Episode 253 | Key Takeaways from MicroConf Europe 2015

Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about their takeaways from Microconf Europe 2015.

Items mentioned in this episode:


Rob [00:00]: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about our key take aways from MicroConf Europe 2015. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 253.

Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.

Mike [00:27]: And I’m Mike.

Rob [00:28]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So [where this week?], Mike?

Mike [00:33]: Well, with the exception of the loss of my phone in Barcelona, I think it’s been a pretty good week.

Rob [00:38]: Is that right? Yeah, so MicroConf Europe- this is our third European MicroConf, it’s our eighth MicroConf in total, and the last two years we did it in Prague. This year we did it in Barcelona, and you left your phone in a cab.

Mike [00:51]: Yes. It was one of those situations where there was a series of unfortunate events like leading up to it, and as I got out of the- had any of those things not occurred. So for example, if my SIM card had not like needed a password reset because the phone itself died and I needed to put in the PIN code again, but then I lost the card that has the PIN code on it so I couldn’t activate it. So I was walking around with a phone that couldn’t actually connect to anything, and I could have remotely said, “Hey, go do this.” But my phone is floating around in Barcelona some place and as I got out of the cab, I had my phone in my hand and I pushed off, and I must have opened up my hand and I closed the door, and then I realized. I was like, “Wait, where is my phone?” and as the cab is going away I was trying to run after it. I could not catch it.

Rob [01:30]: [?] Well, and the funny thing is is our conference coordinator, Xander, did the same thing two days earlier and left it in a cab, and he wound up getting it back, right? Somebody picked it up and took it to a cafe and he wound up getting it. So it’s a bit of a bummer, man. Hold on to your cell phones in the cities.

Mike [01:43]: Yep. I was so close. Like I said, it was a bunch of things that happened, and they just all happened just right, and that’s how I lost it. I know exactly where it is actually. It’s in that cab.

Rob [01:53]: So we got a lot of comments this year that kind of indicating that folks who had been to at least one of the prior Europe conferences. Some people had been to two prior- saying that they felt like this was the best European conference we had held. And I don’t want to get too far into inside baseball, but what do you think about that? Why do you think that’s the case?

Mike [02:14]: I think there’s a lot of reasons for it. I don’t think there’s one thing you can point to and say, “Oh, that’s the reason.” I think it was a lot of little things that added up. The first thing is obviously this is the third time we’ve held it over there. So we get a little bit more experienced over time at hosting a conference in Europe because we hosted in Vegas but we kind of have feet on the ground here so it’s a bit more difficult to do it over there. But at the same time, we kind of upgraded. I feel like the location of having it in Barcelona, it was a better option than Prague partially because it’s at the end of August and it’s warmer. The climate there is just better, it’s more conducive to having things outdoors. There was a lot of stuff kind of readily available in terms of being able to go out and go to dinner and things like that. And then the returning attendees, as you build up a conference and more people are returning, I think that that lends a certain atmosphere to the conference itself. And I think even if you held it in the same place, it would get better naturally over time because of the attendees. But as more of those people come back, it lends itself to a better atmosphere.

Rob [03:15]: So we want to talk through some key take aways that we brought away from the conference. We also heard from a lot of the attendees some of the key take aways they had, and I think we’ll kind of integrate them here. If you’re listening to this and you’re interested in reading through a full recap and the detailed notes from each of the talks, you can head to microconfeuroperecap.com, and that is our designated note taker for the Europe Conference, Christoph Englehart, and he has published a detailed note section on each speaker. So if you wanted to dig into any one of the talks that we mention, that’ll be the place you’ll want to go.

So to kick us off on day one we had Justin Jackson from Build & Launch podcast, Product People podcast, and he talked about marketing for developers because he’s writing a book on the topic right now. And he had, I think it was ten different recommendations for getting your first hundred customers.

Mike [04:07]: Yeah. There was a lot of actual stuff in there, and I think some of these were just completely non-intuitive, and he had these really neat examples. One of which he was using Google Images, not to manipulate, but basically gain attention for images on his website. The proof of concept that he used was if you go to Google and you search for “nerd mullet” in the images, it’ll pop right up, there’s a picture of him from high school, and it’s just really fascinating these little tidbits that you can use that I don’t think most big companies are going to do those types of things, but small companies have the capability and, I guess, the desire and need to do those things in order to stand out from those bigger companies that have a lot more resources. So it was really cool to see all the different tactics and things like that that Justin had put out there for people to take away that they can implement, and none of them were terribly difficult to do. It was just, “Oh, that’s really insightful; let me write that down.” I heard a lot of people saying, “I’m going to go do this” or “I’m going to go do that” based on some of the things they heard from his talk.

Rob [05:08]: Yeah, there were a couple of things that I liked about his talk. Number one is it was ten discreet tactics and you could kind of pick and choose which one you felt might work for you. The second thing I liked is he used the example of a MicroConf attendee. He actually used their website or their business in each of the points to say, “This is how he could specifically apply it.” And so it wasn’t just throwing out tactics, but it was actually trying to weave it into a story. If anything I would have liked to have seen more examples because there was the one website. But if he had picked maybe two or three, and he would have had time to do it, right, to give examples for each of the tactics for two or three websites it would have been, I think, even more valuable.

Mike [05:45]: Yeah, and I talked to him. He actually has each of those examples going into his book so I think they just didn’t make an appearance more than anything else. I’m almost positive that he has them.

Rob [05:53]: Got it. Yeah, I would agree. So our second speaker on day one was Brian Casel, and he was talking about productized services and the reason we wanted to have Brian out is because he has a productized course, it’s a video course, and ebook and a Facebook group and stuff, and he’s from the Bootstrap web podcast, and now he writes Audience Ops. The reason I wanted people to hear about productizing is I think folks often want to make the leap directly to software, and I think if that’s really what you want to do, that’s okay. But I think that knowing that there’s this alternative step that you could take to basically productizing a consulting service is really valuable. And Brian has experience with that because both his previous startup and his current one he’s working on are both productized services, and then he had a bunch of examples from people he knows including yourself, including Justin McGill, who’s running LeadFuze, and there were several others. And so it was cool that- I liked that he outlined the concept and then he just started throwing out examples of exactly how you guys have done it. In your case, it was like building the software first and then turning around and adding the consulting services later to make it more valuable. And in Justin McGill’s case with LeadFuze, it was doing the productized service, it’s outbound e-mail, doing that first, and then going back and launching the SaaS later, which he did just a few weeks ago. And there were other examples like that, so I really liked the structure of his talk, and I liked the concept was well communicated to the group.

Mike [07:13]: Yeah, I heard a lot of good feedback from different people who were thinking about launching something or building something, and his talk kind of shifted their focus to, “Huh. Maybe I don’t need to write any of this” “Maybe I can essentially just offer to do it as a service for people and then build tools to do the automation afterwards as I learn how to do those things myself and I understand exactly what it is that the customer wants and needs.” So it’s definitely a fascinating concept about how to build something complicated that customers have a need for and are willing to pay for and instead of building first and doing all the customer development, you just work with them directly and essentially do it as consulting and move on into building something after you’ve kind of worked out exactly what it is that they need.

Rob [07:56]: Yeah, and I don’t think productizing a consulting service is for everyone, but I don’t think everyone has heard about it. I want to continue spreading the word so that people can make their own decision based on whether they really are dead set on getting the software first or if they really just want to quit their job or quit the hamster wheel of consulting, I think productized services are a faster way to do that for sure.

Mike [08:19]: Yeah and that’s specifically because you can charge so much more for the services because people understand, “Oh, there is a person behind it who is doing that” and they expect to pay more for that kind of thing. So it gets you to a revenue faster.

Rob [08:31]: Right, instead of a SaaS that’s $20, $30, $40 dollars a month, productized services tend to be $500, $1,000 or $1500 a month. They are kind of the price ranges I often see. So you don’t need to have any customers to be able to quit your job at that level.

Our next talk was Sherry Walling, who talked about limits and liabilities and how to get to know yourself and how the limits and liabilities that you carry with you, like in your personality and psychology, can apply to both great things you can do and the things that are going to trip you up with your startup. And she talked about how your past and your origin story can really shape where you’re headed and can really help you understand how you react to stress and when you’re going to function well and when you’re going to probably fail under pressure. And she used specific examples from these founder origin stories we did over on the Zen Founder podcast over the summer. She pulled out specific examples of their stories and how you can tell your own story and apply that to where you are and how to get where you’re going.

Mike [09:32]: Yeah, I liked that she pulled all those different examples out and most of the examples she never said any of the names of them upfront. She just basically said “Oh, this person from here or that other person from there, and these are the experiences that they had early on in life and how they affected them.” And she went through some studies that basically said, “Oh, if you had these different things that happened earlier in life, this is how they affect you later in life.” And it was just fascinating that it had such a profound effect on you. And it was nice that she went through those stories and then afterwards, she revealed who those people were. They’re all names that you would probably recognize if you’ve listened to this podcast before. But it was just fascinating that she was able to take those, and because she presented them in sort of an anonymous way, you could just relate to them. You’re like, “Oh my God, that person went through this” after you heard who it was. So it was nice to see those things because it made it, I feel like more relatable. I think when you hear stories about a high profile person, you almost mentally project what you know about them now into that story. But if you hear that story first, and if you don’t know it that well, if you heard that first and then are told who it is, I think it makes a difference in how you perceive this story and the journey.

Rob [10:43]: Our next speaker on day one was Alex Yumashev from JitBit software, and he talked about bootstrapping to a $1 million a year software company. And Alex runs JitBit. I think JitBit helpdesk is really kind of their prime product at this point, their flagship. And I thought he had a good talk. I heard a lot of positive feedback about it. He offered a lot of his tactics and a lot of his own thoughts on things. Some of the things he said was controversial in terms of talking about some SEO and grey hat and other stuff. But he certainly has experience growing this business and has been doing it many years and has had many products so I think that his expertise was appreciated at the conference.

Mike [11:23]: The part that I found really interesting was the “Did this work or not?” and he put things up there like retargeting and SEO and stuff like that, and it was fascinating that the audience got some of them right and some of them wrong. Because, I think that some of them you would just naturally assume, “Oh, that works.” But, it doesn’t always work and I think that was his point. It wasn’t that this particular technique never works, it’s that it didn’t work for me. And I think that we just tend to naturally assume, “Oh, this worked for somebody else so it’ll work for me” and that’s just not always true.

Rob [11:52]: And rounding out day one, I spoke about the inside story of self-funded SaaS growth. It was basically the story about the last 18 months of Drip and growing that and it was very similar to my Vegas talk. I did make some adjustments to it, some things that I learned while doing it in Vegas. But overall, I felt like it applied to folks over there, it got a good reception. I had a lot of good questions about it, and overall, just felt good about how I’d given it.

Mike [12:18]: Yeah, I think there were a lot of people who were kind of surprised that there was this period of really low months kind of early on in Drip where things were kind of level and you weren’t really sure what to do, and then it was very obvious that at some point along the way, you got the product market fit and you were able to essentially overcome that problem. And I just don’t think that people realize how important that product market fit is. And I think the specific things you talked about were that your number of trials were going down but your revenue was going up because your conversion rates were going up. And as you focus on getting that right, the only reason the trials are going down is because you’re spending less time on the marketing side of things, so you’re getting less leads in but those leads are converting more, you’re getting more money. And at that point, you know that that’s when you’ve hit product market fit.

Rob [13:05]: And kicking us off on day two was Peldi Guilizzoni from Balsamiq, and he talked about a reluctant CEO growing up, and it was basically the growing pains of building a company that he really wanted to be a solo founder, and he reluctantly hired a couple employees, and then he said, “Well, no more than five ever,” and then when he hit ten he said, “No more than ten ever” and he’s actually at twenty employees now. And he had just fascinating tales of a potential acquisition that didn’t go through and just the stress and having to rethink he management structure because he didn’t want to have one, and then he found out he needed one [?] process, and he found out he needed some. And he was super vulnerable and really engaged the audience at a certain point in his talk. It was actually, both his and during Sherry’s talk. I looked around about halfway through and everyone was just wide-eyed, pencils down, no laptops clicking, and just super invested in the tale that was being told.

Mike [14:03]: Yeah, that was an amazing talk. It was just all the stuff that he talked about was stuff that you never see publicly, I don’t think, because most people are either acquired or not and afterwards, they’re just generally not able to talk about it. But he did go and get permission from them to talk about his experience and what went right and what went wrong and how it affected him. And I thought the thing that was really interesting was how badly his health suffered during that process because he was so stressed out and it was so difficult for him. It’s one of those things that most people don’t talk about, it’s like how your mental state can affect your physical well-being, and it definitely affected his physical wellbeing.

Rob [14:40]: The next speaker was Dave Collins, and he talked about the most sincere form of flattery, which of course is imitation. And he spoke about how you don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel on your website. If you want to improve conversions, if you want to improve your website, look to others who are already doing it well, and he had a bunch of examples of how to do that well and how not to do it well. And in talking to attendees afterwards, I actually got mixed reviews on it. I think some people didn’t fully understand what he was saying or didn’t agree with it or something, but then there were also people who took a bunch of notes and are going to apply it to their website. So in a sense, he kind of had a polarizing talk where I think some people really latched on to it and then others maybe had mixed feelings about what he was saying or didn’t follow it, one of the two.

Mike [15:21]: Yeah. I think that when you’re in different states of your business- because there’s kind of a life cycle to your business. There’s when you’re really early on and then you become a middle stage and late stage, and depending on where you’re at different things are going to be relevant. And I just feel like some things were more relevant to certain parts of the audience than others but I liked it. It was definitely interesting some of the things he put out there.

Rob [15:41]: And then we did a bit of an experiment with John Ndege, who has come to I think all three of MicroConf Europes, and he is a self-funded non-technical single founder of a SaaS company, and he has grown it to six figures, and he’s working with a non-technical audience, so it’s all medium and high [touch?] sales. And in essence, he did about a 20-minute talk, but it was him preparing slides and then he led through the slides and then I actually asked him questions during the talk to clarify some points. So it was kind of an on-stage interview mixed with a presentation. And so far, I’ve seen mixed reviews about it. I think some folks really liked the interview approach because it answered a bunch of questions upfront that you might have. I think some folks said since they were technical founders, it didn’t really apply to them which comes back to your point you made earlier. But to be honest, the non-technical founders who I talked to, there were maybe four or five who I talked to after his talk, loved it and said, “His was their favorite” because it related so much to their situation. And I think that’s an interesting thing to remember about these talks is as an individual you can rate the talks, but it’s always based on where you are and your personal biases and your personal thoughts and feelings. Going with John’s talk, it was a bit of a risk to go with a new format and to dive into what a non-technical founder has to do, but I think it was totally worth the experiment, and I think it’s likely something we’ll do in the future.

Mike [17:05]: Yeah, I’ve been going through it to see specifically from the feedback what people thought of it, but I thought it was an interesting format to have onstage, and I liked the fact that it was kind of like a 20-minute talk or so, so it wasn’t a full 40 minute and it wasn’t an attendee talk, which was only 12, it was kind of that sweet spot in the middle. But there was a lot of actual stuff in there. But again, as you said, specifically for a non-technical founder and as you said, there were a lot of those people in the crowd. So it was nice to hear from those people “Hey, I got a lot out of it and it tells me how I can approach things.” But we do get a lot of people asking us on this podcast, “How can I do this as a non-technical founder?” And one of the things that he said that I hadn’t necessarily realized before was that when he’s on-boarding his customers, he talks to every single one of them. And I don’t know what his price points are, but I think they’re like $100-$200 a piece, but because he talks to every single one of them, he gets all of that customer development and feedback he needs to help guide the development of the product itself. And I think that’s the important piece for those non-technical founders. Like, they need to know exactly what their customers want.

Rob [18:09]: And then we had Rachel Andrew from Perch who is a returning MicroConf speaker, and she talked about no exit plan. She talked about how she and her husband have launched their business and they stopped consulting, and everything’s going well except for they don’t feel like they can take a vacation, and they feel like they’re tied to this business, and they feel like they haven’t had enough money to hire someone who can help them with it. So the talk was really her thinking through how to do this, and she wanted to kind of talk to folks out there who are just thinking about getting to the point of quitting their job to maybe think past that and to not just focus on the short-term goal but to be thinking, “Once I get there, what am I going to do after the next step in order to not be tied to this thing” and basically not build yourself a job because that’s not what you want, right? You want to build a business that you can certainly make money from but that you can also be free of when you want to be.

Mike [19:02]: Yeah, that was something else that’s probably not talked a lot about. She was talking at one point about how she was answering support emails on Christmas, and it’s kind of a typical day that a lot of people take off and she’s sitting there answering support e-mails. And there, she talks about how she was working essentially 365 days a year, but on the other hand, she loves what she does. And I think that’s why most of us do what we do is because we really enjoy not just this mode of business but the things that we’re working on. That’s why we do what we do. It’s because we want a job that we love, not just because we want a job. If you want a job that you don’t love, that’s why most of us have those regular 9 to 5s. But if you want something that you really want to work on and you’re passionate about it, it’s okay to make less money if you love what you do.

Rob [19:49]: And rounding out our 10 mainstage speakers at the end of day two, it was Patrick McKenzie. He was talking about leveling up in essence stair-stepping his way up from bingo card creator to appointment reminder through consulting and then to what he’s doing today which is Starfighter, his current startup. And he actually tweaked the presentation. It was very similar to his one that he did in Vegas four months ago, but he tweaked it based on some feedback there, and he pulled out the part about selling an app, and he added some more things that I think were more relevant to the European audience where there’s slight more bend to being at the beginner end of the scale and kind of having just launched or being close to launch rather than being further along.

Mike [20:30]: Yeah. Some of the people I talked to had some interesting things to say about Patrick’s talk in terms of where he was with appointment reminder and how interesting it was to see that I’m actually further along than appointment reminder is or where I thought it was. Or it’s interesting to see how he had a very rough spot in the middle there because you see super successful people and just assume pretty much everything they do they knock out of the park, and that’s not always the case. Different businesses are harder than others. Some things are a lot easier, some things are a lot harder, and it’s difficult to know without seeing all the data and obviously a lot of that information is not necessarily public information to see. But yeah, I really liked how he tweaked a lot of it to make it applicable to those people who are earlier on.

Rob [21:14]: Yeah, and I think in Vegas and in this talk really was the first time he talked about appointment reminder revenue in public because I had not heard him say or maybe he had published a blog post at some point.

Mike [21:23]: Yeah, I think he talked about it in Vegas.

Rob [21:26]: Okay. That was his first time. Yeah. And it was, it was eye-opening for everyone just to see where it was at certain points as he’s cranking along and just how long that slow SaaS ramp up path is.

So we also did something for the first time in Europe this year. We did attendee talks. And we’ve done these in Vegas for a few years, but I think the last three, were basically folks who already have tickets can submit talk ideas and then they get voted up by the other attendees. They get a certain amount of votes, and whatever rises to the top, we do that many talks. And so we did six attendee talks. It was our first one in Europe. And while we don’t have time to go through all of them, I did want to call out, I thought Anders Pedersen’s talk was pretty cool. He basically talked about how he had tripled his revenue, and that was the clickbait headline, he said, that he used but in essence, he had tripled his revenue by raising his prices. And it was based on some other feedback that Dave Collins had given him in a teardown a couple years before in Prague. So it was nice for him to loop it back and basically talk about some of the health struggles he had had and some of the emotional struggles and how MicroConf Europe, the first year in Prague, was the first time he had ever kind of found his people and realized there were other people out there doing what he was doing. And it gave him this great sense of belonging and so he really paid homage to that and was thankful and said, “The reason my revenue tripled in essence was from being around all you people and I’m still learning but I want to now give back to you guys.” So I was inspired by his attendee talk.

Mike [22:49]: Yeah. The other interesting part about his attendee talk was how quickly that turned around. Wasn’t it that he implemented all the changes or most of them within 48 hours and one week later after he’d implemented those things, that’s when he realized oh my god, I just tripled my revenue by doing these small tweaks that I learned at MicroConf? So yeah, it was just fascinating to see that change of revenue based on solely marketing. Because he didn’t change the product really, it was all about the marketing stuff that he did.

Rob [23:16]: Yeah, because it was something like getting rid of a free plan or a free version of it so it was only charging for it and then actually going after the sale and it was tripling his price. I think it was those three things. When I say “Go after the sale” I think it was sending a single follow-up automated e-mail or two after someone downloads it. So it was just some basic stuff, but he said that instantly kind of flipped a bit and has been making that triple revenue ever since. So that’s good.

Mike [23:42]: Yeah. And we had a bunch of sponsors from MicroConf Europe as well. Anders was one of the sponsors who happened to be given that attendee talk through his Time Block application which is something new he’s working on. But there was also Teamwork.com, they had four people come over there, and they’re getting to be a really big company, 30 to 35 employees- that’s I guess really big in our circles.

Rob [24:01]: Yeah. I don’t know how you qualify this, but I’ve heard that they’re the largest bootstrapped startup in Ireland. That’s pretty cool and whether they are [?]

Mike [24:10]: Yep. I think in all of Europe.

Rob [24:12]: All of Europe? Wow. Yeah, it’s really impressive.

Mike [24:15]: [Peldi?] was also a sponsor with Balsamiq, and we had Craig Hewitt from Podcast Motor. The other sponsor is DNSimple, and they called out a URL from the stage for a comic strip that they put together basically on how DNS works and the URL was howdns.works. So if you go there, you can download their comic strip. It was really interesting having every single sponsor was essentially a bootstrap company, and it’s something we haven’t had in the past. But it was really amazing to see, not just people from the community, but just bootstrappers in general saying, “Hey, this is something we really believe in and that we want to be part of.”

Rob [24:49]: Yep. That’s what I liked, and big thanks to all the speakers who came out. They have busy schedules and they still came out and spoke, and of course, to the sponsors because we really couldn’t pull this off without them.

Overall, I feel really good about this year, man. I agree with folks, I think this was probably the best one we’ve done in Europe, and I guess we’ll see in the feedback once that comes back whether it holds true. And now we’re already working on MicroConf Vegas, it should be next April-ish in Las Vegas.

Mike [25:20]: Yeah. I think that Xander said that our contract is signed, so.

Rob [25:23]: Oh really? Oh that’s good.

Mike [25:24]: I believe it is. A couple days before MicroConf Europe started I think he said that he got the signed contract back so I think we’re good there.

Rob [25:32]: Very good. And so if you’re interested in rubbing elbows with 150 to 200 other bootstrapped software founders, who are either just getting started to having launched or have employees anywhere in that range, that’s what MicroConf is about, and we hold it, obviously, in Vegas in April and then we hold it in Europe some time in the fall. Head to microconf.com and enter your email address and we’ll notify you when tickets are available. Tickets really don’t make it to the open market anymore. They sell out before the e-mail list is exhausted. So if you think you might want to come, get on the list. Otherwise, we’ll see you back here next week.

Mike [25:32]: And If you have a question for us, you can call it in to our voice mail number at 1-888-801-9690, or e-mail it us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re out of control” by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startup and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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One Response to “Episode 253 | Key Takeaways from MicroConf Europe 2015”

  1. Rob and Mike: thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of MicroConf Europe!

    It was amazing to meet all these folks (IRL!) I’ve interacted with online.

    If anyone would like the slides from my talk, they can download them here: