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Thousands of Entrepreneurs Gather for "American Idol" of Tech Conferences

"Can I give you a demo? Really quick?"

Launch Media, LLC/Flickr

The Monday night dinner was a private pre-Launch festival event for investors and select entrepreneurs. But Arjun Rai wasn’t going to let cocktail party decorum hold him back.

Wearing an iPad harness around his chest, the 22-year-old entrepreneur methodically worked the Butterfly restaurant in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Sunday night, where the startup festival’s founder, Jason Calacanis, and his 60 angel-investor friends, were a patient audience.

“You have to differentiate yourself at a conference this big. You gotta get your startup T-shirt on. Gotta get your harness,” said Rai, who bought his own tablet rig online for $60, and said he would be in Row 3, Table 11, in the startup’s “demo pit.”

“Tomorrow’s gonna be insane: 10,000 people, one true hustler.”

Earlier this week, Calacanis produced his fourth and largest annual Launch Festival, an enormous scrum at the Concourse Exhibition Center, where thousands of companies launch simultaneously while investors watch and judges vote on winners. Unlike most tech conferences, Launch is paid for by investors — and completely free for entrepreneurs. Startups who successfully launch at the event each receive between $10,000 and $250,000 in funding after their presentations, by Calacanis’s estimation.

“If you think about what entrepreneurs need — they need to raise money, get customers and find employees. It’s all here,” said Calacanis, a longtime entrepreneur who sold Weblogs to AOL in 2005. “I’ve lowered the barrier to Silicon Valley. Suddenly it’s: ‘Fill out a form and you get to meet the most powerful people in the technology industry.'”

At the dimly lit Butterfly, investors and entrepreneurs mingled by the bar and sat at long, communal wooden tables to eat duck and scallion pancakes.

James Brooks, the producer of “The Simpsons,” had come up from Los Angeles for the event and was immediately shocked how few women there were in the crowd. He asked if that was normal.

It was, most everyone agreed. (In one of his efforts to fix this imbalance, Calacanis hosted a dinner for women entrepreneurs on Tuesday night.)

Calacanis, who spends days before the festival coaching entrepreneurs in how to pitch, has attained a sort of mythical status among them.

“Jason cares more about startups than anyone else,” said 30-year-old entrepreneur Tom Williams. “His motivation is so pure, so good.”

“The events take on the personality of the host,” said Jason Shellen, founder of something called The Secret Agency. “And Jason just likes the idea of connecting his well-connected friends with those who are less connected. He does it because he likes the idea of it.”

Because the whole thing is free — other tech conferences can cost upward of $5,000 — Launch feels to many of them like the people’s tech festival.

“It’s a little bit like ‘American Idol.’ Who’s gonna be the unknown who breaks through?” said Josh Stein, a managing director at VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. “Instead of, ‘Who’s gonna make Jack Dorsey more famous.'”

Mats Degerstedt, the 25-year-old co-founder of social music site, said the camaraderie built through pitch training was powerful.

“We’re all soldiers,” he said. “We’re in the trenches together. We don’t sleep. We run on Red Bull and this insane delusion that we’ll be in the five percent who make it.”

An angel investor walked over to order something from the bar, and Degerstedt instinctively pivoted to start pitching.

“If you’re a startup, then this is the championship,” said 26-year-old Madison Hamman, who flew in from Kentucky to launch his job-reviews startup, called Candid.

Someone’s phone was set on the table, with a new dating app open. The screen showed rows of little boxes, with looped videos of women smiling and waving in each one.

As Monday night ended, most of the investors had left, while the young entrepreneurs lingered by the open bar. Calacanis stopped by on his way out: “No drinking! I want all my children home in bed early!”

At the festival on Wednesday, pitch-wary entrepreneurs stood at long rows of booths with their laptops, props and snacks (Kit Kat bars, cupcakes, saltwater taffy). They had heard investor Mark Cuban talking with Uber founder Travis Kalanick onstage; they’d had their startups judged by venture capital legend Tim Draper and Re/code co-Executive Editor Kara Swisher (the festival winner was Connect, an address book app that connects to social networks). And they were still pitching.

Candid founder Hamman, who had been at Monday’s private dinner, said his work that week had paid off. His startup, which allows employees to score their companies from one to 100 based on factors like pay, benefits and happiness level, had been getting interest from angel investors.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said “You have to be a crazy to want to be an entrepreneur, but when you get so many of us all together, you realize you’re part of something. Can I give you a demo? Really quick?”

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