Dispatches from Disrupt

Knowledge@Wharton spent Wednesday at TechCrunch‘s Disrupt conference at Pier 94 in New York. From presenters to attendees, the message for the tech industry was about relentless creation and recreation with the ultimate goal of claiming 1999-era riches — while avoiding the glitches that led to the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

TechCrunch's Michael Arrington and Google's Marissa Mayer at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York on Wednesday.

Among the highlights:

– At Disrupt, the term “pivot,” defined as revisiting a business model to better attract interest from venture capitalists, was used almost as often as “total solution” was in 1999. Paul Graham, co-founder of incubator Y Combinator, invited hopeful start-up companies to the stage to give him their elevator pitch. Wearing shorts and a polo shirt, Graham showed genuine enthusiasm for a few of the ventures. He suggested to others, notably those in the business-to-business space, that they “pivot.” But getting feedback to “pivot” was definitely preferable to the advice he gave another company: “Start Over.” Graham also talked during the conference about the four things he looks for in a start-up: determination, flexibility, imagination and “naughtiness,” or a willingness to “do stuff that’s held together by duct tape.” (For tips on developing a strong start-up leadership team, check out this past Knowledge@Wharton interview with Wharton management professor Michael Useem.)

– An unscheduled moment came when Om Malik, founder of the tech news site GigaOM, appeared on the big movie screens hung from the hangar-like rafters of Pier 94. Interviewed via streaming video, he confirmed that he had that morning received another $6 million in VC funding, which comes on top of $8 million raised from five prior rounds. Asked why GigaOM, considered the most heavily funded online news venture, took VC money while TechCrunch, which AOL purchased for $40 million last fall, never did, Malik said while the sites are complementary, GigaOM is turning its focus toward paid content. He would not comment on rumors that GigaOM’s valuation is actually higher than TechCrunch’s was pre-purchase. He added that the money would be used to build infrastructure for his GigaOM Pro research division. (For more from Knowledge@Wharton on the paid vs. free content debate, click here.)

– David Letterman once said Hollywood is like high school with millionaires. If that’s true, then Silicon Valley is like high school with billionaires. The small-town atmosphere filled Pier 94, particularly when TechCrunch founder and co-editor Michael Arrington interviewed hybrid investor/tech executives Keith Rabois and Marissa Mayer. Rabois, famous for helping launch PayPal, and one of the first investors in YouTube and LinkedIn, said he made 45 investments last year, but was now solely focused on his latest venture, Square, where he is chief operating officer. Square allows users to process credit card payments using a smartphone or tablet. Rabois said Square — which he thinks has a “95% chance” of eventually becoming more valuable than PayPal — is targeted at small merchants who want to conduct business quickly without having to purchase expensive credit card machines. (For more on whether U.S. consumers are willing to trade in their plastic, see this past Knowledge@Wharton story.)

Meanwhile, Mayer, hired in 1999 as Google’s first female engineer and now the search giant’s vice president of location and local services, has invested in Square while also shepherding the many Google properties under her purview, including Google Places, Google Local, Google Latitude and Google Maps. While she wouldn’t reveal the percentage of total searches conducted via mobile, Mayer discussed a new search concept that offers information to users based on their movements in daily life. “Can we do a search without someone doing a search?” she asked. “From your context, where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, can we give you just the right piece of information?”

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