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Secrets of the Code Conference

 

BradAnimoto

Entrepreneur’s dream: Animoto’s Brad Jefferson with Walt Mossberg

One of the perennial marketing conundrums facing start-up CEOs is picking the best industry conferences to attend to boost their companies’ brands and expand their networks. This week, some lucky entrepreneurs dropped in on what may be the gold standard for tech-industry confabs: The Code Conference.

Held at a swanky, oceanside resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. this week, the Code Conference—formerly known as the D conference, when it was run by Dow Jones—drew the usual tech glitterati, plus actual celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow, who delivered a somewhat awkward essay about anonymous and mean-spirited postings on the Internet (a topic for another time). Most of the event featured the usual collection of tech-industry bigwigs answering questions about their companies and broader industry trends: Brian Krzanich from Intel, Satya Nadella from Microsoft, Marc Benioff from Salesforce and the obligatory Apple executives–this year, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi. They appeared alongside Jimmy Iovine, whose Beats Electronics was purchased by Apple this week for $3 billion.

In fact, many of the speakers and attendees hailed from large enterprises that today’s venture-backed startups are trying to disrupt. The conference program listed eight attendees from Microsoft, for instance, and nine from Qualcomm; the private-company CEOs onstage represented relative heavyweights like Uber and Dropbox.

“Unlike a lot of the other tech conferences out there, this really is more of a big-company conference,” said Travis Katz, the CEO of VC-backed, online travel-planning company Gogobot. He chatted briefly with Powered by Battery during a coffee break on Wednesday.

So then what’s the allure for smaller-company execs like him, particularly given the conference’s $6,500 price tag?

Katz and others said the presence of so many executives from technology’s old guard at Code is beneficial from a business-development standpoint, since the conference offers the chance to forge new business partnerships and reinforce existing ones.

“It’s good to fortify those (existing) relationships,” said Brad Jefferson, CEO of online-video company Animoto, who attended this year. He added that the overall networking was “top notch”.

The informal nature of the event—most attendees, even from the highest-profile companies, mingle during breaks and eat meals with the group—means there’s a chance to have long conversations with other CEOs, venture capitalists and wise tech stars. Jess Lee, the CEO of online-fashion site Polyvore, noted that she ate dinner Tuesday night next to Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit who now serves as chairman of the company’s executive committee. Lee chatted with Cook about his role as a director of eBay and even snapped a selfie with him. “It’s been amazing,” she said.

The overall conference format also differs from most others, with participants being grilled in one-on-one (or one-on-two) interviews onstage by hosts Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. The setup generally yields fairly candid comments from executives and often generates news. This year, Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son made the case for his company to buy competitor T-Mobile US (which could raise antitrust concerns), while Intel showed off a new “smart shirt” and Google announced a prototype for a completely self-driving car.

Of course, the experience doesn’t come cheap, or hassle-free. In addition to the steep registration fee, competition for hotel rooms at the resort was also brisk. Some attendees grumbled about staying in humbler digs miles away. And, of course, those who didn’t sign for the conference within a few hours of registration opening in January didn’t get a spot.

Sam Shank, co-founder and CEO of mobile hotel booking app HotelTonight, made the cut. He praised the quality of the attendees as well, noting that start-ups seeking new financing or even new board members could use the conference to their advantage, given the large number of VCs and longtime tech operators attending.

But he also said the event offered a somewhat unique opportunity for smaller-company executives to see their larger, super-successful brethren in a new light. “These guys are acting so casual—they’re accessible,” he said. He might have been referring to Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin, who wore a white T-shirt and Crocs during his very relaxed, opening-night interview, and spent part of Wednesday in shorts.

It was refreshing to hear the big-time CEOs and company founders discuss their companies’ problems and learn that many of them relate to the same issues vexing smaller companies, Shank said—recruiting, dealing with product snafus, etc. Uber Co-Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick talked about not taking a salary for four years and living at home with his mother, which he said didn’t do wonders for his dating life.

“You look at these companies from a distance and they look like fortresses,” Shank said. But after listening to many of the speakers, plenty of Coders said they learned otherwise, and will be back next year for more schmoozing and learning.

Rebecca Buckman

Rebecca is Battery's vice president of communications and content.

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