Sometime early last year (2010), Dealmaker Media CEO Debbie Landa reached out to me and asked if I would agree to co-host the springtime edition of her Under The Radar conference in Silicon Valley. There are two editions of "UtR": in the Spring, it's all about the cloud computing and in the Fall, the focus is on mobile.
The pretense of the conference is for the founders of startups in both the spaces to garner the attention of attending CIOs to see if maybe their innovations could play a role in keeping corporations on the leading edges of their industries. The venture community comes and lurks like an elephant in the room at UtR. That's because they know that corporate interest is one of the first indicators of a startup that could fill their coffers with gold bullion.
But the conference's pretense alone is a bit of risky proposition. If there's any single group of technologists that moves slowly and that prefers to stay with established, proven providers of technologies, it's CIOs. The old phrase "you never get fired for going with IBM" comes to mind. While that phrase doesn't exactly hold true anymore, metaphorically, the sentiment is still very real.
The way Sharepoint spreads like a weed where other, more innovative solutions (to the same problems that Sharepoint solves) exist is an example. Substitute "Microsoft" for "IBM" and maybe later "Google" for "Microsoft." Those of us who influence big technology decisions (and, as chief content officer for TechWeb, I'm now one of "us") get a little nervous around startups. We need to know that there'll be a throat left to choke when things get dicey (or at the very least, you'll have access to the intellectual property).
So, when Landa first invited me to come to UtR to emcee roughly half the sessions, it was a test of my assumptions that I couldn't refuse. I needed to know not just for myself, but for the sake of TechWeb's business technologist-oriented media properties like InformationWeek, Network Computing, and Dark Reading if there were CIOs out there who were willing to go out on a limb with startups.
Fast forward. Since co-hosting the first event, I couldn't wait to co-host the second Fall event (focusing on mobile technology) and now with that one behind us, Landa and I have roped InformationWeek editorial director Fritz Nelson into co-hosting the upcoming Spring/Cloud edition of UtR on April 28 in Silicon Valley.
What I saw and learned at the last two UtRs blew me and my assumptions away. The truth is that the worlds of mobile and cloud computing are moving at such lightspeed, that for some CIOs, the only choice is to go with the very startups that are fueling that momentum. Otherwise, the risk is that they'll get left behind. Now, this isn't to say that you should go and toss out all of your existing infrastructure and reconstitute it from nothing but technologies from startups. But what I am saying is that when it came to very targeted initiatives for which there was no incumbent solution provider (eg: tying mobile e-commerce to a social networking strategy), there was no shortage of CIOs and executives from giant household name brands that were in attendance at UtR, doing business with startups.
In fact, pretty much every entrepreneur that presented ended their presentation with a slide that listed their current customers. Few if any weren't doing business with at least one big name brand. In fact, not only did I walk away from the last UtR with all of my assumptions thoroughly torn to shreds, I walked away with the business cards of some entrepreneurs who may very well play a role in the direction that TechWeb takes when it comes to social badging in our communities and events. Most all of the promising startups in that space presented at the last UtR.
The upcoming UtR will showcase of 25 or so cloud startups. Like many of the entrepreneurs to have taken the UtR stage before, some of them will make it, others not. One cloud startup that first presented at UtR -- the rails-in-the-cloud provider Heroku --recently broke the bank when it was acquired by Salesforce.com. Another UtR alum and cloud outfit that is destined for stardom is Rightscale. Each year, before UtR wraps up, Landa invites selected alumni back to share with everyone in the room their tales of takeoff -- that point at which they're simply too successful to call themselves a startup anymore. All because some forward-thinking CIOs decided to take some risks. Risks that ultimately paid-off for them and the startups like Heroku and Rightscale that they relied on.
So, I'll be back, along with Fritz, hosting Under the Radar again on April 28. I will be opening the conference by interviewing Chris Weitz, Director of Deliotte about the growing disconnect between IT departments and various business units in the enterprise as a result of the increasing consumerization of the cloud.
After the opening interview, it will be the startups' turn to take the stage and pitch their ideas American Idol-style to various panels of judges that Landa and her team have hand-picked from the technology ranks of corporate America. The dialog is open, candid, and highly informative to everyone (technology decision makers and venture capitalists alike) in the room. Entrepreneurs usually leave the stage knowing whether they're onto something big (or knowing they have to go back to the labs for an adjustment).
The room fits about 400 people and there's still time for startups to apply to present. And, if you want to nominate a judge (CIO, CTO or VP level) to assess startups on stage, let the Under the Radar team know by visiting the UtR contact page. Hope to see you there!
David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).
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