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A Visit to Pandoland, Where Silicon Valley Meets Music City

I’ve lived in the Middle Tennessee area practically my entire life, and over the years I’ve seen it evolve from an oft-ignored flyover city known only for country music to a happening metropolis. There’s perhaps no better symbol of Nashville’s renaissance than Pandoland, a technology conference put together by the folks from Pando Daily, founded by Tennessee-born former TechCrunch columnist Sarah Lacy.

After my wife read about the conference’s troubles with the state (Pando Daily worked with the state last year to put on the Southland conference, a partnership that did not end well), she wanted to go to show her support. The fact that the $699 tickets were offered to her for free was also an incentive (see “Pandoland Conference Offers Free Admission for Women,” 12 June 2015). While the conference took place across two full days, we were able to make it on only the first day.

The venue for Pandoland was the Marathon Music Works, opened in 2011 in the remains of the long-abandoned Marathon Motor Car factory. It’s symbolic of the new Nashville, in which so-called hipsters have reclaimed neglected territory to found new businesses.

Pandoland was unlike any other conference I’ve ever been to. While most conferences are housed in sterile office-like environments, with closed-off rooms for various events, Pandoland has one, wide-open space, dominated by a single stage with PANDOLAND in bright lights. With three fully stocked bars serving a plethora of spirits, it felt less like a conference and more like a rock concert.

After an ample breakfast buffet (in true Southern style, you could not go hungry at Pandoland), we settled in for the morning’s events.

The keynote was given by Andy Sparks, co-founder and COO of Mattermark, a startup that researches other startups. To be honest, most of it went over my head, and I found it a bit depressing, since his rankings of the top startup cities didn’t even mention Nashville. You can read a summary of his keynote at Pando Daily.

One thing in the keynote that did pique my interest was a list of the startups Apple has acquired in the past year: OttoCat, an App Store organizer; Dryft, which makes keyboard apps; LinX Imaging, a miniature camera company, Coherent Navigation, a GPS firm; and Metaio, which specializes in augmented reality software.

After the keynote, Sarah Lacy took the stage to interview her guests. It was sort of a tech version of Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show;” Lacy confidently sipped whiskey (9 AM is a bit early for me, but I’m not judging) as a brass band welcomed the guests. They even encouraged swearing on stage, with a digital “swear jar” that charged $10 per swear, with all proceeds going to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

The first interview was with Michael Sippey, formerly of Twitter, and Marc Ruxin of Rdio, and Apple Music was a key topic of discussion. The main gist of the conversation was: how do you get people to pay for music?

“I think it’s a content thing,” Sippey said, mentioning that he subscribes to Netflix for “Orange Is the New Black” and to HBO for “Game of Thrones.” He suggested that services need to better differentiate themselves with exclusive content.

Ruxin countered that Spotify had secured an exclusive streaming license to the Led Zeppelin catalog in 2013 but over a 12-month period, a single Ed Sheeran song had been played more than the entire combined Led Zeppelin catalog. Ouch.

“The bigger problem is 35 million songs and nothing to listen to,” Ruxin said, suggesting that curation may be the key to music subscription services. If that’s true, then Apple and Beats’s combination of human-curated playlists and live radio might just be Apple Music’s stairway to heaven. (Sorry.)

There were several other interviews. Most interesting to me was James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee (which purchased one of our former sponsors, Tonx) and musician Annie Bosko, who discussed sexism in country music.

At one point, I went to get a coffee from a pop-up cafe sponsored by Braintree, a payment service that allows merchants to accept a variety of payments, such as PayPal, Bitcoin, and Apple Pay. Oddly enough, although it was promoting a payment service, the coffee was free. And the cafe’s signs offered drinks like “A Swipe of Coffee — A classic blend of credit & debit” and “Cryptocino — Espresso under a layer of creamy Bitcoin foam.” It was a scene straight out of Mike Judge’s satirical “Silicon Valley” show on HBO. But the coffee was pretty good.

Startup Competition — A major event at Pandoland is its startup competition, in which ten competing startups compete for investments from the judges — much like the TV show “Shark Tank.”

Here’s what we saw in the first round:

  • Haven, a floor-anchored smarthome door lock that can also act as a hub for other smarthome devices.

  • Expo, a service that unifies various cloud storage solutions, like Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive into a single, attractive interface.

  • Ezra’s, which claimed to be the “Etsy of craft spirits.” Given what I know about alcohol regulation, I’m amazed that this is legal.

  • Burro, which is essentially Uber for moving and home deliveries.

  • BlueLight, an app that’s sort of like a souped-up 911, automatically contacting the closest emergency responder and sharing your GPS location and other info.

Of those we saw, I agreed with Kelley Boothe of Southern Alpha that Haven was the best of the five round one contestants. However, the eventual winner was Umano, a second round company that makes clothing with designs created by underprivileged kids. The company scored a $100,000 investment from the judges.

Unfortunately, we had to leave after the startup competition, so we missed the discussion sessions that featured topics such as “Have Silicon Valley VCs lost their minds,” “What happens once weed is legal,” and “Dealing with it: Hacks for competing as a woman in a male-dominated business.” But not before we enjoyed a helping of Hattie B’s chicken.

Beyond the Valley — Overall, Pandoland was a fascinating look behind the scenes of the technology business, one that most Tennesseans would not be privy to. I’m thankful to the folks at Pando Daily for bringing it to Nashville, and I hope they come back, despite my state government’s embarrassing behavior. It would have been far easier (and likely more profitable) to put on such an event in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, I wonder how much longer Silicon Valley can remain The Valley. Increasing real estate costs are driving out many residents and making it nearly impossible for newcomers to make an impact. Who knows, maybe the future is right here in Tennessee? Housing is cheap, taxes are low, and we have plenty of water. And as the attendees of Pandoland can attest, the food is pretty good too.

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