims to fix the crappy conference call experience with this is a VERY elegant web/IP based conference calling solution.  Well-deserved win as the product is incredibly polished, great UX, solves a real pain and a pretty killer team already in place.  They’ve already raised $3mm from Google Ventures and essentially got an offer for more $$ from Roelof Botha from Sequoia during their finals pitch.

- Who impressed me

  • Not sure how Cardify didn’t make it into the finals; IMO, they have by far the most disruptive solution; it’s loyalty that requires next-to-zero work for either merchant or consumer. Mark my words…this one is going to be BIG.
  • I was also super impressed by Sunglass and their in-browser collaborative 3D modeling; I’ve seen a few others in this space but considering that Sunglass is Web standards-based requiring no plug-ins, the performance and capability were pretty stunning. 
  • Koemei, which enable the real-time transcription, captioning and [semantic] searchability of any video, is another game-changer.  If they can make progress with YouTube to get programmatic access to their library it will be “game over” in video search. Interesting to note that they’ve been working on this since 2003 but only now in a position to try to commercialize it.  I’m going to be watching this one for partnership announcements.
  • Ark gets the award for “most guts” as they walked away from acquisition talks with Facebook AND told everyone who would listen that they did so.  Cracking the code on people search has been the “white buffalo” in Search for years and these guys have legitimately cracked it. That said, I can’t see this as a standalone business…Search needs consolidation to draw (and retain) consumers en mass. May not be Facebook but I’ll be looking for someone to acquire these guys.

- Jury’s still out…

  • gTar had people gushing—and they continue to gush (they were at $10k at the time of their first pitch).  I can certainly appreciate how amazing what they’ve created is but I’m not convinced that this will be a giant business over the long term.  That said, the industrial design and integration of the hardware is remarkable and it’s another case study in how Kickstarter is making it easier than ever to bring a hardware based solution to market (see comment from Fred Wilson below)

Startup Alley

In addition to the Battlefield, the Startup Alley gave folks who weren’t selected for the Battlefield to pitch. I came across a few companies in the Startup Alley who stood out for various reasons;

  • Babelverse – they are taking a different tact on translation on the Web by doing what they call “language interpretation”  which combines machine translation with human review to give a fuller picture of what’s being translated; humans add things like context and checking for slang, euphemisms, dialect and colloquialisms.  I find them and Centzy particularly fascinating because of the hybrid of machine learning + human curation approach their taking to data quality; IMO we should expect to see more this.  They were the people’s choice to get promoted to pitch on stage in the Battlefield and ended up making the finals.
  • VinylMint – a platform for musicians to collaborate even if they are geographically distributed. Not sure about the business but they are built on Windows Azure/SQL Azure… always nice to serendipitously come across companies taking big bets on Azure.
  • SnapCrowd – essentially a mashup of Dropbox and [the artist formerly known as] Seadragon.  What I particularly like is (1) the way the intelligently deliver media depending on the type of device the user uses to connect to the service and (2) that they do some clever things to optimally “stream” content to the device on-demand.  They’re based in North Carolina…not a location I hear very often in my travels.

Smart insights from smart people

Lots of smart people on stage over the course of 3 days, but a handful of statements stuck out for me in terms of market trends to continue to watch. 

  • Fred Wilson made a great observation about Kickstarter (and crowdfunding in general) offering that, particularly in the case of hardware, the platform is a “futures market” for products.  We’re going to see a shift to greatly reduced upfront product engineering costs, lower marketing and carrying/inventory costs and an overall democratization of what products succeed in the marketplace (witness gTar).  Turning on “crowds” is going disrupt several marketplaces…what we are seeing now is just the beginning.
  • - Chi-Hua Chen from KPCB talked about technology is the great disruptor enabling democratization of commerce and the skills marketplace and how this is just the beginning of the disruption of big-box retail.  You no longer need a physical store and marketing overhead to draw customers to a fixed location to distribute and sell goods…with Twitter, Facebook and Square a “grandma from Kansas” can [theoretically] outsell Wal-Mart in a specific category from her basement.  Similarly, it used to be that a person with specific skills needed an employer to aggregate a bunch of similar customers at one location for a person to get paid for their skills…but with platforms like Zaarly and Cherry (you’re welcome SF/Valley folks!) , skills are easily enabled to be matched with opportunities at much higher profit.  Agree fully on both points and I think we are on the precipice of a tidal wave here. - Amongst the many great sound bites he laid down, John Lilly talked about how many founders he talks to speak of building for “mobile” and consider phones and tablets as interchangeable mobile devices; he corrects them and points out that folks like Pocket have data that shows that the usage patterns are drastically different—the implication being that you need to be smart about how—or even if—you should design an experience for each form factor. For some time now, I’ve said to anyone who’ll listen that the spoils will go to those who optimize for each of the 3 postures of computing.

Of the categories highlighted at Disrupt, I’ll be watching a few closely. I’ve been collaborating with a few interesting companies in those spaces;

Market

Who I’m Watching

What They Do and Why I’m Watching

Learning

Kinobi

Kinobi’s platform enables people to create, share and experience interactive learning using the Microsoft Kinect; they’re creating a next generation skills marketplace that enables rich, real-time feedback. There are lots of learning and skill-based companies out there but these guys are using the movement tracking and NUI experience of the Kinect to enable super interesting new scenarios to power the “skills democratization” trend.

Retail

Lemur

Lemur has built a pretty clever solution that is a hybrid Inventory Management and CRM system for retail sales associates to use on the retail floor. I like to think of it as “handheld arbitrage” for optimizing the yield of inventory relative to demand and carrying costs. Brilliant stuff. The founder Will Fuentes is a former store and district manager for Best Buy (BBY) so he has intimate, first-hand knowledge of the problem. Haven’t met a Retailer yet who isn’t very excited by this one.

Identity Networks

Follr

Follr is a service for individuals to organize their identities, content and contacts from across multiple networks into one place with a memorable web address. I think their interesting because managing online identity is the “wild wild west” and consolidation is long overdue. About.me has been the only significant play here and there’s definitely room disruption here.


Looking forward to Disrupt SF,other events and meeting more disruptors!