In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about their 9 key takeaways from MicroConf 2019. They give a brief synopsis of some of the talks from both starter and growth edition.
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Rob: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I talk about nine key takeaways from MicroConf 2019. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 439.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re going to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. We’re in this week, man? You sound a little tired.
Mike: It’s mostly the voice, it’s just a little scratchy. I am a little tired, but it could be worse. I mean after seven days in Vegas, that will do it to you.
Rob: That’s the thing, right? Normally, we record this MicroConf recap episode the week after or at least a day or two after MicroConf and this year due to my travel schedule, I’m heading to London in a couple of days. We basically have been in Vegas for six and seven days respectively, and voices are shut, and all the things. Hopefully, it will go well. Aren’t we also both drinking rye whiskey right now?
Mike: Yes, it’s a WhistlePig rye, it’s called WhistlePig, but it’s a rye whiskey. It’s quite nice. They make it up in Vermont.
Rob: It’s very nice. This will be a fun episode. We have some takeaways that I pulled away from Starter and Growth, let’s see how many we can get through. What’s new with you in terms of the past week hanging out here at MicroConf?
Mike: One thing I noticed that was sort of a recurring theme was I saw people increasing their prices all over the place which was kind of interesting there. I was sitting outside while Starter edition was happening, and there’s some group of people around the table and one of them had been convinced to double his prices on the spot. They basically made him open up his laptop, change the pricing on his website, and then shut down his laptop. It was pretty cool.
Rob: There was someone else that did that. Someone 12xd their pricing. They were obviously priced quite a bit too low and they said that sales continued to come in after doing that. I heard a rumor, you may confirm or deny, that Bluetick’s pricing might be rising soon.
Mike: Yes, it will be going up in the very near future. Actually, probably by the time this podcast goes live, prices will be tripling.
Rob: That’s the way to do it.
Mike: We’ll see what happens. It’s an experiment like anything else, but that’s what you want to know is that price too high or is it not.
Rob: For me, obviously, I had a great week here. It’s super inspiring to see up and coming entrepreneurs, successful entrepreneurs, and have my laptop charger fail in the middle of the conference. Luis run the conference off our laptops and in this case, we did not, but it was a trip. I have a new MacBook and so I needed the USBC charger and not many people have one. The brick died, the cables all worked. I was like begging, stealing, and borrowing […] at the conference to keep my laptop charged.
Mike: I thought that was funny that of all the things that you had more than one of, the one thing you didn’t was the actual brick itself.
Rob: That’s the thing. I literally have extra this cable, extra that cable. I have two things of ChapStick, I have two or three phone, and iPad chargers. I carry multiples of everything, but I don’t bring an extra brick because it’s the heaviest piece, and I’ve never had one go out on me before just at the time when I needed it, it was kind of funny.
Mike: Actually, I love this, I just saw on Twitter that there is a photo proof of you sitting down on the job while I do all the work.
Rob: That’s fast. I’ll go look for that. You have this whole list of things to do at the end of the conference and I didn’t really know. They’re normally passing back and forth and I just kind of hang out. It was like Tom Sawyer in full effect. MicroConf is a conference you and I started in 2011. It’s for self-funded founders and now, even some not so self-funded founders with the kind of rise of folks like CartHook and LeadFuze who take small rounds of funding, but it’s bootstrappers at heart.
We split the conference three years ago. This week, we ran back-to-back conferences. Monday-Tuesday is MicroConf Growth. We had around, I believe 265 on total attendees including speaker sponsors attendees. At Starter which was the three days following Wednesday, Thursday, 180 people, […] at least this year and last year at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. I think a goal that we made while we were here is to do it somewhere other than Las Vegas next year.
Mike: That would be quite nice, I think.
Rob: We have tried to do that many times and every time, it winds up being so expensive to move out of here. That’s kind of the trap of Vegas, is it’s relatively easy to get to, and the hotel, and that the venue, and the rooms, like just everything is not that expensive, and it’s like less than a 10-minute drive from the airport, it’s all these things that make it, I don’t know, it’s seductive. Because if you look at San Diego, for example, it’s more expensive and it’s a 45-minute drive from the airport to a hotel. I think I’m at the point where I’m just kind of ready to pony up and realize it’s not going have all the pros at Vegas, but we will give up the con, which is it in Las Vegas.
Mike: It’s in Vegas, yes.
Rob: It’s like dry here. I don’t know how you feel. You can tell by our voices, they’re not usual perky Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike today.
Rob: We have nine takeaways, give or take. We might want to put eight or ten, but takeaways from MicroConf, we’re going to look at both. Growth and Starter, we obviously don’t have time to go through every talk. I believe we had 19 sessions, 19 speakers, our Q&A folks, not including the 12 attendee talks, so 31 talks. Of course, we couldn’t possibly cover those in a podcast episode. If you’re interested in seeing an awesome recap in writing, written by Christian Genco, it’s microconfrecap.com. You can go there and see his notes of all the sessions.
For now, let’s dive into our first talk of the entire conference. It was Chris Savage, co-founder of Wistia. The takeaway I took away from Chris was, know what you’re getting into when raising funding. It’s interesting because you could have watched his talk and thought about funding is bad, but I don’t think that’s the message. It was that they didn’t think it through when they raised their funding. The talk title was, How an Offer to Sell Inspired Us to Take On $17 Million In Debt. Wistia, they blogged about it as well, is that they raise funding because it just seemed like the right thing to do. They followed the typical venture path, they actually had pretty high expenses because they are video hosting, obviously, and they weren’t really aware bootstrapping what I understand, so they raise multiple rounds.
At certain point, they got an offer to sell Wistia, but they really thought it over, and agonized, and said, “If we sold it, we would probably start another Wistia. This is really the space we want to be in. We don’t necessarily want to exit this.” But once they realized that, they realized they had a responsibility to their investors of, “Look, if we never sell, how do they get a return?” Now, one thing he never thought about pulling dividends out, but I think they’re probably a C-Corp, and frankly, their investors probably didn’t want that. I guess that’s been a thing lately with alternative funding, the Indie.vc and TinySeed is that from the start or set up that if you wanted to just do dividends, and run it, and not sell it, works; if you decide to sell it works. That’s the optionality I don’t feel like Wistia had.
Mike: Yeah, I think you’re take on this is a little different than mine, where you had said that, you know what you’re getting into, when raising funding. I took it more as a revelation on their part that they realized after a while, after they take in the funding, and obviously, well after that because—I think they funded it in 2008 or 2009, well after that, things changed, and they decided that they wanted something different.
Because of that change, because of the way that they view things was different, the original path no longer suited them. They had to look for ways to change that. That’s how I interpreted it, but I can definitely see how there’s probably three or four different ways that his talk could be interpreted. I don’t think any of them are bad, it’s just that whatever lessons you take away from it, I think you’re going to be great. It was a fantastic talk, it was well put together. I do think that the story of what they went through and how they got there is just interesting in and of itself.
Rob: I would agree. I mean, to be honest Chris Savage was kind of a long time aspiration of mine to get to MicroConf, so it was super cool to have him here this year. Our second session, was, it wasn’t a talk, it was Q&A with Jason Fried. I felt like the takeaway from there was know what you’re good at and make sure to double down on that. What’s interesting is already, we have some ratings and reviews and such coming in because we sent a survey out at the end of the conference. Typically, Q&A sessions are ranked in the middle, they’re not at the top, they’re at the bottom, sometimes they’re at the bottom depending, but Jason Fried is probably the highest rated Q&A session we’ve ever had.
I think that his authenticity, and kind of just his honesty really came out. He answered some pretty fascinating questions about Basecamp, about what it was like to get started about why he grew so fast. I mean at one point, I asked him why did it grow so fast and he said, “We don’t know.” That’s awesome, like, “Thank you for saying that, and not acting like it was that you were super smart, and that you knew what you were doing.” He’s just like, “Yeah.” At a certain point, he said, “We got a little lucky, we had some good timing, and we did some things right as well.” I was like, “That is fantastic assessment.”
Mike: I think that’s the position of a lot of successful people are in. One thing that had come up during the Q&A was that the fact that Basecamp, originally it was 37signals and then they launched Basecamp, and Highrise, and Ta-Da List and several other products, they looked at trying to sell Highrise, which was making obviously millions of dollars at the time. They could not find the buyer because of the fact that they didn’t want to let the team that was working on it and go with it. They just wanted to sell the code base, and the revenue stream, and customers, and all that other stuff to somebody else, and nobody was willing to pay for it. I made sure that I had him kind of clarify this like, “This code base was worth nothing without the team behind it.” He was like, “Yeah, it was.”
Rob: Code base plus revenue stream.
Mike: We get a lot of questions to the podcast about, “How much effort should I put in to protecting my code and making sure that people aren’t stealing it? If I hire a contractor, what do I do?” To have Jason Fried come out and say that the code and the revenue stream behind it were worthless without the team behind it. That’s just a big answer, I think to that question, that continues to come up.
Rob: I wouldn’t say it was worthless. He said they got offers, they were just super low without the team. He said, “We didn’t want to give it away.” If you end up doing $1 million a year and if you bought the team with it, you can get $5 million, and if you didn’t bring the team, you can get $1 million. I get the feeling it was that kind of situation where it’s not that it’s worthless, but it’s worth a lot, lot less.
Mike: He did turn down my offer.
Rob: You offered to buy it from the money in your pocket?
Mike: Yes, I did. I had like $100, maybe $200. I don’t know.
Rob: He graciously declined. That was cool.
Rob: Later in MicroConf, we had a speaker who had to cancel last minute. He actually made it to Las Vegas and then had a personal issue come up and had to leave. Big thanks to Patrick McKenzie, also known as Patio11 on the internet, for filling in and talking about things that Silicon Valley Companies do well. He basically wrote a talk in 24 hours. He said, “We can throw stones at Silicon Valley; yes, it does a lot of things wrong, there’s no doubt but there are certain things that they’re pretty good at.
We won’t dig into all the points of his talk. I think the biggest thing that I took away or the one that impacted the most when he was talking was something that a boss said to him at some point at Stripe. The question was, “After a 45-year career, what do you want to be true?” I would rephrase that almost like, “What do you want to feel or have accomplished looking back on your entire working career?” I think this is a great question to think about, is legacy. This is something I have thought about, not in depth, and extensively.
When I think about legacy—it’s interesting—I think much more about this podcast, and MicroConf, and blogs, and books than I do about the actual companies I’ve started. I bet Jason Fried thinks about his legacy is probably Basecamp. Maybe it’s the books that they’ve written as well, but it’s just interesting to think that different people have different answers for this. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong, but figure it out for yourself and then every day, make a bit of progress towards that.
Mike: I definitely think that this is the type of question that should make it onto the list of questions that you’re going to ask yourself at a personal retreat. But one of the other aspects of that was that, “What does it mean after that 45 years?” I think Patrick had said—and you can correct me if I’m misremembering this—but I think he had looked at and said, “Well, what does that mean to me and how would I quantify it?” I think his basic assessment of how he was going to quantify it was how much impact he’s had on other people over the course that 45 years, and what it means kind of collectively to give himself sort of a numeric score so to speak. I thought that was an interesting way of looking at it as well. Everybody can do it in any way that they want, but I just thought it was an interesting way for him to quantify what that meant to him.
Rob: We had a talk from Hanne Vervaeck, she’s the COO of Thrive Themes. The takeaway I had from her was, “Don’t build what your customers ask for.” Really, it’s don’t only build or just build, you can get a mess. We’ve talked about that a little bit on the podcast in the past. Basically, she talked through handling feature requests; they get hundreds and hundreds of them each month. She talked about instead of implementing every feature customers ask for, do one-on-one customer calls on a call. Shut up and listen, ask questions, and she had a cool process for handling that. In our last couple of years at Drip as it kept ramping up, we were getting probably 100-150 a month when we got acquired, and it was at least double that by the time I left. We had to figure out a way to do this as well. I liked hearing her approach and her thoughts on this.
Mike: The cool thing about when she was discussing that was really, it was a nice way of saying that customers don’t always know what should be built. They have an idea of like, “This is how you should solve the problem.” But the reality is that you should dig into that, and find out what problem they’re actually trying to solve. As opposed to listening to them and implementing things that they say, “You should be doing this. I need a feature that does that.” If you start digging in and trying to figure out more of a jobs-to-be-done type of thing, then you’re going to be much better off if you just blindly implement it, which I think is intuitively obvious to most people, but at the same time, your customers don’t know all the other things that are going on. Quite frankly, you may not even agree with them. You may decide, “Well, yes. That sounds great and all, but it’s just not the right direction for the business, or for the company, or the product,” and you may decide to ignore them because of that. Customers absolutely do not have all the information. Sometimes you have to overrule them.
Rob: I wrapped up the first day with my talk that was titled, The City Bootstrapping in 2019. I looked at some trends that have changed over the past 14 years since I’ve started talking about all this stuff, and then a bunch of things that have stayed the same. I think the takeaway I pulled from there is kind of, there’s more competition these days, but there are also more funding options. I definitely still and whole-heartedly a bootstrapper at heart and believe that the bootstrapping and self-funding are totally viable ways to go. Given that there is more competition, some of the scraps I had with just enormous amounts of VC funding reported SaaS in general.
We, as a community like you and I, with the podcast and the conference were kind of early to SaaS. Now, the big money is coming in over the past eight or nine years. Something I’m talking about is like more funding options are available and that funding is no longer binary. You can look at someone, like a lot of the angel investments I’ve done, where they literally plan to raise a single round, they’re not going to raise institutional funding. They don’t have a board, they never plan to go public or have a unicorn exit. They technically raised money, but they’re still very capital efficient, and they’re using this money to reach escape velocity with their start up faster and maybe a little less painful than that two to three years that we often now see it taking for a truly bootstrapped SaaS to do that.
Mike: I think that there definitely has to be a discussion in our circles around what the terminology actually ends up being, because I think that that’s a source of confusion for a lot of people. If you spend all of your own money on it, or you do it on credit cards, is that self-funding? Well, I guess technically, but at the same time, if you build a product up and then sell it outright to somebody else, and you get a pile of money, and then you put it into your next product, is that self-funding, is that bootstrap? Well, I don’t know. What does that actually mean? I think there’s going to be some discussions over the next coming months or years about some subtle changes to how we view some of the terms like bootstrapping, and self-funding, and maybe bootstrapping becomes more of a state of mind than anything else.
Rob: I would agree. Frankly, I wonder if the terms are—how important they actually are. I think they’re helpful to give context to things when you start to talk and you said, “Look, I’m a bootstrapper. This how I think about things.” That’s helpful versus if I sit up there and said, “Look, I’ve raised VC funding,” then take my advice in that context. That’s why I think it’s helpful, but I do think it’s unhelpful, and that people sometimes get dogmatic about this stuff, and I do not think you should never raise funding. “VC is the worst ever.” Or, “Bootstrapping, it’s just terrible. Why would you even do that?” I’ve heard people say this. I don’t think that’s helpful to do the always never should game. It’s like, let’s keep open minds and realize that this is now a continuum. There is bootstrapping where I literally have $50 to start it, and it has to grow on its own revenue. That’s very hard.
Self-funding is the next thing to the right I will say. It’s the next notch over where it’s like, “Yeah, I have $200,000 to pump into this business,” or, “$100,000 of my own money.” It’s a little different, it’s a different situation in bootstrapping. I’ve done both. I know, it’s very different. And then perhaps the next up step over is taking a small amount of funding from TinySeed or any .vc, or funding source that maybe isn’t expecting you to get huge and you can still build a profitable business selling real product to real customers and then maybe the next notch over is venture capital. Maybe there’s even a notch in between. That’s the thing, it’s not binary anymore.
Mike: I feel like maybe some people get too hung up on the terminology because it feels like their identity is being attacked like, “I’m a bootstrapper and you’re not.” As you said, it’s not binary anymore; it used to be, but now it’s not. I think there’s maybe something about identity crisis going on, but I definitely think that there’s going to be talks and discussions about that behind closed doors. Maybe we’ll come out with something new, or maybe it’ll just kind of be a perpetual issue for the next 20 years, I don’t know.
Rob: Another talk, kind of a last one we’ll cover with Growth, Joanna Wiebe who’s been a many time MicroConf speaker. The takeaway I took from her is that words matter as she talked about copywriting. She ran through seven words that work well in copy. […] here because rattling them off isn’t going to help you. It’s probably somewhere you want to watch the talk when it gets there, or look at Christian Genco’s notes at microconfrecap.com just to see what she talked about and how she presented it.
Mike: Next up, we have Starter. I think that we both want to say a big thank you to Ben Orenstein for being the MC. I think he did a fantastic job. It’s interesting because his talk was actually the last of the conference. Usually, in the past two years when we’ve had an MC, the talks that the MC gave, they were the first talk, and then they were the MC for the rest of it. Whereas Ben, he did the entire conference as the MC and then he got up and spoke which, I mean, that’s just a testament to his ability to get up there in front of everybody.
Rob: Yeah and his talk was great. He always brings it; entertaining, witty, charming. It’s almost like Ben’s here in the room and I’m talking to him. Tall, what did I say? The man with the plan. He’s 6’5 with a tan. You know what I like about his talk is it was, he didn’t even try to pull too many actionable bits out of it, although there was advice and such. It was just a really well told story. I know the story, I’ve listened to every episode of their podcast and yet, I sat there and listened just kind of riveted by how he would talk about the learning from this, and how they did this experiment, and he just set it up so well. Honestly, that’s another one where it’s like, we couldn’t do a justice in five bullet points, that’s one where you need to watch the video when it comes out.
Mike: Definitely. I love the story, and the way that he told it, and how some things came together really well and some things were like, “We discovered this along the way and who knew?” Some of the lessons were, I wouldn’t say they were obvious, but they’re obvious in hindsight. It’s like, “Yeah, that was probably going to be an issue and nobody really thought about it.”
Rob: Just to be clear, we didn’t mention his podcast. It’s called, The Art of Product Podcast and his product is called to Tuple which is a pair of programming SaaS. Another talk we had, it was on the first day of Starter was from Abi Noda. The takeaway I got from him was, “Start quickly by building on someone else’s platform.” Now, he also talked about how there’s a risk in doing that. A platform risk where you’re dependent on them and they could potentially implement a feature and put you out of business. I like that he’s at 21K MRR. He’s only been doing it for—how long is it? Eight months, nine months? It’s not that long.
Mike: Yeah, I think it was a little over a year.
Rob: Okay. It’s pretty quick for a solo founder with no employees. I don’t even the he has contractors to be at 21K MRR. That’s life changing man. The other thing is he talked multiple times about how he’s doing things wrong. He’s like, “I’m not sure about my pricing. I don’t actually think it’s optimal,” but enough things are working that he’s at 21K MRR. Maybe if he optimized to keep—that could be 30 or 40, and that’s great, you can do that. But at this point, he’s bought his own freedom and that’s what I liked about that story. He didn’t get up there and say, “I did everything right and look what all I did.” He’s like, “I did some things wrong and it still worked.”
I think the fact that he built on GitHub, he has a GitHub add-on that notifies you when there’s a pool request that need reviews and notifies you via Slack. He’s in the GitHub marketplace and that was kind of his big marketing approach. It was funny because when I when I talk about stair stepping and how there’s step one, two, and three, he combined step one and three. Step one is that one time downloadable product with a single traffic source, and then step three is recurring revenue. He has recurring revenue, but it’s a single traffic source in essence. I know he has some other traffic but most of it is focused in GitHub marketplace.
Mike: I did find it interesting that the way he opened his talk was the fact that he got fired, that was the day before Christmas or something like that. It was kind of a life-changing event for him and he’s like, “Okay, well now what do I do?” It took him a little while before he figured out, “Well, I kind of wanted to do this and launch my own thing,” and then he did it. There were a bunch of mistakes that he made along the way and things changed for him as he made tweaks to the business and as he basically, just improved things. I think that’s something that a lot of people forget is that, just launching is not the end of the story, that’s not even the destination or the goal, that’s the beginning of it; that’s where you start to learn things and where the rubber hits the road and you’re able to start adjusting what it is that you do. You hear from customers and tweak the business.
Rob: Another good talk was from Lianna Patch, a returning MicroConf speaker. The take away I have from her talk was, “Don’t make stupid copywriting mistakes.” She actually talked and covered a lot of topics, but the stupid copywriting mistake section was cool. She talked about having me-centric copy. Instead of having you and your, it has a lot of I’m, and we, and me. She talked about writing like a robot. Sentences that were too complicated, trying to do too much, and then clichés and nonsense phrases, and had a bunch listed there.
Again, microconfrecap.com if you want to see the specifics of that, but Lianna is in the trenches. She runs Punchline Copy and is on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis is writing a lot more copy than you and I frankly. She really is in the weeds on how this stuff should be done. She actually wrote the copy for bluetick.com, didn’t she?
Mike: Yes, she did. She wrote a couple of emails in the email sequence as well. I gave her access to all the notes and stuff that I had taken from all the customer interviews and customer development that I’ve done. She took that and she translated into the copy for the website. She also went through and tweaked all the onboarding emails and the educational emails that I put out there. Basically, overhauled the entire thing. Honestly, it’s doing its job. It’s just doing it really well.
Rob: That’s cool. I realized I just said bluetick.com but you’re bluetick.io. Sorry about that. Your website looks great. I just went to it. It looks really good. I’ve not seen it redesigned. How long ago did that happen?
Mike: That was a while ago. We talked about that on the podcast, that was probably close to a year ago.
Rob: Did we? I don’t remember it.
Mike: I mean there’s been little tweaks and stuff, it depends on what you’ve seen. I don’t know.
Rob: Yeah. The design it’s far superior to my memory of what Bluetick was. My memory must be dated at this point.
Mike: I’ve had it redone I think just before the last MicroConf.
Rob: Mike, do you hear the music in the background? We are on the 21st floor of a hotel in Las Vegas.
Mike: It’s interesting, I almost feel like there should be security coming over and kicking you out because you’re wearing flip flops and you look too old to be here.
Rob: Yeah, exactly. Wait a minute, I’m not doing either of those things. I did not look too old. Alright, I do a little bit.
Mike: Don’t you remember when that happened at the Hard Rock?
Rob: Yeah. Weren’t they filming some type of like an MTV something around the pool? I think what it was—now, they didn’t say it out loud that we were too old, and this was a few years ago, but we were in beach gear. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with flip flops. They wanted you to be in a full on no shirt, swim trunks, totally ripped abs, the whole deal. I was walking, “Sorry, sir. We’re filming.” “Really, what are you filming?”
Mike: I think you should correct that, it’s not us, it was you.
Rob: It was me. No, I was including you man.
Mike: I wasn’t there.
Rob: Alright, forget it. We didn’t notice. We didn’t go back to the Hard Rock the next year.
Mike: That’s true. Although they didn’t demolish it in later years.
Rob: A little known fact, the hotel that the first MicroConf was at was demolished shortly thereafter because it was so old.
Mike: Our next talk was from Omar Zenhom and he’s from WebinarNinja. I thought this was actually a fascinating talk, mostly because there was one takeaway that I think just kind of tramped all others that you could possibly take it away from that which was, “You should build an audience before building a product. If you don’t have an audience, you just simply do not have a product, and nothing you can do is going to change that.”
Rob: Yeah and I don’t agree with him on that. I think that’s how he did it and I appreciate his perspective of how he built the business using an audience, but I have seen too many founders who have built businesses without an audience. Do I agree that it makes it easier? Yes. Do I agree that maybe it’s a thing you should do? Maybe. But if you’re not that type of person, don’t do that. I have known founders and many founders who have amazingly successful businesses and did not start with an audience.
Mike: Maybe I should qualify that a little bit better. I agree with you that you don’t need the an audience before you start, you don’t have to build the audience before you build the product. But I do think that there is a certain amount of momentum that you kind of need to maintain over time and doing that almost requires an audience. That’s not for every product, but I think for any product of some scale and complexity where it takes time to educate people, and they’re not going to be at the right point in order to purchase your product, it may be three months or eight months out, or maybe even two years.
You need to be able to keep them around and the way you keep them around is through some sort of content marketing, or education, and you’re going to be able to catch them at that moment. If you don’t, it’s going to be hard to scale your business to a much higher level than if you’ve got a product and you’re only catching them at the time where they are experiencing that pain point enough to go look for a solution.
Rob: Yeah, maybe. I think of Salesforce, maybe Salesforce is a bad example, but think of just outbound cold email and companies that have grown doing that. They don’t have audience. I mean, I have talked to TinySeed applicants, they have zero audience. Actually, they have almost no traffic to their website, and yet they’re doing several thousand in MRR and growing, because they’re just using other tactics; using traditional sales tactics. The internet marketer space, or in the SMB space, so to speak, it could be a potential thing. WebinarNinja is definitely going after SMBs. It’s going after some aspirational entrepreneurs. It’s going after a crowd where building an audience is super important. It’s a great thing to leverage, but if you’re not in that space, I guess I would not wholeheartedly agree with that assessment.
Mike: Sure. I guess maybe I said that more because that’s the type of space that I operate in now and that I would want to work with. There’s obviously certain ones where I wouldn’t want to, and that I don’t think it would work there.
Rob: Yeah, totally. The other thing I liked that Omar said there, where had one slide where he said, “Take things that are unique about you and make them your advantage.” We talked about his name, how no one else has Omar Zenhom, and that was a unique thing. He could rank at Google really easily for that. No one else was from Egypt. He just talked a lot about himself, about how he used that as a superpower. I thought that was cool because I think it’s something a lot of us, me included, try to fit in and try to not be unique for some reason because we feel like fitting in is important, but I actually like the sentiment of making your unique thoughts, skills, and abilities your true advantage.
Mike: The last talk we’ll cover in this episode is Asia Matos who runs demandmaven.io. I really liked the fact that because of the split between Starter and Growth edition, she spoke at Starter edition. One of the great things about splitting the conference in two is that speakers can hone their talk to the audience. She really honed it down to basically telling them, “Look, there’s lots of different pieces of your sales funnel, but if you want to get to your first 100 customers, you really need to focus on that bottom of the funnel and try and make sure that you are talking to them directly about your product, and exactly what it can do.” Because the middle of the funnel, and at the top of the funnel, those are much broader areas to tackle and they’re harder to do if you’re not able to convert people at the bottom.
If you can’t convert them at the bottom, adding more people into your sales funnel isn’t going to change that and it’s not going to help. It will get you more customers, assuming you can add enough at scale, but if the bottom of your funnel is so leaky that it doesn’t really move the needle for you, then there’s no point in trying to do that. Really focus on the bottom, optimize that, and that’s really going to help you move forward.
Rob: Yeah. This is really good advice and it’s not talked about enough. I’m glad that this was the point of her talk really, is that people think they just need to send more people onto their website or into a trial, but if churning people out, or if people are not going trial to paid, or if people are not going visitor to trial, you have to start at that bottom and work up. Of course, you need another traffic that you can do some type of testing for the numbers to make sense. Certainly, scaling up and starting at the top of funnel just doesn’t make sense. She was a dense talk in a good way. It was a lot of information. She actually compressed a longer talk down to fit in our speaking slot. I think she did a good job of covering how to get your first 100 customers. 17th and 18th MicroConf are in the bag sir, how do you feel?
Mike: Not yet.
Rob: I know. We’re like one shot. This is a good whiskey though.
Mike: Actually, I’m on my second or third. Probably second right now.
Rob: I’m in the other room. Mike and I always record across the country rather I guess at this point halfway across the country. It’s so weird when every five years, we happen to be in the same place, and we try to record, and there’s echo and all this stuff. We’re in the same hotel room, but it’s a suite, and we have a door closed between us. It’s just a unique experience.
Mike: For sure. I did realize something. Did you think about the fact that MicroConf Europe is going to be the 19th MicroConf, and then next year, Growth edition will be the 20th?
Rob: What a trip. How fitting.
Rob: I had not thought about that at all, that’s cool. Speaking of MicroConf Europe, it’s in Croatia again, at that amazing ridiculously cool hotel where every room as an ocean view of the Mediterranean. It is October 21st and 22nd of 2019. Tickets will go on sale. They may already be on sale to the early bird list as your listening with this. But go to microconfeurope.com, enter your email if you’re interested in potentially joining us and around 150 other software founders who are trying to get their stuff done.
Mike: Well, I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike have a casual conversation about what’s going on with each other recently. Some of the topics they touch on include Dungeons & Dragons, personal computer setups, new ideas for MicroConf, and Bluetick/TinySeed updates.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be having a casual conversation about what’s going on. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 438.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we’re here to share experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week Rob?
Rob: I just felt like we haven’t done kind of a casual episode in a while where you and I talk about things that are going on. We often get stuck in this odd place where we might have a lot going on, but it’s not necessarily stuff you can talk about or feel comfortable broadcasting to tens of thousands of people. I feel like we’re in a good place, we’re obviously pre-recording this episode because it’s going to go live after MicroConf—I think the week after—and we’re recording it the week before just because so much is going on that whole week. Since we do Growth and Starter now, I mean the week is just torched for me. When do you fly out and when do you fly back?
Mike: I fly out on Friday. I get in at like 8:00 PM or so on Friday night and then I don’t leave until the following Friday. I think my flight is at 12:00 PM or 1:00 PM or something like that.
Rob: Yeah. It’s a full on week for you. I go Saturday to Friday. It’s only six days but still, A, six days, seven days in Vegas is too long. B, pretty much the whole time—I don’t know about you—but all I’m thinking about is, what am I forgetting? What am I missing this year? Oh yeah, we need that opening slideshow for the first 10 minutes of each conference. I need to update that. There’s all these little things and then stuff just really ramps up Sunday. Honest question, do you sleep very well at MicroConf typically?
Mike: I haven’t slept well in 4-5 years so it’s not a really fair question.
Rob: Yeah, you’re the wrong person to ask. I tend to sleep well. I don’t have many sleep problems in general aside from grinding my teeth which is irritating as heck for Sherry. At MicroConf I always struggle and I think it’s just how much I have going on in my mind. I wake up at 5:00 AM and I got to make sure to do that one thing or to tell that to that one person who needs to be at that one place at that time. There’s just a lot of details.
Xander has changed the game for us absolutely. But even then, I’m still thinking about stuff. Frequently what happens is I think of it, “Oh yeah, we need to do that one thing.” Then I wake up in the morning and I text you and Xander and Xander’s like, “Yeah, I already took care of that a week ago.” That’s actually the most often thing, but it still wakes me up in the middle of the night.
Mike: I think when I am in Vegas for MicroConf, I tend to actually sleep better I think when I’m there than when I’m at home, but that’s also I think partially a result of me remembering to bring a sleep mask because otherwise, the blinds of the hotel rooms are absolutely horrendous. You flip and shut but any hotel I’ve ever been in, they’re never very good so you have to have something else.
It feels like it gets so light so early and it just screws me because I tend to be up late and then the light comes and wakes me up in the morning. That’s the biggest problem I think I have. I agree with you in like having all those little things that are hanging out, they come up and you have to remember that, “We have to do this. I have to go back and tweak that from last year’s slides,” or whatever. That obviously comes up just constantly.
I carry around a pen and a notebook at all times just so I can make sure to write things down as they’re happening, or keep track of what has to go on with different sponsors, or different times of each conference. There’s just lots of little things to keep track of and trying to keep them in your brain is just not going to happen.
Rob: Yeah and that’s a good point too, because in my day-to-day workflow, I use email a ton. I use Trello. I just have a system that all goes out the window when I’m at MicroConf because I’m not checking email very much at all and I’m not looking at my Trello board. I have email to Trello basically. If you and I are talking in day-to-day or I’m at a dinner party and someone mentions a book I should read, or a something I should check out, a website, a person I should contact, whatever, I pop open Gmail, I email my own Trello board and it goes to the top of it. The next time I sit on my computer, I put it into the right queue. It’s an Amazon wish list, or an Audible wish list, or I fire off an email or whatever.
I don’t do that at MicroConf because I’ve just not checked my Trello board at all. That pen and paper approach you’re talking about, it’s either that or Simple Note because I have Simple Note on my phone. I just open up like a MicroConf-only to-do that I have to keep referring back to because I just find that my systems don’t work when we’re just running 110% for five days straight.
Mike: Yeah, I agree. That’s why I kind of switched over to the pen and paper. One of the things that tends to drop down on my list is the email and text notifications, though text notifications are different than Slack notifications. I totally don’t pay attention to it. You’re right though, being in a different environment like that where you’re not at your desktop, you don’t have all the tools available to you because you’ve just got so many other things going on, and you’re not really able to get into any sort of deep work because you don’t have your desktop, or laptop, or whatever. It’s just a very different operating environment.
Rob: Do you still use a desktop, Mike?
Mike: I do.
Rob: Are you going to bring that with you to MicroConf?
Mike: No, I’m not. I think the 30-inch monitor would probably be hard to get through.
Rob: For the love of god man, why do you use a desktop at home and not a laptop?
Mike: I have yet to find an actual laptop that I like and like enough to take with me, that’s part of it I think. I built my desktop from hand, because I’ve always kind of built my own computers even back when I was in college. I like the hardware that went with it but at the same time, because I built this 5-6 years ago, actually no, it’s more than that because I just recently reformatted everything, but I didn’t replace any of the hardware. I’m trying to remember, I think I found a software that was installed like 2010-2011. Most of the hardware is that old. I think it’s a hex core machine. It was a top of the line Core i7 at the time. I’ve got 64 gigs of RAM in it and SSD drives. The thing is it’s still a beastly machine all things considered.
Rob: Given that it’s 10 years old or 9 years old I guess, that’s a trip. I guess my question is and it’s going to die eventually. It’ll either fail or it’ll just be too slow to run stuff. When that happens, are you going to buy or build another desktop or you just kind of pony up for top of the line, because you’re in Windows right? It’s top of the line Dell, or HP, or whoever’s making Lenovo these days.
Mike: Yeah. For a while, I’ve been using a MacBook Pro and just ran VMware on top of it.
Rob: Dual booting or VMware. Are you going to just buy a high-end MacBook?
Mike: I don’t think so. I have not heard anybody have great things to say about the newer Macs. Everybody I see talking about them kind of hates them. They’re like, “I wish I could go back to the 2013 model.” Funny enough, I actually have a 2013 MacBook Pro. I use that when I travel, but I go back and forth on this. I think the biggest thing for me is, in order to be productive, I feel like I have to have more screen real estate available to me. I run three monitors at all times. One of them is a 30-inch and a pair of 20-inch monitors. That really works well for me. Going to a laptop kind of sucks. I looked at like the Surface Books…
Rob: You can do that because I run two monitors, two 24-inch or whatever off of my laptop. My laptop is one monitor and it’s retina so it’s amazing, and then I have the two 24s, so I essentially have three. How is that different than what you’re doing?
Mike: It’s not, except that on the one laptop that I was looking at was the Microsoft Surface Book and it doesn’t have the ability to do three monitors at 60 hertz because of the bandwidth limitations or something like that for 4K monitors. They’re so close, they really are.
Rob: That’s the limitation. I wonder if there isn’t a laptop out there—you don’t need to drive three monitors, you just need to drive two because the laptop itself if it’s high-res, you can use that in the center. I have an elevated thing. My laptop is up at eye level, and then I have a remote Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that I sit on my lap, basically on a panel, that’s the center monitor and then I have two on the other side. I just need to drive two. A, will that situation work for you and B, can you find a windows laptop that can drive two 4K monitors?
Mike: I haven’t tried doing that yet. Would it work for me or could I make it work for me? I probably could, but your comment about, “Oh, eventually my machine is not going to be able to do it.” My machine’s lasted long enough. Since that time, processors haven’t gone to six or seven gigahertz. I don’t think it’s an issue of that so much as just being able to have the laptop itself. I don’t have a justifiable reason to just go drop $3000-$4000 on a new laptop.
Rob: I agree and I don’t think you should do that now. I was just wondering when your desktop fails because it will. Something’s going to happen or it’s going to get too slow in the next five years. It’s not going to last 15 years. I was just wondering what you were going to do at that point, but maybe you’ll evaluate it when you get there.
I guess the thing of just working on a laptop all the time is then when you’re traveling, you’re not in this weird environment where you don’t have your stuff and it’s not the way it is. I have a 13-inch MacBook Pro and it is the new one with the touch bar. I don’t love the touch bar but I’ve gotten used to it. When I’m at home, I have extra screen real estate it’s amazing. When I’m on the road, I don’t but you can flip back and forth between the windows and I have the exact same shortcuts, icons everywhere, the same files, everything. It’s the same hard drive.
To me, traveling isn’t this big issue. I hate switching computers I guess is what I’m saying. I figure that’s why most people have moved to laptop so they can be mobile and go to a coffee shop or do something and it’s not this step down, aside from screen real estate, it’s not a step down in productivity. That’s all I was wondering for you.
Mike: That’s something I look at. My preference I think would be able to have a laptop that can do everything that I want and needed to do and that I just have a docking station. Just plug it in and everything’s the same. I can go on the road, or go to a coffee shop, or something like that, but I don’t work well or at least I haven’t historically worked very well in coffee shops or remote locations. It’s partly because I have back problems.
For me to sit at a coffee shop or in some weird chair that doesn’t do a good job of distributing my weight, I have kind of a hard time just sitting there and trying to be productive because I’m just sitting there in pain more than anything else. Maybe that’s part of why it doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as it probably would to somebody else. But I do want to at some point be able to switch and just say I just grab the thing and go, and that’s my entire environment, and nothing’s changed, I don’t have to worry about any of the stuff that you talked about where syncing things back and forth.
Most of the time for the current setup I have like, I have a MacBook Pro but then I have a windows VM that’s running on it. I reinstall all the software there. It’s a very similar environment. It’s not exactly the same, but anything that needs to be there, I just keep it in Dropbox, or Google docs, or something like that. It’s not that big a deal and Chrome keeps all my bookmarks in the same places. It’s not nearly as painful as it probably was 10-15 years ago.
Rob: That’s what I was going to say. With Dropbox and being able to sign in to Chrome and have your browser. You’re in your browser a lot of the time anywhere unless you’re writing code so it is nice. We were talking about MicroConf and we veered into that. I’m pretty stoked man. You’re running a little mini campaign fifth edition D&D on Saturday.
Mike: I am. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve got a bunch of stuff that’s already kind of laid out. I have just a couple of things I got to send you guys. I have to do that in the next day or so. It should be good. I almost wish I could talk a little bit more about it because I think it’s going to be interesting. I’ve actually run it twice so far. It’s not like everything is completely new. There are certain places where I know that there’s a few issues to iron out, but I think I’ve got them all straightened out. I took all of your characters and I gave them to other people and said, I want you to play these characters and I wanted to see how things kind of shook out. I’m hoping it’s well prepared.
Rob: That’s cool. If you’ve done it multiple times, to me it’s like a conference talk. The second, third, and fourth time I do a talk, it just gets better and better until to the point where I get bored of it, and it starts getting worse. I think you’re still on the upswing with this campaign.
Mike: Yeah. We’ll see. I mean it’s just a simple one shot. I expect it to take maybe three—like both times I ran it before, it’s taken four hours. I got to come and tighten that in somehow.
Rob: A little bit, yeah.
Mike: I have an idea of how to do that, I’m not sure you guys will like it though.
Rob: To kill it, do a TPK.
Mike: No. Well, I could do that. The very first room you walk into, “Hey, nobody dies. Let’s go get a beer.” I was thinking something along the lines of like a timer or something like that would be like, “Hey, this is kind of timed here, you’ve got to go a little bit quicker than you normally would.” I don’t know.
Rob: There’s a nuclear bomb waiting to go off and goes off of you if you don’t get this done. Is this campaign something you came up with or is it like a module?
Mike: It’s a module. Somebody ported it from fourth edition to fifth, and then I ported it from that platform because it was made for Fantasy Grounds which allows you to play D&D online. You get tokens and stuff to drag around and stuff, but the module itself because it was ported from fourth edition to fifth edition, it’s got errors in it. That’s why I wanted to play it a couple times in advance because the very first time I run it I was like, “This is a problem. That’s a problem. This is wrong like flat out.” They’re referring to things that just simply don’t exist and the authors never went back and fixed any of it. It’s like, “Well, what’s my interpretation of what it should be or how it’s supposed to be?”
Rob: It’s going to exciting and for folks who don’t know, it’s fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons that we’re talking about which is the current edition of that. You and I have never gamed together before, so this would be kind of cool. Frankly, I got out of D&D until 4-5 years ago when my oldest son got old enough to start playing, then I had the impetus to get into it again. Did you also take a bunch of time off from it and recently get back into it?
Mike: When I graduated from high school and went to college, I think I played once once or twice. I played once in college that I remember and I might have played over the summer the year after I went to college or something like that with some friends back home. But like you, I took a bunch of time off and I started again. When they first published fifth edition, I bought the books as they came out. When those were published I think back in 2014, this was about five years ago, that’s when I got back into it and started rereading stuff.
I basically skipped from the second edition all the way to the fifth and know very little about the third and fourth editions other than what I’ve read about what the differences are between those and the fifth edition. Just because some people I play with have played the version three and I didn’t know much about it. I was trying to educate them about what the differences were, but most of the people I play with now, they’ve either played second edition or they’re kind of new.
Rob: I did the same thing. I played basic back in the early 80s and then played [inaudible 00:15:39]. When the first edition AD&D came out, we played that. I don’t think I ever played second edition, never played third or fourth. When I got back into it, let’s say 4-5 years ago, I Googled, “Coming back into D&D. I’m going to teach my kid. Should we play first edition because that’s what I’m most familiar with or is fifth edition good?” There were some really cool threads talking about the pros and cons of it.
In the end, people are like, “Fifth edition is a better,” not better, that was not the word they used, but it’s a faster rule set. The game moves quicker. It’s easier to understand for someone who’s never played it and there’s tons of new stuff being put out for. You can do either one, but consider checking out fifth edition. It’s nice that the rules are available for free. There’s a PDF that Wizards of the Coast lets you down. I downloaded it and I was blown away by the simplicity and how they’ve gotten rid of all of descending armor class, and all these tables to hit, and saving throws and stuff and it’s just come down to difficulty checks with advantage and disadvantages. It’s just really elegant to me—elegant simplifications of things.
I know folks who are used to the old stuff, adapting something new is like changing programming languages from SEED to Ruby or something, seed.net where it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is such a different paradigm.” Even if it might be more elegant or whatever, it doesn’t feel that way because it’s different. When I was 10, 12, or 14, I just had hours and hours to pour into it, invented our own stuff, and read every book, but I just don’t have that time now. It’s like, “Look, I have two hours a week maybe three hours to hammer something out. What’s fast and what’s fun to play?”
Mike: Now you can go online and there’s like random dungeon generators, and random character generators, and all the stuff, they’re fantastic tools that streamline things. I remember I used to spend an hour or two creating a character and now you can just go and use one of these tools, and you can have a character done in 10-15 minutes tops. That’s just fantastic.
Mike: I agree. I love the fifth edition rule set overall the other ones over the basic edition, the AD&D first edition, and second edition just because I think the biggest thing that I think it has going for it is that your character will get more powerful as they level up, as opposed to depending so much on items and things like that in order to make you more powerful. That’s the thing I think I disliked the most about some of the previous editions, because you could just make somebody completely overpowered at a super low level just by giving them a bunch of magic items. Whereas with this one, you’re competitive every step of the way with no magic item which is kind of awesome.
Rob: Right, it makes sense. I know we can talk about D&D. This could be a casual D&D conversation with just Rob and Mike, or tabletop gaming. Folks who don’t play D&D might have already tuned out. Those two listeners are gone. I have a question for you. Have you ever been to a conference where the opening 10 minutes, where the host gets on stage and talks about things, sets the stage so to speak, for what’s going to happen during the conference. What’s the best one of those you’ve ever seen? Have you seen any that have blown you away, I think. Obviously, the reason I’m asking you is, we have adapted ours over the years especially last year changed, the whole slide deck changed, the format changed, and stuff. I’m just trying to think about the best way to keep improving that.
Mike: I don’t know about best. I would say the most interesting one I ever saw—and I wasn’t there personally for this—I’m think this is a little bit of secondhand information. I was there the year after and I think that as a result of that previous year, things have changed in terms of policies of the company. It was at a Altiris conference back in, I want to say 2007-2009 timeframe, or something like that maybe it was even slightly before that, but the founder of the company came in through the back, and went through the aisles, and up on the stage riding a motorcycle.
Rob: Okay. Let’s talk to Xander, and on Monday, I want you to do that.
Mike: Sure. I do have my motorcycle. I could do that theoretically.
Mike: I think we may need to update the insurance, and waivers, and various other things.
Rob: And all the things, yeah, and rent a motorcycle, and get the drop to let us drive it through the hall. Alright, so that’s not helpful. That was completely unhelpful.
Mike: That’s my job here I think, to be completely unhelpful.
Rob: Exactly. Doing it 438 episodes since 2010—being unhelpful.
Mike: Yeah. I don’t know what the most interesting thing is. I mean I’ve been to conferences where the founder of whatever the business is, will come out and then give a really good opening talk or presentation, and it talks about the future, but it’s not like a 5 or 10 minute intro. It’s usually the keynote speech or something like that.
Rob: It’s a keynote, right. It’s an actual talk. Obviously, at MicroConf, for folks who haven’t been, you and I get up and we have between 10-15 minutes right at the start of the conference where we welcome everybody, we talk about what MicroConf is, we go through a breakdown of attendees, and stages they’re at, and that kind of stuff. It sets the stage for where we’re headed. Because it would be weird if everyone shows up at 10:00 AM on Monday and you and I get up and we’re just like, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jason Cohen, Chris Savage,” or whoever our speaker is and they get up on stage, because it’s not a program, it’s just a disjointed speaker after speaker. There’s no context for all of it. That’s why we’ve always done the welcome of like, “Welcome.” I don’t know. I’m just trying to think of something that’s not a keynote per se. We could do whatever we want. We can’t do it this year because the schedule is already set but next year, you and I could…
Mike: Are you looking for something different like to change it up in terms of saying how can we do this differently, or just looking for ideas of what other things, or are you just looking for validation of, “Is this the best thing for us to do or not?”
Rob: I think we should do it. I don’t think that’s part of the conversation of us not getting up there. It could be super weird if we weren’t there to welcome the people. Someone has to be there. I think we should do something. I think what we did last year was better than what we have done in prior years. I just am looking, is there anything else we can add to that to make it even better. That’s what I’m thinking about.
I think the best one I’ve seen was at SaaStr. Jason Lemkin got up and talked for maybe 15 minutes. It wasn’t a keynote, it was kind of like the state of SaaStr. He talked about the conference, and he talked about their community, and he talked about their fund, and it really was just an overview. It’s like when you think about writing a 10-page paper. You start high level, and then you dig in deep, and then at the end you come back to high level to conclude, and that’s how I think we structure MicroConf.
We have that introduction that really is this high level context setting, and then at the end, we should wrap it up with context and stuff, and we even have to structure the talks that way. We don’t tend to put a super tactical talk as the first talk on Monday because the vibe is off if you do that. That’s it. I think I might try to think back to what SaaStr’s opening was like and see if there’s any elements of that that could apply to us. We are similar to that opening and that we do set context, but I think there’s just ways to do it better.
Mike: What we do is we set context for the attendees at the conference. An idea that comes to mind—and obviously, there’s zero time to do that for this year—this is actually something that I have had an idea of the within the past couple of years like, “Hey, it would be cool if somebody kind of headed this up.” Not that I really had the time to do it, but it’s something that either we could potentially put together because of the audience and community.
But as you said, kind of give the state of self-funded entrepreneurs, or the state of SaaS applications, or the state of software in general for extremely small software companies like ours. Give a 10-15 minute overview of, “Hey, this is some of the major changes that have kind of come out over the past year. This is how things are progressing. These are things that are going on in the industry that people should kind of either be on the lookout for or be careful of. These are some opportunities that you guys might want to think about.” As opposed to what we do right now which is welcome them to the conference which I do think we still need to do that. But I also think that it would be nice if there was this extra piece there that was kind of an opening that did set the stage for other stuff. I think what that would actually probably take is doing interviews with founders, or calls, or surveys, and things along those lines to help gather information from the community to be able to compile that and show it to them.
I did a talk in MicroConf Europe in 2016 that I basically did that. I asked people for information and say, “Hey, could you submit this?” I’m basically writing a talk about it. I included a bunch of that information, but it’s not something I could potentially do like every single year so I just didn’t keep it up. I think something along those lines could be helpful and useful for the audience.
Rob: Do you know what the name of my talk is on Monday afternoon? You have not looked have you?
Mike: You know, I don’t even know the names of all the speakers.
Rob: I know. Well, we do keep a firewall between speakers and sponsors. Literally, we were talking last week I guess and I said, “Yeah, I don’t know.” I know some of the sponsors because there’s a lot of them returning, but I tend to wait until a day or two before to look through all the sponsors. Because this is our editorial firewall. Advertising versus editorial, we don’t link those two up. I don’t want that to influence decisions.
Rob: But the name of my talk is, The State of Bootstrapping in 2019. It’s not exactly what you are talking about, but I am trying to give that overview and talk about trends, and what’s happened over the past 10 years. I mean, you saw my Europe talk from eight months ago, or six months ago. It’s an expansion of that.
Mike: That would be cool. I mean obviously, you don’t want to do a one hour talk at the very beginning like that.
Mike: I don’t know how you would condense your talk into 10-15 minutes. That’s the other thing I think I would struggle with is how to gather enough data that is meaningful and useful to the audience, and present it in a short enough timeframe that isn’t distracting, or it doesn’t create a whole host of other questions.
Rob: Right. We have all these questions and then it’s like, “Alright and now our first speaker.” And people are like, “No wait, I want to hear more. That was in the middle of it. I’m so confused.” What’s up with Bluetick?
Mike: Oh, let’s see here.
Rob: Oh, that? What’s Bluetick?
Mike: What’s that? Could you spell that? I need to Google it real quick while we’re on a call.
Rob: What’s the news on that? I’m sure people want to hear it. Have you been working on it? Are you too bogged down with MicroConf stuff?
Mike: I’ve been so bogged down with MicroConf stuff and all sorts of other things going on. I think we talked about it a little bit in the last episode or the one before that. Just the timing of MicroConf and lots of other things that are going on has been so incredibly bad that I have not had time to look at it. Last week I had to sit down for a day or two and look at renewing my health insurance, because I think most people renew their health insurance at the beginning of the year and mine’s up for renewal on April 1st. I and had to call them and I’m just like, “Look, this is really bad timing.” They’re like, “We need to have this paperwork in by the 1st. Otherwise, it’s going to renew at the current rates.” I’m like, “Dear god.” It’s the worst timing.
Rob: I don’t renew my health insurance. What does that even mean? You have to reapply and fill out paperwork? I’ve never done that.
Mike: They change the plans every year. I don’t know whether this happens for everybody. They change the insurance plans that are available and the rates for all of them change as well. Sometime they will move things around. It’ll change the prescription coverage, or they’ll change what is covered under a particular plan, or they’ll change copays or which hospitals they cover. It’s just like, “Dear god, this sucks.” I have to renew by April 1st or basically, I just don’t have coverage.
It will automatically renew but because of the timeframe, I have to look at it now and figure out whether what I’m going to be doing now is the right thing or not. I was like, “Well, what about an HSA account or something like that?” They said, “Well, in order for you to do an HSA account, we have to give you entirely new plans because these are not HSA certified.” I’m like, “Oh my god.” Then there’s like a health savings account which is not…
Rob: Wait, that’s not HSA. You’re FSA, flexible spending account.
Mike: I think that’s it. Yeah.
Mike: Yeah. All these terms that are very close to one another that I’m not familiar with because I’m not in that industry. I’m just like, “I’m so confused. Why do I have to learn this right now and have 10 minutes to do it?” Like I said, it’s just bad timing and lots of major things all in a very compressed timeframe and it sucks.
Rob: You’ve been doing health insurance, taxes, prepping for MicroConf, right?
Rob: And so Bluetick is just kind of ‘blue ticking’ along?
Mike: Yeah, basically. I mean aside from the things that I talked about the last couple weeks. The webcast I’m going to be doing. That’s scheduled in late April. I’ve been doing little things here and there trying to move things along. I’ve also been doing research on the backend framework that runs Bluetick. Maybe this is a good time to talk about that, or maybe we should talk about it in the future episodes. I talked to Andrew Culver briefly about it because he is the founder Bullet Train which is essentially a framework that you can use as a starting point for your app whatever it happens to be. He takes care of all of the fundamental things like sign in, password reset, Stripe integration, and all these things. Basically, you start plugging the logic of your application.
When I was first building Bluetick and started out, I couldn’t really find anything like that, but I did find an open source project where they said, “Hey, here’s the MIT license for this,” or whatever, “and you can use this stuff.” It looked like it was pretty decent it’s just it didn’t do everything that I needed to do, and then you’re seeing some of the same library. I based a lot of stuff in on it, imported some of the code, but then there’s obviously a divergence there. They did their own thing and I did mine.
I went back and looked at it and it’s much farther along than it was at the time, and more advanced in certain cases which would actually make it easier for me to use that and plug in more functionality, but the database tables don’t line up. I’d have to port things over and deal with that stuff. I’m just like, “Is it worth it?” I’ve done a little bit of exploration there, but by porting it over would give me all the core functions or the features of just like a SaaS application would be taken cared of for me, and I wouldn’t have to worry about them. I just don’t know if I have a good sense of how long it would take to do that or whether it’s worth it. It maybe something I just do it over time and not necessarily worry too much about it.
Rob: I think the question I asked is like, to me, your number one goal right now is more paying customers. It’s ensure problem-solution fit, ensure product-market fit, and more paying customers, and this doesn’t do that. I know that it makes longer term, it’s a good call. If you run this app for 10 years, 20 years, then yeah, it’s good to be on a framework assuming that they maintain it. But I think that’s pushing off the number one priority which is get more people in your funnel, close more deals, get more revenue because that’s really the point you’re at. Just my take.
Mike: I totally agree with that. That’s why I haven’t tried to bite the bullet and actually do it. There are certain issues that the app has in terms of team accounts and things like that. I’m just like, I don’t want to go down the path of some of those things right now until I have more customers and more revenue because it’s just not—I don’t want to say it’s not important—it’s not the top priority.
Mike: At some point, I’ll do it, but I have a hard time doing it now.
Rob: I would agree. There’s always a lot of distractions like that. I think we talked about last time where customers give you more things or even you have more great ideas and you can never implement. You, as part of being a founder and making the right choice, is picking the ones that are going to have the most impact for you. It’s like, “What are you trying to impact now?” To me, it’s your top line, or bottom line, or however you want to phrase that.
Rob: Cool. I guess in the interest of time, we’ll wrap up here in the next couple of minutes. There’s some new stuff at TinySeed but it’s in that weird phase where we have all these applicants and I’m interviewing a lot of them. I’m having fun doing it. It’s super busy and then like you, trying to get taxes done, prepping for MicroConf. My talk is not done and I fly out basically in 48 hours. I know. The dirty little secret of you do enough talks, and you find that you’re closer and closer to your deadline.
I remember Dharmesh Shah at BOS years ago; it was probably a decade ago now. We were talking and we’re both doing a talk that year I believe. I might’ve been doing like a lightning talking and he was doing a full one. Anyways, he said, “Yeah, I’ll start my talk at 11:00 tonight,” and he did it the next day. I was like, “What? I’ve been prepping for weeks.” I was obviously much earlier in my conference speaking than he was. He said, “Yeah.” He typically sits until three in the morning and just writes his talk all at once the night before and that that’s kind of his best way to work.
That’s not mine because I don’t like staying up that late, but I do find that the pressure of having to get it done often forces me to really focus and ship good material. I can burn dozens of hours over the course of weeks if I have all this time to write the talk. Now the practice of it I think is another thing. I think having more time to practice does improve the talks. Off to figure out some good times to do that.
Mike: That’s something I kind of struggle with too is, getting the talk done early enough to be able to also do a lot of practice. I don’t know about you, I have little hacks and stuff that I put in a bunch of my slides where if I’m going through it—and I have a couple bullet points—if there is a bullet point that has a period at the end of it, then I know that hitting the button again goes to the next slide and things like that. Most people wouldn’t catch those types of things, but there’s little things that I use as visual indicators for myself to know what’s coming next, or to pay attention to a certain thing, or make a certain point.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. I guess the last thing for me is with TinySeed. As with any startup in the early days—here’s the difference actually is, nowadays, if I were to start a new company that’s going to build a software product, I would go to Stripe Atlas and I would form an LLC or a C-Corp through their one click thing and it creates a bank account that does all these stuff. It’s a solved problem now. I know that you’re then going to need some other paperwork as you hire employees and stuff. There’s gusto and there’s benefits. There are ways that have simplified it.
It’s not there yet with starting an accelerator and essentially an investment fund. The nature starting those is not as refined. You go straight to law firm, and you’re forming multiple LLCs that reference one another, and there’s just a lot of complexity there. Luckily, Einar, my cofounder with TinySeed, has taken care of most of that. But there have just been a few points where I’ve been involved in conversations as we’re trying to get term sheets nailed down and stuff. I had one simple question about changing one word to make things clearer and it wound up being this 10 email back and forth that got more and more complicated.
I don’t know if I wasn’t explaining myself well, but it was one of those moments where I finally said, “I give up. It’s just going to have to be complicated on the dock because to change it from pre-money to post-money would require a huge paragraph, and all these exceptions, and this huge bulleted list in what is otherwise a 10-word sentence right now.” If we do pre-money, then it’s 10-word sentence. If we do post-money, I think based on what he was telling me, I couldn’t actually understand, it just [inaudible 00:36:04] out of control. That’s the kind of stuff that is so frustrating to me as someone who is trying to get things done.
I was trying to send things to people three days ago and then it winds up being this back and forth back. We were going to jump on the phone, I know it would have helped, it would’ve been the same conversation that happened via email. I think the perpetual frustration of being a founder is, you always have these things that are just outside of your control or maybe your expertise. They get complicated and they become time sucks beyond what they should I think. I’m learning when to just throw my head up and say, “I’m going to give up on this one. I’m not going to fight this anymore. I’m not going to waste anymore time.” I think as a younger entrepreneur, I wasted a lot of time fighting against things like this rather than eventually just saying, “Look, it doesn’t really matter. Just do it the way it is.”
Mike: You raged against a machine when you were younger?
Rob: Indeed I did, over and over.
Mike: I think that that type of problem happens in general when you start a business. There’s going to be certain things that are out of your control and it sucks because you want to move fast and you want to get them done. At the same time, I think that one of the issues that you’re running into is that, when it comes to legal terminology, there’s hundreds of years of history of legal things that have happened, and there is precedence that has been set. When you say one word versus another word, it can drastically change how that is interpreted in the eyes of the courts. It sucks to have to deal with that stuff.
I don’t want to say it’s exactly like programming because with writing code, you have to be very explicit about what you wanted to do, and then what the exceptions are. But with legal terminology, there’s always—I don’t want to say ambiguity—but there’s different ways to interpret the exact same words. It kind of sucks sometimes.
Rob: Yeah. It is what it is. I know that people out there are probably not in their head. It’s like taxes, legal stuff, there are others. I don’t know, plumbing code in your SaaS app. It’s things that don’t move your business forward.
Mike: You said plumbing code and I thought the actual plumbing pipes.
Rob: That too.
Mike: [inaudible 00:38:09].
Rob: It’s stuff that doesn’t move your business forward.
Rob: That’s all I have to say. We should probably wrap it up for the day huh?
Mike: Yeah, I think so.
Rob: Most of our episodes are not this casual. We answer a lot of listener questions as well as dive into detailed and interesting startup topics. If you have a question for us call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike recap MicroConf Europe 2018. The guys go through the list of speakers of the two day event and highlight some of their key takeaways from each presentation.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be recapping MicroConf Europe 2018. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us 416.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?
Rob: You know, I’m still in Croatia. We’re taking an extended little vacation after MicroConf Europe ended a couple of days ago. Even actually the day the day this goes live next week, I think that’s a day before Halloween, we’re flying back on Tuesday in order to get the kids back for Halloween. They really didn’t want to miss Halloween.
Mike: Oh, interesting.
Rob: Yeah. About that time, we would have been here for over two weeks I believe. Maybe 16 days or something. It’s been a really fun time. I am pleasantly surprised. I found a lot of good things about Croatia. We have travelled a lot so I tend to have high expectations of the places that I go. I want them to be interesting, fun, have history, have natural beauty, have cities with cool thing, just have all the stuff. Croatia has offered that. I’m really impressed with it.
Mike: I came back yesterday. The place is amazing. I don’t even know how to put it into words, to be honest. It was just crazy how awesome the city was. I did a walking tour. I went around like a Game of Thrones tour there, so I went on that. I think Zander went on one of the six hours. Mine was only two but it was still fantastic. What I really liked about the tour was that it actually went into history of the city itself, it wasn’t just Game of Thrones because they also had a tour of the city walls that you could go on. I think it was self-guided.
But you could walk around the entire city, and of course, because the city was built in I don’t even know exactly what year, but I think the walls, they said, they think they were built anywhere between 1100 and 1400, and the city never been breached by a siege. It went into a lot of the history of the Ottoman Empire being nearby and how they were like a conduit back to them from the ocean. It was just fascinating because I’m sort of a history buff, I enjoy history, but I don’t necessarily know a vast array of history but I always find it fascinating.
Rob: Dubrovnik specifically is where the conference is. I think my favorite part of the trip, we were up North, there’s an amazing natural park, waterfalls that was great, we went to some islands, those were fun and sleepy because it’s offseason now which has been nice. I mean, the fact that it hasn’t been crowded, it’s still pretty warm, and it’s inexpensive to be here right now compared to the high season. Dubrovnik has definitely been our favorite time. I’m a wid bit […] we’re going to have been here a week by tomorrow and we’re going to extend our stay and stay for another two or three days and fly out directly from here just because there’s more to do. I went on the two-hour Game of Thrones tour as well and I had a great time. It was nice to be able to walk around and see the scenes, but also get some amazing pictures of the city. I’m impressed. Thumbs up for me.
Rob: How about you?
Mike: Well, like I said, I just got back. I’m burrowing through my emails. That’s the funny part because I’m going through and trying to clear up my email box and of course, because it’s the middle of the day, I’m still getting them in. It’s kind of brushing your teeth while eating oreos but I think I’m down to under a hundred or so right now. It’s just a matter of figuring out what to do with a lot of the rest of them and kind of […] them in and still like, “What to do? When?”
Rob: Yep, yep. It’s just getting it all, gathering it, and it’s like, “Do I throw this into Trello? Do I boomerang…” When I get back, I will boomerang things that I don’t want to log into Trello, I don’t want to put somewhere else, but I know that I need to get to it in a week or so. I will just boomerang it because I know that by that time I will have less in my inbox and I’m just trying to churn through things. I’ve kept up pretty well with email, fortunately. I got a sim card when I got here and so as we were riding on trains or ferries and boats and that kind of stuff, I’ve been trying to keep up with stuff, but it’s always tough on vacation to try to balance that.
Rob: Cool. We are talking about MicroConf Europe 2018 today.
Mike: Yeah. Why don’t we go through some of the speakers, kind of talk about the gist of what it is they were talking about, and kind of pull out some takeaways that the audience can use.
Rob: Sounds great.
Mike: The first speaker was Steli Efti and he talked about what he called, The 7 Deadly Startup Sales Sins. I don’t if he arranged or structured the talk exactly like this when he started because I know he’s given a very similar talk the past couple of weeks at different conferences, but he basically, took the talk itself and shortened it a little bit so that he could do a lot more Q&A. I thought that was a really great way to handle this especially for the size of the audience this year because he was able to really dig in and start digging into people’s specific problems and challenges that they were having about how do you address certain sales situations or how do you handle certain types of objections that other people would have, how you transition between one part of the sales process and the other, how do you get the sales team and the marketing team and the product team all on the same page. I think that was extremely helpful for the audience. He did a fantastic job.
Rob: The nice part is having a talk that I think we had slotted 35 minutes for talks and then you get some Q&A time, 35-40 minutes I think, and he went out for 20 or 25 minutes, but you can pack a lot in that amount of time. We’ve actually shortened our talk times over the years. But for our very first year, we have everybody an hour. That’s a long time to get up on stage, even including Q&A, that’s got 50 minute talk just starts to feel long. We shortened to 45 and sometimes, we do 35, and then 30, and then we found as long as we can fill the days with good content, having more of a shorter talk I think is something that works pretty well. Steli knew, he didn’t accidentally go short.
We’ve had folks do that where they get up there and it’s like, “Boom!” 20 minutes and they’re done and that’s like, “Oh, no. What do we do?” But it was not like that at all. In his first five minutes he goes like, “Look, I’m going to do a short but we’re going to do a lot of Q&A.” and there was. There were a ton of questions. He totally filled out the time. I thought it was a well-delivered talk, as you would expect from Steli. He’s a good speaker, good content, it was a good talk. I thought that was well-received.
Mike: Next we have Ashley Baxter come in from Scotland. Her talk title was, Idea to Execution and Beyond. What I found fascinating about her and one of the reasons I sought her out as a speaker was because she’s in software, she’s been a software developer, and she’s also in the insurance industry. It’s not an industry where you would think that you would probably want to go, I think for the most part. I certainly would not want to deal with the insurance industry. But her company is re-selling insurance to freelancers. She talked about how she built her business and how she grew it, and what people were really looking for, and how to dive into the idea itself, and then also expanding and really hit on the actual pain points that your customers are having, and how to use those in not just your marketing material, but how you talk to them.
She showed some extremely crappy ways of how she was gathering information from the audience that she was going after just by using a simple type form where she’s like, “Oh, people thought this was part of the process to get the information and it really wasn’t. It was just I used that because I didn’t have any feedback loop from the insurance company themselves where they were actually filling-up the information.” She gathered all email address upfront and then send them over and people just kind of thought that, “Oh, this is part of that process.” and it wasn’t. It was so she can get the information she needed.
Rob: Yeah, this was the first time I had met Ashley. When she said she was talking about insurance, I was like, “Oh, no. What have we done?” But she’s like, “No, it’s kind of a joke. I’m not actually talking about the insurance. I’m talking about doing the startup and validating it and the steps I took.” I thought her talk turned out really well. I enjoyed it. I heard some folks talking in hallway about how they enjoyed hearing her journey because it’s a little bit non-traditional. It’s not a SaaS app, but we’ve had really good talks from some folks who sell information products, some people who sell physical products. There are things to be learned and passed along across this disciplines.
Yes, you do want to do that, but when you have a lawyer write that stuff, it’s very different in terms of tone and feel when the users are reading it versus when the marketing team writes it because you are presenting your company to the users like, “Hey, this is what we do with your data and this is why you should trust us.” Not saying you shouldn’t have the legal team review it afterwards, but it depends on your starting point and it’s going to have a very different tone and feel depending on who you have offer it.
Rob: This was another one when Aleth said she was speaking about GDPR. I was like, “Well, this can go one of two ways. It can be really boring or it can be super helpful.” What I like about what she said is when GDPR started coming on our radar at Drip—this is shortly before I had moved on from Drip—I said, “Let legal worry about it.” He said, “No. If they do it, it’ll be a mess. We, as product people, know the product and legal will not. They just won’t have the experience or the knowledge to be able to do this. We need to do it first then they need to make it legal speak.” and it worked out. That’s what we did. Brendan read the whole GDPR document, it’s 200 and something pages, and it worked out really well. She wasn’t recommending you read the whole thing, but she was saying, “You, as a product person, you have to own this.” I think that’s super important.
This is similar to negotiations I’ve seen. If your company is going to be acquired, you don’t want lawyers negotiating before the stuff needs to go to legal. There’s a point where it needs in a contract, before then, keep the lawyers out of it, and either have an investment maker or a broker, of if you’re going to be negotiating yourself, you handle it. But the lawyers in general will make things complicated and they can kill deals just with their approach. They’re trained to do things a certain way and it’s not always the right way.
GDPR, it was actually a really good talk. A couple of people said it was the best talk they’d heard on GDPR. It wasn’t like walking through legislation, it was saying, “Here’s a minimum viable approach to this. Here’s the next level up. Here’s some ways to think about.” It was much more from a more experienced person, not just someone who read a boring document.
Mike: It was definitely positioned as like, “This is the common sense way to approach it for companies that don’t have unlimited resources to be able to do it.”
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. And then we had some attendee talks in the afternoon. We have four attendee talks this year and that’s where admitted topics and they were voted on in advanced based on the topic. The presenter voted in advanced who should give the talks. I thought those went well. There were 12-minute talks, we did four of them in an hour, and they tend to move pretty quick. In general, we tend to have a pretty good luck in it, so that was the case again this year.
Mike: I would agree with that. I do want to call out a special thanks to Benedikt Deicke for putting together a attendee talk at the last minute because we did have an attendee talk that who had been voted on and was going to come and do that and he ended-up having to change his plans, and wasn’t able to make it to MicroConf Europe so I contacted Benedikt a few days before MicroConf and asked him. I was like, “Do you think you could put something together? Yes or No?” and I didn’t want to put him on the spot and force him to do it, but if he hadn’t been able to, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with it. But at the same time, I wanted to give him the opportunity if he wanted to. He put together a great talk. I thought it was exceptionally well done for the amount of time that he had.
Rob: Yup, I agree. Kudos to him for stepping up and doing that. And then I wrapped the day up with my talk. I called it, I really messed with the title a lot, and I finally landed on The State of Bootstrapping in 2018. I kind of talked through my journey as a bootstrapper, the phases of doing literally six years of nights and weekends, on and off and never making more $100 a month from the stuff I launched. Then there was this three-year period where I stair-stepped up to having like a house payment type of money, like $1000-$2000 a month. Then over that three years, I got to full-time income.
I went through the phases of what that looked like for me, funding options I have like, finding being nights and weekends, it’s a day job, or you can have savings or whatever. Then I looked at the funding options that we have today because they are definitely more a founder-friendly options. Obviously, I talked about venture capital, what that looks like. I still don’t think it’s fit for almost everyone in the room. Talked about fund-strapping which of course, I’ve talked about on this podcast before. I mentioned what I believe is the next wave or next generation of funding for our crowd basically, for the the MicroConf bootstrapping community which is kind of these funds like […] VC or accelerators I’m launching with TinySeed, at tinyseedfund.com which is bootstrapper-friendly accelerator.
I talked through all that and I got a lot of good questions afterwards. A couple of people said, “I wish you’d spend more time talking about TinySeed,” and I said, “The intent was not for it to be an advertisement for what I’m doing.” It’s not, “Hey, look at what I’m doing.” because if you don’t care about that, why are you sitting in the dock for 30 or 40 minutes. I really wanted it to be helpful to you no matter what you do. If it convinced you that bootstrapping is still the best way for you, then good, at least I convinced at something. If I convinced that you should consider fund-strapping or an accelerator like TinySeed or whatever, my goal was accomplished as well.
Mike: Then we had an evening event out on the terrace right outside where the main hall was where we had the conference itself, and that was sponsored by FE International. It was an absolutely gorgeous view from there because you could see, not just down to the water, the hotel was literally right on the water, and then they have like an infinity pool there with a swim up bar and a hot tub over to the side. It was just like, you could watch the sunset.
I think the second day I was there, there were probably 15 or 20 people just sitting out there, watching the sunset, and there were a few people who took timelapse videos. There’s a couple that got uploaded into the Slack group. It was just amazing view.
Rob: The hotel was the nicest, I’d say the nicest hotel we’ve had at MicroConf Europe at and by far the best location and the best view. Everyone commented on that. Every room has an ocean view. It’s really crazy. It’s so cool to be able to do that and to do it off-season so it wasn’t outrageously expensive. It was €110 a night for these rooms that I believe are twice that, I think they’re €220 in the high season or €240 or something. It’s nice.
Mike: I would say the only confusing thing about the hotel is that because you’re basically coming in from the back and it’s sort of on a cliff, the lobby is above all the other floors. The first floor is actually where you could go down, there’s a place to eat, and you can walk out into the pool area. But the lobby is actually–I think they call it the RC level but was like 9 or 10 or something like that. It’s at the top of the hotel and so the bottom.
Rob: Thank you to FE International for sponsoring MicroConf Europe and for sponsoring that evening event.
Mike: And then on day two, we had Adii Pienaar who came in and talked about fundstrapping. He talked about how he had bootstrapped his company and then he did a seed round, and then he almost did a Series A round and decided that instead of doing that, he just didn’t have the heart to try and convince people—the VCs—that that was the direction that the company really deserved to go in. Instead of trying to spend his effort there he turned around and said, “Okay, well let me just make this company profitable and I can do whatever they want.” They cut expenses, went through a couple of rough decisions, but ultimately, he has made the company profitable and they’ve been profitable since the beginning of the year. It was nice to see that path that he took.
He could’ve probably gotten funding if he really wanted to and he just said, “You know what, I don’t have to. I’m just going to make this company profitable.” and it gave some options. I think it was a nice follow-up to the talk that you had had where you talked about the different funding options and how money makes you make different decisions and profit from Adii’s […] but also gives you an optionality that I think that you don’t always have if you take a giant pile of money and you’re trying to build a big business that needs to grow fast because of the investors.
Rob: Yup. That makes a lot of sense. His was one of my favorite talks, to be honest, because he was so raw. Talk about the emotion, the ups and downs, and really kind of told the whole story. I didn’t feel like he held anything back, he gave exact numbers, he talked about a potential acquisition, and talked about, I believe he said what the price was. It was really so cool to hear all the details and then talk like that. I really appreciated him in coming into this with both the topic and the honesty.
Mike: Next, Dr. Sherry Walling came and she talked about mainly trying to keep the alignment that you have as an entrepreneur, making sure that you are aligned both mentally and physically with the goals that you have as a human being. She talked about how entrepreneurs are basically disruptors and there’s a sense that you want to do something that makes you belong but you also want to be successful. Sometimes those things have a little bit of friction between them but having alignment across that spectrum makes things a lot easier for you.
Rob: I missed most of her talk because I was watching the kids. We have three kids here with us and it was the middle of the day, so I had them, and then I caught the last 15 minutes of the talk. When I walked in, it was towards the end. All the eyes were up on her so I knew that she was capturing the audience. People weren’t off on their phone doing Twitter and stuff. It was good. I heard good things about it in the evening events as well.
But she spent a long time trying to figuring out exactly what she wanted to speak about this year and felt like she was going out on a limb with it. I felt like it really resonated.
Mike: The third talk of day two was Simon Payne. It was the CTO of LeadPages. He had left LeadPages I think shortly before you joined. He’s brought a couple of different things. He ran ConvertPlayer and more recently he’s been involved in a company called EventsFrame which helps event organizers sell tickets, and has different pricing structures.
What I found fascinating about that is that one of the things that they did to help get it out there was they did an AppSumo deal. He’s actually done two different AppSumo deals. First one was a while back and then this one was with EventsFrame. He talked about the behind-the-scene stuff like how that worked, what the, not necessarily the specific numbers of it, but what he saw in terms of like, “Oh, we started out with a hefty amount of traffic here and then there’s follow-up emails, and this is how we dealt with people who are already using the software,” and then they saw the AppSumo deal.
You do something like that where you don’t necessarily have control over who it goes to or the messaging, you may have to deal with customer support issues of somebody who says, “Hey, I bought this at this price and now I see this thing over here where you’re offering that.” He talked about how they handled that. I thought it was a really interesting way of approaching some of the objections that people may have about that.
Rob: For sure. And then we have typically seen this. If you’re doing a SaaS app, you […] craft a different plan that doesn’t match any of the plans on your pricing page. You probably put it in between two of the plans. Whatever you do, you just make it different so there is no direct comparison. They had some clever ways of working around that as well. Overall, it sounds like it was pretty successful for them and they’re off to a good start with EventsFrame. I enjoyed the talk. I like stories, he talked about the story and if you’re thinking about doing an AppSumo deal or even any of the deal a day things, it will apply to any of them. I felt like there was some value there.
Next up was Ashley Greene. The title of her talk was, Tech Changes, People Don’t: User Research Is Your Secret Growth Weapon. She is a user-research expert, that’s what she does for a living. She’s a consultant. She talked a lot about segmenting your users and surveying them, and figuring out which folks use which features, and which folks asks for which features. I caught most of it. I was actually in the middle of, there was this conference stuff coming up, so I kept having to get up. But the pieces that I caught I liked and I could tell there were certain folks in the audience who it really resonated with.
With talks like this, about user research, some people aren’t at the phase where it matters yet or they’re past the phase where it matters although you’re kind of never past that phase. But essentially, in the early days of customer […] that’s when, I would say, matters most. As a product matures, you can still do it, but it’s definitely, I would say not as, in my opinion, not as critical or something you should do. You’re doing everyday and make something in the early days. There were definitely some people who were really focused in on it, a lot of good questions for her at the end of the talk.
And then you wrapped up the day and the conference with the talk called, I’m Not Even Supposed to be Here. What’s that all about?
Mike: Well, we had a speaker who canceled at the last minute. I was flying out on Friday and I got an email on Thursday saying, “Look, there’s some stuff going on.” I’m not going to talk about it on the podcast because it’s his story, but I totally understand why he had to cancel. I feel more bad for him that he had to cancel than me for having to fill in. But just because he wasn’t able to make it, I didn’t want to leave the attendees in a lurch so I ended-up coming up with a talk at the very last minute to basically fill the time.
You could tell me how it went, but I completely pulled it out of thin air to be perfectly honest on extremely short notice. I had to work from notes. I would say that the presentation was probably the worst talk that I’ve ever given, but given the timeframe and the zero practice and everything else, it probably wasn’t terrible.
Rob: That was the thing, you had no practice, and you literally had notes that you had learn from, so it was tough. I would agree with you. Certainly, you’ve given talks that are a lot better than it both in prep, it’s hard. The first part, you have a lot of jokes, Morgan Freeman kind of internet meme stuff, and I felt the timing on some of them was off. I think by that time, people were tired. It was two days into the conference and I think it didn’t necessarily resonate with everyone but then you went into like, “Things go wrong, what do you do when they go wrong?” You started giving examples of all the things that have gone wrong behind-the-scenes at MicroConf over the past 16 conferences we’ve run. That part was fun for me, for sure. I think people got a kick out of it. And then you went into stuff that has gone wrong with you, like health issues and such, and kind of wrapped it up with, “Here’s what we do about it. We’re entrepreneurs.” I felt overall it was a good message.
The content was good, the delivery was unpracticed. It is what it is at that point, but we need some way to wrap up the conf.
Mike: After that, we had another evening reception on the terrace again and it was sponsored by SureSwift Capital. Again, another big thanks and shout out to SureSwift for stepping up and helping us to sponsor and support MicroConf. This is the third time that they’ve sponsored MicroConf. Honestly, it’s great to have sponsors like SureSwift Capital and FE International who really just want to support the community. They want to help people be successful. They like to interact with the attendees too. I think in general, the sponsors we have at MicroConf are fantastic in their attitudes and their willingness to just come in and help. They’re like, “We just want to support this community.” Obviously, I can’t say enough good things about both FE International and SureSwift.
Rob: It’s really nice to have, like you said, sponsors that I would do business with or have done business with because then you know, I can genuinely vouch for them, I don’t feel bad about letting them come up and talk on stage for two or three minutes or ask for information or intro-ing them to people, or whatever. We would thank them up from stage like, “Thanks to these guys. They’re legit. We like them.” It’s nice to have that luxury I think.
Mike: Yeah, it’s nice for everybody I think, everybody involved.
Rob: Overall, 16th, one in the bag. How does it feel?
Mike: It feels good. I’m hoping that I will get a goodnight of sleep tonight. I just got back yesterday. I think I left at one o’clock, Croatia time. When I got home, it was 9:00 PM for me, so it was like three o’clock in the morning, something like that. 13 hours of travel, 14 hours of travel which I really shouldn’t be complaining because I know that there are some people who come into MicroConf Vegas and they travelled 25 or 30 hours to be there.
Rob: Totally. That’s the thing for me too. I don’t know if you can hear it in my voice, but I have a little bit of head cold, I’m also super tired. It’s Thursday and the conference ended Tuesday night so you’d expect on Wednesday you’d be tired, but then last night, Sherry and I just went down to the bar to literally have a drink and to have a conversation. Of course, we’ve run into some MicroConf and the we stayed way too late. I still haven’t caught up on sleep. I’m trying to make a plan to do that tonight. But it’s almost dinner time and already I’m thinking, “You know, it’d be nice to just hit the bar and just have a little…watch the sunset right now.” We’ll see where all that leads.
Mike: After the evening reception was over, there were a ton of people that went down to the —actually, I should say up—to the reception area or the lobby area because they have a bar there and they have a piano and somebody went and got on the piano. One of the attendees plays piano and he just played for like 1 hour, 1 ½ or something like that. It reminded me a lot of the very first MicroConf when Marcus got onto the piano up in Andrew Warner’s room. We were all hanging out there. It reminded me a lot of that.
Rob: Yeah, it was fun. It was impromptu. I thought it was really neat. It kind of showed the community that’s like, the conference was over, the conference party was over, and yet, there people were gathering, hanging out, talking, networking/making jokes/playing the piano and just having drinks. I thought that was nice.
Mike: I would totally agree and I would totally go back.
Rob: I know. We’ll have to see if we can pull it off again next year because Croatia sure is a nice destination.
Mike: Well, with that said, I think you should take us out.
Rob: That wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or email us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about their 10 key takeaways from MicroConf 2018.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I talk about the 10 key takeaways from MicroConf 2018. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 392.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. To where this week sir?
Mike: Well, just following-up on all the post-conference work from MicroConf. We had the two editions back-to-back again. It was an overall resounding success. Most of the feedback that I have seen has been pretty good. The conference itself has been outstanding. If you downsize in terms of certain hotel rooms and things like that, but I think generally speaking, everything went really, really well.
Rob: Yeah, at this scale, we know now that something will always go wrong with someone. When you’re moving 400-425 people, whatever it is, something is going to happen at some point. You just hope that overall—the conference, the speakers do well, and the contents there, and the attendees are cool, and everybody gets along—you just kind of try to manage it.
I felt really good about this year. This is the second year since we split Starter and Growth, and I feel like this was perhaps, had better overall conference experience this year.
Mike: I agree. I definitely agree with that.
Rob: In other MicroConf news, I realized–I don’t know but we had promoted that our 2017 MicroConf talk videos are all available for purchase. It’s $99 for Starter, $99 for Growth, or $149 for both. We will link that up in the show notes, but if you go to Vimeo, and you search for MicroConf 2017, you can just purchase it right there through Vimeo.
I sent out an email yesterday, if you’re already on the list, but if you’re interested in hearing about future videos, we sell the videos in order to subsidize the cost of the recording, because it’s no trivial feat to get a company like LessFilms to fly two guys out with all the camera equipment and hang out for four days, in essence, and then edit all that, and produce it, so we’re selling to help augment that.
If you have enjoyed MicroConf videos in the past, we do have MicroConf 2012 through 2016 that are all live for free, available on the microconf.com website. You can check that out.
Another thing is we need questions for the podcast. I think we’re down to maybe three or four questions at this point, so if you have a question for us, you should record an mp3 and you can email it at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can call our voicemail at 888-801-9690 or you can always email a text question, and we’ll read it on air.
We’ve been doing one or two Q&A episodes a month and those seem to be pretty valuable to folks. It’s nice to have other voices on the podcast. If you have questions, please send them in.
Mike: I assume that our agenda for this week is the takeaways from MicroConf 2018. Correct?
Rob: That’s right. We’re going to pull some takeaways from some of the talks. Unfortunately, I was trying to do the math in my head and I think between Starter and Growth, and the attendee talks, there were 30 different talks on stage–give or take one.
I was trying to do the math in my head, but there’s no way we could possibly talk about all the talks even though the quality of the talks this year was very, very high. I’m not just saying that because it’s a conference we run. I was really impressed with a lot of newcomers who had never spoken on the MicroConf stage, and how typically there are some misses when that happens because MicroConf is such a high-speaking bar, and it’s so different than so many other conferences, but really, people kind of crushed it, almost across the board.
We can’t possibly mention all 30 talks, but we have distilled it down. We’re going to talk about 10 key takeaways that we got. If you want to do a deep dive into the talks, there is a site, it’s at microconfrecap.com. Thanks to Christian Genco for taking copious notes over the course of that four days and then John Hwang who was helping him by recording audio files, there’s kind of like 6-minute versions of some of the talks where they interviewed speakers, and then they’re posting it there, there are photographs of the speakers. They really did it up this year in a way that makes it look really cool.
Mike: That whole MicroConf Recap site that Christian put together is absolutely amazing. You can go over there and sign-up for a mailing list that he’s got there, but every single speaker is listed. There’s all sorts of stuff there.
I was talking with him about this, he wrote an app that would allow him to basically take these notes better and put them out there, which is just amazing that he went through all that effort to be able to take notes quicker, and to be able to publish them faster, and format them in a way that actually looks really, really nice.
Rob: conferencenotes.com. I see a SaaS app in his future. It would be a rough market, but it is funny and it was cool that he kind of put it together. Across the two conference, I think we had about 250 folks at Growth, and we had somewhere around 150 at Starters. Somewhere between 400-425, I think is what we’re talking about who came through over the course of those four days.
I picked out some feedback because we’ve got the Growth and Starter surveys back where we ask attendees to rate speakers and give us feedback. I wanted to call a couple of them out. The first one, you had asked for jokes because that’s kind of our schtick, we tell kind of nerdy, programmery, and often bad jokes from stage, and one comment was, “I thought Rob’s jokes were funny and spot on.” Boom.
Mike: Was that comment from you? Did you put in that?
Rob: No. That’s a good guess. I don’t know. I didn’t recognize the name of who it’s from, but I think they were kind of implying like, “Why you’re asking for other jokes, it sounds like you guys got this dialed in.” I thought that was funny.
But then there was another comment that was like, “Any jokes but the ones Rob was telling.” It was the exact opposite. It was great.
Here’s this other–this would literally like one was above the other in the document. This is to show you, if you haven’t run an event like this or you haven’t worked with a community, the amount of information, and differing information, and differing opinions you can see is illustrated by these two things and I brought them in here because I literally read one above it and I went down, and I was like, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
The first comment is, “The Q&A With Patrick Collison, Co-Founder of Stripe was outstanding. It would be nice to see more Q&A sessions with high profile individuals.” Right below that, “The Stripe Q&A seemed really out of place and was probably the worst talk for me. It was unrelatable. If I wanted to hear about Silicon Valley, I would go to a Silicon Valley Conference.” Isn’t that kind of just where you have to sit when you have this many people?
Mike: I think it is, but I think it also illustrates a big problem that as entrepreneurs, we kind of have to navigate where you get all these information that’s coming in and some of it is directly conflicting with one another. You have to interpret or read between the lines a little bit and see how certain things feel versus what’s the feedback is that you’re getting, because a lot of the feedback that you’re getting comes from a certain point view or a set of past experiences and interests that people have.
You can’t always align with everything. You can’t make everybody happy. It’s just not going to happen, but you have to do what you believe is right even if that means pissing some people off or making them upset about what the decisions you’re making are.
It’s a tough road to navigate I think, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make the decisions to move forward. You can’t just be paralyzed and not do anything because then you’ll just never get anything done.
Rob: To realize that it’s never going to be perfect. You’re never going to please everybody and your apps are never going to be down, your conferences are never going to be down. This is our 15th time we’ve run a MicroConf and you’re always adjusting and trying to make it better.
With that, let’s dive into a few of the takeaways. I’ll start with some of the talks from Growth, in no particular order.
I really enjoyed Nadya Khoja’s talk. It was called the 12 Principles Of Viral Content. Nadya is the Director of Marketing at Venngage. It’s a SaaS app that helps you create infographics and interesting viral content in essence.
My takeaway from here is that there really can be a thought process and almost a system for creating content that is more likely to go viral. I’ve seen Matt Inman, The Oatmeal, he was interviewed by Andrew Warner of Mixergy about how do you make this stuff go viral and he was just like, “Look,” this was Matt, he was like, “I’m one of the best in the world at this. This is really hard to do.” Andrew kept trying to pull a system out and Matt just has one in his head, but he wasn’t totally able to communicate it.
What I liked about Nadya’s talk is that she broke it down into pieces. Just a couple of it—we’re not going to go through all 12, obviously—but a couple the things she mentioned were like, bust a myth, challenge the status quo, reframe the question, bring in a new perspective, mash up multiple topics like Star Wars with Game of Thrones or whatever. I enjoyed this and I also heard positive feedback from folks in the audience about it.
Mike: I think the other thing that I took away from her talk was because of her role at Venngage. They have all these things that they’re doing and they’re constantly doing that stuff. Not everything is going to be a hit, not everything is not going to go viral, but being consistent about trying these different things and putting out different infographics or making different articles, concentrated on different headlines, those all contribute to the overall success.
It’s not about whether an individual thing that you do goes viral, it’s about the number of attempts that you make and trying to get at least some of them to go viral. You don’t need to make everything successful, but as long as a certain percentage of them do well, then you’re fine.
Rob: For her, it’s pattern matching. They’ve tried a bunch of different things and this is what has worked for them, and that’s what I like. I always love those stories on MicroConf stage. It’s like coming out of the experience of someone who has actually boots on the ground doing it.
Another talk that was–well, it was the Q&A I mentioned earlier. It was Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe which, at this point, what’s their valuation, you think? $10 billion or something? $8-$12 billion?
Mike: That’s above what it is. I think I saw $9 billion but it’s almost immaterial when you get up to those many zeroes.
Rob: It’s crazy. The reason we have Patrick on stage, one of the reasons, is that he and his brother, John bootstrapped it for months and months. I don’t if it was over a year, but it was a long time before they went and raised funding and really at the core of the company is this bootstrapper ethos.
I enjoyed talking to him. I had interviewed him a couple years ago on stage. You had interviewed his brother, John last year on the Starter stage. It’s always kind of a pleasure to have those guys come into town and hang out with some of MicroConf attendees.
Mike: I do find his outlook on just the world and the technology industry very enlightening and very different, I think, from most of what you find in Silicon Valley, and most of the tech companies that are out there. They see their role as really to foster the tech community because by helping other startups, basically like you are raising the ocean, you’re floating all ships in the tech industry.
I think that that’s a really unique approach that they’re at the scale where they can do that at scale and not really have to worry about the finances and the ROI of certain things. They can just do things that they think are the right thing to do that will help certain parts of the ecosystem.
I think their Stripe Atlas program is exactly one of those things. One of the things that I thought was extremely, I’ll say gratifying in some way, but the fact that they essentially launched those on the same day that MicroConf started, and they started talking about it that day, and again, from the stage as well, it was just really nice to see that that was brought to the MicroConf community.
Rob: The Stripe Atlas LLC, right? Because Atlas had previously been C Corps. I guess, you could change stuff in the S Corps, but realizing that a lot of business just want to be an LLC and have pass through revenue and it took a lot of work for them to do this, and they basically kind of announce it at MicroConf. In essence, it was super cool.
Mike: The other thing I like is the humility of where they came from. The one quote that really caught me off guard on stage when he was talking about their early days, when they were trying to partner with one of the larger banks was he said, “We were like three squirrels in a trenchcoat masquerading as a real business.” Of course, it got a lot of laughs from the audience, but that’s, I think how a lot of entrepreneurs feel when they’re trying to pitch a big business. They’re just the small fish in the giant ocean. They have no power and they’re just sort of lying to everybody about who they are, but they’re not lying about themselves. It’s just that they feel that way.
Rob: I love that image of the squirrels in a trenchcoat. It’s just like in the cartoons. Our next talk was my talk. It was 12 Lessons I learned Moving from Bootstrapped to Venture Backed, where I talk about having bootstrapped really since 2000 was when I started bootstrapping companies and then in 2016, Drip was acquired by Leadpages and I had two years kind of looking on the inside of a venture backed company.
I pulled out the pros and cons that I felt like venture funding lent to this company. Now, I think it hurt the org and how I think it made some of the things we did a lot easier. I was less stressed and we could hire a specialist. We could hire senior talent instead of having to train everybody we could use a dedicated recruiter.
Didn’t have to worry about so much about little dollars—$100, $200 subscription. I used to spend hours and hours trying to find the cheapest thing because as a bootstrapper, every penny counts, but when you have some funding, you can be a tiny bit looser that and that saves quite a bit of time.
Mike: I think what you talked about was a really good contrast between being in a position where you can let things slip through the cracks and it doesn’t matter. I remember years and years ago, I was looking at various things that were going on in the industry. I’ve had a conversation with a support rep, or some piece of software wouldn’t work, or even when I was back at Pedestal, there was a bug that I distinctly remember, I was like, “We really need to fix this. This is a problem.” They’re like, “We’ll just push it. It’ll go out in the next release or the release after.” I was like, “But this is big. This is an important thing.” And they’re like, No, no. Later on.” I’m like, “How can you not care about it?” The reality is it’s not that you don’t care. It’s about prioritization.
I think, as a bootstrapper, your priorities tend to be around preserving money so that the business has financial room to operate versus when you’re a big business or you’re funded, it doesn’t matter so much. You can let things go until later on because they are not so large that it makes that big of an impact in the business or how it operates or customers at their tracks.
Rob: Right. I think my key takeaway, kind of the second takeaway for this episode is that you should never be dogmatic about being anti-venture or anti-bootstrapping or whatever. I did come to the conclusion–kind of in the talk that I don’t think anyone in this room should probably raise venture funding because it brings with it a board, and you lose the control, and it’s really tough but it does come with some pluses.
But that there is this in between ground that has just started to develop over the past, I’ll say, three to five years, and it’s this concept of fund strapping where you raise a small round and you never plan to raise institutional money. You only get from individual investors so you don’t have a board, and you don’t give up control, and you don’t get it to $100 millon to make a lot of money for everybody, and so that “could be” an alternative.
I was saying, at the top of my head, I was like, “I bet it’s like 5% of the people in here maybe should consider this.” Because you have to be growing fast enough, it has to be a big enough market for that to make sense, and everyone else should keep bootstrapping—just like we’ve always talked about—but this was just kind of one more alternative that gets you some of the advantages of raising funding without the disadvantages of going a true venture model because one you do venture, it’s institutional money, and the game changes.
Our next talk was How to Be Funny (Even If You’re Not): Improv-Inspired Copywriting Tips for Software Founders. It was from Lianna Patch and it was hilarious. It was really, really well-done. This was one of my favorite talks.
Mike: I agree. I would have to say it was probably my favorite talk as well. I’m not biased just because she wrote some of the copy that’s on the Bluetick website and in the Bluetick emails, but just her stage presence, her ability to break it down, and be serious about like, “These are the things that will resonate with your audience and these are the things that you should really avoid when trying to be funny in your copy.” She knew that stuff cold.
It’s obvious she practices her craft a lot and deeply understands what is going to work and what isn’t. I think that’s partly because of her improv background as well. She does a lot of that. I think she’d done stand up comedy as well, but she really appreciates the value of being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand what is going to be funny to everybody versus being deprecating about your comedy to other people.
Rob: The takeaway here—there’s obviously a lot of takeaways. Again, microconfrecap.com if you want to see the detailed notes. But the big takeaway I got is humor makes people happy. You want people to be happy while they’re using your app. It gives your app personality. It makes people give you the benefit of the doubt. I really enjoyed this talk and hope to have Lianna back at a future conference.
Mike: I do think that it was ironic that the second question that she got in the Q&A was somebody who got up and said, “I’m in the funeral industry.”
Rob: Man, that was funny. I thought that was the first question. I don’t think he meant it to be funny, but I was laughing hysterically. Her reaction on stage, it was like a face palm. She’s like, “I cannot believe that’s the question.”
Mike: She had a great answer for it though. She said, “It depends a lot on how your audience views death.” I think that’s just very insightful. That’s part of why I like her so much because she has that ability to hone in on what makes it funny and why, and when is it appropriate and when it is not. I think that that differentiates you from people who are jerks about it versus they’re actually legitimately funny. Because they know when to be funny and when not to.
Rob: Another talk from Growth that I wanted to call out was from Ankur Nagpal, From $0 To $10M ARR: The Tactics We Used To Scale Teachable. He founded teachable.com. I imagine many people listening to this have heard of it and has done a lot of hustle to get where they are.
My takeaway was he talked about, they set a pretty aggressive growth pace, and that they found things that didn’t scale every month to hit that growth pace. Then at a certain point, they couldn’t get to that point anymore. They’d have to grow $100,000 of MRR in a month and they couldn’t just throw one-off things like they were doing for the first couple of years, that’s when they had to switch into this kind of sustainable flywheel mode. There was a lot of actionable stuff.
If you want to bootstrap a business and you wanted to let that business grow it to a few hundred grand, that’s great, and this talk probably won’t be for you, there’ll be some takeaways. But if you find yourself in a space like we did a couple of years ago with Drip where suddenly it was like, “Oh, good God. This is a huge market. It’s really big. We kind of need to grow or we’re going to get squashed.” This is the kind of talk that you need to hear. It was super actionable and I appreciated Ankur sharing that with the audience.
Mike: I think it was very insightful that he also showed the scale that they’re at, it takes people to get there, because you can’t just slap together an app, and expect that three people are going to be able to build something that’s going to get to millions of dollars of revenue each year and, yes, you hear those Silicon Valley stories about people who create this app and then it gets acquired by Facebook for billions of dollars, but that’s not common. Most people never go through that. That’s a unicorn story. But unfortunately, that resonates in the news and in the tech articles that you see.
He talked about how the fact was that in order to get to 12,000 customers, it took them 64 people to get there. It’s interesting that if you look at the graphs of the revenue and stuff that he showed, it takes time, and it’s a fairly steady slope. It’s kind of The Long, Slow, SaaS Ramp of Death from Gail Goodman from Constant Contact. She had that talk at Business of Software several years ago. Almost without fail, like you talked to most founders, that’s exactly what it looks like—it’s long, slow, and it’s boring but it’s what gets you there.
Rob: The last Growth talk I wanted to call out was just such an outlier, it was really well-delivered. It was an attendee talk by Chad DeShon. He runs boardgametables.com and the title was Everything You’ve Learned at MicroConf is Wrong*—with an asterisk by it. It was a little tongue and cheek but it was the fact that he basically started a B2C company make selling physical goods with no recurring revenue.
He had points like recurring revenue is so overrated. He talks about how if you get your LTV all upfront, you have more cash coming in and your plan is overrated. It is possible to move downmarket, just listen to podcast at 1x. He says, “Seriously, you don’t have to cram information into your ears as fast as possible. Take a deep breath and relax, it will be okay.” It was great. It was filled with humor but also, it’s a nice sanity check on the stuff that we pour out that yes, it is best practice and will get you to the multi-million dollar SaaS company or the hope you grow, whatever. He had another lens on it and I felt it was a bit of a breath of fresh air in his 12-minute attendee talk.
Mike: I think Chad’s real point is just that just because something is best practice information or that it’s a general practice that most people should follow, doesn’t mean that it’s an absolute, concrete rule that everyone needs to follow, and that will always work. There are cases like his where those things will not work or there are exceptions that you can leverage based on what your product is and what your industry is. You can still do what you want and be successful if you are mindful of those other things–those general practices, but don’t take them as absolute law.
Rob: Then switching over to Starter, in the interest of time here, this is really is a bummer, man. I wish we could talk about more of the talks because there were a lot of other exceptional talks that were given at both conferences. I wanted to kickoff Starter by giving a big shout out and a thank you to Justin Jackson. He emceed and he had basically the kickoff talk that kind of sets the stage for MicroConf. It’s a ton of work to emcee a conference, you and I know, and so to ask him to do it—volunteer basis—it was super cool that he was able to do it and he did a great job.
The first talk was Justin’s. It was called, An Unconventional Way to Validate Your Product Idea. In typical fashion, he tells a story, he talks about choosing the right customer is more important than what you sell, starting small is always almost better than going big, on and on. Other stuff that was, I think, really pertinent to the Starter audience.
I really liked the way he thought about there’s product market fit, product founder fit, and founder market fit, talking about what do you value? Do you enjoy this market? Then talked about customer resource. He kind of laid out a blueprint for validating. I think the talk was quite well-received.
Mike: Definitely, a big thanks to Justin. I do appreciate that he came on stage and he said the things that are not necessarily directly related to making the business itself successful, it’s making sure that it’s successful for you as well. Because as you said, the founder market fit, that’s a big thing. If you get bored by a particular product or industry, you’re not going to want to do it, you’re going to be less motivated.
I think that other founders have talked about that in the past in certain public and potentially non-public areas. I’m not going to name names or anything, but that can definitely happen. If you don’t really like what it is that you’re doing, it’s really hard to be motivated to go through those tough times, and it’s easier to give up.
Rob: Another notable talk was from Adam Wathan, it was called Nailing Your First Launch. Also, good story with actionable takeaways, talked about launching essentially information products about teaching people how to use Laravel, and testing their Laravel, and that kind of stuff, and in just two years, he made about $650,000 from his info-products, kind of a not a cold start but almost. He pulled things in, he pulled my stair-step approach in, he talked about building an audience but gave super actionable things, of actual screenshots of tweets, and kind of what works, talked about picking an idea, testing it, and on and on. This was one of the talks that I heard the most about at Starter–that people loved. It was almost like a case study but it was entertaining as well, so it wasn’t dry. He just had a ton of info here.
Mike: I think part of the thing that resonated with most people is that it was starting from ground zero because most of the people at Starter are at that very, very early stage–anywhere from, “I’m still looking for an idea,” all the way up to, “I just launched but I’m certainly nowhere close to making a fulltime revenue on it. It’s going to a while before I get there.” I think Adam’s talk really resonated with a lot of people because it demonstrated how to get some of the growth and some of the different levers that you could toggle in order to get, and it’s obviously not all of them, but an info-product is a lot different than a SaaS product.
Being able to have the confidence that, “Oh, yes, it’s just a book or just a course,” but $600,00 over the course of two years is nothing to sneeze at. I think that that message alone resonates with people to be able to get to that point in only a couple of years versus the people who sit there and say, “Well, I’d really like to start a business but I’m not sure about it,” and it takes them five years or even 10 years to even pull the trigger and do something.
Rob: Another notable talk was from Alli Blum who has appeared on this podcast, title was, Why (and how) to start thinking about teaching people how to use your product… even if it isn’t built yet. She went deep into onboarding which is her area of specialization.
She calls herself a SaaS onboarding optimization consultant and so she’s knee-deep in tons of SaaS apps. She talked about the mistakes she sees that are super common, the vacation photos approach, the too much too soon approach, the bad intern approach, and then she talks about how to improve upon that, and how to keep it simple, but then really dives into the nuts and bolts of how to put your email together, and then the impact that can have, and then kind of had a case study at the end.
Again, what I liked about this is it was a process, and a very specific instructional thing that if this is the problem you’re trying to solve right now, this is like mind blowingly applicable.
Mike: I think that the whole email onboarding process is something that can be difficult to figure out when you’re first doing it because there’s so many things you could do. It’s a question of where do I start, what should I say here, how do I fit all these pieces together, and you can very easily find yourself in a situation where you’re going too far in a particular direction and you’re not thinking strategically about the whole picture of bringing somebody on-boarded into your app, so you go too far on one direction or the other. Alli’s talk was a great way to balance those things out and provide that instructional manual or the roadmap to tell you, “This is how to do it. These are the steps to go through and this is how it will work for you.”
Rob: Another talk I wanted to call out was from Mr. Mike Taber. It’s called Following up… Without looking and feeling like a dirt bag. You talk about email follow-up, why to do it, what happens on the other end, and why don’t we follow-up. This, of course, is from all your experience with Bluetick. How did you feel about your talk?
Mike: I thought it went really well. I gave a version of this talk in FemtoConf a couple of months ago. I did make some changes to it based on the feedback that I got. Overall, it was still largely the same talk, I just cut out pieces that were irrelevant or didn’t make much difference. I definitely spruced up the slides a little bit more this time around because I think before, there were some things that I think weren’t necessarily as clear, and the new presentation I think helped.
Rob: The key takeaway for me here was you had the four pillars of follow-up success. The first is when to send, second is personalization, third is clearly defining a single action you want to take, and the fourth is to automate it so you don’t have to sit there and do everything yourself.
Mike: I think that last piece there is the one that most people don’t really get to. They don’t systemize it or processize it so that it makes sense and can kind of operate in the background because most of the times, I see people coming over to Bluetick to use it. They’ve done a few follow-ups here and there, but lots of things start slipping through the cracks and that’s really why you need to have a process or a system in place that’s going to help prevent those types of things, because everytime you don’t follow-up on an email, whether it’s the third or fourth one, that’s what’s going to cost you the money.
Rob: Another talk that I thought was quite well-done was Marie Poulin’s talk. It was called The Sustainable SaaS: What Permaculture Can Teach Us About Building Software. She’s in the midst of co-founding a SaaS herself. She has online courses. She has all kinds of stuff, and so again, was able to pull from her experience.
Permaculture, if you’re not familiar with it, it’s a set of techniques and principles for designing sustainable human settlements. It’s a lot about like farming, and gardening, and keeping things so that you don’t need a bunch of outside resources in order to live. It was cool that she kind of had her timeline, 2014 through 2018 of these missteps, and how they line up with things that you would do on permaculture. It was a running metaphor the entire time.
Mike: As a running metaphor, I think it fit really well because the audience itself at MicroConf, whether you’re talking about the Growth edition or Starter edition, the vast majority of these people are coming because they want to build a life for themselves and their families that is going to be sustainable over the long term.
They’re not looking to come in and find a market, build something, get a bunch of money into it, and flip it in two years, three years, four years. They’re looking much longer term and it’s not to say that they won’t sell it in two, or three years, or fours years, but they’re trying to find something that’s going to be sustainable for them moving forward, that they can build a life around that allows them to do the things that they want to, and have the freedom of flexibility that being an entrepreneur should be able to give you.
Rob: The last talk from Starter is Courtland Allen’s talk, Navigating the Startup Landscape. Courtland Allen who has also appeared on the show, he founded IndieHackers, they’ve been acquired by Stripe. He and his brother now work for Stripe and run indiehackers.com. I thought he nailed it. He compared starting a startup to this four different landscapes. One is like an airplane taking off, one is panning for gold, one is climbing a rock wall at a gym, and he had these pretty deep metaphors that run well.
He talked a lot of the myths and that’s what I appreciate about him. He’s done, I think he said 300 or 400 interviews with startup founders. If you go to indiehackers.com, there’s this big wall of apps and revenue, and all that kind of stuff. He’s kind of pulled that out between him and his brother have pulled that out of all of these people. To me, I loved hearing the myths of like, “Well, this is probably how you think. You think that Dropbox just started growing because they had this dual referral system and that’s what everyone always talks about. Here’s what it actually look like,” and then he called some other apps where the common myth is that they grew through this one big thing.
Hotmail, with their email link and the footer or Airbnb where they added photographers and hockey sticked them. It was kind of like, “Yeah, it helped.” But there were also 50 other things they were doing really doing well and they had a huge team of people constantly executing, and eventually they just hit critical mass.
I appreciated the reality check and I also thought his talk was really well-delivered. I thought the metaphor held up and I thought the analogies helped me kind of understand the content better.
Mike: The one I actually thought was really funny in his talk was the startup runway of almost certain death. He had a picture of an airplane going off of a cliff and on the other side of the cliff, there’s an ocean, and it’s got a shark jumping out of the water, and there’s snakes, and a wall of spears, and fire. It was just very on point, I’ll say.
Rob: Yeah, that was cool. Two more MicroConfs down, sir. 14 and 15, I think it took a lot out of both of us this year.
Mike: Yeah, definitely for sure. Although, I do want to say there’s one other thing that we did this year that we have not done at scale in the past, which was we instituted the scholarship program for Starter Edition.
Of all the things that have happened this year, I’m probably most proud of that one because it was a lot of behind-the-scene stuff that we really didn’t talk about on the podcast, and we didn’t talk about or market too much because I was still trying to figure things out. But we had a bunch of sponsors who stepped up and really helped make it happen. I think that it’s something that we could do more often moving forward. In the past we’ve had individuals do it, Patrick Mackenzie has done it a couple of times.
We’ve obviously offered sponsors quietly in the background because we can’t help everyone, but there are certain situations where it feels warranted and you really just want to do the right thing and help people who are in a position to help themselves but they just need that little extra push.
I want to send a big thanks out to Stripe, Sureswift Capital, Brian Marble, Scott Nixon, and Balsamiq Software, and Azlo for helping put the scholarship program together and make it possible for, I think it was between 12 and 15 scholarships that we gave out this year for Starter Edition. Definitely, a big round of thanks to those guys.
Rob: Sure. You know man, you obviously headed this part up, I know you put a ton of time and energy into it, so thanks for doing that. I think it’s a huge win for MicroConf and I think it’s a big win for the community as well.
Mike: I think, with that, we’d call it a day. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com.
Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike share tips for attending conferences. They discuss things to do before, during, and after a conference in order to get the most out of the event.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about pro tips for attending conferences. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 389.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How are you doing this week, Rob?
Rob: Doing alright. I was just thinking, the subset 389 man, we have 11 more episodes until episode 400.
Mike: That’s insane.
Rob: What kind of cray-cray celebration are we going to do for 400?
Mike: Or what sort of group therapy are we going to have for the people who listen to 400?
Rob: I hope that there is no one out there who’s listened to all 400. That would be catastrophic.
Mike: We should have Sherry come on and just do a group therapy session for Episode 400. I think that’d be prudent.
Rob: I agree. If we just said 30 minutes per episode, that gives us 200 hours, which is 8.33 days straight. Whereas if you stayed up, you could hear the entire journey of this eight years and eight days, wouldn’t that be crazy?
Mike: Yeah. I don’t know if anyone would even attempt that.
Rob: It wouldn’t just be crazy, it would be clinical, you should get committed for trying to do something like that.
Mike: Yeah, definitely, definitely.
Rob: But we do have 595 worldwide iTunes reviews. You know what I’m going to ask you, the listener, to do? Get is to 600. Seriously. In the next couple of days, this comes out on a Tuesday, I would love that by Friday of this week, we’re over 600 reviews. Some of our recent reviews include awesome show, highly recommended from [00:01:52], he says, “Rob and Mike are truly two of the best in the biz at expertly extracting those bits of gold listeners are looking for.” We really appreciate reviews of course, and it does help us spread the word, keep us motivated to do it. Right now, we are accepting five star reviews, five stars reviews only, and look forward to seeing that number tick over to 600 well before our episode count/ticks over the 400. How about you, what’s going on?
Mike: I’m still doing a lot of stuff to prepare for MicroConf but last night I drove into Downtown Boston, into Cambridge and went to Wistia. They had a panel of people discussing how to use video and your marketing efforts, and different ways to use to it, different parts of the funnel that you can address to it. It was very interesting, it was nice to get some perspective from people who are actively doing it a lot as opposed to just reading around certain things. I wouldn’t say that it was a course, but it was definitely a crash briefing on things to pay attention to and edge cases that you might run into. It was cool to meet everybody there as well.
Rob: Oh, that is fun. That’s always nice to get out and go to events like that. I really enjoy those, as long as there’s at least some cool people to meet or some type of cool presentation that’s given out that provides value and gets me thinking about things. I do enjoy hitting up a local event just to see who’s in town in my field every once in a while.
Mike: I did get some laughs when people asked me why it was that I came in for that. I said, “I haven’t left the house all weekend. Figured it was about time.”
Rob: Yeah, totally. Alright, what are we talking about today?
Mike: In preparation for MicroConf, I thought it’d be a good idea to go through some pro tips for attending conferences and I know that we’re probably going to give some advice about attending MicroConf specifically but there’s also a lot of general advice in terms of how to approach going to a conference. This isn’t something that I think we’ve talked about specifically before. We’ve touched on it in a couple of episodes here and there but we never really just sat down and gone through what sorts of things should you do in preparation for going to a conference. Whether it’s a business conference, or a developer conference, or marketing, or what have you. I thought it’d be good to go through that stuff and give our own take on it since we do run a conference.
Rob: Cool. Let’s dive in.
Mike: Some of this is loosely based on an article from Justin Jackson, he specifically talked about MicroConf. We’ll link that up in the show notes. I did want to call that out before we get started into this. The first thing that came to mind when I was putting together this list was making a point to look up what the weather is in advance and plan accordingly. I just think that I remember last year at MicroConf where it was late at night on I forgot how far into the conference we were but we were standing outside and it was freezing. It was not something I had actually thought about doing because I was like, oh, it’s Vegas, it’s a desert, it’s going to be generally warm and I hadn’t realized how much earlier in the year it was and how much of a cold wave was going through the country at that time, I did not dress accordingly for it.
I think that that’s the thing that I would say is pay attention to what the temperature is and actually go look at it, don’t just assume that it’s 70 degrees and it’s sunny because it may not be.
Rob: Yeah. That’s a good point. Especially the desert gets really cold at night. I’m just looking at the forecast for the next week in Vegas and highs are all 80s and 90s but the lows get down 61 and when it’s 61 and it’s dark and there’s no sun and the wind’s blowing, it’s pretty dang cold. Have some type of long sleeve because often aside from just my collared shirts, I don’t tend to think about bringing a long sleeve shirt to Vegas, but of course, in this case, you’re going to want some type of light jacket or windbreaker or something.
Mike: And also because it’s a desert, you have to pay attention a little bit to the climate because it does get cold and because it’s a desert and so dry, you have to bring ChapStick or lip balm or something like that. It’s something that I just happen to keep it in my jacket at all times anyways so I never have to think about it, but if you’re not the type of person who travels a lot or just keeps it around, it’s definitely worth thinking about stuff like that.
Rob: Yup. What I used to do is I used to get to Vegas and then my lips would get all red and chapped and then I would start applying it, and my lips look like Ronald McDonald’s lips because they were red and then they were all glossy. What I do now is bring it with me, from the moment I hit the ground, I start applying it, and that’s worked for the past three or four years. I also drink a ton of water. I bring my water bottle and pretty much a refillable one. From the time I hit the ground, I’m just chugging water constantly.
Mike: The other thing is that there’s also the opposite problem sometimes where if you go someplace and you don’t have gloves, for example, when we went over to FemtoConf in Germany. It was cold enough that it started to snow in certain cases. It’s like you have to just bring the things that you need for that type of weather. Even if you don’t think that you’re going to be outside very much, make sure that you have those things available and consider them before you even walk out the door. I’d say the bulk of the first third of this particular podcast is going to be to all the things that you should do before the conference, before you even get on the plane to go there.
Rob: Another thing you want to think about is spend time in advance to consider your goals for the conference. Think about if there are specific people that you want to meet. You can research attendees, you can look at the speakers, and make it a point that you introduce yourself or try to catch a meal with somebody. Think about the types of relationships you want to establish. Who can you help and who can help you now or in the future because that’s one way to make a conference so much more valuable is to be really deliberate about who you are going to hang around with and who you’re going to surround yourself with while you’re at the conference.
Of course there’s always serendipity, especially at a really focused conference where everyone is doing interesting things. Almost everybody you meet is going to be a fun conversation. But I’ve got to get more value myself out of conferences when I look at the speaker list, look at the attendee list and really pi point who it is that I want to talk to and about what.
Tacking onto that, also I think of two other things, one, are there any questions that you want answered? Are they questions you want to just ask a bunch of people, do you want to ask a specific person, do you want to ask knowledgeable people? I know that Harry and Ted from Moraware Software do a really good job at this. They come each year to MicroConf with a question that they are thinking through, and they get a bunch of knowledgeable opinions on it and I’ve heard it helped shape their decision making.
And then finally, are there any topics that you really are interested in discussing, even though it’s not a question you have but something that you think is going to be relevant to attendees.
Mike: Or if you just want to use somebody as a sounding board because you have a particular thought in mind about hey, there’s a problem that I have, or some sort of challenge that I’m facing. I’d like some external opinions on it. If you’re working at home, or at a remote office, or remote office environment where you go to work and you sit down and you don’t really talk to any co-workers all day except over Slack or email or anything like that, it can be very isolating and you don’t get the benefit of having brainstorm sessions or a lot of external input into your thoughts and thought processes. It’s very helpful to have those topics in mind and written down so that you consider them in advance instead of, “Hey, I want to get other perspectives on this,” and then take them to the conference and hash it out with people, just to hear what they have to say.
Another thing to do is to do some pre conference networking and try to find out who’s going to be there. If there is a conference coordinator that is putting things together, whether they have an online community or something like that that they’re building, or a Slack chat. Anything along those lines, it gives you a sense of who else is going to be at the conference. Try to find out who’s going to be there and reach out in advance of the conference to people that you really want to spend some time and meet.
Whether they are new people that you want to introduce yourselves to, or you’re searching for people who are experts in this particular field or situation, you can always go out to that list or that community and ask them like, “Hey, can we schedule breakfast or lunch or chat for a few minutes?” Even if you just want to put your name on the radar so that they’re actively looking for you and if you happen to be in a conversation, they say, “Oh, I remember I got an email from you or a message from you and you wanted to talk about X.” Just being able to put your name directly in front of them with a message that says, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about this. I’d love to chat about this for X minutes or whatever.” That will help you establish some of those relationships.
Rob: Another thing is to research local travel and potential scams or things that could trip you up. A few years ago, Vegas didn’t allow Lyft and Uber into the airport. I think before that, they didn’t have Lyft and Uber, they didn’t allow it within city limits. And then they eventually allowed in the airport, and now, it’s everywhere. You can take a Lift at the airport. But before then, it was either a shuttle, or you can just grab a cab, and it’s so close to the airport, it was not worth doing a shuttle because it took a lot longer. It’s things like that that can save you a lot of time and a bit of money.
And then another thing is, talking about potential scams or whatever, before we went to Portugal last year, I was reading through the Lonely Planet and they said pick pocketing is really big there. That just made me more aware to have everything zipped up. And then you had mentioned that the cabbies that drives south out of the airport, they go this long way around right on the freeway, it’s a much longer fare because it’s almost right next to the airport.
Mike: Yeah. That was a classy scam several years ago before Lyft and Uber came around because what would happen is that people would get into a cab and the cab would say, “Do you want to take the highway to the hotel or do you want to go north?” They wouldn’t really give you a clear indication that the highway is actually south out of the airport, then you have to go all the way around. They would really just basically scam you because they could.
I remember that specifically happened to Andrew Warner because he wasn’t paying attention back in 2011 and he was telling me about it afterwards. I was like, “You totally got scammed by them.” Which sucks but at the same time, you wouldn’t know that unless you actively looked for that, either behavior or things to watch out for.
Rob: Another thing to do is to install or update the conference app before you leave. Often, conferences will issue a new app each year or you can update it and get the updated content and that’s certainly something that you can think about. You can obviously do that on site too, but I know that before I leave, I’m downloading a bunch of shows for the plane, I’m downloading any new games or anything to play on the plane but that’s less about for the conference and more just about the travel.
Mike: Yeah. But I think it’s important to make sure that if you have a bunch of updates to your apps, or your phone, or your laptop that you get those things taken care of before you hit the road so that you’re not trying download stuff over wifi because you don’t always have a lot of control over what gets downloaded when or what’s updated first or you may not even have a lot of bandwidth to work with. Like oh, I suddenly need to install this app so that I know where to go next, and then all this other stuff is in the way and taking precedence then you have to wait a heck of a lot more time to get it done.
Another thing to make sure you have taken care of is your passport and travel documents of any kind. Make sure that they’re up to date before you leave. I have heard of people who’ve forgotten to get that stuff taken care of before they go for a big trip that they’ve been planning or they planned three months, six months in advance, and they didn’t think about that, and then suddenly the night before or the day of, they realize oh, this stuff is out of date and it’s going to take three weeks to get it taken care of and I can’t go. Be mindful of those types of things as well. Because there’s literally nothing you can do at that point. You can’t argue with TSA agents, for example, if you’re trying to go to another country.
Rob: Yeah, that’s brutal. I’ve heard of few friends who’ve had that where their passport expired or even if it expires within six months or something, and when you’re travelling, it’s pretty crazy. That would be a serious bummer to have to cancel a trip or miss a conference because of that.
Another thing to think about is figure out, potentially even rehearse your answers to common questions like what are you working on, what do you do, what company are you with, what are you hoping to get out of the conference. Just think about that stuff in advance so that it couldn’t come as a shock, you’re going to get asked the same thing over and over.
And, think about what questions you want to ask of people. Often times, I will try not to ask the same questions that everyone else does. Typically, I want to get to what are you working on, what’s really interesting you right now. I’ll often ask people what books they are reading or listening to to try to get more ideas, or what their favorite podcast is. Just because people like to talk about themselves and share their knowledge, and if it’s something new that I haven’t heard, that’s good. I totally want to add it to my content queue if you will. That’s a perfect place to do it because I’m surrounded by people that are similar to us, they’re one of us in essence.
Mike: The opposite of that is also true. Make sure that you have some ways to gracefully exit a conversation whether it’s hey, I need to go get a drink, or use a restroom, or you need to go take a phone call, or make a phone call to somebody, to call your spouse or significant other, or you just see somebody else that you really wanted to meet and you need to step out of the conversation and go talk to them.
This is more about protecting your time and making sure that you get the most out of the time that you are there. Because sometimes there’s a conversation going on and it’s not like you don’t like the people that you’re talking to or you don’t appreciate the things that they have to say but you have other things and other priorities that you need to pay attention to and your time is one of them. Because your time at that event is very limited and it will be over before you know it.
Rob: That’s a big deal. Don’t get cornered and get stuck talking to someone that you don’t have anything in common or the person is just talking too much and it really isn’t providing value. Like you said, you only have a limited amount of time. It’s not all about take, take, take. It’s about giving some value as well. But there are just some conversations that are mutually awesome and you know that’s going somewhere and you know that it’s valuable. Other ones, they just wander and you realize this is just mindless and I don’t really want to do this. Really be mindful and figure out how you’re going to gracefully exit those kinds of conversations.
Mike: Now we’re finished talking about the things that you should do before the conference, let’s talk about the stuff that you should pay attention to at the conference. You already mentioned this, the number one thing I think is to stay hydrated and there’s a corollary there which is to also get enough sleep. But with the hydration, if it’s the type of conference where you’re going to be talking a lot, you’re going to find yourself dehydrated. Make sure that you are drinking enough water to get you through the days.
There are certain environments, like a desert in Las Vegas, that’s going to amplify that. It’s going to make you even more dehydrated, so does alcohol. You have to be careful about that stuff because it’s very easy to go to a conference in Vegas and I’ve had this happen to myself where I didn’t drink anything alcoholic, it was just water, I didn’t drink enough water though. I woke up the next day and I felt hungover even though I hadn’t had anything to drink. That’s just going to impact the rest of your day. You do have to pay attention to how much water you’re drinking.
Rob: Big time. It’s easier said than done to say get enough sleep, but I have really found that I enjoy conferences more when I am at least getting seven hours of sleep and I can feel rested getting into it, otherwise I’m sitting in a ballroom for seven to eight hours, and I’m tired and not listening. You’re not getting a ton of value from things anymore.
It’s easy to hang out especially when you’re at a conference with friends, and colleagues, and relationships that you’ve built and you only see them once or twice a year. I think that making a graceful exit at midnight and getting your solid eight hours. That’s something that we’ve done past couple of years with MicroConf is we moved the start times of all the conferences to 10:00AM, and I actually think that was a really good idea because we’ve gotten positive feedback about it, about how people have time to get breakfast together, especially people who are on later time zones, Central or Eastern time zone. But it also just allows if you do stay up late, it’s just gives you that a little bit more leeway. You could feasibly wake up at 9:00AM and still have a nice breakfast and get to the conference on time.
Mike: What do you mean feasibly? I think we do that, don’t we?
Rob: That is what I do. I was trying not to be too overt about it, but yes. I’m not embarrassed to say, even though I should be on Central time, 9:00AM is like 11:00AM for me. I think last year, I had to set my alarm for 8:30AM and 8:45AM both days. All four days of the conference just to make sure that I didn’t sleep through it.
Mike: One thing that I found to be a little bit less valuable over time is taking notes at a conference. I used to be the type of person who go to a conference and I would take pages and pages of notes. What I realized overtime was that I was writing down stuff but not necessarily paying attention to how important it was or whether it was new to me. I’d have these pages of notes and a lot of it turned out to be irrelevant, but I was writing it down just because I felt like I should because the speaker had said something or commented on it.
I was trying to create almost a transcript of what they were talking about and the reality is if you already know that stuff, don’t bother writing it down. Only write down the stuff that is new, or that you find insightful, or if an idea pops into your head and you find that it’s going to be actionable. Those are the things that you need to write down because you will probably forget them later on. But the stuff that you already know, there’s no need to write that stuff down.
In addition, there’s usually other people who are taking notes or there may even be an official note taker for the conference, a lot of speaker make their slides available for after their talks, definitely write down the URLs for those, or get them from the conference afterwards if they’re collecting them and just distributing them. But don’t feel compelled to write down every little thing that the speakers say. Just write down the stuff that’s important.
Rob: Another thing to consider is to think about asking questions during speaker Q&A. It’s a valuable opportunity to get interesting feedback. Obviously, be respectful of time and whether an answer to your question is generally applicable to other people. You can always follow up with the speaker when they’re off stage.
I do think that part of the beauty of a conference is everybody is in the same room. One way to bring value is to ask interesting questions. That gives you an excuse to then follow up later if you ask a question a speaker answers in general and you can come up and say, “Hey, I actually have this specific thing I want to talk to you about.” But if it is generally applicable, it can be helpful to the whole audience. I think that’s good to give back to community in that way.
Mike: A really nice way to stand out in the minds of the speakers who are presumably leaders in the community is to thank them directly if you found what they were talking about helpful. I would obviously encourage people to put feedback into the conference surveys but I think that for most speakers, it’s really helpful for them and gratifying to hear that somebody got a lot out of their talk. Definitely make it a point to thank them and if you have follow up questions, don’t hesitate to ask them after the talk, especially in situations where if you have a question that you think you might want to ask during the Q&A session but you realized that that question is so very specific to your business, or your particular problem, then save that for a later conversation when you’re not going to be using other people’s time to hear an answer to a question that just has no bearing or relevance on them.
Rob: Another thing to do is to make sure that you are social. It’s easy to go and lock yourself in your hotel room and watch this week’s episode of Walking Dead instead of hanging out. If it’s a good conference, the hallway track is worth almost as much as or more than the actual speaker track.
With that said, I will say know your limits. Get out and meet people. There comes a point where that’s demising returns and you can become so tired or so over stimulated or overwhelmed that you’re no longer having fun and you’re no longer really getting that much value.
I think there’s a balance to be struck here. I do notice that as I get older, and as I go to more conferences, I’m still quite social but I don’t do the 4:00AM nights like the early MicroConfs. Maybe that’s just a factor of sleep but I definitely get my fill of conversation earlier than I did maybe seven or eight years ago.
Mike: Moving on to the last section of this is after the conference is over, take some time to follow up with the people that you met. Whether you exchanged business cards or contact information.
It was funny last night, when I was at the Wistia event, there were a lot of people there who would ask me for business cards, I’m like, “I don’t have business cards.” Certain conferences you go to, that’s the expectation and then there are certain ones where it really isn’t. But if you are exchanging contact information with people because you want to talk to them later, or follow up on a business opportunity, or ask them more questions, definitely make sure that you follow up with them and help maintain those relationships that you started with them and you can maintain those relationships over time. Don’t feel that you can just let those lapse because I think if you let more than a couple of weeks go by once a conference is over, and you’ve met somebody, I think it starts to become more awkward to reintroduce yourself to the person and you feel weird about reaching out to them. The earlier you do that after the conference is over the better.
Rob: Another thing to do after the conference is review your notes to see if you need to fill in any gaps. That’s a great thing to do on the plane. I’m assuming you’re going to take notes locally, you probably have no internet, it’s a great time to sit and think back, are there any takeaways or any people that I met or any things that I want to take away that aren’t in these notes? Because I like my notes to capture the entire event and really be able to refer back to them and refresh everything that came out of it because it can spark new information later when you view it through different eyes if you look at it 6 months or 12 months from now. Be sure that your notes are buttoned up and they don’t have to be super professional, but at least in a format that you feel like you can interpret them in 6-12 months.
Mike: Another thing I’d highly recommend, and this comes from the stance of an event coordinator but make sure that you fill out the conference surveys. I say this not just because it’s a nice thing to do but a conference is not going to get any better if you don’t provide them with helpful feedback or at least with a good sense of where their conference did well and where they didn’t. If you don’t give them an idea of where they stand, then it’s very difficult for them to make decisions that will help improve things moving forward.
Rob: And then finally, I think it’s helpful to reflect, especially if this is the first or second conference you’ve gone to. Reflect on your time there and make a few notes about what you feel worked really well and things that you regret that you did or didn’t do. Let’s just be honest in Vegas, there’s a lot to regret that you did. Use the list. Honestly, use the list to improve your ROI on conferences in the future. Without reflecting and looking at your process figuring out what worked and what didn’t, it’s hard to improve upon that in the future.
Mike: I don’t think that the things that you regret doing or not doing are limited to just being in Vegas. One thing that comes to mind is there has been conferences where I’ve gone to where I stayed up way too late involved in a conversation that really was not of any value to me. I ended up being extremely tired the next day, for no good reason. I felt like I’ll stay up because of the people here and you really have no obligation to other people to stay involved in a conversation if there are other things that you could or should be doing like going to bed and getting some sleep.
Rob: Yep. I’ve done that. I’ve stayed up too late, I have done the wasn’t social enough, didn’t meet enough people, wasn’t deliberate enough about picking up the people in advance that I wanted to meet, a lot of things in this list, I have certainly made those mistakes. With that, go to your next conference, enjoy it, and get the most value that you can, we hope to see you at this MicroConf happening next week or MicroConf in the future. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-96-90 or you can email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As I like to say, voicemails go to the top of the queue.
Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike reflect back on MicroConf Vegas 2017 and give you their key takeaways from both the starter and growth edition talks.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- MicroConf Recap
- Smart Marketer
- Giant Robots Podcast
- Startup Event Solutions
Rob: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about our key takeaways from MicroConf Vegas 2017. This is Startups For the Rest of Us Episode 336.
Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences, to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike: I am still dehydrated and hoarse from last week. At the moment, I’m not sure if it’s just from being in Vegas for seven days or if it’s combination of that plus the pollen and stuff that I came back to in New England.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah, it’s crazy, the dehydration ability of Vegas. Right when I landed, I pull out the ChapStick. I was wearing ChapStick the whole time this time so my lips never got super raw. Yeah, I was drinking a ton of water. I didn’t stay up too late any night this time either. That was good. I think that helps.
Mike: Yeah. I tried to avoid that as well but I think there were couple of times where I was in bed sometime after midnight. I don’t think it was several hours late, it’s like one or two except for the very last night. Going to bed early certainly helps.
Rob: Yup. It also helps that we start the conference now at 10:00AM instead of 9:00AM. It’s just that extra hour gives you time to have a good breakfast and wake up slow. I didn’t feel tired at really any day at the conference, which is interesting considering that we basically had four days of back to back conference.
If you’re new to the show or you haven’t heard, we split MicroConf. Normally, we do two days and this time we did two back to back two day conferences. We did growth edition which started with a welcome reception on Sunday evening, and then we did two full days of talks, and then hanging out on Monday and Tuesday. We did starter edition which is for people who aren’t yet making a full time living from their business. That’s the differentiator between starter and growth. If you’re already making a full time then you should come to growth. Starter ran on Wednesday and Thursday. I was in Vegas close to a week by the time we took off.
Mike: You and I haven’t really talked about this. How did you feel about running the two of them back to back?
Rob: I have to admit, the fact that we’ve sold both of them out, heading into it made me think it was probably the right decision, because it really was a gamble. We decided to do this six months ago, realizing that we preselling the conference out too quickly. We didn’t want to grow it. There’s always the struggle of do we just keep raising prices till we just make the conference super big, make it a 400 person conference, 500 person conference. We’re trying to figure out how to do that. We eventually decided to split it up this way.
I was hoping that it would work well but I was, with any new thing, I’m always a little concerned about what could go wrong. Given the fact that we sold both of them out, my expectations were high that we made the right choice.
Once we arrived there, I pretty much heard almost exclusively positive feedback about the split, both from the growth folks and the starter audience. How about you, how did you feel?
Mike: Xander had asked us, it was Tuesday night, how we felt so far and whether or not we were going to be able to do it again. My mindset coming into Tuesday night was just, “Hey, we’re coming up on the halfway point.” It’s not like it was running two conferences back to back. It really felt like one giant conference just spanned four days. I think that from that perspective, it was more about mindset shifts.
I was also cautious about having this idea in my head that, oh yeah, I’ve talked to people here and they’ve said that they thought it was a really great idea because I feel like the people that don’t think it’s a good idea, or are not happy with it, or were uncomfortable with it, are probably not going to tell you basically to your face. Some people will but I feel that’s the stuff that’s going to come out in the reviews afterwards. You’re not going to find out right away. I don’t know, I was a little cautious about it just because I was hearing from people, “Hey, I really like the fact, this split.” Like I said, they’re not going to tell you necessarily, “Hey I really hate this.”
Rob: Yeah. I could totally see that. In the feedback though, in the survey we gave afterwards, people seem to have generally, a positive outlook on it as well. I think it really helped that we’re able to target the talks so well. We’re going to talk through some handful of a growth talks and a handful of the starter talks. Obviously we can’t talk through everything we did. Over the course of 4 days, we had 18 talks, 10 attendee talks, which are the shorter 12 minute talks given by attendees, two Q&A sessions, and two workshops. There’s a lot to pack in there. We obviously can’t cover everything in the span of a single show.
You’ll see as we talk through the topics that the growth ones are definitely more oriented at existing products, trying to scale up, or trying to stay sane while you’re doing it. And then the starter stuff is a lot more focused on these very first steps. That was the goal from the beginning, it was to be able to target the content specifically at the audience so you didn’t have someone coming feeling half the talks weren’t aimed at them.
Mike: Yeah. I think we did a really good job at that, in terms of splitting the content between those two. Going back and looking at the reviews, I think you’re right. As I said, Tuesday, I was cautious about just accepting things at face value but even in the reviews as you said, there’s a lot of good feedback there about how they liked how targeted everything was directly at where they were. Of course, we did see this from some of the reviews. People like, “How I wish there is a little bit more commingling of the two.” There’s always going to be a suggestions of, “Hey let’s do a two track conference or something like that.”
That’s really hard to pull off, especially if you’re trying to manage everything all in the same venue. There’s a lot of logistical stuff there but I think generally what did went over really, really well.
Rob: Yeah. The two track thing has only been success to the few times over the years but it’s tended to be something that we have intentionally, very deliberately avoided. I don’t know, we should probably crack that open again and just talk through and spit ball what it might actually look like to do that, to have a single conference for the starter track and the growth track.
Mike: Right. I figured in the past, all of our thoughts about that particular thing had been geared with the idea of having the entire conference aimed at one audience. And then of course, that’s where you do get in the logistical issues of let’s say, just for raw numbers. You’ve got 100 people coming and let’s say 70 go to one, and then 30 go to the other. If you’re really targeting two different audiences, then the two track conference idea kind of makes more sense. It’s easier to manage those logistics instead. I think you’re right, I think we just revisit it and think about it and see if it would work or see if it’s something we want to try.
Rob: The interesting thing is the cross growth and starter if you include the attendees, the speakers, the sponsors, and then we sold better half tickets where people can bring their significant other to evening events. Across all that, I think there were something like 420-ish attendees across both.
Actually day to day attending, growth was about 230, 235, and starter was around 165 or 170. Definitely healthy numbers but a good size in terms of manageability. I felt I was able to talk to a lot of people and it didn’t feel a sea of people to me.
Mike: Yeah. It’s hard once you get up to those numbers to be able to talk to every single person there but I do feel like I got to talk to it a decent chunk of people. That size is nice because everyone is still approachable. It’s not like I’ve talked to people while we were there and they said that they’ve been to a couple of other conferences where there’s 3000, 4000 people. It’s really hard to I guess maintain and establish relationships with people there but at the size, it’s a lot easier.
Rob: Yeah. Let’s dive in. As I said, we won’t be able to discuss all the talks but we do just want to take some highlights based on feedback that we received in the surveys we sent out at the end.
Russ Henneberry from a Digital Marketer made his first MicroConf appearance. He appeared based on a recommendation from Ruben Gomez, who said this guy is super sharp. He knows what he’s doing. He has a really unique insights on content marketing.
We had him speak on the first day. I instantly started hearing people being blown away. His talk was The Perfect Content Marketing Strategy. He talks a lot about misconceptions that content marketing is blogging. He looked at the seven characteristics of perfect content marketing.
This is a guy who’s been doing this since before it was called content marketing. He knows what he’s doing. Right in the hallway when we left, I heard some people saying, “Boy, that blew my mind. I’m going to change up my content marketing strategy because of it.”
Mike: What I really like was the way he identified specific pieces of the content marketing strategy and called them assets. I heard that from several other people as well, referring to the pieces that you plug in as an asset. We could give us an idea that you can reuse those assets in other places but by what referring to it as an asset and treating it as such, it gives you a more focus clear idea of exactly what you’re going to be doing with that particular asset or that piece of content and gives you the ability to build it in such a way that it’s not templatize but it’s got a specific purpose and that’s what it’s for. It was an interesting way to look at that that I haven’t really seen or heard before.
Rob: By the way there are summaries of all the MicroConf talks. If you go to microconfrecap.com. Thanks to Shai for taking notes and they’re very detailed outlines of what speakers were talking about.
Next talk I think we should discuss the same to have an impact was James Kennedy’s talk. It was how to stop giving demos and build a sales factory instead. I was super into it even though I’m not giving demos. I have noticed, I ought to give demos but he just had this whole process of how he grew Rubberstamp.io and how they’ve been growing it using essentially sales demos.
What was funny is I walked out at that talk and Anna on my Drip team, she came up and she said that talk made me want to do demos again. You know it’s having an impact when it makes you miss doing demos.
Mike: Yeah, that’s funny. I really liked how he’d laid out the entire process, the follow ups, what they do, how do they get people to the demos, how do they follow up with them to make sure that, “Hey, you have this demo coming up.” The foreshadowing aspect, the letting people know, “Hey, this is going to be the next step. This is what we’re going to do next.” So that it’s not a surprise to people so people aren’t wondering, “Okay, when is this person going to call me again? Are they going to send me an email or am I going to get a reminder?” It’s all about foreshadowing what those next steps are. I really liked that aspect of it.
Rob: I rounded out the day with a modified version of the talk that I had done in Europe about selling Drip and it was called 11 Years to Overnight Success: From Beach Towels to A Life Changing Exit. I tweaked the talk quite a bit for the growth audience. I just thought through some more aspects of it. Also, I have so much more distance from the sale now. A lot of it was about the Drip acquisition, the thought process, and the mindset behind that.
I definitely enjoyed talking about it. Since it was essentially the second time I’ve given the talk, I find that my second, third, fourth times of giving talks are always better. You just have more of an idea of what resonates with people and it’s better practice and that kind of stuff. I felt like it came off pretty well.
Mike: Yeah. I think in your talk, one of the things that you pointed out, this is not a surprise to anyone but the fact that it takes a long time to get to that point, there are all these different missteps or places you go where it’s either just the learning opportunity or you feel you’re making a lot of progress, if you take it as a whole then you get to see that entire journey. It’s interesting to see that. I saw in Europe as well. I do think that you gave a better talk here in Vegas than you did in Europe. It probably is a direct result of hearing yourself give that talk on a stage, and then talking to people, finding out what resonates, then plug in those things back into it. It’s nice to get that feedback and be able to incorporate it later on.
Rob: On the second day of growth, this would have been Tuesday, we had Ezra Firestone from Smart Marketer. He talked about the exact formula they’ve used to generate $5 million in revenue from software in the past 3 years. It’s pretty obvious that Ezra does a lot of speaking because he commanded the stage and really kept people captivated.
Mike: Yeah. As you said, he obviously speaks a lot. It’s nice to be able to see somebody get up there and be able to just do things off the cuff. It’s clearly not rehearsed. Clearly, he has the ability to get up there and speak to things from the audience. Almost like a comedian when you see them perform and they’re able to either deal with the hackler or comments from the crowd and incorporate that into what it is that they’re talking about. Ezra definitely had that ability. It’s clearly a direct result of being up there in front of a lot of people and talking to a lot of people. Some of that could just be the personality in terms of being what appears to be a strong extrovert. I think that being able to incorporate those things really helps to send the right message when somebody is up there on stage like that.
I do like the fact that he went into some detail. For example, the multi-touch marketing and creating multiple touch points in your sales funnel so that people are hearing different messages along the way through that sales funnel. They might hear one message and then they hear a different one. In some cases, they’re getting reiterated to them so they are essentially strengthening the original messages.
Rob: That afternoon, Sherry Walling talked about understanding your past, current, and future self. Really kicked off with how founders view their startups as they do their children. That there is a study done that was doing brain scans of founders as they showed pictures of children they didn’t know versus their own children and it showed parts of their brain activating. It was people seeing companies that were there versus other people’s companies in that sense. It was showing that the brain activity when you see your children is very similar to when you see your own company.
She talks about the pluses and the minuses of this. She looks at how your past contributes to who you are, what to do in the present, and then looking ahead, asking yourself, “What will my future self want me to do about this decision right now?” I was pretty fascinated by it.
Mike: Yeah. I thought that when she dove into that part of the talk, that was kind of fascinating to me just because when you’re building a product, you’re working so hard on it and you’re pouring all of your energy into it. It’s not something I think that most people think about in terms of what would my future self think of me doing this or what would my future self want to be the result of this. She really dug into that and tried to portray it as a situation where you do have to think about those things and you do have to let things grow on, in some cases on their own, without too much input from you, whether it’s hiring people to take over certain pieces of it or just being cognisant in other fact that what you’re doing today is not always going to be correct but you have to make the best decisions that you have with the details you have right now.
Rob: Lars Lofgren wrapped this up. He finished off the growth speaker docket. His talk title was 2 Inbound Engines that Drive 30,000 Leads Per Month, actually more than that. I think he said they’re collecting more than 40,000 emails a month, which is just fascinating. He runs marketing for Ramit Sethi.
He really talked about the two engines are one, ramping volume and two, split testing your choke points. He talked a lot about going really deep on one thing and how they’ve spent a year just going after, they started going after SEO with the ultimate guide and then that wasn’t working so they switched it up. He said he’d rather have 49 amazing blog post and one PDF than 50 amazing PDFs because he need the blog post to drive the organic traffic, so that people will download PDF and become a lead.
He has talked a lot about how he doesn’t do any campaigns. He only puts in systems that he doesn’t want to go from marketing campaign to marketing campaign. I thought was a really interesting look attitude. It’s a very long term way to think about it but it’s also the way to think at scale in terms of really scaling up sustainable traffic.
Mike: I thought it was really interesting that even given the size of the team that Lars runs, that they really are only focused on one channel at the moment. I guess I would have thought that they would have done more or I would have thought they were been going after two or three. In the context of this talk and looking at it retrospect, it does make a lot more sense as to why they’re going so deep on one particular channel. It’s because it’s working well for them. You really want to double down on those and optimize everything you possibly can until you get to a point where it’s no longer working or you’re longer getting the gains that you could be getting.
I think you and I have talked about similar things in the past where people have said, “Oh, I want to take my app and go multilanguage with it or localize it for different places.” The reality is most people are not at a point where they’ve saturated the market. This is the same idea. It’s really going so far deep until you get to the point where the diminishing returns are so little. That’s when you would start focusing on something else. It’s amazing with 40,000 email addresses acquired every month, they’re still not there.
Rob: Tuesday night, we had the closing reception for growth and we had that opening reception for starter. That was a time for people to mingle and have S’mores, and an open bar.
Mike: You’re not kidding about the S’mores either.
Rob: I know. There were fire pits in the back and people are making S’mores. That was a lot of fun, though. I see everybody mix in together. It was a big group and that allowed the starter folks to meet some of the growth folks, and then the growth folks to do their last hurrahs before they kicked off for home.
Like I said, starter was around 165, 170 people. We did something interesting. For those who don’t know, we worked with a conference coordinator who handles a lot of the logistics. His name is Xander. He suggested that you and I not try to emcee two conferences back to back. I think his original phrase was consider getting some fresh blood on the stage. Just someone new with a fresh voice who maybe could our starter audience could really relate to.
We invited Jordan Gal to do it this year. I think our plan is that every year, we’ll either do it with ourselves or we may bring in a different guest emcee. I thought that went really well. My thought, it was nice to not have to be present and constantly thinking about what was going to happen after the next talk and what we’re going to say. I think it took definitely took a load off of me.
I’ll toss it to you in a second here if you felt the same way. I thought the feedback was generally positive. I didn’t really hear anybody who was surprised or shocked that you and I weren’t up on stage all the time. Even then, you and I, were introing some things and you were handling sponsorships so it wasn’t like we weren’t present.
Mike: Yeah. It definitely felt some of the load was taken off for the starter edition just because with the growth edition, there were so many things going on. You and I were back and forth on stage pretty much the entire time. I felt I couldn’t concentrate as much on the talks during the growth edition as I could in the starter edition. It was really nice to be able to I’ll say step back a little bit but still be pretty heavily involved in all the stuff that was going on.
I think that I agree. I’ve heard from some of the different attendees that they thought that it was interesting that we did that. I didn’t really see any negative feedback on that particular piece of it. I think there was maybe a little bit of disappointment that people, they don’t get to see you as much up there because you spoke a growth but not at starter. I think there was maybe a little bit of an expectation of that. But generally, it was pretty positive feedback.
Rob: Yeah, that’s interesting. You know about half way through starter, I started thinking to myself, “I think I should speak. I think I should have spoken this year.” I think neither you nor I knew how challenging that it would be to run these back to back conferences and so didn’t want to commit ourselves to speaking at both, which is why we divided and conquered. I spoke at growth and you spoke at starter.
Given how things went and how I felt it was fairly smooth and I wasn’t exhausted. I don’t know if I could have written two talks from scratch but certainly I might have some material that I could have pulled together for starter.
Mike: Yeah. I think for this year, I think it was definitely the right decision to have you speak at growth and have me speak at starter just because there were so many unknowns. That’s really the issue. With MicroConf, you really only get the one chance of that specific event, whether it’s MicroConf in Vegas or MicroConf in Europe. You can’t just do it over again. It’s not something that you do every week. You don’t want to go too far in a direction that is going to be difficult to manage moving forward or for the rest of that week.
I think for this year, it was definitely the right choice. Whether we change that in the future is up for debate or discussion but I don’t think that we made the wrong choice there.
Rob: Jordan Gal also kicked us off and did the first talk of starter. He talked about all the mistakes that they made along the way with his startup Carthook. You know how they’ve continued to grow during that and the learnings that came from it. When we originally talked, we talked about him doing the same talk he had done in Europe but he basically just wrote a completely new talk for the Vegas audience.
Mike: What I really liked about Jordan’s talk was the fact that he showed all those different failures along the way, at least the ones that he felt were failures but if you looked at how things were going for the business, things were still generally going up into the right. It’s interesting to note that your own personal viewpoint of how things are going, are always going to be worse than how things are actually going. Not always I guess. There are some exceptions where things are just tanking and you have no idea. I think at the back of our mind we know that things are going in that direction.
From external, you look at the business saying, “Oh things are going fantastic, things are going great.” But the founders we’re like, “Oh man, we screwed this up or we screwed that up.” It’s a very different viewpoint when you’re talking to somebody about, “Hey, we’ve made this mistake, we made that mistake.” Externally, people have a different view of what’s going on inside the business than you do as the founder.
Rob: Another notable talk from that first day was Ben Orenstein. He works for thoughtbot and he’s a co-host of the Giant Robots Podcast. He was another one who had obviously had quite a bit of speaking experience. Just really nailed the audience engagement part. I thought he did a very, very good talk. He had actually surveyed the starter audience in advance and he had rewritten his talk multiple times to try to really nail exactly what they needed.
When he surveyed the audience, he found out that about half of folks, it’s starter edition so it makes sense they seem split about, but about half of folks had basically $0 in revenue and then half had in the hundreds and on up. He actually just had two parts to his talk. It was like, “If you have $0 in revenue, do this.” It was super prescriptive and it was really good. I think it hit home with people. It gives a good message to have. If you are over that, then he had these 10 tactical wins that they had implemented over at Thoughtbot because they have a couple different SaaS apps that he runs over there. I thought it was pretty fascinating.
Mike: I think part of what resonated with his talk was that he zeroed in on those tactical pieces where it’s essentially a switch or a lever that you can use to get more out of your business and move things forward faster. Some of them are not necessarily obvious. Some of them that are obvious like for example, created an email course. Then there are other ones where integrating and partnering with other people that’s not quite as obvious but in retrospect, it makes a lot more sense that you can leverage those partnerships to grow your business because you’re essentially leveraging other people’s audiences. If you’re starting out and you don’t have a lot of discussions with other founders, that might not come to you as an obvious tactical piece of advice.
Rob: Rounding at that first day at starter, it was Sujan Patel, who many of may know as a growth marketer. He worked for When I Work and has a number of SaaS apps that he runs now.
He talked about from idea to launch your first 1,000 customers was zero marketing budget. He broke it up into three separate sections. The first was about prelaunch marketing, the second was about nailing your launch, and the third was about scalable marketing approaches.
I really like that differentiation. I think folks who are just starting out often get confused of, “How do I fill my email list?” And that’s your pre launch marketing stuff. “How do I market once I’m out and I’m trying to grow?” They are highly related but they are different. I like that he differentiated that. And then he just kept throwing out ideas that they had tried, things that had worked, things that hadn’t. Again, I took away a lot and I think the audience probably did as well.
Mike: That’s something that I saw from the survey results is that people really liked the speakers who dug into things that didn’t work because it was easy for them to look around and find examples of, “Oh, somebody did this and it worked for them. Somebody did this other thing and it worked for them.” The thing that stuck out in people’s minds was the fact that some of the speakers talked about, “Hey, I tried this and it didn’t work.” Or “I was going to go down this path and we backed off because of X, Y, and Z.”
It was interesting that that piece of it, not even just failure but the pieces that resonate with people were the ones where the speakers started to go down a particular road and pulled back because those are not the things you typically hear about on blogs. You read about the success stories but not necessarily the failures or the missteps. People really found that those aspects of the talks were really helpful to them.
Rob: On the following day, one of the notable talks was Mr. Patrick Mckenzie Patio11. He dug into basically a paint by numbers approach to productized consulting, which is a pretty good option for folks just starting out, wanting to get their first dollar. He broke down an approach of how to build that up. I think he said within 12 months you could be a $12,000 MRR in terms of a productized consulting business and then he laid out the steps to do that.
Mike: I think it was probably surprising to people that when he laid out that approach that he was talking in broad strokes numbers about, “Hey, you could charge $800 to a large business for just taking out the trash for example.” That’s not a huge amount of money to them because companies with more than 20 employees pay way more than that sometimes.
I’ve seen business plans or businesses for sale where that’s exactly right. I’ve seen literally that line item before. It can be fairly high. You don’t really think about it but there is all those business problems that larger companies have. By larger, I mean 20 employees and up that is a genuine business opportunity. You just don’t typically think about it unless you see what those line items are. That’s difficult for most of us who are developers or just not involved with any sort of budget discussions for a larger business.
Rob: Another talk that I heard positive feedback about and I thought he did a good job commanding the stage was Justin Jackson talking about the freedom ladder, financial independence through products. He talked about a lot of different ways that he had tried over the years to make a full time living. In essence, he said January 1 of 2016 is when he finally was able to make it from his own products and he didn’t have to consult anymore.
He talked about many different ideas but one that was interesting and seem to resonate with a few people that no one else has talked about was just doing workshops, like in person workshops. He says yes, it’s super scary and yes, he has given a workshop where it was just him and two other people but he said, “That’s how you’re going to learn. If you can’t get a couple people to get into a room in your local town, how are you going to get folks on the internet to pay you any money?” I thought that was cool way to think about it.
Mike: I think that’s one of the fears that people have about running those workshops, is that you only get one or two people there. I talked to somebody who had given a talk at a conference where they said they were expecting a couple of hundred people in the room and it was multitrack conference and they ended up with eight or something ridiculously small like that. One or two of them got up in the middle of the talk and left but at the same time those are the places where you learn, those are the places where you figure out what’s going to work and what’s not.
What we all want is to be able to go in and run a workshop like this. We get 30 or 40 people. The problem is at that point, you are essentially performing in and front of a group of 30 or 40 people and you’ve never really performed in front of group of 5 for example.
What you’re doing is you’re making larger mistakes in a larger environment. It’s intuitive that you want the smaller ones first. Those are the ones that help you get the experience so that when you go those larger environments, you give a larger talk or a larger workshop that is not as scary. You’ve got the butterflies out, you’ve been able to answer the exact same questions in that larger workshop that you have in smaller ones. You can refine your answers from there as well.
Rob: You mostly rounded out the day and rounded out starter. You actually interviewed John Collison, did a moderated Q&A with him. For those who don’t know, he’s a co-founder of Stripe. Xander was saying he’s the youngest billionaire, either in America or in the world. Because I think he’s what, 25? Stripe is now worth $9 billion and he owns a big chunk of it. That was cool. How did it feel to be up on stage with him?
Mike: That was interesting. I wasn’t necessarily nervous from that regard because I don’t think that Xander had mentioned that to me. It was interesting looking at the schedule and how things were going to be going for the rest of the day. I realize that I was probably going to be up on stage for a good chunk of that last day.
I think that the Q&A session went well. We took some questions from the audience and let them. There was a list of questions that we had, that we want to get out there and then ask. A lot of the audience asked questions. I thought that was a good split.
Of course, obviously, I’ll say a little bit risky because you never know what somebody is going to ask. I thought that John was very honest and upfront. He just said, “Look, if I can answer the question and help you out, I will. If there’s something I can’t talk about it, I’ll just tell you I can’t talk about it.” I thought that that was very humble of him. I really liked talking to John both before, during, and after the conference just because of how he carries himself. He’s obviously a very skilled and intelligent person. I think he makes for a good founder that is a good fit with our audience as well.
Rob: The last talk of starter was your talk. It was idea validation and customer development. It’s pretty self-explanatory what you went through. How did it feel? What feedback did you get and how did you feel on stage?
Mike: After the talk, I got some good feedback from people. It was odd because the workshop that I did was also on that. That was I’d say pretty well attended. Even during the workshop that I did, there were a lot of questions that I got. I took some of those questions and I went back to my talk and rearrange things a little bit. May or may not have been the best idea to make some of those changes in the middle of it or just before I was going up there but I also think that some of those things are really important to cover in terms of, “Hey, if you do this, this is what can happen.” Going out there and showing a specific idea, that was something else that people are pointed out to me like, “Hey, I thought that that idea had legs and it’s really interesting you showed that hey, you got these data points and were able to prove like hey, this idea is not going to work or it’s not going to work for you at least.”
Rob: Overall, I think MicroConf this year, the MicroConfs in Vegas were quite successful. I had a great time and we’ve already gotten a lot of positive feedback about it. Keep plugging along and we’re looking at doing one in Europe here in late fall.
I did want to give a shoutout to our sponsors, to the speakers that flew in, very busy people coming in to give back to the community, as well as Xander. Xander helps us run the conference. If you have an event that you need help with, even meet ups, product launches, and conferences, Xander really works a lot in the startups space and the techs space. He’s at startupeventsolutions.com.
Mike: I think that about wraps us up for this. If you have a question for us, you can call it in our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com.
Our theme music is Next for Periodic Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike discuss 8 key takeaways from MicroConf Europe 2016. A couple weeks after the conference they highlight some of their favorite points from the speaker’s talks. Also detailed notes from the entire conference are available at microconfeuroperecap.com
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Self-Funded Product Survey
- MicroConf Europe
Rob [00:01]: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I discuss eight key take-aways from Micro Conf Europe 2016. This is Start-Ups for the Rest of Us, episode 302. [music] Welcome to Start-Ups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike [00:28]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:29]: And we’re going to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike [00:33]: Well, kind of in a little bit of a slump lately. I’ve been trying to plod through some of the development issues for [Bluetick?] and try and get the product to a point where customers are actually getting value out of it that they need, and there’s just technical problems. Some of them are just really hard to get through and are taking forever, just way longer than I would have anticipated initially, and it’s just a long slow slog. So it’s a little disappointing. But, I mean, I’ve had conversations with the people that have been using it and everything is on the right track, it’s going the right direction, it’s just a lot slower than I would like it to be.
Rob [01:04]: Is this because of technical debt? Or is it early scaling issues?
Mike [01:08]: It’s a little bit of both. Some of it is scaling issues, because certain things are a just a little bit slow on the back end because of the number of messages that I’m storing and what I’m doing with them. And then some design decisions, for example, one of which is I’m not going to bother storing some of this information because we don’t need it. It turned out that we did, and it’s a lot more complicated to shoe-horn it in later than it would have been to grab it all upfront. Those are the kinds of things that we’re running into, and just scaling up that amount of data is a lot harder than it seemed to be initially.
Rob [01:39]: Yup. And do you have – do you think you have a couple of weeks? Because you don’t want to get new customers on when you’re doing this, right? You’re kind of holding off?
Mike [01:46]: Right, yeah.
Rob [01:47]: How long do you think that’s going to be?
Mike [01:48]: Well, the things that I’m working on now I’m kind of in the final phases of testing it, so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do some of that migration, and getting some of that data into the system, within the next week or so. Beyond that, it’s a matter of going back to people and saying, “Okay, this is where it is.” Because there’s all this work that needs to be done upfront to gather everything, and then there’s additional work that needs to be done to display everything. So I’m hoping that in the next week or two I’ll have something that is, I’ll say, much further along, and can display information that they need. But it’s kind of hard to say, to be honest.
Rob [02:19]: Yeah, it’s a long slog, man. I’m sorry to hear that it’s going slower than you want it to, especially when it’s technical issues, those are the things that kill me. It’s like we have one advantage as software people, and it’s that we know how to build products. But when you run into these things, it always feels like, “Man, this is just killing me!”, because you want to get the sales going, and you know you should be focused on marketing and onboarding and getting new people in, and sometimes these things, you just have to take care of them. You know? You can’t have the technical debt sneaking it, especially if the app isn’t working properly, or you can tell it’s not going to scale past 50 people or something.
Mike [02:50]: Yeah, and part of the issue is that I’m also running into bizarre edge cases that, if you think about it and say – I’ll give you a prime example, what characters are valid characters in an email address? You probably think to yourself, “Well, alphanumeric, and then dots and then the at-sign, of course.” But then beyond that, there’s all these additional characters that you would not even consider could possibly be part of an email address and they can be. For example, like slashes, plus signs, equal signs. There’s all this other crap that can go in there, and according to the RFC’s, those are all completely valid characters, and it just sucks to end up running into those things when you just didn’t anticipate them.
Rob [03:29]: Yup. Early on we had to do a little research too, and I think – the nice part of using Ruby is that I think there’s a gem that does the validation and it’s a very complex – I’m not sure if it’s a [Reg-x?] or a complex series of statements. But that’s the kind of thing, in that particular case, be on the lookout for rather than – we’ve tried not to write our own because we’re not experts at it. We probably would be now, but we weren’t three and a half years ago when we were building DRIP.
Mike [03:52]: Yeah. This isn’t for specifically validating that it’s a valid email address, I’m already using modules for that. It’s more a matter of – to give you a prime example, if a slash appears on an email address I can’t use it in Microsoft shared platform as a partition key, so I basically have to apply some sort of transform to it, and then use that as the look-up key, as opposed to actually using the email address, which is what I originally planned on doing. Of course, when you run into that after processing several hundred thousand messages, then it becomes a problem.
Rob [04:21]: For sure. So on my end it’s been kind of nice. A couple more of the DRIP team members have joined me here in Minneapolis. So for a couple weeks there I was kind of – you know, you’re just kind of flying solo, didn’t know anybody, like the first day at a big company, and you don’t know anybody. But it was really cool, Derek and Anna have since joined me and I feel like things are continuing to fall into place. We’re hiring now three new people for the engineering team, and it continues to be fun. It continues to be a good journey where I am learning, and my team is learning, and things are going well. We’re going fast, like our trial count, I probably can’t even say how much it went up, but hundreds and hundreds of percents, many x’s up from where it was the week before closing. It’s been a fun ride, and it’s been interesting to watch the app scale, and to watch which things start to creak and kind of teeter, and then we have to jump in and say, “Alright, we need to increase these boxes. We need to increase RAM on this box. Or “We need to rewrite this one piece.” And so we’ve been doing that. But fingers crossed, knock on wood, we haven’t seen any major scaling issues to date, so that’s been really nice.
Mike [05:26]: Awesome. So what are we talking about today?
Rob [05:27]: Well today we’re talking about eight key take-aways from Micro Conf Europe 2016. We ran Micro Conf Europe just a couple weeks ago in Barcelona. We had about 110 attendees, so it was a little smaller this year than last year. Before we dive into these, I want to refer focus to MicroConfEuropeRecap.com if you’re interested in detailed notes on each of the talks. We had nine talks, and then we had some other attendee talks, and a panel and some other stuff. Kristoff [Egalhart?], once again volunteered to take notes for us, and they’re at MicroConfEuropeRecap.com and they’re detailed and very good. So what you and I did is sat down and said, “What were kind of the key take-aways?” These are not all of the take-aways, for sure. There were people taking pages and pages of notes. These are just some things that kind of struck out to you and I as we talked through the two days of speakers. So our first take-away is to be prepared to rewrite your MVP, and this one is from Jordan Gaule who did a talk called “Two Years in the Sass Trenches”, where he walked through his experience starting Cart Hook, where he walked through his experience of the last two years of launching and growing Cart Hook, and finding a co-founder, and partnership catastrophes with external companies, and perseverance and what it’s taken to get there. A big lesson that he said was, “If you build an MVP be prepared to rewrite it.”
Mike [06:48]: I thought that was a very telling, and probably an eye-opening piece of advice, just because when you’re building something you try and build it with the future in mind so that things aren’t going to fall over and break as soon as you add one, or ten, or twenty customers on to it. You can’t always predict what’s going to happen at that point. I think Gabriel [Weinberg?] of [Duck Duck Go?] had mentioned this in the past as well – if you 10X what you’re doing the problems that you’re going to run into are just exponentially more than what you had previously anticipated in whatever previous rewrite you had done, or reengineering, and you’re always going to run into those scaling issues at some point along the way that you have to rewrite a bunch of stuff. Which kind of sucks, but it’s, in a way, a good problem to have if you’re getting to that point.
Rob [07:30]: Yeah. Whenever I hear people say “MVP,” I wonder in my head, “Do you mean a crappy version that has a lot of technical debt?” Because if that’s what they mean, that scares me a little bit. When I think of the MVP of DRIP that we launched, it was the code – the underlying code was good, and the architecture was solid, and it had test coverage. It was a solidly engineered software product, but it didn’t have a ton of features. That’s what I think of minimally viable in that instance. And obviously, an MVP doesn’t even necessarily need to be software, even if you’re going to start a software company. We’ve talked about that – how you can do human automation, and there’s all kinds of ways to work around having to not build software, basically. But if, in fact, you are building a software product for something, I don’t think I could move forward with it as something that has a bunch of technical debt, because it’s going to come back to bite you at some point. Because if you do you’re MVP, you get 10, 20, 30 customers, what do you do now? Do you take six months to rewrite it? You’re just standing still? That’s no fun. Think twice about what you’re doing, and how you’re doing this. Our second take-away is to brute force sales in the early days. This also comes from Jordan, who, in essence, had a virtual assistant that was going out and looking for possible clients of Cart Hook, and then doing cold email sequences, and just talking on the phone. I mean, it’s really just brute force. It’s just perseverance. It’s coming in every day, doing the slog, doing the grind, and I think he said that got him to – it was around 5K in MRR. That’s like super admirable, just clawing your way. He didn’t really have an audience, he didn’t really have a list he could go to, and he just showed up every day and did the stuff a lot of other people aren’t willing to do.
Mike [09:01]: Yeah, and a lot of those types of things are going out and writing cold emails, or scraping lists together from different websites that you think would be a good target. That’s actually one of the strategies that I’ve seen recommended to people to get your first hundred customers, is go out and create a list of who you think your best, or flagship, customers would be for your top 25 or top 50 customers, and people you would want to do business with. Then iterate through them, and talk to those people, and see if you can get them on- boarded as customers. If you can, then it will help you build the roadmap for the future in terms of how to get in front of more of those types of people. But just showing up and doing the work is, I’ll say, highly underrated.
Rob [09:42]: Our third take-away is, if you’re not getting initial traction during customer development you may just have things completely wrong. The advice to talk to more customers may not be correct. This is a take-away we pulled out of your talk, which is called “Drawing the Line Between Success and Failure” where you did the survey, or the mini-research study, where you asked boot-strappers specifically about products that they had either failed to launch, or launched, and then had either failed or succeeded at the after-launch. You looked at the data and you analyzed it and you showed your findings.
Mike [10:11]: I think one of the hard things about the data that I had was there’s not enough data to begin with, especially in the boot-strapping and self-funded space. But some of the things that I really wanted to zero in on were edge cases where you could see clearly defined lines between the maximum amount of time that successful companies spent doing customer development, and then the average time, for example – or the minimum time – that companies that were not successful did. You could see very clearly that the maximum amount of time was I think about 10 or 12 hours of customer development for the successful ones, and then there were some people who did upwards of 50 or 100 or even 200 hours of customer development. The reality is that, in looking through that data, and kind of picking through all of the things that I found, what I came to realize was that there’s people who can get themselves into a situation where they’re not sure what they should do. They think that they don’t have a clear picture or clear understanding, but they want an idea to work so they’ll keep talking to people in an effort to try and make it work. That is essentially deluding yourself into thinking that strategy is going to work, because just talking to more people will get you more people to say “Yes”, but it also kind of shows you how difficult it’s going to be, in the long run, to get more people on board. If you can’t convince people who are in your network, who are very likely the people who you’re talking to first, if you can’t convince them that your idea is something that is going to provide business value, what chance do you have from an anonymous webpage where people who have no idea who you are are coming to it and are trying to evaluate it?
Rob [11:42]: Right. I think in the long term you want to increase the number of survey respondents. I think you had about 55 or 60 at the time you presented it there, but it would be nice if some more people would submit their stuff so you can increase the accuracy of this statistics you’re running. Perhaps we could link that up in the show notes, and if you’re interested in providing your data, it can be anonymous or not, it’s up to you, then Mike can maybe revise that in a future talk, or blog post. Our fourth take-away was to find out what people want. Go get it, give it to them, and do it in that order. This was from James Kennedy’s talk “Zero to 20K MRR in 20 ‘Easy’ Steps; The Story of Rubber Stamp.IO.” The title was a little bit facetious because the Easy was in quotes. It was 20 really hard steps. It took a long time to get 20K MRR, which made for a great story. One of the pivotal moments of it was when he read – do you remember what the guy’s name was?
Mike [12:32]: I don’t remember the specific book.
Rob [12:34]: But he read a book, and the instructions were to find out what people want, go get it, and give it to them. He was trying to do that but he was failing. In the end he realized that you have to do it in that specific order.
Mike [12:46]: It might have been the book called “Instant Cash Flow” by Bradley Sugars.
Rob [12:49]: Yes, that’s the book. And actually it’s in Kristoff’s notes, as I think you were secretly looking out while I was fumbling around for the name. One of the other things I liked about James’ talk is he had a lot of really actionable stuff. I mean, he’s attended several Micro Confs, so he knows the level of talk you want to bring, and he talked about some really cool marketing approaches that other people haven’t tried. There was SoftwareAdvice.com, there was [Captera?]. There was – I’m trying to think of what else there was – he had several things that really were kind of off the beaten path that he has used and optimized in order to grow his business.
Mike [13:23]: The other thing I like about his talk is that really laid out, in a manner that was very systematic, about what his approach was to identifying those different channels. I had specifically asked him about that at Micro Conf: What was it that make him decide to go after [Captera?] and those other things? He said he went out and had read the book called “Traction” by Gabrielle [Weinberg?] and Justin [Merez?], and in it it lays out the bullseye approach. We’ve had Gabrielle on the show before talking specifically about that book, and about that approach. They just went through it, and they were very systematic about it: “What’s working? What isn’t? What do we think has the best chances?” And that’s how they identified that those different channels were going to work for them. Because if you look at the channels that they are using, that are being successful for them, they aren’t things you’d think of off the top of your head. I was really interested to hear about how he stumbled across those, and he’s like, “We just systematically went through that and used the information that we had to identify which one was going to work.” and when they didn’t have enough data they went out and got the data.
Rob [14:22]: I also like that he referenced Jason [Cohen’s?] talk from Micro Conf – I think it was 2012 maybe, 2012 or 2013 – and he’s been attending Micro Confs and basically he didn’t have a business, and started a small one, and learned from Micro Conf and grew it, and later shut that one down and started another one. Really, he’s just learned so much from the community, and from the talks, that it was cool to see him reference that and call it out, and now he’s a main stage MicroConf speaker, talking about his road of getting to 20K MRR. That’s the fun stuff. If you’re listening to this and you have not watched Jason [Coen’s?] talk, I think it’s called “Building the Idea Boot-strap Business,” or something like that, it’s linked to from the Micro Conf website, or you can find it on Vimeo. In my opinion, it is the best boot-strapped talk ever in the history of boot-strapped talks. He just rocks it out of the park. I remember as he was giving it, I was thinking, “My head is exploding. This is completely rocking my world.” And then every year since then I try to re-watch it just to remind myself, and to relearn, and to pick up new things. It’s just really written and executed – I don’t know if anyone’s going to ever outdo that talk because it was just so phenomenal. Our fifth take-away is to constantly ask yourself: Why are you doing this? Reevaluate your core values as they might not be etched in stone, and they might change. This comes from my talk, which I titled “Eleven Years to Overnight Success from Beach Towels to Successful Exit.” The idea here is I really talked through the decision process of deciding to sell DRIP, and how that all went down. There’s a lot of thought processes to it, but one of the key threads that kept coming up for me as I looked back and I thought, “What did happen here throughout this career?” I went all the way back – I mean, I started launching products in 2000, but I didn’t really have my first dollar revenue until 2005, so I kind of included, that’s really the last eleven years. I looked back and I thought, “What are the things that were my core values? Why was I doing this at all? Why didn’t I stay a salaried employee?” And so I talked through that I wanted freedom, that I wanted to have purpose, and that I wanted strong relationships. Freedom, purpose, and relationships were three three things that I had originally heard, it’s psychological concept from years back. I heard it on a podcast years ago, and I’ve really just taken it to heart. It’s been something I’ve come back to. Throughout this journey, as I’ve wandered off that path, as I’ve given up some of my freedom, given up some of my purpose, hurt my relationships because I work too much or over-committed, I’ve always had to come back to that center line of making a change. That really was the story. In the end, by the way, I added a fourth one which had never been on my radar, which is stability. Having a lot of products, or having a product that can easily be taken away from you when you’re paying your mortgage from it and your entire income come from that, I’ve had a few scares over the years where Hit Tail almost got creamed by Google, and other things like that. I realized that having that stability was an important thing which, of course, factored into that decision.
Mike [17:04]: I think that what really stood out for me from your talk was the fact that you kept going back to those core values, but at the end of the day you also realized that those core values can change over time. The values that you have when you’re 25, for example, and not married and no kids, those will change over time as you hit 35 and 45 and get older, your priorities change. The things that you want and need in life are going to be different than what they were earlier in life. I think that it was interesting to see that verbalized, because it wasn’t something I had necessarily really given a lot of consideration to before.
Rob [17:38]: Our sixth take-away requires a little explanation. Okay, if you’ve seen the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin is like a sales manager, and he uses this expression or this phrase, “ABC – Always Be Closing.” So our sixth take-away is ABFU – Always Be Following Up. This, of course, comes from [Stelli Efdi?]. He did his talk called “Building and Optimizing Your First Sales Process.” If you’ve heard [Stelli?] talk, he’s a very engaging speaker. He gets really riled up on stage in a positive way that just keeps you captivated. He went first on the second day. He’s the perfect post-lunch, or “first in the day” slot because everybody’s trying to wake up and he gets them going. There were a lot of messages, but one of his messages was “always be following up”, and we have abbreviated that. Maybe [Stelli?] can take that and use it, I like it. ABFU.
Mike [18:27]: One of the things I liked about [Stelli’s?] talk was that he gave a bunch of sales metrics that people should be using to help establish whether or not they’re doing the right activities, or they’ve got the right quality metrics for their sales that they’re looking at. For example, if you’re trying to reach out to people and put them into your sales funnel, you should ideally be reaching at least a 15% reach rate, and ideally you would get to 30, but for every 100 calls you make you would reach at least 15 people, ideally you get to 30. So you need to adjust things that you’re doing around that in order to make sure you’re meeting the right metrics. It’s not just enough to call 100 people. You need to also be reaching them as well. Then he also talked about some of the different conversion metrics, and hiring people, making sure you’re hiring the right types of people, making sure that the sales are also founder-driven. You need to do sales yourself in the very beginning stages of the company to make sure that you’re selling to the right people and identifying the right prospects that you should be talking to. It’s very difficult to bring in a sales rep from outside the company and then just plop them down in a chair and say, “Okay start selling.”, because you haven’t figured out a process. You haven’t figured out who is it you should be talking to. That sort of thing really can’t be outsourced. It’s very difficult to just plop somebody in and expect them to be the entrepreneur, because I think a lot of developers, our natural inclination is to kind of step back from that and say, “I need to hire a sales rep to so this sales thing for me.” when the reality is that the developer is going to the best person for that job because they understand all the different pieces that are in it. They may be very uncomfortable, but they understand all the things that go into it. I’ve actually been in conversations where people will tell me flat out, “Hey, I actually trust a lot of what you’re telling me because you’re coming at it from an engineering standpoint. You’re not coming at me as a sales rep.” So when you’re talking at the technical levels about the specific challenges that you’re solving, don’t sell yourself short. You can easily overcome your own uncomfortability about that, and come across to somebody as much more trustworthy just by virtue of the fact that you’re a little bit more technical, and a little less sales-y.
Rob [20:29]: Our seventh take-away is to be deliberate about your direction once you’ve had early success with a product. This came from Jenna [Bestow?] who talked about the power of product focus. She basically talked about how early success makes things complicated, because once you have 10 or 20K in MRR you really have a lot of options. You can go in a lot of directions. If you try and follow all of those threads, it can be a pretty dangerous time for your business, because you can kind of wander off the reservation and not be focused on the product. She showed from first-hand experience how it had them kind of just wandering around and it hurt growth in the end.
Mike [21:05]: I think one of the most interesting things about her talk was that she had graphs that showed what some of the different cohorts looked like, and you could see, over time, as they focused in on the user-acquisition process, and trying to get people from trial to paid, you could very clearly see in the graphs exactly where changes were happening, and how they were moving people to make those decisions earlier in the process. Whereas previous to that they weren’t focused on that. They weren’t concentrating on it, because they were trying all these different things. They didn’t necessarily have set goals and specific things that they were trying to accomplish. They just had money coming in the door, and they were trying a bunch of different things, but they didn’t really have a plan. But once they stepped back and said, “Okay, let’s make a plan. Let’s do these things and be very deliberate about them.” you could see very clearly how well it impacted the business.
Rob [21:55]: Our eighth and final take-away from Micro Conf Europe 2016 is to focus on retention instead of acquisition. This came from Drew [Sinaki?] and his talk “Double Your Business.” It had a long subtitle, but it was just about doubling your business. What he walked through was there are only three ways to increase revenue. It’s to increase your average revenue per user, to decrease churn, or to increase the number of customers that you have. He said if you do all three of them they’re multiplicative. So if you do one of them you get a 30% rise. If you do all three of them, they multiply times each other. It becomes exponentially – it’s like a 2.2 times growth, getting a .3 increase from each of them, I think that’s what the numbers are. You know what I liked is he pointed out how most people focus on the third one. They focus on “We need to see more customers, more customers, more customers.” But if you’re not increasing average revenue per user, and decreasing churn along the way, you’re leaving a ton of money on the table. Then he walked through specific ways that he has done that, both he talked about doing it on an e-commerce site, talked about doing it on Sass apps, because he does some marketing consulting for Teamwork.com, and overall it was a good talk.
Mike [22:57]: What I liked about his talk was that he showed how those three things were applicable to different types of businesses. One of the examples that kind of sticks out in my mind was when someone is going through an e-commerce business, they offered an up-sell. It wasn’t very much, but at the same time there was a certain percentage of people who purchased that up-sell. I forget what it was. It was like an extra t-shirt for $10 or $15, but they got a significant and measurable increase in the number of sales, which impacts the bottom line, and all it took was them to add in that extra page, and that extra offer for the person who was making the purchase. It was just fascinating to see how all those little things ended up adding so much to the bottom line for the business.
Rob [23:39]: And so I think to start wrapping us up, if you attended it was great to see you. Thanks for coming. If you’re interested in attending either of our Micro Confs, in Las Vegas or in Europe, come to MicroConf.com and enter your email address. We also want to thank our sponsors. Frankly, Micro Conf really runs on the energy from the attendees and the help from our sponsors. This year we had five sponsors at MicroConfEuropeTeamwork.com. [Qualaroo?, Balsamic, Lead Fuse, and, of course, DRIP. We’ve been getting some questions via email about our Micro Conf in Vegas this next year. We mentioned it briefly in episode 300 to kind of give you a teaser, we didn’t give you too much detail. In essence, we are having the Micro Conf in Las Vegas on Monday and Tuesday for the past five, six years. We’re having that again this year on April 10th and 11th, of course with an evening event the Sunday before that, the 9th. Then we’re having a separate conference called Micro Conf Starter Edition, and this is for folks who are in more of an early stage. Maybe if you are looking for an idea, you have an idea, you’re not yet launched. Even if you’re launched and just trying to find product market fit, Micro Conf Starter Edition is going to totally geared at idea-validation, early traction, getting the first 10 or the first 100 customers. Because some of the feedback we’ve gotten over the years is that some of the Micro Conf attendees and speakers have progressed to a point where we’ve started thinking about maybe larger problems, and we have new challenges. So you think about me, when we started Micro Conf in 2011, I hadn’t even acquired Hit Tail. I still had a bunch of little businesses doing a few grand a month, and then bought Hit Tail, grew that, started DRIP, 10 employees, that whole thing, I’m just at a different place. There are a lot of folks who are in my shoes, who have gone from zero to businesses that are doing 50K, 100K a month, and when you’re running a bigger business, you just have different interests. So hearing from [Des Trainer?] from Intercom, or hearing from Patrick [Holisem?], the founder of Stripe, it makes more sense at that point. But if you’re in an early stage then you actually want to hear different content. It’s more helpful to hear about idea validation, and maybe to hear about folks who are in the early stages, or to have someone come on and just talk about business ideas rather than you’ve already launched and here’s what you’re doing and what to do with your millions of dollars in revenue and that kind of stuff. That’s the idea here, is it’s two separate conferences aimed at the different stages of what boot-strap startup founders are facing.
Mike [25:49]: I think if you think about Micro Conf in a larger sense that makes sense, because over time the attendees themselves are going to evolve with their businesses. Not everybody is going to want to grow their business to multiple employees, – you know, tens or hundreds or whatever. But there are going to be people who still have those challenges, and maybe they’ve never heard of Micro Conf before, or they’ve never had a chance to go because they’ve never felt like they were in a position to really take advantage of it. So this is kind of our attempt to make sure we are still catering to the needs of the audience and making sure we’re able to deliver what they want and need out of the conference. But at the same time we’re trying to address the fact that over time people are going to have those different phases of their business, and it maybe makes more sense to have these two different conferences that people can go to based on the stage, or the evolution, of their existing business.
Rob [26:37] : Right, and I think we’ve gotten the question, “Why wouldn’t I just attend both of them?” And I think my answer is, “If you want to, that’s fine.” I actually think that depending on your stage you’re going to get a lot more out of one of these conferences than the other. But if you wanted to attend both I don’t see why you shouldn’t. This is also an opportunity for us to allow more people to attend a Micro Conf. Once we launch to the public we sell out in five minutes, and we have wanted to grow the conference to 450 people or whatever. But if we do these two conferences back-to-back, we get people, based on their stage, from the most amount of value that really helps them where they’re at. It also allows us – if we do 200, 225 per conference – then we can’t have 450 people getting help and valued learning out of Micro Conf without having just this massive conference of people wandering around and feeling like – let’s say you have 450 people of all stages, then when you walk around you’re going to talk to a bunch of people who are still validating ideas, and that feels – if you’re already doing seven figures – it feels kind of weird. What do we have to talk about? Whereas if we segment this, and we have the standard Micro Conf and then Micro Conf Starter Edition, you’re just going to run into more people who are doing exactly what you are. That’s always been the point and purpose of Micro Conf. If this sounds interesting, either Micro Conf or Micro Conf Starter Edition, come to MicroConf.com and enter your email address and you’ll be the first to hear about it when we sell tickets.
Mike [27:53]: Well I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it in to our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690, or you email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 “startups”, and visit StartupsForTheRestOfUs.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about decision making for entrepreneurs. They walk you through some decision making techniques and look at how they can help you make decisions faster and more efficiently.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike [00:01]: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about decision-making for entrepreneurs. This is Startups for the Rest of Us, episode 301. [music] Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers and designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you have built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob [00:25]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:26]: And we’re share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we have made. What’s going on this week Rob?
Rob [00:29]: Just recovering from MicroConf Europe. I had a really good time last year. I guess we should a Take-Away’s episode from Europe 2016, shouldn’t we?
Mike [00:38]: Oh, we probably should. It might have been a good idea for the live podcast episode, but that would have been difficult to do I guess.
Rob [00:42]: Because the conference wasn’t done.
Mike [00:44]: Right.
Rob [00:45]: But we’ll try to do next week’s with our Take-Away’s. It was a really, really good conference. I had a lot of fun. Sometimes when we throw the event there’s a lot of struggles, and some things don’t turn out the way you want, but it ran really smooth. I thought that the talks were very good this year, and overall I had a really good time. It was good to be back in Barcelona again.
Mike [01:04]: It’s really funny that the episode that went out last week – I listened to it, and at the very beginning it made it into the cut where I interrupted you and said, “You didn’t say episode 300,” and you said, “I was getting to there,” and then you completely skipped over saying it was episode 300.
Rob [01:18]: No, I did say it was 300 –
Mike [01:19]: No you did not! I went back and listened to it, and even my wife listened to it and she was like, “He didn’t say it, did he?”
Rob [01:24]: No. I’m going to pull that snippet and email it to you, or post it on the blog or something.
Mike [01:29]: I don’t think it was there.
Rob [01:31]: That episode was fun. Hopefully as a listener, you’ve already listened to that. It was our first live episode ever, so there was definitely a different energy level, and sound quality, and ambiance, and that kind of stuff. But it was fun to be able to share that kind of recording experience with a group of people, because normally it’s basically you and I basically sitting on opposite ends of the country in our respective closets with the shades drawn.
Mike [01:52]: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. It’s definitely interesting to be up on stage like that and to talk to people directly, either during an episode or even immediately afterwards, and being able to answer questions and talk a little bit about it, and just hear how long people have been listening, what kind of take-away’s they’ve have. We sent out an email to the email list for the podcast – which if you’re not on that email list, you can go to Startupsfortherestofus.com and there’s an email list you can sign up for. We don’t send out too many emails, but we do use it to kind of communicate with the audience to some extent.
Rob [02:20]: ”What are some unfair advantages for faster SaaS growth? This is Startups for the Rest of Us, episode 300.” Oh, snap!
Mike [02:29]: I must have missed that.
Rob [02:31]: So now that we know I’m right, what’s going on with you?
Mike [02:25]: Well, I guess I’m just getting older and I can’t remember things as well. I was sure I had listened to that. I didn’t hear that.
Rob [02:41]: Getting older. Was it fun for you to have 110 of your closest founder-friends singing you Happy Birthday on the Micro Conf Europe stage last week?
Mike [02:49]: I’m not sure I’ll forgive you for that, ever.
Rob [02:52]: Yeah, now I know your birthday is right around early August here, so –
Mike [02:56]: I still am kind of speechless about that. I can’t believe you did that to me.
Rob [02:59]: You turned 40.
Mike [03:01]: Yes, I did.
Rob [03:02]: How does that feel?
Mike [03:03]: Well, I am still always going to be younger than you, so it feels great.
Rob [03:06]: That’s true.
Mike [03:08]: No, I didn’t really do much. I just worked and then late evening I sat down, had a glass of whiskey, and read a book. That’s about it.
Rob [03:14]: Nice. Low-key. Good way to recover from travels last week.
Mike [03:19]: It’s a good way to get old.
Rob [03:20]: Yeah, dig it. Cool. So what are we talking about this week?
Mike [03:23]: Well, today we’re going to talking about decision-making for entrepreneurs. The idea here is that with this episode we’re going to walk through some decision-making techniques, and looking specifically at how we can make better decisions faster. because the progress that we make in a daily basis is generally constrained by our ability to make good decisions and make those decisions quickly so we can actually get back to work. When you are struggling to make decisions, or you’re not making decisions quick enough, then the progress that you’re making and the output tends to slow down a lot. I’ve noticed this in my own situations where if I’m struggling with a decision, or it’s taking me much longer than it probably should to make that decision, then progress on pretty much everything stops, because I’m either wrestling with it, or trying to do different things to get more information and trying to figure out what I should be doing. Instead of actually doing anything I’m just trying to make a decision. It kind of leads to procrastination, but there’s a lot of implications of that because obviously it detracts from morale and makes you think about things a lot more and increases stress and all these other things that go along with it. Because you’re stressed out that you’re not making a decision, or moving things forward, and it’s constantly on your mind. So the idea for this episode is to talk about how to go through the decision-making process faster.
Rob [04:38]: Yeah, and decision-making, as you said, is such a key part of what you do day-to-day as a founder, and I think that one of the biggest parts of how to keep things moving forward is making decisions with not enough information. That is like a majority of my day, making the best decision you can given that you don’t have all the info that you would otherwise want to make a perfect decision.
Mike [05:01]: Number one on our list of decision-making for entrepreneurs is being cognizant that you are not making a decision. I think one of the tell-tale signs of this is that you’re procrastinating and there’s a lack of progress. Those are really symptoms of not being able to make a decision. They are not the root problem itself. The root problem is that you are struggling to make this decision. I think one of the ways to be more cognizant of this is you have to pay attention to the progress that you’re making. Because it’s very difficult to be in that situation and then say, “I’m in the middle of trying to make a decision and I’m having a hard time with it.” But there are symptoms that you can be aware of, and if you are tracking those types of things on a regular basis, then it will kind of remind you that you are maybe struggling with this decision. So if you’re tracking your daily tasks that you are attempting, or that you have actually achieved – whether it’s through a journal or a task list, any of those types of things – if you find that you’re not making progress on them then try to figure out if it’s because you’re having a problem making decisions. Is that the problem that you have, or is that you’re working on the wrong thing and you’re not making any progress, and it ultimately doesn’t matter? Not every day is going to yield any sort of progress, but if there’s too many days in a row without a substantial amount of progress, then it could be because you’re struggling to make decisions. When you are struggling to make those decisions, that’s where these symptoms start to come out.
Rob [06:21]: I notice when I’m procrastinating and not able to make decisions it tends to be because there’s either something at the top of my to-do list that I really don’t want to think about, don’t want to do, don’t want to make a decision, or there’s something somewhere in my inbox where I keep skipping around. I think having the discipline to always force yourself to work top to bottom through your to-do list, or bottom to top through your email inbox, and basically power through it and make fast decisions and make the best decisions that you can – I think that’s a discipline that we all should work on. I don’t maintain it full-time, but I notice that on the days that I do I notice that there’s a lot of willpower, and it typically requires me to get some music playing and get some caffeine in my system, and then I can break through. I mean, I will have stuff on top of my to-do list for weeks and then I realize that I’m going around it and doing things of a lower priority because I just don’t want to do that one, but when I start hammering through it, the things you put off for weeks – because you don’t want to do it, or you think they’re going to take a long time – you often hammer them out in like, an hour, typically is what winds up happening. There’s this huge freeing weight lifting from your shoulders. You have to kind of be aware of this. You have to make yourself aware that you are not focusing, and that you are not making decisions because of that. Then fight it head on. Pick a moment where you’re at maximum strength. You’re awake, you’re motivated, you’re in a good mood, and just get psyched up and hammer through something that you’ve been holding off on. Once you do that, it’s amazing how much momentum you gain from that, and the positive energy that comes out of tackling something like that that’s been holding you back for days, hours, or weeks.
Mike [07:52]: The second tip for decision-making is to frame the decisions that you do need to make. Part of that comes with outlining the issues around the decision. But it also ties into separating your emotional ties from that decision so you can be more objective about it. Think about why it is that you need to make this decision. What are the results of that decision? What is the outcome? And is this decision even important? Do you have to make this decision? Because sometimes you don’t. There’s certainly decisions you may come across that you feel you may need to make a decision. So ,for example, an email comes in and you feel like you need to reply to it right away. Usually that’s not the case. A lot of times you can either delay those things, or, if it’s a support request, you can hand it off to somebody else. It depends on the specifics of that. But a lot of times you can take a look at those decisions and either push them off a little bit – which there’s a fine line between actively deciding to deal with something later, versus performing avoidance techniques to not do it. I think these are two very different things. But take a look at whether or not you even need to make this decision. Is it relevant to you?
Rob [08:55]: Something to keep in mind – as you are making a decision – this is a little bit of a tangent, but there’s this acronym that I think is used in psychology, or in coaching, or something, but it’s an acronym that’s HALT. That’s H-A-L-T. It’s don’t make decisions when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. And then actually Jacob Thurman did an attendy talk a couple years ago at [MicroConf] and he added an “S” for Sick because he had a stomach ailment, and he was having a really tough time making decisions and he didn’t want to make a bad one. So be really cognizant of your state of mind as you’re doing this. This is, again, a self-awareness thing, and it’s going to be aware that you are angry or hungry or lonely. It’s easy to be sad or depressed or to be having a rough day and make decisions that are just not ideal, especially if you’re making permanent or semi-permanent decisions you really don’t want to do that. That’s something to kind of keep in mind.
Mike [09:46]: The third step is to ask yourself if you have enough information to make this decision. Most of the time we don’t have all the information relevant to a particular problem in order to make a decision, so the vast majority of the decisions that we are making are based on incomplete information. There is a threshold that you are going to cross where you will have enough information to make that decision, and when you’re in the middle of trying to make a decision, if you’re struggling with it, ask yourself if you do have enough information to make that decision. If you don’t, how do you get it? How long is it going to take to get that information? What is the cost, in time, to acquire that information? If you were to make that decision and move in a particular direction, is that going to be faster than taking four to six weeks to identify the information that you need to do something that would have only taken two weeks to begin with? You have to balance out and you have to look at that and figure out whether it’s warranted to just make the decision and move forward knowing that you may have to do work again and, or make a different decision, versus spending the next four to six weeks trying to figure out the additional information that you need. Sometimes there’s an opportunity cost there that a lot of times it’s just easier to just make the decision and move forward even if it is the wrong decision, because you will learn things along the way.
Rob [11:02]: I said this a couple episodes ago about how there are certain decisions that are easy to undo, so make those quickly. Make the best when you can and move on. Then there are certain decisions that are really hard to undo, and those are the ones that you are going to need to agonize over and get as much information as possible, and being deliberate about information-gathering. Thinking like, “What test could I run?” Sometimes it’s a decision of like, “”Should we change our pricing?” Or, “Should we change our home page to a totally different version?” Often times you can just run a split test, or you can talk to customers. There are ways that you can gather some more information, and it might take some work to do, but it will help keep you from shooting into the dark and basically not knowing if what you’re doing is going to improve the situation.
Mike [11:46]: The fourth tip is actually the opposite, which is you have too much information, or you have conflicting information. I think this is a common source of angst among people, myself included, where you don’t want to make the wrong decision, and not wanting to make the wrong decision can lead to procrastination. I think in these situations you have to do something of a cost-benefit analysis to figure out how much longer it would take to get decisive information, or whether even that situation exists. Is it possible to get decisive information? If you look at something like AB-testing, it can take a long time for something to be statistically significant if the differences are minute, or you’re not able to throw a lot of traffic at a particular thing for example. Sometimes adding more information is simply not going to help. You’re going to have to make a decision one way or the other. And as you said, sometimes you just have to make that decision and you’ll go down the wrong path and that’s okay. You have to be comfortable with that ,and accept that there are going to be decisions that you are going to make, you’re going to be wrong, and that’s okay. The fifth tip is that decisions tend to have a way of proving themselves right or wrong rather quickly. If you’ve made a decision and you’re not sure if it’s the right one, several weeks afterwards or several months afterwards, take a look at how much longer it’s going to be before you think that you’re going to be a position where you believe you’ve made the right or wrong decision. What are the conditions that need to come up that are going to allow you to verify one way or the other? When you get into those in between stages where you have made a decision and you’re looking back historically to figure that out, sometimes that’s difficult. Sometimes there’s kind of a meandering of the environment, or what it is that you’re working on, and you’re just not sure. When you’re doing that it’s difficult to be confident about the direction that you’re going and you have to just take a step back and say, “Is this the right approach? Am I doing the right thing?” Because sometimes it’s not. Looking at the reward for being right, or the penalty for being wrong, is warranted in those cases.
Rob [13:37]: You know, this is something that I’ve struggled with a long time, and actually used to struggle with a lot more when I was younger and kind of as an earlier start-up founder, I would make decisions and then I would second-guess them for days or weeks or months if it was warranted. That is not how you want to make decisions. You are carrying around this cognitive load and this baggage, and it really distracts you from moving forward and getting the work done that you’re trying to get done. So I think, over time, maybe it’s purely just kind of desensitizing yourself to it, and learning that the more decisions you make the less each individual one matters. Or maybe it’s just a learned skill. Maybe it’s something – I genuinely don’t know. I think at a certain point in order to move forward I had to start making the call and living with the outcomes. I didn’t have the time or the energy to sweat it anymore. I don’t necessarily have any fantastic guidance, tips, or tactics. I’m sure someone out there does who has studied this, but I do know that I’ve gotten way, way better and I feel better about so many more of the decisions that I make now than I used to when I would kind of second-guess everything that I was thinking about.
Mike [14:40]: I think what you just said there is probably a fantastic quotable quote, which is the part about the more decisions you make the less impact each individual decision has, because you’re able to achieve more and accomplish more, so the addition of all of those things overcomes any individual wrong decisions that you might make along the way. If you make a massive incorrect path decision, then that also a collection of lots of other decisions as well, but the individual decisions along the way, in and of themselves, don’t necessarily matter as much. The last tip we have here, which is something that Rob talked about a little bit earlier, which is decisions tend to be reversible. There’s a lot of decisions you’re going to make where you can make tiny course corrections, or you may decide, “Hey this is a strategy that is not working and we’re going to go in a different direction now.” So you make either minor course alterations, or a massive course alteration, based on the environment, but these things are not set in stone. You don’t have to continue going down a path you have already gone down for the sole purpose of going down that path, or because you don’t want to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong on occasion, so if you have to change your course, or change the decision that you’ve made, that’s okay too.
Rob [15:50]: I think that’s something big that I learned – is undoing decisions. In most cases, while sometimes you’ll lose face, or you look a little foolish to someone going back, but you can undo almost every decision. There are some exceptions, but I think that getting over the fear of looking dumb, or of having someone think that person didn’t know what they wanted – it tends to be social fears, I think, that keep us from undoing decisions. Almost all decisions you make can be undone. The question is always just at what cost, right? Sometimes undoing decisions will cost you $20, or sometimes it could be hundreds of dollars or thousands, and you just have to value it – is it worth paying that in order to be able to undo it? In another respect, sometimes it’s just your reputation, it’s just a little ding, or a large ding, against your reputation, and you have decide, “Is it better to move forward the way I’ve decided? Or is it better to take that short-term hit to my reputation and to be able to undo it?” I think it’s an interesting way to think about it. To not think about it in black-and-white, like, “I made the decision and therefore I’m moving forward.” Because if the information changes, and even if there’s going to be some type of cost to you – whether that’s money or reputation – if it’s the right choice then it’s the right choice. Go back and undo it. What you often find out is that the ramifications are often a lot less severe than you think they will be in your mind. That question of, “What’s the worst that can happen if I undo this decision?” Ask yourself that and dig into it and really think, “What is likely to happen here?” Maybe get a sanity check, because I think you can trap yourself in a box, especially us as engineers, we can trap ourselves in this box of thinking everything is black and white, and once you make the decision it’s done. I have learned over the years — this is something which I did not understand at all when I was younger – I’ve learned over the years that so much is able to be undone.
So to recap, the six tips for decision-making for entrepreneurs are – number one, be cognizant of when you’re making a decision. Number two, frame the decisions you need to make. Number three, do you have enough info? Number four, do you have too much information or conflicting information? Number five, decisions have a way of proving themselves right or wrong quickly. Number six, decisions are reversible. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690, or email us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Out of Control” by MOot, used under Creative Comments. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for “Startups” and visit Startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk live at MicroConf Europe about the four unfair advantages to faster SaaS growth. They also expand the topic to things that seem like unfair advantages but aren’t and how to improve your chances of getting an unfair advantage. At the end of the talk they do a short Q&A with some audience members.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Slides from Presentation
- Woo Themes
- Crazy Egg
Rob [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Mike and I are going to discuss the four –
Mike [00:04]: Stop. You didn’t say it was episode 300.
Rob [00:06]: Then I say this is episode –
Mike [00:10]: All right.
Rob [00:10]: This is going to be good.
Mike [00:11]: We do stop like this on occasion.
Rob [00:13]: Oh, I love it.
Mike [00:13]: I’m not kidding.
Rob [00:14]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Mike and I discuss the four unfair advantages for faster SaaS growth. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’ episode 300.
Welcome to ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike [00:44]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:47]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike [00:51]: Well, we are live with an episode. We’ve never done a live episode before. And we’re recording at the 10th MicroConf in Europe, in sunny Barcelona.
Rob [01:00]: Indeed. And we have some audience participation going on. We’re going to have a Q and A at the end. But I have to admit it feels very different to record here in front of 110 people, instead of sitting home alone in my office with the mic muted.
Mike [01:12]: Yes, very different. Not necessarily intimidating, but it’s just all eyes are one you, and you’re like all of our general screw-ups are going to visible to everyone.
Rob [01:21]: Right. So we do have an interesting announcement. A little top secret preview, both for the audience here and the folks that are going to hear it next week. MicroConf in Vegas this year is going to be two conferences back to back. So we’re doing MicroConf as usual – MicroConf that we’ve done for the past several years – April 10th and 11th at the Tropicana. And then we’re doing something called MicroConf Starter Edition. And that’s going to be on the 12th and the 13th. And there will be more info to come on that later. But if you’re interested in potentially coming to Vegas for either of those two day conferences that we’ll be running back to back – and they’ll have an evening reception that overlaps – come to MicroConf.com and enter your email.
Mike [02:02]: Awesome. So, anything else new this week?
Rob [02:05]: Hanging out in Barcelona.
Mike [02:05]: Awesome.
Rob [02:06]: Pretty cool.
Mike [02:06]: What are we talking about this week?
Rob [02:08]: We’re talking about the four unfair advantages for faster SaaS growth. And this is specifically the self-funded edition. This is based on a MicroConf talk I did in Las Vegas just about four or five months ago. We actually have some slides the folks here in the audience will see, and maybe we’ll publish these in the show notes or something, if Josh contacts us.
Mike [02:24]: Yes, that would be cool.
Rob [02:25]: That would be nice. The whole premise of this is that as I was putting together this talk, I was trying to think of – I’ve had a lot of software products over the years, and some that are not software products, and DRIP, of all of them, grew way faster than the others. I had a SaaS app called HitTail before this, Wedding Toolbox, DotNetInvoice, CMSthemer, Beach Towels. I wrote a book, ‘Conference.’ Just other stuff. And I started thinking, “Why is it that DRIP got such traction so quickly?” Once we had product market fit there was a lot of growth. How did this happen? What was the anomaly?
And so, I started thinking through the differences of how I had changed, how my skills had changed, and I was trying to attribute it to just, well, I got smarter, I had a little more money, I had a little more skills. Then I took a look at some other fast growing SaaS apps. I looked at things like Baremetrics, Balsamiq, Bidsketch, Woo Themes, Clarity, Basecamp – some of these aren’t SaaS apps, per se. Woo Themes is a subscription WordPress theme service – WP Engine and others. And was trying to pick out what was the advantage that these had over other apps that maybe launched around the same time, even in similar spaces or overlapping spaces, but didn’t have kind of this meteoric growth. A lot of these apps were growing 10, 20, 30% a month in the early months, and once they stopped reporting – because eventually most people do stop telling all the numbers once the table stakes get high. I’m trying to figure out what it was.
So I looked at these. I looked at a whole other list. This is from, I think, our Founder Café homepage, just looked through apps and did research. I talked to some founders. So, this is mostly anecdotal, but it’s based on my experience, my conversations with hundreds of SaaS founders and even other software product types. So, I dug in and I picked out four things I know are unfair advantages. And I think one of them is a requirement for fast, early growth. I couldn’t find an app that was growing quickly that didn’t have at least one of these things in place. When I say “quickly” I don’t mean it was growing three, four, five percent a month. I’m talking the ones that – remember when Baremetrics came out and Josh was publishing his early revenue? And we were like, “What in the world? This is really fast.” It’s that kind of growth. And it may not sustain forever, but at least in the early days how he got there. I’m sorry. We’re going to also talk about things that seem like unfair advantages but aren’t. And then we’re going to talk about how to improve your chances of getting an unfair advantage.
Mike [04:45]: Why don’t we talk a little bit about what an unfair advantage is. An unfair advantage is really a competitive advantage that you have over other people, and whether that’s other people or other businesses. And there’s a bunch of different ways to define this. Probably one of the better ones comes from Jason Cohen. He says that the only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought. This encompasses a bunch of different things. And I think the really important piece here is that there’s a differentiation between those two sides of it. It cannot be copied and it cannot be bought. So, cannot be copied. There’s a lot of different reasons why something might not be able to be copied. You may have some insight or knowledge, for example, on a very specific type of business. Or you may have a background that relates to how a particular process is done, or a new roadmap for how version 2.0 or 3.0 of something is coming out, and you’re involved in the creation of that. Those are the types of things where you have that insider knowledge that nobody else has, and they could learn it but it’s going to take them a long time. The second side of that is it cannot be bought. If you get funding, you still are not going to be able to replicate that. Those two factors in place, I think Jason has got it brilliantly on at that point. The combination of those two factors, that’s what makes it a competitive advantage.
Rob [06:04]: So let’s dive into the first one. Unfair advantage number one is if you are early. So, it’s to be early. This is probably the most common as I looked through. As I ran through Baremetrics and – what was it? Woo Themes? – they were an early one. I think I actually talk about them in a second. I shouldn’t start naming the companies. But being early is a very common way. If you’re early into a niche, it’s a way to get fast early growth, because there’s just no other options for you at the time. The issue with being early is that it’s temporary, because typically – unless you’re in a very small niche – there’s going to be fast followers. So, if you’re the first one to launch into, let’s say Woo Themes as they created their first subscription premium themes, there were dozens of them by the next year. It doesn’t necessarily go away, because you can still keep that brand recognition, but you are going to bring competition. Especially if you talk a lot about your success, which we’ve seen some people do, and bring competitors into the space.
Mike [07:01]: And it seems like there’s places where just being involved in a particular space, or on a particular platform, just by virtue of being there you can almost make yourself early anyway. In some cases you just completely luck out. You happen to be in the right place at the right time, and there’s not necessarily an element of skill or your relationships involved. But if you are – let’s say that you’re working with Woo Themes and you already know the people – you know the founders personally – and they come to you and they say, “We’re building a platform, and we want to be able to build a mechanism for people to build plug-ins on our platform.” By virtue of having those relationships you are able to leverage yourself into being early there. There is a large element of luck involved. You can’t necessarily depend on being early all the time, or even most of the time. It’s something that is just going to happen, and you don’t really have a lot of control over it.
Rob [07:51]: Being early is basically feasible in very small markets, because at this point those tend to be the markets that are underserved in this day and age. In 2016, there are SaaS apps in all the major markets. So it’s going to be feasible in small markets, or in emerging markets. What I mean by that is markets that don’t really exist yet. So again, you think of Woo Themes premium – WordPress was around, but it was really kind of an emerging market when Woo Themes came out. And Stripe had been around a little while, but how many SaaS apps had built on it when Josh launched Baremetrics. Stripe Analytics was an emerging market when he hit that. The other thing is being early requires swift execution. So if you get out early and you build something and you get to market, if you’re still working your fulltime job and you only have five, ten hours a week to work on it, and you do get any type of pickup, you’re going to get trucked. You’re going to get caught and you’re going to get overtaken quickly. So, once you get out ahead, you really don’t want to lose this be early advantage. We look at our two criteria. What do you think, Mike? Can being early be copied or bought?
Mike [08:49]: Not easily. If you are able to quickly execute on something that you see it coming out, and you have the money to be able to do it, then yes. But by virtue of the type of company that would have that type of money, they don’t move quickly. You have that advantage of being small, being able to out-maneuver them and implement something fast that they’re not going to be able to get there in front of you. Now they may get there a little after you, and that poses a bit of a different challenge just because they come in after you and they do have more money than you, they do have more resources, but, hopefully, you can leverage yourself into a position of “dominance.” And if you are early, it’s probably in a small market anyway. And chances are good they won’t come after you.
Rob [09:24]: Very good. Some examples of folks who were early. I’ve already mentioned Baremetrics. It’s SaaS analytics for Stripe, Joshua’s first to market as far as I know. Balsamiq. So Peldi’s startup was a really early mockup tool, basically. If not the first one that I had heard about that was kind of made for the modern age, and wasn’t the old kind of Visio style. Bidsketch, a friend of MicroConf, Rubin Gamez, was really the first proposal software made for the web, and he got early traction with that. Woo Themes, as I said. And then Basecamp. They were the first web-based project management tool that I remember. I’m not sure if they were the number one, but they certainly were the first early entrant.
So as we’re going to walk through these four unfair advantages, I kind of want, instead of everyone just listening, I want you to think to yourself, “Where do I stand on a scale of one to ten?” But I was trying to think what does that mean? What does one to ten mean? And so, I think maybe one to Basecamp. Or one to Baremetrics. Where do you think your app, or the app idea that you have, stands on this rating scale? And this may not be super relevant to you. We have three other advantages, and maybe they’ll be more relevant. But if you are thinking of launching something, it’s good to know. If you think about DRIP, it was probably a one or a two. It wasn’t early. We have hundreds of competitors so that wasn’t necessarily our unfair advantage. So it’s okay if you don’t have some of these.
Mike [10:38]: I think there’s some challenge in trying to figure out where you are in that spectrum, because you look at something like Basecamp now and they have 30 or 60 employees or something like that. And they have millions of dollars that are coming in, and hundreds of thousands, or millions, of subscribers. And knowing whether or not your market – or the thing that you’re going after – and whether or not it’s going to ever get to that point, it makes it difficult to try and relate yourself to where they are. One to Basecamp, I think there may be a better way to put that. I’m not sure.
Rob [11:05]: There probably is. Maybe when we do this next time you can write the outline. No, I was only kidding – BOOM! I only do that when it’s live. I don’t –
Mike [11:13]: I’ll write your talk next time.
Rob [11:13]: All right. Unfair advantage number two is who you know. This is your network. These are the people, not just who you know, but who would be willing to endorse you, who would be willing to promote you to their audience, who would be willing to advise you, or make intros. It’s deeper than just, “Oh yeah, I know that guy who sat next to me at MicroConf.” It’s like, is this person willing; do they know you, like and trust you enough that they’re willing to put a little bit of their reputation on the line in front of their audience, or in front of someone else who has an audience that they’ll make an intro to?
Mike [11:47]: Yeah. You’re basically asking them to spend their social capital on your behalf. So you have to have at least some level of trust, or knowledge, there. And it’s not really just about the type of product that you have, or how good it is, because if you’re just launching a product it’s probably not very good, and you have to have that relationship with them that they know that you’re going to be able to come through, or you’re willing to do what it takes and put forth the effort. As opposed to, “Hey, I’d like an introduction to [Beth Flynn?].” Or somebody else like that. And there’s a lot of social capital there, and if that product tanks, or that relationship goes south for whatever reason, then it’s really their reputation on the line. It’s not yours. So that makes it challenging.
Rob [12:25]: Another caveat, or note about this, is that who you know, you kind of need to know people that your competitors can’t access as well, because there’s potentially a loss of value there. I think if someone was an affiliate for you and a competitor, it could work, but it certainly has a lot less value if your networks overlap heavily. It would be really nice if your network was very different, and the two circles didn’t overlap much. So what do you think, Mike, who you know? Copied, bought?
Mike [12:51]: Definitely not. Well, it depends on your friends, and who you know, and whether they can be bought or not [laughter]. I think that there’s definitely difficulty in copying, or buying, either one of those things. With certain types of markets you can kind of buy your way into relationships. For example, a reseller market, you can spend money taking people out to dinner and convincing them to promote your products, especially if you have the type of margins that are there in order to, essentially, compensate them for that time, or that’s their business. It could very well be that they’re getting paid to promote products and they don’t necessarily care. But I think that, in general, you probably don’t want those types of people to help you promote your product anyway.
Rob [13:27]: And some examples of businesses that were grown based on the person’s network, based on who they knew, AppSumo is one. Most people don’t remember but Noah Kagan was pretty much an unknown in our circles in 2012, 2011, whenever AppSumo launched. And, in fact –
Mike [13:45]: He spoke at the first MicroConf.
Rob [13:47]: That’s right.
Mike [13:47]: He was not known until after MicroConf. We can make that claim.
Rob [13:50]: Yes, I guess so.
Mike [13:51]: I don’t think so.
Rob [13:51]: The two aren’t correlated, but they happen to line up. So, when he launched AppSumo it was a “deal a day” site, where he would get these big bundles of software and he’d discount them, and the first deal they every did 20 or 25% of the deal sales went to Micropreneur Academy members. Somebody posted it in our forums, and it was just the perfect lineup because we all consumed software and stuff, and it was kind of a founder bundle, or startup bundle. And he just picked up the phone and started calling me. And I’m like, “Who is this guy?” A) I don’t like talking on the phone and b) who are you. I get a lot of phone calls. And we talked and I had no idea. And he’s like, “I was employee number seven at Facebook.” And I’m like, “This is crazy.” But he built a lot of that business based on relationships. And he either built them – like he did when he picked up the phone and called me – because later on we did a deal together. He put HitTail on AppSumo. He was able to build these bundles because of his extensive network of people. Then he was able to get affiliates and just do all types of crazy stuff. And it was based on his network.
Clarity.FM from Dan Martell. Dan Martell is also a MicroConf speaker. That dude just knows everyone, and if he doesn’t know you, he will soon. He just utilized that network really well. Clarity.FM is advice for founders and entrepreneurs. It’s actually a network of successful founders who you can call on the phone and just book like ten minutes of their time for X dollars, and it was a marketplace, right? Few of us in this room, if any, could start a marketplace like that, because you need so many high-end founders. And he just picked up the phone, wrote emails, and was able to populate this business. And he later sold it. He sold it a couple of years ago to Startups.co.
WP Engine is another one. Jason Cohen talked early on about how his network didn’t allow him to grow WP Engine, but it allowed him to hire really good people because of his blog, and it allowed him to raise funding like that because he was well known. So those two things contributed heavily towards his growth. And then a shout-out to [Carthoop?]. It’s an honorable mention, because he’s still working on it and growing it. But Jordan, as I view it, he knows a lot of people, especially in his space. So he’s in the e-commerce space. He just has a way of — I see it, and I remember Dan Martell meeting everybody, and suddenly Dan Martell knows way more people than I do in my own circle. And Jordan’s the kind of guy who’s doing that. So these are some good examples.
Mike [15:59]: I kind of joked about it earlier, but every single person behind those companies has been a MicroConf speaker at one point.
Rob [16:05]: I didn’t do that intentionally –
Mike [16:07]: I know.
Rob [16:07]: – but it is – when I’m going to write this and outline it it’s kind of like I’m going through and I went to all these startup lists and all these – I did go through all the MicroConf speakers and I just put this huge list of SaaS apps and startups together. And I was thinking which one do we know grew fast? Which ones didn’t we? And then breaking down the criteria. So there is definitely some bias here. It did come out of me.
Mike [16:26]: Yeah. There’s definitely bias there, but I also think that there’s a correlation with those types of people, because they travel in the same circles. And when you tend to get into a particular – and social network is kind of a nuance term, I think at this point – but when you get into a social network of people – and I would say that MicroConf people are a social network of people. There are various other ones out there. There’s startup groups in different cities. They’re all their own social network. So you have those social – maybe social circles is a better way to phrase it – but when you get into a social circle, you can very quickly and easily be introduced to other people, and over time those relationships develop. And, as you are kind of alluding, over time those relationships develop into something where you are able to just tap into those relationships and talk to people and just get-to-know-you basis, and you’re able to use those people to grow your business. And “used” is probably a strong term, but leverage that relationship.
Rob [17:18]: So, on our one to ten scale, where do you stand between one and maybe a Jason Cohen, in terms of your network?
Mike [17:25]: Jason Cohen knows everybody.
Rob [17:27]: He does. It’s crazy. All right. Unfair advantage number three is, who knows you. So this is your audience. This could be an existing customer base, where there’s people who may have perhaps bought an info product from you. Maybe it’s folks who have subscribed to your one-time sale WordPress plug-in and then you’re going to launch a SaaS app. It’s people who know, like and trust you.
Mike [17:46]: And it could just be people you’ve worked with before. Most people discount, or undervalue, LinkedIn to some extent, because a lot of people will use it as a mechanism for just kind of increasing their network connections in efforts to be able to leverage that into success, or download the list of emails, and they’ll just start introducing themselves to other people. But when you connect with somebody, a lot of times people will start with the people that they’ve worked with in the past, people they actually shared a job experience. Then, from there, you start finding, “Oh, there’s these small groups of people that I worked with maybe at a startup ten or 15 years ago that went on to do other things, and I didn’t realize that these two people now work at the same company, and I worked with them – one at this company and one at this other company – and now they work together. You can also leverage those relationships to ask them about other people; your second or third connections in LinkedIn. And I’m not saying that LinkedIn is the panacea for all of your networking issues, because it’s certainly not. But you can use that to gain some visibility, and it works in the reverse as well. Those people will see you on the other end. So you see it from your perspective, but you are on the other end of that as well.
Rob [18:51]: All right. What do you think, Mike, who knows you, your audience? Can that be copied, can it be bought?
Mike [18:54]: It goes back a little bit to who you know, and whether or not those relationships are reciprocal. Because just because you know somebody doesn’t mean that they know you as well. There’s that element of trust that you can leverage, and whether or not you have a voice that they’re paying attention to in any way, shape or form. So, it definitely can’t be copied or bought. It can be re-implemented, but it’s going to be at a slower growth rate. You’re probably much better off being in a position where other people know you than you know of them on a peripheral basis. For example, I know Jason Cohen, but it’s not like I’m on his inner circle or anything. And he knows who I am, but the relationship is not, I would say, directly equivalent in both ways.
Rob [19:35]: All right. So, examples of businesses that have been built on the who knows you, but built on an existing audience. SumoMe. So going back to Noah Kagan, he had already had AppSumo, he had a very large email list. 750,000. I think they’ve kind of made it public. And then when they went to build SumoMe, they basically had the big email list that they could get started really quick, and they got to six figures in the installs – hundreds of thousands, or over a hundred thousand pretty quickly based on that list. They took their existing audience and they very intelligently turned it into a software success.
Edgar, meetedgar.com. This is Laura Roeder. She had an audience of folks who had bought training and information products from her on social media and Twitter marketing. It may have been Facebook, too, but definitely Twitter marketing. Then she started a SaaS app for essentially doing just that. It had a system to it, and was able to pretty quickly get to – I think she got to $100,000 a month of MRR within, was it six months or ten months? It was very fast. Anomalous growth.
KISSmetrics. Hiten Shah, Neil Patel. They started Crazy Egg. They had an audience of marketers who said, “These guys build good products.” When they came out with KISSmetrics, they already had that list of customers, and they had a small marketing audience, but they really had a lot of customers who trusted them.
LeadFuze. Justin McGill started this as a productized service. It was doing cold email outreach. He actually had what they call BDR’s – business development reps – he had a staff of them who were doing email outreach. They were actually doing some for DRIP. They would go get customers. Then he built LeadFuze, the software product, behind it using that revenue. Then he sunsetted that productized service, and now LeadFuze is a SaaS app – and he’s public about this so I can say it – but they hit 30,000, 31,000 in MRR in a short time. Again, it’s like six months or something. So it’s pretty good growth.
Then DRIP. I would say that one of the big reasons that I got early traction, and that Drip was able to grow the way it did, was a little bit because of my network. But I think a bigger part of that is because of who knows me. It’s because when I said, “I’m launching something and I think it’s good.”, people would listen. They would at least give me the time of day. Whether they were going to switch that day from MailChimp, I at least got the benefit of the doubt.
Mike [21:41]: I think there’s an important distinction to make here when you use the phrase “Who knows you?” It is not necessarily who is in your audience that knows you. At least not the number of people because, for example, ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’ has 11,000 listeners or weekly downloads or something like that. All it takes is one person in that audience who they may know 200,000 people, or 300,000 people, and they may have a channel that you can leverage. So, even though your particular audience, the people listening directly to you, may be lower than you’d like, it doesn’t necessarily mean go out build an audience. You could very well have just five friends, and one of those people, all it takes is their relationships. And if they know who you are and they know what you’re building, “Oh, let me introduce you to so and so. They can help you.” That’s where that social capital comes in. That’s where those social circles are really helpful. So, it is not necessarily equal in both ways. But that’s an important distinction about “Who knows you?” is not just about the number of people that know you. That number gives you a bigger surface area, but it also gives you those people that may have their own relationships that can work in reverse for you.
Rob [22:45]: The influencers. So, in terms of “who knows you,” where do you stand from one to ten with ten maybe being someone like Noah Kagan, who has, obviously, a very large audience. And our fourth and final unfair advantages for self-funded SaaS founders is growth expertise. This one’s a little tricky. Growth expertise is knowing the tactics, knowing the strategy, and having experience doing these things. It’s not just reading about them, but it’s having this in-depth knowledge of it. And it’s people who we think of as the best growth people. That’s what I mean by expertise. I don’t mean someone who has toyed around with stuff, or someone who has done some marketing. And there are people, who without an audience – this was the tricky one where I said, “I have apps here that have grown with no audience and very little network as far as I can tell. And they weren’t early so how did that happen?” And every one of them there was a founder, or there was a marketer there, who just knew his stuff, his or her stuff. They just nailed it. And that’s what I’ve encapsulated with this one.
And copied or bought is a tough one on this. Copying, very hard. It could take years to get that expertise. Bought, could be bought perhaps with equity, but the best growth people we know they don’t just work. You can’t just pay someone $200,000, $300,000. These growth people, they’re not going to do it. So bought, very, very hard. You would need to give away a chunk of equity.
Mike [23:55]: I think that’s the key piece there. You can pay for expertise, but there becomes a certain level of expertise that is, I’ll say, early enough in a particular technique of some kind that is really difficult to buy them. You can go out and you can find people that are doing consulting for $20,000, $30,000, $50,000 a week for certain things, and you can’t buy them. There’s stories from unnamed individuals who’ve probably been a little bit public about – without naming names – and they’ve said, “I was offered $1 million dollars for annual salary and I turned it down.” And it wasn’t to say that they couldn’t be bought, because they were obviously doing the consulting work, but they didn’t want to be tied to that, and there was no equity involved. So when you get into those situations, to find somebody that is that good that early, without offering them equity, I think it would be really challenging to be able to buy them.
Rob [24:42]: Some examples of these companies are companies like Sean Ellis’ Qualaroo, who’s here in the house.
Mike [24:48]: Actually, it’s not Sean Ellis –
Rob [24:49]: Sean Ellis. Yes, I know he sold it, but he grew it and then sold it. But Qualaroo’s a sponsor of MicroConf this year. That’s not why this is here. I put this here back in April. We have Buffer from Joel and Leo. They were a little bit early into that market, but they weren’t the first. There were plenty doing what Buffer was doing. But is it Leo? Leo’s the growth guy, is that right? I forget if Joel’s the – Anyway, one of them is the programmer and one of them is more the growth guy. And that dude just hustled, and they didn’t know anybody. He cold emailed me, and he knew Hiten, and then he cold emailed me and said, “I’d love to do a guest post or two on your blog.” And I was like, “Well, you know…” And he showed me examples of his writing. I get a lot – if you have a successful blog then you get tons of offers for this. I typically turn them down but I said, “Well, give me a sample.” And his writing was really good. Over the course of a couple weeks, he did two guest posts. I found out later he was doing one guest post a day on all the big blogs. If you go back and you look at that time when Buffer was getting started, you look at everybody, like Jason Cohen, my blog, on Startups, [?] blog – just pretty much every blog you can imagine that has any type of influence, any type of link-back authority, and Buffer has a guest post on that. He was just hustling. He had growth expertise and he had hustle.
Crazy Egg is another one where they didn’t have an audience at that point but Hiten and Neil, let’s just say, they’re at the top of their game, and some of the best in the world at this.
Mike [26:04]: Going back to your Buffer example. When you do that type of thing and you’ve reached out to Hiten Shah or Rob Walling and you get at least some visibility. You said yourself, “I had no idea who this guy was.” And you asked for a sample of his writing, and then started looking back and seeing where else it was that he was being published, you can leverage those relationships, because really what you’re doing in a way is – back to your stair step approach – you’re leveling up the people that you’re talking to. You’re talking to people who have fairly large social circles, and you leverage that relationship into a larger relationship that they may have with somebody else who is bigger. Then you go bigger, and you keep going bigger. And you go, “By the way, I did a blog post over here for Neil Patel. And I did one for Rob Walling. And I did one for Hiten Shah.” And then it’s like how do you turn something like that down? You can leverage those types of relationships, but you can’t just go for the big fish. You’ve got to work your way up to it.
Rob [26:51]: In terms of growth expertise, I’d ask you to think about, “Where do you stand on a scale from one to ten, where ten maybe someone like a Sean Ellis or a Neil Patel?” Whoever you think in your mind is maybe the best of the best. So, a couple other things that I’d say are not unfair advantages, and that a lot of these are just table stakes for competitive spaces. If you’re going to go into a space with 100 competitors all of these are table stakes. If you go into a niche that’s maybe smaller and doesn’t have a tone of competitors, these will get you an advantage, but it’s not an unfair high growth advantage having just these things. I have five or six things here. One is great design and UX. I love great design and UX, most people in here probably do. But this alone isn’t going to cut it. This is table stakes if you’re going to be in a competitive space.
Mike [27:32]: And the reason is because that can be copied. You can very easily copy that.
Rob [27:36]: Copy or buy it.
Mike [27:37]: And that goes back to Jason’s quote, “You can copy it or buy it.” You can go buy the same theme that they did. Or you can buy the same designer that they used. There’s way to copy a design. It’s not a big deal.
Rob [27:46]: Technical or design skills. While, again, I think these are super valuable, most of us in here do. These are things that can be bought for a couple hundred thousand dollars. You could hire a really good technical or design person, or a great design or UX person, unlike that growth thing. Money. Money’s not an unfair advantage. Maybe unless you’re the only one in an entire space that has money, but money is cheap these days. It may not be forever, but it’s pretty easy to get a round of funding. As we’ve heard a lot of people just having some success, and then people are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at you. This is the climate we currently live in. Five years ago it wasn’t that way, right after 2008, 2009 – which I guess is not seven years ago – and in five years it may not be that way. But right now money is pretty easy to get.
An uncopiable idea. When I was researching unfair advantages, this came up in a few of kind of the big MBA like Stanford Business Review, Harvard Journal of such and such MBA stuff, and an uncopiable idea is something like a Google where you have that killer algorithm and it’s completely uncopiable. And the reason that I don’t think this applies to us is because this is for self-funded SaaS, and I could not think or find a single self-funded SaaS app that ever had an uncopiable idea. So that’s why it’s on this list. Domain expertise. Let’s say you’re selling to lawyers. I think that’s a good thing, that if you were a lawyer, your brother’s a lawyer, your co-founders a lawyer, that is really good. Not uncopiable though. And then passion, interest, time, focus. Again, these are table stakes. These are things that I used to think, “If I have that, I have an advantage over people.” These days I don’t think you do.
Mike [29:13]: I think everything that you just listed there, all of its stuff that you could either copy or buy. And they are helpful, but they’re not the only things that are going to get you to a higher level.
Rob [29:21]: So if you look at the four unfair advantages we’ve listed – we’ve listed be early, who you know, who knows you, and growth expertise. The latter three – who you know, who knows you, and growth expertise – those come with you. Those are skills, or assets, that you can bring with you from product to product, year over year. Being early – I’m not trying to downplay that – I wish I could be early actually. I think that’s the thing is I’ve never been early to anything in my life. I’m not the creative type. And I think that there are certain people who are just going to be thinking that way and are going to be at the right place, at the right time. But for me, I like to develop repeatable models that can be used over and over. That’s what we do at MicroConf is try to teach things that, not just say, “Well, go be early.” because that’s not helpful. Because you don’t know how to do that. We like to teach things that are fairly repeatable, testable, validatable. And so these latter three are things that you can take with you over time.
Mike [30:10]: You’re not even early to the podcast half the time.
Rob [30:12]: I know. I have to keep you waiting. And so, to wrap us up – there’s just a couple of more minutes here – it’s interesting, as I looked at my stair-step approach, where I talk about building one-time apps and then stepping up to one-time sale apps, like WordPress plug-ins and such. Then stepping up to step two which is selling enough of those until you can buy your own time. And then eventually stepping up into recurring revenue. This fits pretty well with this whole unfair advantage thing, because if you do this right – you’re going to launch a WordPress plug-in for e-signature or for lawyers or for something. For sales people. For ecommerce. Then you’re probably going to launch maybe a few more WordPress plug-ins in that space. And by the time you get to step three, and you’re trying to do recurring revenue, which is really hard as we kind of all hear over and over, you may have that. You’re likely to have maybe some growth expertise in that. Maybe you have a network of people in that space, which is who knows you. Maybe you have an audience in that space, which is who you know. So the ideal is that if you travel a path that you would build these skills and build these unfair advantages up over time as you go through your journey.
Mike [31:13]: That was actually an interesting thing that I looked at. Even on your stair step approach, early on you look at the things that you did. It was the WordPress plug-in, all the single products, the one-time sales, things like that. And you didn’t even really have any unfair advantages at the time. You were basically in learning mode. You’ve got the learn, build, grow stages for, basically, how DRIP went. But early on it was just you were learning, and you were in learning mode the entire time. And eventually you got to a point where you learned and then people knew who you were. And then after that it was kind of going a step beyond that. So you built up these unfair advantages over time. And I think that that’s an interesting point, is that just because you don’t have them now doesn’t mean that you can’t have them in the future. Being able to build them over time, there’s a trajectory that you can get, and as you build that trajectory – as you build more products or launch more things or do different things in different markets – you learn to toggle the levers in ways that will accelerate the growth in ways that were previously never possible.
Earlier in Steli’s talk, somebody had asked him could he have started with Close.IO and he said, “No, I don’t think that I could have, because there were a lot of things that we needed to go through and we needed to learn.” And I think that that’s very true for most of the paths that many of us are on as self-funded bootstrappers. You really need to go through those missteps and learn those different things along the way. As you get further advanced you learn the techniques and the patterns that come up where you can turn that knob just a little bit tighter and get a growth acceleration that you never thought possible, or that you weren’t comfortable with.
That’s one thing with, for example, building an email list or sending out emails. People are very hesitant in their early days. You’ve got 25 subscribers. “Oh, I’m really not sure about hitting the button on that email that I’m going to send.” It’s 25 people, it doesn’t matter. There’s people, as they proceed past that, you get to 2,500 and 25,000 and you’re just like, “Okay, whatever, I’m just going to hit the button.” And it doesn’t matter at that point because you’re comfortable, you’re confident that you’ve gone through those missteps, and it doesn’t make a difference anymore because you’ve learned what to do and realized that some of the mistakes that you make, they don’t matter nearly as much as you think that they do.
Rob [33:12]: I like that you used the phrase “self-funded bootstrappers.”
Mike [33:15]: Sorry.
Rob [33:16]: So the question we want to leave you with today is, “Which of your advantages do you want to increase?” And now I think we have time for just a couple questions from the audience.
Mike [33:24]: I made up that term, by the way. “Self-funded bootstrappers.”
Rob [33:27]: Self-funded bootstrappers. Hiten would love and hate it, right?
Mike [33:28]: You want to hear another term I –
Speaker 3 [33:30]: He would hate it.
Mike [33:32]: I’ve got another one I made up. Plagiarism.
Rob [33:33]: Plagiarism. Nice.
Andreas [33:35]: I’m Andreas. I’m the founder of [Hunter Recruitment?]. And I was thinking about the unfair advantage, and I was thinking about the problem because we are building a platform with a validation machine. But really maybe our unfair advantage is the people that we know, the tech people that we know. We are [residents?] right now in [Google Campus?] in Madrid, and probably the disadvantage is the people that sit down near to us. We really want the other startups outside the campus know these people could be. I don’t know if you agree with that.
Mike [34:17]: I would say it does map back to that, because it is partly about who you know and who knows you. And I don’t want to directly say it’s because of geography at that point, because you sit close to them. But in a way it is. You are sitting very close to them. How many other people are sitting close to them that are doing what you do? That are trying to connect tech people with businesses that are trying to hire them? So there is that element of geography, but when you translate it to the internet it’s not exactly one to one mapping.
Andreas [34:39]: A relationship.
Mike [34:42]: Right. But that relationship is there because you sit around the corner from them. And you’re probably going to give somebody who sits around the corner in another cubicle the time of day, whereas if somebody just cold calls you over the internet and says, “I’m James Kennedy from Rubberstamp.IO in South Africa. I’d like – “. You’re not going to pay attention, unless you wanted that and you’re basically right there.
Rob [34:59]: Any more questions? May be time for one more.
Speaker 4 [35:04]: What do you think about software patents, because I think there are some companies who use them and abuse them as an unfair advantage?
Rob [35:13]: Software patents?
Mike [35:14]: Software patents, yes. I think both Rob and I have lots of things to say about –
Rob [35:16]: Travesty.
Mike [35:17]: – patents.
Rob [35:17]: Yes, I have a lot of opinions on that. Go listen to the ‘This American Life’ and the ‘Planet Money’ episodes on it. It’s absolutely catastrophic. That’s my opinion. Software patents in the U.S. were not allowed until 1998, and since then it has become an absolute epidemic.
Speaker 5 [35:31]: Okay, thank you. A quick question. How do you recognize when you’re early then when you are wrong?
Rob [35:36]: That’s good. This is our last question. How do you recognize when you’re early or when you’re wrong? Okay, so this advantage is to be early and hit it at the right time rather than – you’re talking about being too early. Being too early to a market is where there’s no one there that needs it yet. And then in a year you see someone launched the exact same thing and it takes off. So like Foursquare had been done like six times. Facebook had been done three or four times, almost exactly the same way, but there was something about the flux of technology and such. You know when you’re right, because you’re right, and the curve looks like this. And you know when you’re wrong – I guess what I’m saying is, you said early versus wrong, and I’m saying too early is equivalent to wrong. But this early advantage is actually when it works. It’s the perfect time. You’re just early ahead of other competitors, but you hit the market at the right time. That’s what I meant by it.
Mike [36:31]: I would say you don’t know until way after the fact. If you are early there’s varying degrees of early. There’s “way too early”, which is – as Rob said – is effectively wrong. But there’s also near the tail end of it, when you’re basically ready to give up, there will be an uptick in growth and that’s going to start giving you hope. And you maybe stick around a little bit. That’s the point where you would recognize, “Hey, I was just early,” versus you were way to early and you get to that point and you just give up. And it’s a matter of how much time do you spend in the “zombie product” land where you’re not really making enough money to be able to support it and be able to grow it the way you need. And I think that boils down to trajectory at that point. How fast are you growing whether it’s users or installs or money? Those are the three things that you can, at least initially, measure a business on.
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In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike discuss several of their takeaways pulled from talks at MicroConf 2016.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob [00:00:00]: In this episode of “Startups for the Rest of Us,” Mike and I discuss our key takeaways from MicroConf 2016. This is “Startups for the Rest of Us”, episode 284.
Rob [00:00:18]: Welcome to “Startups for the Rest of Us”, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and scaling software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob …
Mike [00:00:29]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:00:29]: … and we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, Mike?
Mike [00:00:34]: Well, last Thursday, I added my first customer to Bluetick.
Rob [00:00:38]: Just shortly before MicroConf, huh?
Mike [00:00:39]: Yes, the day before my self-imposed deadline.
Rob [00:00:43]: Nice. So, what does that mean [?], then? They’re in early access, and they’re clicking around and sending emails – that type of stuff?
Mike [00:00:50]: Here’s the issue. I had them create an account, and we were kind of pressed for time because they were traveling on Friday, so I knew that we had to at least get them into the system so that I could take a look at stuff on the back end and make sure – because there’s a bunch of jobs on the back end that do a lot of data processing. I put them on. All of those things worked, but here’s your public service announcement for the day: don’t go in and change a bunch of things that are working perfectly well the day before you do that [laugh].
Rob [00:01:15]: Yeah, I was going to say – as soon as you started saying “…he created his account”, I almost completed your sentence, said, “And then everything broke?” because early access is always like that. All the stuff that worked two days ago totally breaks on them.
Mike [00:01:26]: I went in, and I had a bunch of changes made because I was going through and testing things. I was like, “Oh, this is a little bit clunky. It would be nice to make these changes here to make the flow a little bit easier”, and, unfortunately, we busted a couple of things. Of course, since it’s all based on different routes and stuff inside, the [rest?] API, you break one thing and the whole thing kind of falls down. There were a lot of things that worked, and then there were just certain things where there were core features that we ended up breaking which unintentionally. We got everything back and working within 24 hours; but, of course, I was leaving for MicroConf on Saturday, and he was traveling for the next couple of days. But we’re revisiting it this week or early next week, and we’ll go from there.
Rob [00:02:07]: Very nice.
Speaking of MicroConf, we just spent the last – what – three, four days in Vegas. This is our sixth conference in Vegas and our ninth overall, including the ones we’ve done in Europe. This was the first time we’ve had it at The Palms, and The Palms was – I’d say, cost-wise and décor-wise, it’s maybe a slight step up from the Tropicana, where we’ve traditionally had it. I really enjoyed the time this year. I feel like it was a good mix of – we had a lot of returning attendees, as we usually do. We had quite a few new attendees, and that was neat, a lot of first-year attendees. We even had a lot of first-year speakers. We didn’t have a lot of returning speakers from years past, a lot due to scheduling and other stuff like that, and also just wanting to have a fresh year to kick it off.
How did you feel about it overall?
Mike [00:02:50]: I agree. It was nice. I really liked some of the features that The Palms has versus where we had it at the Tropicana; for example, the food court and the fact that you can walk around a little bit more. It feels like you’re actually getting somewhere rather than just walking down massive hallways that almost have no end and seemingly no purpose [laugh]. Did feel like a slight upgrade. I liked the conference areas better; but, you know, it’s not necessarily all about the conference area either. It’s about the people that you’re meeting, the people that you’re talking to and things you’re learning.
Rob [00:03:20]: Yeah, that was the thing. As always, the hallway track as valuable or more valuable than the notes I took from the talks. It was great to see everybody who came. We had about 220, 230 people, and then we sold some “better half” tickets where folks bring their spouse and significant other, so I got to meet a lot of those. That’s always fun, because MicroConf – it’s not like other startup conferences where you’re there to talk about grinding away 90 hours a week. Our families are intimately involved in the startups that we’re doing, because many of us have significant others and/or kids, and it’s kind of cool to meet that person in a startup founder’s life and be able to have them have some glimpse into this crazy conference that that person goes to and maybe meet a few of the folks from it.
Mike [00:04:01]: Yeah, I had some interesting conversations with a bunch of people’s husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends – that kind of thing. It was definitely interesting talking to the “better halves” and seeing what they thought of not just the conference, but the things that their “better halves” were working on as well.
Rob [00:04:16]: Sure. So, let’s dive in. We have several takeaways that we pulled out from the talks. I think we’ll go kind of in chronological order. There’s not enough time to cover every talk, so we’re just going to pull out some highlights. The speaker that kicked us off was actually Des Traynor. He’s the cofounder of Intercom, and he talked about building and scaling products, his lessons learned from four years and 8,000 customers. He had a lot in there. He’s done a lot of talks for Jason Calacanis, like their launch incubator. You hear it on the TWiST podcast, and he just always has such brilliant insight. He’s such a product guy, right? He knows what to build, how to build it, when to build, how to communicate that. He’s really focused on product and how that ties into, of course, marketing and growth.
I’d say the key thing, probably my number one thing – I took several notes from his talk, but one priority list that I really liked – he said it’s these priorities from the top down. The first thing that you should think about in your development cycle is improving a feature. The second one is getting more people to use that feature. The third thing is getting people to use that feature more. So, first it was more people to use it. Now it’s getting people to use it more, like more often. The fourth one is building new features. It’s in that priority order, which is contrary to what most of us do and how most of us think about product development, right? Most of the time it’s build new features, build new features, and that’s what customers and trial users are requesting when, in fact, Des is saying you need to think about improving existing features, getting more people to use them and more often.
Mike [00:05:38]: I really liked there was a grid that he put up that essentially showed what you should be working on and what has the most impact. There were a couple of different columns that he had there, and it was all based around how many people are using a particular feature and how often. You could see things like, in the top right, if everybody was using it and it was very often used, those are the places that you should be concentrating on.
He also talked a lot about how you are divvying up your team and assigning them to different parts of the project, where most software development teams will say, “Okay, we’ve got these 35 feature requests. Let’s put five people on each of them,” and that’ll take up everybody’s time. The reality was that he talked about bringing a bunch of test customers in, or existing customers, or prospective customers and saying, “Here’s $100 virtual dollars. Please vote on what it is that you would like us to implement.” Inevitably, what you find is that most people will vote for a couple of features, and a lot of the rest of the ones are completely unimportant, and you’re wasting a lot of time and effort and resources building those things that people just, quite frankly, don’t care about. His main point behind that was that you care a lot about implementing certain new features, and your customers don’t care at all.
Rob [00:06:51]: Another talk that I think had an impact on the first day was Claire Lew’s talk. She’s with Know Your Company, which is a spinoff of 37 Signals. Her talk was titled “An Unconventional Business,” and she talked about having a business without recurring sales. It’s a software company that allows other companies to learn more about their employees and what they’re thinking and that kind of stuff. It’s a one-time sale up front. It’s $100 per employee, and then there’s no recurring. She talked about how that is unconventional in today’s model of monthly SaaS charges, or even annual charges. She also looked at the sales process and how there’s only two of them. It’s not this big team of people doing stuff.
What were your thoughts on Claire’s talk?
Mike [00:07:31]: What I thought was interesting was the sheer number of demos they do and their focus and emphasis on gaining customer trust versus optimizing for revenue. Obviously, there’s the idea that you could charge a subscription model, or you could raise your prices, or charge some sort of annual maintenance fee or something along those lines. But when you look at what they’re doing, they’re really optimizing for the trust of the customers, and in some ways that reflects on their future revenue. I think Lars called it “expansion revenue,” because as those businesses grow, they will continue to pay the $100 for new employees. Or, if an employee leaves and they hire a replacement, then they’re essentially responsible for that extra hundred dollars, but it’s because they are so focused on getting the trust and buy-in of the CEO and the company executives and many of the employees that it makes a heck of a lot of business sense for those businesses to continue using their product and their software. So, it’s not necessarily recurring revenue but, as Lars said, it’s that “expansion revenue.”
I think that that’s an interesting take on it. I don’t think that most businesses, especially the ones at MicroConf, certainly don’t focus on, “How can we gain trust?” rather than, “How can we get more money?” More money is typically the focus, because it’s commonly easier to get more customers than it is to gain absolute, 100 percent trust of the existing customers that you have; but I also think that that’s probably true because of the way that their product is sold. You really need to be well-trusted by the company in order to just hand over contact lists and contact information for every employee you have.
Rob [00:09:08]: Yeah, and there was some discussion. There was a question during the Q&A and then that evening of folks questioning that one-time sale and wondering how they can make it a subscription business. I would guess long term that Claire’s got to be thinking about how to do that, because it is just so hard to grow a business when there’s a one-time sale; but all that said, I did like her principled rationale that the reason it’s a one-time sale is because they get that commitment from the company to implement this, and they don’t want them to cancel it in three or six months. She believes that once they do this, she wants them to have it forever. It’s a tough balance; and I think, perhaps, they’re in a bit of an edge-case scenario where – you know, personally, I don’t like one-time-sale businesses. I wouldn’t own one myself, and I think most businesses are moving towards recurring; but I wonder if hers could be in that realm of an acceptable exception.
[00:10:00] Another session we had on the first day that folks enjoyed was our Q&A session with [Stelle?] and Heaton, which turned out pretty good. An hour of Q&A is a bit long, and I think we made a little bit of a mistake in the schedule with that. I think I’d probably cap it at 30 minutes. That’s not saying anything about [Stelle?] and Heaton. It’s just too long to do a full hour of someone answering questions. But it was cool. It was like a live version of their podcast, and I thought that it was pretty valuable for the audience.
You were actually moderating that. You essentially read the questions and asked them the question from the audience and stuff. How did all that feel?
Mike [00:10:32]: As you mentioned, I was asking the questions initially, but we kind of primed the pump by having people submit some questions in advance and asked, I think, five or six different questions and then went out into the audience and started taking questions from there. I absolutely agree with you that it may have been just a little bit too long, but I think there’s good reasons for that. When you have a Q&A session like that, I think what tends to happen is that you get the people who are asking the questions who are the most vested and interested in the questions and the answers, and there’s probably a sizable chunk of the audience that isn’t necessarily as interested in that particular one. If you have too many of those in a row, then it’s difficult to maintain your focus and interest in the discussion. You and I have seen this especially with questions that come into the podcast, or when we’re doing internal, worldwide Founder Café calls where, if you don’t necessarily do any sort of moderation on the questions that are coming in, or filter them in any way, shape or form, then what you end up with is a lot of random things that come up that are difficult to maintain everyone’s interest for a long period of time.
So, I think that that’s probably what we ran into. For the podcast, when we do Q&A episodes, we typically decide which ones to manually respond to and do just one-off answers back to people versus ones that we think that are generally applicable to a wider audience. Those are the types of ones that we end up reading on the air in Q&A episodes.
[00:11:57] The one thing I do think is that, for the people who are asking those questions, they’re hyper-interested in those, so after the day, Heaton and [Stelle?] did an “office hours” after the first day, and they had so many people attend and so many questions, that they actually had to do a second day of them. It was only probably 20 or 30 people or something like that; but, still, that’s enough people with that hyper focus that it worked out really, really well for them.
Rob [00:12:22]: Another talk that had a lot of good takeaways was Patrick Campbell from Price Intelligently. He runs essentially a 20-person consulting firm focused on SaaS pricing. One thing -there were many, many takeaways from his talk, because he’s very tactical and he dove into a lot of stuff. He’s such an expert on the topic that it’s actually a little daunting when he says what you need to do in order to really get a good handle on your pricing. It’s a lot of steps; and I think he said it took him, like, eight hours to do it. There was a case study he did with his mom in a business she was starting, but I think that would take a long time for someone like myself, who hasn’t done the extensive pricing research that he has.
One thing that I really liked about his talk is – we’ve all heard of buyer personas, where you take a certain persona. If you have SaaS users, you might say SaaSsy Sam is your SaaS user persona. Then Billy Blogger is your blog user persona, and then you talk about their feelings and the decisions they use to buy and the factors they think about and if they’re price-conscious and all this kind of stuff. He took it a step further, and I hadn’t seen this. He actually added cost to acquire customer, so CAC values and LTV, lifetime value, to each of the personas. That was a real mental shift for me. I have all this in my head, and we talk about it internally about how we serve these three or four pretty tight verticals. With Drip, really it’s three verticals. Then there’s these other ones floating out there. Actually pulling out the CAC and LTV and all the other metrics by vertical is a pretty interesting idea, right, and it’s going to show you who your most profitable and least profitable are. In addition, he talked about you have to write all this stuff down; and that’s something that, while we have a bulleted list of the verticals, we don’t have the full-on list of all the buyer personas. That was a big takeaway for me was to sit down, draft this up and then do some data mining and figuring out some numbers to put to each of these.
Mike [00:14:14]: Next on our list, you talked a little bit about some different, unfair advantages, specifically, four different unfair advantages for faster SaaS growth. Why don’t you talk a little bit about those four unfair advantages?
Rob [00:14:25]: Sure, yeah. I did a shorter talk this year. It was a little bit a retrospective where I looked back and was trying to figure out at a higher level why has Drip grown faster than any of my other software products, like exponentially faster. Then I started looking around and saying of all the self-funded SaaS I know that has grown quickly, why have those grown faster than just the run-of-the-mill SaaS apps. I made a big list and did an analysis, and I talked to a few people and figured out that there really are four unfair advantages in order to have this 2X, or 5X, or 10X growth that we’re seeing in apps like Edgar, or Basecamp in the early days, or maybe Bytes Kits in the early days, or Drip, or like a SumoMe. There were these examples that were pretty obviously growing faster than everybody else.
I started with a long list of unfair advantages and, one by one, I realized that a lot of them actually didn’t make a difference. The four that I narrowed it down to – and you can have more than one – are, number one, to be early to a space. Second one is who you know, so it’s your network. Third is who knows you, so it’s your audience. The fourth is growth expertise; it’s how much expertise you have growing a company. It was fun. It was a little short, 20-minute talk; and I felt like, hopefully, it gave people ideas of stuff to be working on even if they don’t have a product yet; if they’ve already launched a product, how to try to get one of these in the space they’re in; or, to prepare for a future product that they’re launching.
One thing I meant to say, or I should’ve said, is that growth is not the end-all, be-all. Everyone doesn’t need to want to grow all the time. Of all people, we are the lifestyle startup crowd, right, where it’s like – I don’t build these startups just so they can grow. We build them so that we can have fun lives and we can have these great lifestyles. Even having faster SaaS growth in the title, I debated whether to do that, but that’s really what the talk happened to be about. If you’re out there and you’re thinking, “Well, I don’t really want super-fast SaaS growth,” that’s okay. This is just something that was there to help folks who maybe don’t want to travel a ‘long, slow SaaS ramp of death,’ or at least want to move along a little faster.
Mike [00:16:31]: Our next speaker was Tracy Osborn, and I think Tracy’s story was pretty interesting, because she has run both a funded and a non-funded startup. She ran WeddingLovely, and I think she called it something else earlier on. She had gotten funding from 500 Startups and was working on it then, and then later on – did she say that she took it private, or was it a spinoff of what she was doing based on that?
Rob [00:16:55]: It was the same company, so it was still funded, technically, the whole time; but she basically tried to run it like a bootstrapper, yeah.
Mike [00:17:02]: Right.
Rob [00:17:02]: So, once the funding was gone, she didn’t shut the company down. She was then just trying to make it profitable, which is not what people who give you funding really want.
Mike [00:17:09]: Right, yeah. I got the impression that the people who had given the funding, initially they were just like, “Okay, yeah. We’ve decided this is a failure, and we’re going to write it off at this point,” but she still took it forward. It was really interesting to see the contrast between how she approached it before when she had money versus when she didn’t later on.
Rob [00:17:29]: Yeah, I agree. The real takeaway from her talk wasn’t that funding is bad. It’s that flip-flopping between funding and bootstrapping with the same company is bad, because the priorities and the way you build the business is just so different. To be honest, I liked her talk in terms of the narrative. We go for about an 80-20 breakdown of actionable/tactical versus inspirational and narrative-driven, and hers was definitely in that 20 percent. Maybe we’re 90-10 in MicroConf most years, but hers was definitely in that 10 or 20 percent of a good story and seeing a lot of mistakes that she made. Just her perseverance. She kept calling herself in the talk. She’s like, “I was the cockroach that would not die, and I just have kept the company going.” It was an interesting story to hear and kind of a cautionary tale in terms of figure out if you’re going to be funded or bootstrapped and then go that direction.
One thing that I would add, though, is, again, there’s this in-between of fund strapping, where you can raise a small amount of funding, but it’s from people who understand you’re not going to go for that $50 million idea; because WeddingLovely is a wedding marketplace. In that case, you really do have to get big. You have to hit scale in order to make it work. She had just started, let’s say, a B-to-B SaaS app; and she took some funding, then decided to go bootstrapped. I actually think it could’ve worked a little better, but it’s neither here nor there. I just think it was an interesting story and pretty well told on the stage.
Mike [00:18:53]: Yeah, I think the two, main takeaways that I got out of it was, one, her references to being “the cockroach that just wouldn’t go away,” and saying, “Look. I’m going to buckle down, and I’m going to make this work, and I’m going to make this happen. Even if I get slapped down, I’m going to come back, and I’m going to do something else and try and figure out something to make it work.” I thought that level of sheer tenacity and perseverance was very admirable, because I don’t think that you see that a lot. I think that most people tend to throw the towel in just a little too early. Obviously, there’re times where you can take that too far, but it was interesting to see the level that she went to just to even be able to meet people. That was the other thing, the lengths that she went to in order to meet certain people that she knew would help make a difference in her business.
Rob [00:19:38]: Another session we did on the second day was kind of the surprise session that we had not announced. Patrick Collison, the cofounder of Stripe, showed up. He was just there for about 24 hours. He had said that he’d been following MicroConf for a couple years and that he really wanted to come check it out, which was obviously a big compliment to us, given that Stripe is a $5 billion company. They raised $260, $280 million. He’s just a powerful dude in Silicon Valley, even as young as he is, so it was neat to hear that we were on his radar at all and that he would take the time to come down. He met with a bunch of attendees. He got feature requests, ideas and all that stuff, but he did a 30-minute Q&A up onstage about the early days of Stripe.
I really liked how he talked. They bootstrapped that thing. That’s what probably none of us remember. He said they bootstrapped it until it hurt, and then when they eventually hit the point where they could not go any further, then they raised their first round.
Mike [00:20:30]: Yeah, I really liked the focus of them on their early days about what their customers were doing and how they were using the product. One of the things that he talked about was that, because Stripe is essentially an API that you make calls into, what they had very, very early on was they had it wired up so that whenever somebody made a call to one of their APIs, it would actually email them. Obviously, that is not going to scale long-term. Obviously, it can’t at this point. There’s no possible way that it could do that; but early on they were watching what people were doing, what data they were receiving and what sorts of errors people were getting and what data was being returned to them. It helped them focus in to figure out where people were having problems, so that they could determine, “Is the code bad? Do we need to fix that?” or, “Do we need to go back and update the help documentation?” “Do we need to update some example APIs, or example code that’s on the website?” and things like that. It was really interesting to see some of the technical engineering things that they were doing to essentially help them do that product development.
Rob [00:21:33]: As day two started coming to a close, we had Peter Coppinger from Teamwork.com, and he basically talked about their eight-year journey. It was even more than that, because they were a consulting firm before that, but it was about an eight-year journey of their SaaS app Teamwork, which is project management. They were doing consulting at the same time as they were launching it. Then they made a lot of mistakes. He said that, as a developer, really he still wants to code even though he’s the CEO of a 63-person company, and that he still does write some code for it. He talked about just the mistakes that he’s made over the year and how he thinks that they could’ve gotten to their present level, which is 12 million in ARR – he thinks he could’ve gotten there years earlier if they had started marketing sooner, if they had started sales sooner. He said, basically, if you have your head down for too long and are just pounding away at features and such and not looking outside, that you’re going to hurt the business.
Mike [00:22:25]: Yeah. I think that it was interesting to see the number of mistakes and the types of mistakes that they were making. The fact that they were still able to make it work is a testament to the type of product that they were building. I hesitate to say that everybody can make those types of mistakes and still be able to get to where they are. Obviously, there are different types of products and different markets, and they will naturally break out into varying levels of success, but it’s interesting to see the path and the growth curve. Then looking back at it, they can say in retrospect, “Oh, had we done X, Y or Z sooner, then that would’ve seriously helped us.” I think the one big thing is just the marketing side of things. They just paid so much attention to the code, because they were developers, and that’s what they were comfortable with. It wasn’t until they really started focusing and buckling down on the marketing side of things that things really started to take off for them.
Rob [00:23:17]: Yeah, I agree with you. I think a lot of folks, if they made the same mistake, would probably tank. Teamwork had that advantage of being in a big space, and they were there really early. I think it was like 2007, maybe, when they launched the SaaS app, somewhere around there.
Mike [00:23:32]: Yep.
Rob [00:23:32]: And being a SaaS project management product at that point, there was really – what – Basecamp? That’s the only other one I knew. I’m sure there were more, but I think that they did have the wind at their back, and I think Peter’s right. I think they’d be further along at this point if they had made the right choices, but even making those mistakes, they still survived; and not every business could do that. You’d probably need one of those big four, unfair advantages, if you’re going to make all those mistakes, in order to get to where they are.
Mike [00:23:58]: One thing that I thought was really interesting was the fact that they acquired the teamwork.com domain for – I think it was like $675,000. You look back at their growth curve, and you could see this definitive inflection point at about the time that they got that. I don’t think that a domain name is going to be the turning point for most businesses, but I think that in their specific situation, because of the type of software they were – and the previous domain, I think, was teamworkpm.net obviously, kind of an awful domain. They knew that. That was not even a question, but when they got the teamwork.com domain, it really gave them a level of validity and, I guess, authority that people looked at it and said, “Oh, you have teamwork.com. This must be a legit website and a legit app, so let me give it a shot,” versus previously, you look at teamworkpm.net, and it’s like, “Meh, I’m not so sure about this.”
Rob [00:24:49]: Yeah, I get the feeling – there were a couple questions during the talk, and then someone asked me about it later that evening. There was kind of some folks who I don’t know that they believed that the teamwork.com acquisition was the actual reason that the curve spiked up like that. What made it even muddier was that, like the slide – I think when the slide was converted, something happened where he had an arrow to where teamwork.com was acquired, and it was in the wrong place. So, it was hard to tell exactly the inflection point, if it was before or after the domain acquisition. If it was, that’s pretty crazy. That’s a huge deal, and if just getting the dotcom for your business did that, it really is kind of a vote for maybe ponying up some dollars for a domain name.
Mike [00:25:33]: But I also think that that’s just a matter of looking at the website and being able to explain, “Oh, this is teamwork.com.” If it’s a one- or two-word domain, it gives it that, I’ll say, air of authority –
Rob [00:25:45]: Yeah.
Mike [00:25:45]: – you know what I mean – for the larger enterprises, and you’re able to attract larger customers based on the name alone versus, as I said, teamworkpm.net. You’re not going to get Johnson & Johnson saying, “Hey, let’s dump a lot of money into this and sign up for a ton of accounts.” It’s just not going to happen.
Rob [00:26:00]: Right.
Rounding out our conference, the last speaker was Lars Lofgren. He ran growth for Kissmetrics for many years, and he’s spoken at MicroConf Europe in the past, actually. This year, he was talking about the three SaaS growth levers. I’ve seen parts of his talk before, and I really like it. I took a ton of notes from him. It was definitely one of my favorite talks of the two days, because it just reminded me of so many things that we should be doing at Drip, things that I’ve had in mind, or are on a list somewhere. It reminds me of how important they are.
The levers are: fixing your churn and then getting cohort expansion to work, which means expansion revenue as people are upgrading; and, finally, getting acquisition going. So, a lot of lessons from Lars. One of them that rocked people’s worlds is he talked about if you’re really going to try to grow this fast, have world-class churn before you scale. That means that you have product market fit and that you want your churn in the 2 to 3 percent range. He used this expression if you’re above 10 percent, your business is “on fire.” I’ve always liked that expression when he’s used it.
Mike [00:27:03]: And not in a good way either [laugh].
Rob [00:27:05]: Exactly. Exactly.
Mike [00:27:07]: Yeah. Some of the parts of his that I really liked was the fact that he looked at churn, and he said, “Here are all the different reasons why somebody might churn out.” Or, not all of them, but a bunch of them. Then he listed a bunch of churn reduction ideas. Then he categorized each of those and said, “These are bad. They’re just not going to help you.” Then, “These are marginal wins, and then these are major wins.” The things that fell under the “major wins” category was fixing your product onboarding; improving the value of the product; and then 30-, 60- and 90-day onboarding programs. It was really interesting that he broke those down. Then he said things like removing self-service cancellation. That just does not move the needle for you. But if you fix the product’s ability to onboard people, that’s a major, major win; and you’re going to be able to scale up very, very quickly because of that.
Rob [00:27:53]: Yeah, that’s what I liked, is that he called out these tactics that a lot of us might think to reduce to churn, but he said that basically covers up your churn problem. It doesn’t actually fix it. So, things like down-sells, or forced annual plans, et cetera, are not things that you want to do if you want to grow to this scale; because it just covers up the issue, and it will hurt your credibility long term. It hurts your brand, and people start thinking about you as just more of a fly-by-night company rather than someone who’s building something valuable for the long term.
Mike [00:28:22]: The other thing I really like that he pulled out was the fact that there’s a big difference between marketing and sales, and they can be at real odds with each other if you get to a point the marketing team is able to bring in a lot of people into the top of the funnel, but if sales can’t close those because the product is bad. He called it the “alligator funnel,” because you’ve got that top of the funnel, which is increasing, and then the sales are just flat and they’re not going anywhere. Then the marketing teams and the sales teams are essentially pointing the blame at each other, and you have this internal problem. The root cause is essentially because the product itself is just not able to do what the customers need it to do. That was a very interesting thing. I’d never heard that before.
Rob [00:29:03]: Overall, it was a nice ninth conference. I feel like we’re just starting to get the hang of this thing now.
Mike [00:29:07]: Yes. Only nine or ten more, and we’ll be good.
Rob [00:29:10]: We’ll be [laugh] – exactly. No, so it was good. A big thanks to everybody who attended. Obviously, thanks to our sponsors, and thanks to Zander for all the help in pulling it off. I don’t think we’d really still be doing MicroConf if we hadn’t found someone to help us put it together each year, because that takes a lot of the burden and the time investment off our shoulders.
Mike [00:29:29]: Yes, definitely a big thanks to Zander and everyone else who helped out. It’s very nice to have people like that on the team.
Rob [00:29:34]: And if this sounds interesting, we’re throwing another MicroConf in just a few months, July 31st and August 1st of 2016. We’ll be in Barcelona, Spain. If you’re interested, go to MicroConfEurope.com. There’s a little Drip widget in the lower right where you can enter your email address, and you’ll be one of the first people to hear about it.
Mike [00:29:53]: I think that about wraps us up this week. If you have a question for us, you can call it in to our voicemail number at 1.888.801.9690; or, you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.