Jun 09

I just got back from Microconf in Vegas and wanted to do a brain dump of some thoughts while they’e still fresh. This was an outstanding event in every way – killer speakers, high quality of attendee & flawless execution. I highly recommend (provided Rob and Mike decide to do this again next year) that any single founder or bootstrapped company attend.

Takeaways

This was a 2-day deal with some top-notch speakers. As is always the case with these types of events though the real value is in the hallway and meal conversations. I was fortunate to meet some super duper cool cats & dogs. As far as nuggets of actionable advice, I noted a couple from the various talks:

  • Ramit showed the scientific approach he takes to understanding his customers’ problems and objections via increasingly specific surveys and systematic testing on the site. His testimonials are all surgically placed to address the objections he uncovers via testing. This wasn’t earth shattering but he hammered home the value of a methodical approach to unearthing your customers’ problems and thinking in those terms vs. selling the features of your product. I’m looking forward to implementing some of his ideas on how to conduct killer surveys.
  • I finally got to meet Sean Ellis whom I’ve followed for about the last year and a half. I love his philosophy of mandating that you achieve a certain level of measurable product market fit before ramping marketing. Think of it almost like a type of “escape velocity” in that you don’t leave orbit and apply the rocket fuel until you’ve achieved this “must have” level of affinity from at least 40% of your user base. He dropped a nugget in passing that I thought was very insightful. He said “You can increase the gratification of your users without even changing the existing product simply by identifying what they perceive to be the core value and stripping all messaging down to that essence.”
  • Hiten is my hero and is the lyrical gangsta of funnel analysis and conversion optimization. He dropped some pure gold with his presentation on the various lessons he’s had in building Crazy Egg, Kiss Insights and Kiss Metrics. For people already immersed in the Customer Development movement it wasn’t anything new but it was a great orientation for the folks who weren’t familiar with that framework. He pulled together a neat bundle of resources which I plan to go through soon. He also inspired me to re-implement Kiss Metrics and get a firm grasp on exactly where we’re losing people in the funnel. If you’re not following him and Kiss Metrics on Twitter you’re doing yourself a disservice as it’s the best curated fountain of useful techniques for young startups. One audience member during Hiten’s talk shared what I thought was an ingenious cheap/elegant hack for getting early CustDev feedback on an app: post an ad in the jobs section of Craig’s List for the industry role you’re targeting and solicit input either via a survey or a physical focus group.
  • Noah blew our mind with hot sauce. If you weren’t there we’ll just have to leave it at that. But there was literally Sriracha flying.
  • The website teardowns were one of my favorite parts. They picked apart the sites volunteered by attendees and walked through what could be improved. It was hugely interesting to hear their take on the flaws and the rationale for how/why/what to change.
  • The Pluggio guy, BuySellAds guy, Rob Walling and Mike Taber all gave great presentations worth noting.

In all it was a superb event that I would highly recommend to anyone contemplating attending. The one format change I would propose is to break up the lineup of back-to-back speakers all day by interspersing some type of interactive exercise. The speakers are just the excuse to get the right people in the room but the truly valuable part is the interaction with other attendees. It would be neat to see them sub out one of the speaking slots with a problem solving exercise whereby people break into groups and work to cobble together a solution to a specific business challenge and then have an ambassador from each report back to the group at large. Anything you can do to increase the surface area for having conversations amongst attendees goes a long ways towards making the conference even more useful.

Lastly, I just wanted to share a moment I had after making the drive back from Vegas last night. I’m now living up in northern Arizona in a cabin for the summer (a whole ‘nother blog post). Anyways I went for a barefoot run on the golf course listening to this guy’s playlist and this beautiful song came on right as the sun was setting and I was running this path through an outcropping of trees. This experience happened one other time but it was an absolute wave of pure gratitude that washed over me and every cell in my body simultaneously acknowledged how lucky I am to meet all these incredible people who are laboring to change the world in their own small way. For all the doubts that swirl around when building a startup in an unproven market and an uncertain economy it’s moments like these that confirm we’re running the right path.

Huge props to and Mike Taber for toiling endlessly to pull this event together. I’ll be there next time no question.

Mar 22

Let me explain. I just returned from spending the last ten days at SXSW Interactive and Music. The attendance for Interactive was just shy of 20,000 people and Music this year was apparently about 10x that number. Having attended SXSW three years back the best analogy I can give is that this star of an event has super-nova’d into a Red Giant that’s borderline overwhelming. With such an intense amount of condensed human interaction it’s like trying to drink off of a fire hydrant: you better have a formalized system for taking baby sips or you risk getting your head blown off by the stream. So here’s the three-part “GTD-like” system I used to extract meaning from this event:

The goal is to wind up with meaningful connections and relationships. If you end up with a stack of business cards and a blurred recollection of faceless conversations, you failed.

Capture

At SXSW you’ll meet no less than 20 interesting people each day. These will be folks from all over the world with shared interests and with whom (if you had hours to sit and chat) you would almost certainly find incredible commonalities and opportunities to help each other via sharing contacts/advice/experiences. Sadly you have only limited surface area at an event like this though so you have a tiny window of interaction to make a meaningful connection.

Given the choice of breadth or depth of interaction, you should err on the side of connecting more deeply with fewer people. Stay in the moment, tune out distractions and engage. At this point you’re operating on two different levels though: 1) you’re 90% in it connecting 2) you’re 10% above it indexing. When you part ways, jot a three word trigger phrase on the back of the business card you received to make a mental note of the conversation.

Curate

At the end of the day (or even better, periodically throughout the day) stop and make notes that distill the anchor points and context of conversation with each person. The half-life of a conversation is less than a day so this distillation process is essential and should occur before the sun goes down. If you wait until after you return home, you’ve likely missed the opportunity to capture and process the meaning.

I use Evernote as a general purpose note taking app and I made a single note for SXSW that I just extended each day jotting down tidbits from interesting conversations. The key here to processing is to actively brainstorm about the interaction you just had and think hard about how you can help the other person. Curate the discussion mentally and jot down a concrete follow-up action you will make to advance that cause. I added an empty checkbox by the people I definitely wanted to follow-up with (Evernote makes this easy).

BTW I hate paper- it’s something extra that takes up space and inevitably you end up losing it. And yet in spite of all our ability to put a man on the moon we still rely upon paper as the lowest common denominator for exchanging contact info at conferences. Go figure.

I use a free iPhone app called “CardMunch” that allows me to quickly convert physical business cards into digital format. It lets you retain the associative value of the business card (the visual image you link with the person and recall) while giving you the more useful OCR’d data in a format that can be exported into your contact manager.

Contact

Lastly, all is largely for nought if you don’t ping the people you met after the conference to cement the connection and open the door for continued conversation. You should ideally offer something of value – an intro, a thoughtful insight based on a previous conversation. Even if it’s just a “hey it was great meeting you” compliment, do something that allows you to stake out a tiny piece of mental real estate in that person’s mind.

If you’re a true baller you’ll use a CRM system to develop relationships. Having used a handful (SugarCRM, Highrise, Salesforce, vTiger, Goldmine, Act) over the years I’ve become a huge proponent of Ming.ly just in the past month. In my opinion it strikes the golden balance of light-weight, frictionless and useful enough to where you’ll actually want to use it religiously. If you use Gmail as your email client this extension to Gmail unifies context across all your contact mediums and social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even your phone). I recommend tagging new contacts with an identifier of the event like “SXSW2011” so it’s possible to search against the pool of people you met at a specific event. Ultimately the mental index you make is king and you’re just tagging interactions with keywords and notes that can be used to retrieve context later.

Summary

So to summarize: capture, curate and contact. Do those three activities and you’ll be surprised how many interesting relationships emerge from events. The curation step is the one that typically gets ignored and yet it’s the lynchpin for extracting the meaning from the interactions you have that allows you to develop the relationship. Try practicing the curation step next event you attend and I guarantee you’ll more frequent and quality interactions following the event.

So what systems have you developed for getting the most value out of big conferences?

Feb 22

I drove 800mi round-trip from Phoenix to LA this weekend to help my cousin get real about launching the food truck business he’s been talking about. While I was in LA I learned via a random tweet that my trip coincided with LA Startup Weekend so I dropped in Saturday afternoon and ended up spending most of the day there on Sunday. This was the fourth SW I’ve attended now (the others being an early one in SF and two others in Phoenix) so I have a little perspective on these events. Here’s a quick braindump of my thoughts:

Contributing factors to why it worked so well

The venue for this event was Co-Loft which is a co-work space similar to Gangplank or Co+hoots here in Phoenix. Avesta (@avestar), Cameron (@CameronKashani) & Chris (@chrisdumler) have done a great job creating a fertile environment for supporting startups. I would not at all be surprised to see them take their formula outside LA and franchise on what they’ve done.
The logistics were perfectly handled. With the exception of occasional wi-fi flakiness (which is to be expected when you have 100+ people on the same network) there really wasn’t one glitch the entire weekend. Strangers stepped up and just did whatever needed to be done whether it was cleaning up or setting up. To me seeing that level of volunteering and frictionless participation is a statement of how healthy their community is.
The music was legit. At any given point the air was filled with sounds of Glitch Mob and Darude. At one point they had the Rocky theme song pumping full blast which was hilarious and at the same time genuinely inspiring when you stepped back and looked at all the creation that was going on. You simply cannot underestimate the value of good tunes to support an event. The other thing was the art on the walls. This was one of the pieces made by Cam (words by Og Mandino) and it hugely resonates for anyone is a free-range chicken:

The energy was electric and it never hurts to have a celebrity at the party. Rather than describe it, see for yourself:

The companies that were presented Sunday evening were definitely amongst the best I’ve seen at any of these events. Two or three could very well make it. Zaarly won it but my two favorites were CorkHub and Eventify. GrubKlub is something I would probably do – I’ve always thought someone should make a “meals with likeminded strangers” site. The guy from Hottiespottr needs to be doing stand-up. Crowdstunt is actually a really interesting experiment (put their app on your iPhone and be a pixel in a big mosaic image at a football game). I really enjoyed chatting with the guys behind that one. Which brings me to the primary driver here…

The people

were top-notch and welcoming. Keep an eye on Santa Monica it’s heating up and I would say for a non-Bay Area locale it rivals the startup scene of somewhere like Boulder. Shout-outs to these people I was fortunate enough to meet:
Patrick Vlaskovits is co-author of the eBook at custdev.com and arguably one of the pillars in the whole Lean Startup / Customer Development movement. I had opportunity to have lunch with Patrick on Saturday and got to chat with him more at the event on Sunday. Paleo and Custdev are two of the most life-changing things I’ve learned in the past year and the trip was worth it for these conversations alone. Being introduced to a high-level music contact by Paul as “a custdev warrior” was pretty surreal.
Tyler Koblasa is the founder of Mingly (a company ironically whose genesis was as a former Startup Weekend project). They make a Rapportive-like add-on for gmail that gives you CRM capabilities and helps you unify contacts across different buckets and get back in touch with people to cultivate stagnant relationships. We talked in depth about project management, working with remote teams and the food industry and education. It was pretty cool to discover that Tyler had been using our stuff (JumpBox) for the past 2yrs.
Emerson Taymor was one of the guys behind Crowdstunt and we got to discussing ideas on how they could adapt their thing to make it more viral.
Chris Dumler instructed me on the finer points of Yerba Mate and Matcha teas and convinced me to buy one of these gravity-feed tea strainers for looseleaf tea. Chris also hooked me up with an invite for Namesake, which is something to watch fo. It’s essentially “Quora meets IRC” and when I saw who was in there talking it felt like discovering this secret rave where all the cool kids are hanging out.
Nick Seguin of Kauffman Foundation is one of the dudes directly responsible for getting the grants for Venture Hacks and Startup Weekend. Government would never have the foresight to fund these efforts so it’s great to see non-profits like Kauffman step up.
Imo Udom is improving the job interview process for companies and applicants with Ovia. It’s basically a way for doing aync, proctored virtual job interviews with nothing more than a webcam and a browser. If you’re trying to cut costs on your hiring processes get in touch w/ Imo – they’re onto something big with this.

anyways, there were a ton of people I wanted to mention so just by name only Nicole of Music Boxe, Ryan of CorkHub, Vasily of Mingly, Fernando and Sheryl of the eventify team. You guys all have a place to crash next time you’re in Phoenix.

One takeaway I had from the weekend: I would love to see us establish an “underground railroad” for startups amongst the cities. We’ve talked about this in the past and whether it’s something as unstructured as an email list amongst ambassadors who are the hub for each city or something more formal like a tag or prefix to use on airbnb listings, it would be so powerful to set up sister city relationships amongst the incubators and co-work spaces. Anyone from the LA startup scene is absolutely welcome to come out and I’ll personally chauffeur you around AZDisruptors, Co+Hoots and Gangplank and introduce you to the peeps in our tech scene.

Here’s some pics from flickr as well as some of my own:
Gallery is empty!

And lastly, for anyone who happens to be going to the tribal unification / diaspora that is SXSW, I invite you to be my guest at the launch party we’re hosting opening day of the music portion for a new music collaboration startup we’re unveiling. You’ll hear more about it if you follow the SXSW announcements. Contact me and I’ll get you on the list if you’re out there.

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Oct 22

Friday night it was merely an idea. By Sunday night it was a prototype. And by Tuesday afternoon it was on the homepage of TechCrunch. How did we do it with Reserve Chute?

This was a perfect storm where an old idea whose time had come collided with a group of capable, motivated people with the right skills in the right environment punctuated with just the right amount of Zoolander.

People using SaaS applications love the convenience but face the possibility of losing access to their data -whether it be caused by the company going out of business overnight, hard drives and backups failing or simply by their internet connection being interrupted. Users want the peace of mind knowing that they have a local copy of their data and they want a brain-dead-simple way to achieve this for all their online applications. The tool we created this weekend offers this capability and makes it possible for any contributor to add extend the system and add hooks to make it work with new services.

While the demo we showed on Sunday night is not publicly available yet, our small but stalwart group is already plotting a series of Wednesday night hack sessions at Gangplank to advance the project to a shippable first version targeted for release sometime around the Holidays. For now, if you use any web-based services and want to be able to automatically store a unified, local copy of your data across all your applications, sign up for the beta and be among the first to try out Reserve Chute!

Other noteworthy projects that sprang to life this weekend:

  • Twitteratr
  • MyShelterHelper
  • And on another note, if you’re in Phoenix this evening come out to my talk on startup lessons at the Club eFactory in north Phoenix.

    reserveChuteTeam.png

    P.S. And yes that is a Karate Kid Cobra Kai t-shirt I’m wearing. Sweep the LEG!

    Feb 26

    Just wanted to let folks know about three upcoming events at which I’ll be speaking:

    1. Leopard Server Event in Scottsdale: this Thursday Feb 26th the Apple-sponsored roadshow comes to Phx to show off the new featues available in Leopard Server. Our friends at MacMedia (the best apple reseller in Arizona) have graciously given us a speaking slot. And our other friends at Parallels have given us the green light to publicly demo the soon-to-be-released Parallels Server product. This will be an interactive talk that covers topics of virtualization on OSX, Parallels Server, and how you can virtualize an existing windows or linux server and run it alongside any of the twenty production JumpBox applications. This is a free event and they’re capping registrations at 200 attendees- it will sell out so grab your spot now if you’re in Phoenix.
    2. SXSW talks on Mar 7th & 8th: I’m doing two different talks at SXSW this year. Friday Mar 7th at 5pm I’m facilitating a Core Conversation (BoF) talk in Austin called “A Developer’s Cookbook to Leveraging Virtualization.” This will be a group brainstorm of all the various ways that v12n can be used to simplify a developer’s life- from testing to dev to a production deployment. The next day at 5pm I’m on a panel called “Bankrupt your startup in 5 easy steps.” This is a humor-infused look at some of the pitfalls that confront early-stage companies. Like learning via the “anti-pattern” in programming, we’ll show you what NOT to do, cover the common ways in which early companies fail and offer anecdotal advice on how to defend against these situations.
    3. Under the Radar event on Mar 20th: The good folks at UTR are putting on an event called “The Business of Web Apps” that will showcase emerging startups with have game-changing technologies. We’re honored to be one of the companies presenting. I’m doing a 6min talk and will unveil a new product of ours that will definitely change the game. They have a rockstar line-up of companies presenting and it should be an unforgettable day. Registrations are capped at 400 attendees – the event is in Mountain View, CA, get a seat today.

    If I get video capture for any of these talks I’ll be sure to share here. In the meantime c’mon no laryngitis…

    Jan 18

    Having just returned from Macworld late last night, here are a few thoughts/observations:

    entrance.jpg

    A massive ecosystem

    It’s striking to see how many companies have sprung up around Apple products. Nothing like cramming all these people into the same spot to make you realize how many there are. They filled two ginormous exhibit halls at the Moscone center in SF. It was sensory overload walking the floor and the energy level was almost uncomfortably high to the point where you had conference fatigue after a day.

    mainstage.jpg

    Masters of buzz

    They certainly have demonstrated they know how generate buzz. Aside from having a stellar UI in their products they had amazing visual presence at the show. With these cinematic and creative displays you have everyone with a camera posing for pics with Apple logos in the background and then talking about how incredible the setup was (me case in point right now). As far as product launches, nobody needs the new Mac Air but the way they present it sure makes you want one.

    What got the crowds

    By far the most interesting thing for me was to see which booths drew the crowds. Every now and then you’d come across a booth that looked no different from any other and yet there would be 100 people packed around it watching a demo while the others were desolate. These ideas aren’t rocket science but the popular ones consistently had either:

  • a charismatic speaker
  • a product that visually demo’d well
  • a hot brazillian model handing out free stuff
  • an interactive experience.
  • This last one was the real eye-opener: whether it’s a game of chance that involved competing for prizes or some type of interactive demo where the passers by were projected on the video screen and then the demo somehow incorporated them- it’s clear that people like watching other people, not products. If your product can be presented in such a way to incorporate the people there in the demo itself, it’s guaranteed to attract viewers.

    googlebooth.jpg

    Interesting products

    The two products that interested me most (aside from the new EVDO card from Verizon which I bought on site) were completely unrelated to Apple.

    smartboard.jpg

    The company SmartBoard had some impressive options for making a digital whiteboard. Their most inexpenisve setup allows you to utilize your existing projector to project against one of their pneumatic screens. Using your finger or one of their soft pens, you draw on the screen and it senses the position, sends that data to the app and draws ink as if you were writing on a whiteboard. Because it’s essentially just a touchscreen for a projector though, you can do anything you can with a mouse (ie. surf web pages on a whiteboard, mark them up, capture the digital ink to a pdf and share). It had some pretty fantastic OCR features too that would transcribe a whiteboard full of notes into text. They had other more expensive options that either incorporated one of their plasma TV’s or allowed you to use an overlay on an existing television screen. This seemed like a killer feature for teams that do a lot of brainstorming and it has a solid “wow” factor for anyone who relies on making a stellar first impression when collaborating with a client on a whiteboard.

    The other one that really grabbed me was Sawgrass. They provide an alternate method to creating t-shrits that involves dye sublimation printing with heat transfer vs. the typical silk screening process. It’s not a revolutionary technology but what’s impressive is the vibrance of the colors, how it doesn’t alter the feel of the shirt and the affordability of the system. It seems like it could enable a creative t-shirt company to bootstrap its way into a real business without much up front cost.

    Parallels took best in show for the 2nd year in a row. We’re happy for those guys. As their largest virtual appliance vendor currently, we love to see Parallels being received well. Their new Parallels server product looks slick and has all kinds of neat features that should make it very appealing for anyone who is heavily invested in OS X. That beta just started accepting signups and you can apply here.

    Lastly, Zimbra is looking really solid. We’ve had numerous requests for a Zimbra JumpBox and we hope to eventually deliver one as it’s something we want to start using ourselves. I was impressed with how responsive Zimbra was running in Safari 3. It’s almost indistinguishable from a desktop app and I’m assuming the offline access is even snappier. They’ve also bundled in a chat server (jabber?) to the latest version so you can have a central, searchable place for IM transcripts to accumulate for your company which is very cool.

    Conclusion

    If you’re into Mac products this is an impressive, high-energy experience I would recommend attending. The Mac market may still be a fraction of the PC market but the passion and vocal nature of its constituents means it moves twice as fast. The companies that ignore the Mac market citing present figures are going to kick themselves when its size rivals the PC market because by then they will have missed the boat.

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