Jason Calacanis is Willy Wonka

I've always had trouble understanding Jason Calacanis's rationalizations for DemoPit, the sleaziest part of the TechCrunch40 conference. Calacanis and his partner-in-wasting-time, TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, launched the conference promising not to charge companies to demonstrate, as other startup conferences did. But then Calacanis turned around and announced DemoPit, a side room for also-rans to hawk their Web-based wares. He snuck in the news that the 100 DemoPit participants would have to buy a ticket — a sneaky way to charge, after all, for the right to demonstrate. Taking into account all the direct costs, Calacanis should turn a tidy profit on the sideline, I calculated. When I called him on it, Calacanis blustered and blathered, calling me a "pariah" for daring to question him. Charming. But then I figured it out: Jason Calacanis is Willy Wonka, the magical candyman. And the DemoPit participants are his Oompa Loompas.


Why? Well, Calacanis has realized the flaw in his DemoPit plan. No one, of course, is going to stray from the main ballroom to go into the DemoPit. Why would they? The conference is called the TechCrunch40, not the TechCrunch140. So he sweetened the pot by promising a slot in the top 40 to one lucky DemoPit participant.

Does this remind anyone else of Wonka's Golden Ticket? Calacanis sells his overpriced, bad-for-you, junk-food sweet by promising something fun. Suddently the DemoPitters aren't buying a conference ticket — they're buying a lottery ticket. And damn the odds — they're all convinced that they alone deserve the prize.

Of course, none of the startups are actually Charlie Bucket, or even Violet Beauregarde or another of Wonka's less-fortunate guests. They're Oompa Loompas, working to line Calacanis's pocket. It's a brilliant business move for Calacanis, of course, if completely at odds with his promises not to profit from the startups his conference showcases.

As with Wonka, when Calacanis shows up, a magical river of something chocolate-colored begins to flow.