How to Laugh at a Tech Conference
A couple of weeks ago I attended Startup Grind in Redwood City, not knowing what to expect from this prominent event. I’ve realized coming to the west coast and being around Silicon Valley is that big names like Google and Facebook can make you awestruck if you’ve never been exposed to the Valley. Coming from the east coast, people speak of the Valley as some kind of Mount Olympus where the chiseled gods (or CEOs) with beautiful hair and six-pack abs drive around their Ferraris and play spin-the-bottle with people’s private information. Although you won’t see Poseidon’s trident laying around Menlo Park, some of the stereotypes that people hear about in Silicon Valley do have some real-world truth.
After walking off the bus in Redwood City, I had my own kind of 1955 Hill Valley introduction to Silicon Valley. I walked into a sunny, warm town square with restaurants, bars, and cafes bustling and people sprawling all over the place, however absent of The Chordettes’ Mr. Sandman. To put it precisely, this was a place thriving as much as any other tech conference abundant with 35–50-year-old white guys wearing backpacks, one-size-too-small polos, and sometimes a blazer. Reading glasses and face towels could have been traded and sold like a commodity as people waited in the blazing sun for free iced coffee and squinting was required to read the signs just behind startup booths.
As the afternoon slowly shifted to the evening, people migrated indoors to the last events of the day. At this point, it was almost criminal to not have at least one sticker or multi-use charger dongle from one of the startup booths. In fact, going to a conference event with startups, the attendee should expect a copious amount of random t-shirts, stickers, and other paraphernalia that will be thrown in a random drawer in the most vacant part of their house when they return home. Don’t fret though, Startup Grind wasn’t just a glorified sticker book. There was still a lot to gain as a non-tech oriented student studying entrepreneurship.
I discovered from the plentitude of startup booths pushing high-tech backpacks, collaborative workspaces, and CRM tools that startups in tech are now born into a highly competitive, monopolistic industry that is really difficult to integrate into. This is enticing to me and should be to anyone else who is interested in entrepreneurship outside of the tech industry. Silicon Valley is like a racehorse, always having a pair of blinkers on its eyes to stay focused on tech. There is so much room to differentiate yourself from others in Silicon Valley because of the tech industry’s shadow, and you don’t have to go very far to see that the norm is to feel like you belong inside of it. In fact, if you want to belong to the Bay Area in the most shallow way possible, the steps are simple:
- Purchase a Patagonia pullover/down jacket with a SalesForce insignia
- Buy a purebred dog
- Lose your life-savings paying rent on a tiny apartment in SoMa
After finishing everything at the conference, I still had several hours to kill before my bus came back. I needed to figure out how to laugh at a technology conference with middle-aged adults around me. This meant I had to look around and find something strange. When I finally reached my peak level of aimless wandering, I decided to go back through the tents. Walking through I stopped at a booth because they were the only startup that was from Ireland according to their sign (I was intrigued because I’m part Irish). I approached the woman hosting the booth, and when I asked about their sign the lady was bewildered. Everyone at the company was from and worked in Bulgaria, but she couldn’t tell me for the life of her why her sign said they were from Ireland. That’s funny.
Startup Grind is a great way to network in Silicon Valley’s tech industry if you’re into tech, I just happen to not be. Don’t let this be a criticism of tech conferences, it’s just that sometimes cut and dry events like this require you to entertain yourself. Hopefully, I provided some insight on how to do that.