MicroConf Europe 2015
I've just arrived home from my third MicroConf and I am emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. I was going to write the conference up as a token article on the blog just to build a bit of writing momentum, but it was such an intensely personal experience that I want to write out in detail what I took away this year.
This article isn't a summary of all the talks at Microconf. It would be pointless to write as there's no way I could do it better than Christoph already has. Instead I'm going to talk about the impression it left on me rather than the content itself.
Everyone that goes to MicroConf is at different stages of their journeys, so what resonated with me probably isn't what resonated with the next founder at the conference. There was a lot to take in and a lot of raw, personal content. The following is a summary of about half of what I took away from the conference. All of the talks were spectacular, but these are the ones that hit me the hardest this year.
Sherry Walling gave a talk titled Limits and Liabilities: How to Use Where You Come from to Get Where You’re Going. The talk went into detail about the stories of well-known founders, what their childhoods were like and how it made them the people they are today.
The talk got me thinking about what motivates me. For as long as I can remember, I've been motivated by being told I can't do something. Here are some examples:
- You can't have a happy, non-arranged marriage.
- You can't make a decent living as a web developer.
- You have terrible communication skills.
- You can't run a successful company remotely.
- You can't start a successful company without help on the "business side".
These are all things that:
- a) Someone told me I couldn't do and
- b) I have in fact done, and done reasonably well
Conversely when it comes to writing a book or shipping a product, I've been given mountains of help, encouragement and re-assurance that I can do it. There's no one to prove wrong because the community around MicroConf has been so supportive. I honestly thing that if I actually ship something, it will be because someone has expressed doubts at my ability to do so.
There are two motivating factors that are in fact pushing me harder this year towards shipping a product.
Firstly, I get the feeling that no one really believes that I can run a consultancy and a product business. The assumption is always that I'm going to ramp the consultancy down and focus on a product. I'm willing to give running both at the same time a try, partly because I think it's possible and partly because I feel like a lot of people don't believe I can do it.
Secondly, I don't want to be an attendee that comes to MicroConf every year having shipped hardly anything. When people I've known for years ask me "what's going on with you?" I want to have something substantial to tell them. I'm not afraid of trying something and failing. I'm far more worried about coming back year after year and still being a spectator.
The real difference between a product business and a consultancy
The typical conversation with other attendees at MicroConf involves sharing what we're working on now. We're also very likely to share our revenue/profit numbers because that's just the sort of conference it is. In that conversation, Happy Bear Software sounds fantastic on paper.
Alex Yumashev gave a talk about his story, what he's working on advice for others on the same path. When listening to him speak, I realised that he spends his whole day working on his business. His main metric for success is a month-on-month percentage increase in revenue.
That's the real difference between a consultancy and a product company. To scale up revenue I have to go through a sales process, go through a hiring process and put a lot of investment into finding and keeping new clients. If I'm lucky I'll be able to systemize some of that process. With a product my entire job would be to tweak the inputs and outputs of a system that generates revenue. This is a much less stressful and more forgiving way to increase revenue.
There were a lot of other great little takeaways from Alex's talk:
- Don't sit around waiting for a good idea. Start building and shipping things and the ideas will come to you.
- Making copycat software is fine, don't make the newest shiniest thing that's going to change the world.
- Log all marketing changes. When e.g. organic traffic changes, you'll know if it's because it's something you did.
Rob Walling gave a talk called The Inside Story of Self-Funded SaaS Growth. He talked about his company Drip and how they worked towards achieving a thing called "product-market fit".
The done thing at Microconf is to share revenue numbers and this is exactly what Rob did. In the talk he showed the early monthly sales numbers for Drip and how growth stagnated for a long time before he was convinced it was a viable business. The problem was that there was no "product-market fit". That's a fancy word for saying that he hadn't built something that people actually wanted. Before product-market fit, churn is high and revenue growth stagnates without a lot of effort.
When Rob decided to go all-in with "email marketing automation", he saw churn reduce and revnue growth increase consistently. This to him was an indicator that he'd built something that people actually wanted. To get there he had to ask users why they left, figure out what "marketing automation" was and make the decision to focus his product on it.
The Humane Company
Peldi Guilizzoni is one of my heroes. I managed to meet him in person this year without putting my foot in my mouth and got a Balsamiq sticker. His talk this year was phenomenal. He asked that we don't discuss the details publicly, but to summarise it was about the rollercoaster that running your own business is, including details of many of the lows.
This meant a lot to me because it mirrors my own experiences. Some days things are going well and I'm able to focus on the good I can do in the world through my company. On the other hand on some nights I'm pacing back and forth in my living room nervously trying to figure out whether we can make payroll this month. We'll get fired by a client and I'll quietly start to doubt my abilities. We'll land a new deal and I'll be over the moon again. Knowing that one of my heroes goes through the same thing helps me accept it as normal and reminds me that I need to manage my own mental health while experiencing all of it.
At various points in his talk, Peldi talked about the internals of his company. There were some great takeaways here:
- Flat structure isn't always that great. Humans naturally organise into hierarchies so a shadow structure emerges with no accountability.
- Kaizen meetings. Regularly meeting with your staff to discuss improvements to your business.
- Physical exercise. Employees at a company should be gently encouraged to do exercise because it has so many benefits.
This and other points he mentioned in the talk point to a style of company management I'm calling "The Humane Company".
Derek Sivers wrote a book called "Anything you like". In it he talks about how when you start a company, you create a little kingdom built on your own rules and values. It can be a happy place where everyone gets along, a miserable prison filled with humiliation and distrust or anything in between. Your personal philosophy and feeling towards fellow human beings is externalised and amplified when you start a company with employees. Your mindset becomes the world that they will live in.
When Peldi talks about his company, you get the impression that he genuinely cares about his employees and wants to do right by them.
He makes it clear that he trusts them to do a good days work and doesn't care what time they do it. He specifies a minimum of paid leave that you have to take to make sure everyone gets time off. He encourages his employees to exercise regularly so they stay healthy and productive. There are no deadlines (unless they might be useful) because they're arbitrary. These are a lot of the things I'd like for the employees at my company too. I noticed that our internal company wiki's are very similar.
I tried to have a word with Peldi afterwards and was surprised at how difficult to understand this was for the other attendees questioning him. Won't they just sit around watching TV all day? How can you get anything done without deadlines and ship dates? It reminded me how rare this sort of company is thanks to commonly accepted expectations of how work is supposed to be.
The "hallway track" is the conversations you have with attendees at Microconf. This is less of a big deal with other conferences. Developers get to talk shop with other developers all the time. Small technical business owners on the other hand almost never see each other. For the general public their jobs are almost completely unfathomable. For technicians like designers, developers, marketers etc that aren't interested in the "business side" their jobs are boring. There's almost no one around to speak to that understands the career path of a small technical business founder.
Microconf is the only chance we get, so we end up having to pack an entire year's worth of shop-talking into one weekend. The drinks receptions and lunch-breaks are a blur. You meet everyone from full-time employees dabbling with the idea of starting their own products to completely unassuming founders of small, million-dollar businesses that you've never heard of. It's a conveyer belt of amazing, eye-opening, inspiring conversations that you can dip in and out of as you see fit.
The conference organisers have absolutely outdone themselves with their choice of host city this year. The weather is terrific and the food is unreasonably good in Barcelona. On the first night we ate tapas-style at a seafood restaurant, drank good wine and I ended up staying up until around four AM talking with other founders about their journeys. On the second night I was exhausted, so went for a quiet dinner with few friends to a restaurant in town before jumping back into the fray. We ate and drank so much that I thought the bill would be a couple of hundred euro's each. It turned out to be 25 EUR a head.
By the second afternoon I was almost completely overwhelmed with the talk content and the conversations I was having. While the other attendees were busy carrying on with networking and chatting, I sat quietly in the conference room with a coffee trying to digest everything I'd learned. I had at least three different product ideas swimming around in my head and was trying to match them up with my current business plan. I had a todo-list as long as my arm to work through (though I still have the todo-list from Microconf Vegas 2013 unfinished). I also know that I need to focus and ship. It's going to take some time to synthesize everything I've learned this year.
I have a plan now. It's not all that different to the plan going into Microconf, but it's a plan nonetheless. It involves going to Microconf again next year. If it's 10% as good as this year it will have been worth the trip.
: It turns out Charlie picked up the wine bill.