Reflecting on Launch 2014

It’s another year, and another Launch Festival has come and gone. Another batch of hopeful entrepreneurs presented their products. Another batch of interesting interviews adeptly performed by Jason Calacanis.

The first Launch that I attended was actually last year. My friend Marcos introduced it to me (@MarcosMoralez – Go follow him on Twitter!). This year, while the venue was the same, the event somehow felt different. Has the startup space changed that much in a year? Or have I changed that much as a result of last year’s conference? Whatever the case, this year seemed more like a consumer tech show with investors present, as opposed to last year, which seemed to be more of a purely startup focused event. But seeing as how this was only the second one that I’ve attended, it’s hard to say what’s really changed.

What is Launch?

If you’ve never been to a Launch Conference before, it’s basically a gathering of people to celebrate everything about Startups. There are lots of interviews with founders and investors. There are product demos and pitches. And there are lots of bright people to talk to about what they’re working on. The Demo Pit (as it is called) has lots of new stuff on display, both new hardware and software. The side stage hosts information sessions on topics like legal advice for founders, and more. The Main Stage is where Jason works his magic. If you’ve ever watched (or listened to) an episode of This Week in Startups, you’re already familiar with his interview style. It’s a great event and it is worth attending at least once in your life.

The Simple Recap

I had started to write a more thorough breakdown of each day of the festival from my perspective. But then I read it and saw how boring it was. So to spare you from all that boring stuff, I’ll just say go watch all the videos on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/ThisWeekIn).

Here’s just some of the stuff I got to see:

(At the time of this writing, there weren’t any more of the keynotes posted. If there’s more now, go check ’em out!)

So what brought me to Launch?

I was asked this question a lot this year. Much more often than last year. I didn’t actually know what to say that didn’t sound stupid so I just explained that I came to the event last year and decided to attend again. In retrospect, that sounds kinda dumb too.

But I think a more appropriate answer is that I look at the world a lot differently today than I did a year ago, or 5 years ago, 10 years ago, and events like this fill me with inspiration and wonder, maybe more than other events I’ve attended. Technology has always interested me, ever since I was a kid messing around with my dad’s computers (our first was a TRS-80). So to be at an event where technology and the people behind it are front and center, is really a great way to get a more personal connection to what new things are coming and talk with the people who created it.

What did I take away from the event?

There are so many things you’ll hear over the course of the 3 days at Launch that it’s really hard to pin down just one thing to walk away with. So I won’t bother.

  1. Travis Kalanick (Uber) – “I heard a hundred “No’s” a day, for 6 years straight.” There were many things discussed during the opening keynote. What’s worse is that it was disrupted by the protests outside. You don’t hear it that much in the video, but it definitely got loud in the main hall. Anyway, the earlier quote was in regards to selling one of his previous companies before getting into Uber. If there’s any one thing to take from the talk, it’s Travis’ story of persistence and determination to succeed that was most valuable.
  2. Paul Graham (Y-Combinator) – “The reason it’s 3 months is because that’s summer vacation!” Taking ambitious young college students and giving them the opportunities to start companies instead of working for companies may not seem like much these days, but back in the day, no one was really doing things in this way. There are few people that can really speak from his kind of perspective. Hearing about the history of some of the (now) biggest internet properties (and how they started in his kitchen), and the legacy he leaves to all of us as he steps down from his role at Y-Combinator, it’s something we should all be forever grateful for.
  3. Jonathon Triest (Ludlow Ventures) – I’m calling this out specifically because I attended the interview with him on the side Startup Stage and even asked a question about the startup environment in Detroit. I like to think of the Bay Area as a “target-rich environment” for investors. But Jonathon is based out of Detroit, and I don’t think I need to explain the financial situation there. But he’s obviously making it work (and many others too), and it’s good to hear that good things are happening in my old hometown. I hope that there’s a lot more of that in the future, and maybe I can even contribute!
  4. Yves Behar (Fuseproject) – There were a lot of insights he had about thinking long term and how technology should strive for relevance in people’s lives (as opposed to just more features). But more importantly for me, it was one of very few chances for a designer to gain recognition from people outside the design community. Designers are certainly more than willing to pat each other on the back, and there are tons of opportunities for that. But how often do you hear about the UX designer that made your software? Software engineers get recognized for the technology they create. Founders get recognized for their business savvy or business insights. There is tons of commentary and criticism about designs out there on the web. But almost never do you really hear people praise specific individual designers for their contributions to the tech community. Jason was inquisitive and curious throughout the whole interview (which I really appreciated), and I really hope that more designers will appear on the main stage at Launch in the years to come.
  5. Naval Ravikant (Angelist) – I caught only the tail end of this panel discussion. I came late to the conference that day. But he closed the panel talk with some sage advice (that I will now poorly paraphrase). People have made lots of money by screwing people over (their co-founders for example). It’s the sad reality of the startup world where there are potentially large sums of money going around. It’s bound to happen and probably will continue to happen. And while those individuals may never have to work again, they ultimately lose out on the “compound interest” born out of nurturing strong relationships with the people around them. So the big takeaway here is to always keep in kind that, even though you may have a looming deadline to push code, it’s the relationships you forge during the act of creating things that truly matter.
  6. Mark Cuban – He is the billionaire that I now aspire to become, not because of his net worth (well, maybe a little, heh!), but because of how grounded he is. As the saying goes, money and power can have a corrupting influence on people. And there are numerous stories of that happening throughout the ages. But it was clear from the interview that there was no bullshitting around with Mark. Frank, honest, direct, and more importantly, genuine. If I am ever so fortunate to achieve at the levels that he has, I hope to stay as close to the ground as he has. It was an amazing experience to hear his perspective on investing, running a basketball team, and life in general. That, and make sure you delete your email!

Well that about wraps it up. There is lots more that I could write about, but this is a good place to stop. The Launch Conference is a crazy 3-day immersion into all things startup, and this year had a bit of extra spice with the protestors picketing outside. My sincerest thanks to Jason Calacanis (not like he’s reading this… :P) and the Launch team for putting together another amazing event. Thanks to everyone at Launch for making it an exciting event. Thanks to all the speakers for making it an inspiring event.

I’m already looking forward to next year!

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Reflecting on Launch 2014

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