Monthly Archives: October 2010

Joy of failure

This morning, I repeated my “give more than you take” talk for Grand Rapids Day of .NET. This event is not put on by a company or a university – it’s put on by “the community” … a bunch of dedicated people like my friends Bruce Abernethy and Chris Woodruff who love developing software and want to share their knowledge with others. This is an all-day event with four independent tracks of sessions from 20 different speakers, and nearly 200 people gave up their Saturday to share and learn about their chosen craft. Microsoft stars like Jennifer Marsman do some of the sessions, but most of the presenters are themselves simply active members of the software community. I’m always humbled and amazed by the quality of events like this one – useful, vibrant events thrown by a community of volunteers.

I didn’t get a great vibe from my little talk. Chatting with some new friends afterword, I tried to figure out why … I think my home town inherently has a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude, so my exhortation to give more than you take probably inspired more of a “duh” than the “hmmm” I was going for. Ah well, nobody got hurt (which reminds me … I forgot to do the cartwheel at the end – dang).

The hallway conversation afterword was awesome, though. We talked about our industry and what makes Grand Rapids a great place for technology. We have strong universities. We have low turnover. We have low labor costs, housing costs, office costs, and bandwidth costs. And we have a passionate software community. Every business community wants to tell the world why its town is the best place to set up shop … vibrant software communities need to make sure that they let their businesses leaders know what an important role technologists play in making that true. A great software community is really good for business.

We also talked about failure. One of my favorite kids movies is Meet the Robinsons, because it celebrates failure … every time you get another failure out of the way, it brings you that much closer to success! Think Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb … it’s also a tenet of agile (test driven development) and lean startup thinking. Don’t fear failure – meet it head on, get it out of the way, and move past it toward success.

That sounds simple, but I really struggle with it. Frankly, I hate the way failure feels. Now I’m trying to move past that …

Today felt like a bit of a failure. Fine. As much as I love this community, it was the wrong audience for the message I came prepared to convey. Lesson learned – next time, I’ll bring a message of more direct relevance to this audience, because I genuinely want to contribute. Done. I guess that doesn’t feel so bad …

But it feels like two in a row. Last night, I played violin with Amy Young at Baker Book House, and I wasn’t “on” … I thought it was the worst I’ve played at an Amy Young gig (even though my family said it was fine). I lost my confidence at some point, and I felt absolutely awful … I just wanted to crawl under a rock but had to plow through – I had to resort to playing extremely simple licks. Oh well. It happens. In retrospect, I’ve been improving so much at improvisation (finally) that I think I got cocky. I missed a rehearsal and thought I could still be great, but I wasn’t. There’s an obvious fix – don’t miss rehearsal next time. Do the work, kid.

Done. Next?

In the past, failures that felt like this to me would have been debilitating. I’ve had a tendency to abandon things that I’m pretty good at, just because they’re getting hard. That doesn’t make sense to me anymore … I don’t want to live the rest of my life only doing things I was born knowing how to do. I keep mentioning Toastmasters … once I got my chapter to about the half-way point of members required to be chartered, it started getting hard. You mean, I have to WORK to get people to join? Yes, I do. Facing that work is turning out to be the most valuable part of the Toastmasters experience for me. It’s useful to me because it’s arbitrary – it doesn’t actually matter much to the world (to my career, to my family, to my friends) if Toastmasters for Techies succeeds or fails. It might fail – I might fail – but it’s a safe failure for me. That practice is invaluable.

What does matter to me is helping software companies succeed and helping software stories get heard. If I’m ever going to have a real impact there, I’m probably going to mess up multiple times every day. Might as well get used to plowing past the petty discomfort of failure and get back to the work of succeeding.

Give more than you take

On the way home from the Best Conference Ever, I missed my connection in Chicago. I decided to have a beer in a dreary ORD bar and found myself sitting next to an obnoxious salesman. He wasn’t the worst guy in the world, but he used those fake sales guy techniques like saying the bartender’s name a bit too often, and he was beginning to get drunk. Tedious.

After my beer, I got up to leave, and as I gathered my bags, this guy was holding court with the people on the other side of me, getting more and more boisterous. Finally, in response to some minor slight, he playfully bellowed, “OH … so all of a sudden I’m an asshole?!?” and I couldn’t hold myself back – the words just slipped out, “Well, it wasn’t exactly all of a sudden!” Everyone around laughed. The guy grimaced and gave me the finger. I reached out to give him a high five (he accepted) and a manhug and explained that if he throws a lob like that, I’m obligated to hit it (for once I managed to say the line that usually only comes to me two days later). It all ended well.

In my own way, I’ve been that guy (“my name is Patrick Foley, and I am a recovering asshole”) … not that I’ve always been particularly boorish or flagrantly inconsiderate … but like 89% of the people in this world, I have spent most of my life thinking more about myself and what I’m going to get out of a given situation than thinking about others and what I can give.

Marriage trouble helped point this out to me. I’ve been married to my beautiful wife Paula for 19 years, and about 5 years ago, we started having some serious problems. I thought it was her. I found out it was me. Better yet, take blame out of the equation altogether: I love my wife deeply and want to keep my marriage and my family together … I can’t control my wife or any specific outcome, but I can control what I put into our relationship. I can give more.

This insight came to me while reading a wonderful book called Nonviolent Communication. It had me take stock of what I give and what I take, and in the stillness of my heart, I discovered I was a net taker. I discovered that I mistook the feeling of love for the act of giving love. I discovered that when I said “I love you” to my wife, I was really asking a question.

I don’t want to live like that. Where did I go wrong? I grew up Catholic, but I got more from reading Atlas Shrugged than the bible. I generally subscribe to the concept of “enlightened self interest” that Ayn Rand espouses, yet embodying selfishness was causing my world to fall apart and leaving me unhappy. I have to understand things, so I spent a couple of years analyzing my behavior and trying to reconcile a philosophy that made sense to me intellectually but that wouldn’t leave me feeling so shitty. I won’t go into all the details here (this is the short version!), but the preaching of Rob Bell at Mars Hill church was important to my journey, as was the writing of David Deida … along with the support and kindness of so many people.

I still believe in the merits of enlightened self-interest, but what I want more than anything else is to experience love (and I suspect most people share my desire). Before this crisis, the only way I knew how to experience love was to be loved. Now I know that it’s far more effective (and ultimately more rewarding) to give love. I can’t control someone else loving me. But I can choose to give love to others.

That’s a neat summary, but it’s not the sort of thing where I can do a face palm, yell “now I get it!” and be done with it. It’s more of a “one day at a time” thing. Giving love is actually quite hard, and I fail at it every single day. Lucky for me, I believe that nobody is irredeemable. I’ve made enough sincere improvements that my wife still chooses to be with me, and we spend more happy days together than I could ever ask for. My 7-year-old son, Gus, gets to wake his parents every day by snuggling between them. That’s a pretty huge reward. Every day we spend together as a whole family is a gift. One day at a time.

The same concepts apply to work. I do a podcast for startups with Bob Walsh, and he manages to book some really cool guests. One that had an enormous impact on me was Seth Godin. Reading Linchpin, I realized Seth was imploring people like me to approach work with the same passion and spirit that I learned to approach my marriage. I summed it up as “give more than you take.”

The first example Seth talks about is Annie Leibovitz shooting for Rolling Stone. They paid her to take pictures of celebrities – a transaction. She fulfilled the obligations of the transaction but went well beyond it … she gave more. She gave her vision, her art, her unique gift for capturing people on film. She gave Rolling Stone and its readers a timeless gift.

This made me realize that the same thing holding me back at home had been holding me back in my career as well. I’ve been given so much – brains, talent, creativity, chutzpah (if I were tall, I’d be completely insufferable) – but I’ve never quite reached my potential with those gifts. Reading Seth’s book, I realized it was because I wasn’t actually sharing them. What good is my creativity if I don’t do the work required to allow people to consume that creativity? I walk around with operas in my head. Shame on me for not learning how to compose so that I can share them.

To a certain degree, it doesn’t matter what your gift is. I love the climax of Three Amigos (spoiler alert, but come on …) where our heroes ask the villagers what they can do to defeat the villains; what are they good at, what’s their gift? “We can sew!” they reply. The rest is history (they “outnumber” the villains with replica gunfighters that they sewed). It’s very silly, but I often think of that phrase when I’m trying to help with an oddball situation or figure out how someone else can help. We can sew! You never know, it just might work … all you can do is give your gift.

Why am I sharing this? Two years ago, this would have been therapeutic (like Robert De Niro’s character in The Mission dragging his penance around), but that’s not my motivation now. I guess I’m starting to believe that the greatest gift I can give is myself (and that the same holds true for you). I have an interesting story. I suspect others struggle with similar things. Maybe I can help. I work for Microsoft. We do big things, and we’re inherently relevant, but we’re sometimes “transactional.” Maybe I can help take my company beyond transactional, at least for my small corner of the world.

This was the subject of my lightning talk at this year’s business of software conference in Boston … give more than you take. Seth opened the conference, so I knew I would be “on topic,” and I figured many of the other speakers at the conference would also demonstrate the efficacy of giving more than you take with their real-world experiences. Joel Spolsky inspired a movement when he gave us his blog. Derek Sivers gave away his company to help more kids get exposed to music education, which was so important to him. Entrepreneurs like Neil Davidson, Patrick McKenzie, Jason Cohen, Rob Walling, Dharmesh Shah, Peldi Guilizzoni, and so many others … maybe they’re just smarter than the rest of us, but I think a key reason they’ve all succeeded is that they’ve focused more on providing value to their customers – focused more on what they GIVE to their customers – than imagining how their customers are going to bless them with a big pile of money.

scales

Giving more than you take doesn’t necessarily imply altruism. If you’re like most business owners, you want a big pile of money for your efforts, but if you focus on that pile of money, you’re not going to get it. If you want customers to part with their money, you need to focus on giving them something of value. What do your customers want? Quality? Great customer service? Solutions to their problems? Shiny things that delight them? None of these are trivial to deliver. All are worth working hard to give to your customers. If you provide significant value to your customers, there is a pretty good chance you’ll get rewarded for it, but you have to genuinely focus on providing that value, almost as if you were not concerned about the reward.

Almost. You can’t completely ignore the money side of the equation, especially at the beginning. If you create something “valuable” but nobody wants to pay for it, you’re not going to be in business for long. The lean startup movement has a wealth of guidance for figuring this out as quickly as possible so that you don’t go broke on an idea that’s not going to work. Read the works of Eric Ries, Rob Walling, Dharmesh Shah, Ash Maurya … there are so many great writers in this area; there’s no excuse not to learn from their experience and wisdom!

I’m basing these thoughts on my observations of other companies. I’ve never built a successful startup myself. I’ve worked on a few failures, and I learned a lot from those experiences. I wanted to build a consulting company (in retrospect, I wanted to build Atomic Object), but except for a few isolated cases, I never really grew past being a solid independent consultant.

Why? I didn’t give enough. I didn’t create enough value for my customers. I didn’t do the work. I didn’t share my gifts.

A company is a reflection of its founders. Balsamiq rocks because Peldi rocks. Hubspot is visionary because Dharmesh is visionary. Smart Bear blazed its own trail because Jason is a trailblazer. Your business is a reflection of you. If things aren’t working out the way you want, it might be because of you! That doesn’t suck as bad as it sounds … you have the ability to learn, to improve, to change … some things (like learning lean startup techniques) are just about erasing ignorance, but improvements you make in your personal life – in your character – might also improve your success in business. I think it’s all tied together. I can’t say for sure, because I don’t think I’ve realized my own potential yet, but I have made massive improvements to my character in the past few years (one day at a time), and I believe my career is beginning to show direction as a result. At least I like hanging out with myself more now. That’s something. And I’ve developed a genuine passion for helping software companies succeed. I am embracing that mission like a startup (a la Eric Ries), even though I have a six-digit employee number.

As for the spirit of “give more than you take” … I think some people do this naturally (my wife, for instance). My new friend and fellow lightning talker Portman Wills told me about being a mensch. Boy Scouts talk about leaving the world better than you found it. Joel Spolsky mentioned a Hebrew term for a similar idea that shaped his beliefs and actions. This is not a new concept, but it’s new and profound to me. I’m learning as I go. As I mentioned, I fail every day, because I do in fact want very much to be successful and praised and loved. I want those outcomes. Every day I have to remind myself to return my focus to the other side of the equation, to what I can give. And just to make it even more tricky, I’m pretty sure I have to give my real self – warts and all – not some pastel picture of myself (I can’t explain this – it’s just an instinct). One day at a time.

All this from a lightning talk? I really tried to give more than I took, but the conference was so amazing that I still think I got more out of it than I put into it. The more you give, the more the world gives back, I guess.

the actual lightning talks

A lightning talk is like a little piece of performance art. You have 15 slides that auto-advance every 30 seconds for a total of no more than 7.5 minutes. They pick a winner just to add more pressure. If you care about public speaking, it’s wonderful practice. The format requires a great deal of preparation and total confidence in your material. Humor and a certain edginess are valued almost as much as useful content.

There were five talks on each of the first two days of the conference. I was third on the first day. That meant I barely registered Joe Corkery’s talk, although I could tell it was good from the crowd reaction. Also, when they voted a couple of days later, we all got a couple of seconds to summarize our talk, and I remember Joe’s summary was particularly good. I can’t remember specifically what it was, because I had to think of something to say right after (and ended up producing gibberish).

Alyssa Dyer went next and talked about marketing and Kamikazes. I was too nervous for my upcoming talk to pay much attention, but I later commiserated with Alyssa about the whole experience.

alt

Then I was up. I put many hours of prep into the talk, even practicing it twice at my Toastmasters chapter (rewriting it after each time). I normally talk quite fast, so I thought I’d have to be careful to have enough content … I prepared “stretch” material for the end of each slide (last year’s winner, Mark Stephens, gave me that idea the night before). I included a lightweight joke on the first slide and was completely unprepared when people actually laughed! I never planned for that possibility, so right from the beginning my timing was thrown off. I had the opposite problem I normally have – I was struggling to fit all my words in. Luckily, part of my prep was writing out the summary point I wanted to make on each slide, so I dumped the canned words and instead just focused on talking up the point of each slide.

One of the brutal challenges of the format is that you become distracted by minor things. There was a 7.5 minute countdown timer, but my slides didn’t advance at :00 and :30 … they were 2 or 3 seconds off. I am NOT fast enough to figure out that math while panicking (an interesting detail to learn about myself). I had my fair share of “uhhhh” time. I could tell all the other LT’ers were aware of that little distraction as well. Someone should write some software for that.

I noticed my throat tighten up when I got personal. I also got the sense that people gave a shit about me. That was nice.

I finished with a cartwheel, simply because I can. It’s a competition … you gotta pull out all the stops, give ’em all you got, and all those types of clichés.

Relief does not adequately describe how I felt completing this talk. I could barely watch the remaining two talks of the day, which is a shame, because I enjoyed meeting Ellen & Adrian and Brydon. You’ll have to get details of their talks from someone else. I was just too spent.

There was a moment at the start of the next day’s lightning talks when I actually thought briefly about the possibility of winning … but watching Portman Wills and Patrick McKenzie completely removed any worry about that. Their talks were both on another level in my opinion.

I think Portman was first … his talk was funny (I don’t want to spoil the video for anybody, but I bought his setup routine hook, line, and sinker), he gave information I wanted to know (about monetizing web apps), and he wrapped it up into a URL for later consumption. ON TOP OF ALL THAT, he somehow managed to completely nail the timing. I need to study his video when it comes out, because I think he used a simple technique I could emulate … whatever it was, his delivery was flawless. I knew I would have to vote for him. Bravo, Portman!

Then Patrick went, and he was amazing, too. He was so funny, I remember bursting out laughing at his hook (nope, not going to spoil it), and his message was equally insightful (why are you ignoring markets for women?). His overall delivery was incredible, but he was mortal like the rest of us at the timing challenge, so in the spirit of Toastmasters, I gave Portman my vote. Most people were not so uptight about the format as I was, however, so more people voted for Patrick, and he won the contest. Bravo, Patrick! Well deserved!

Winner!

At this point, I was pumped up from Portman’s and Patrick’s talks and so dialed into the conference in general that I was buzzing with enthusiasm (in a way that makes me kind of annoying to be around, unfortunately, but I was truly present). The next lightning talk was Corey Reid’s, and I watched it eagerly and intently. His talk was on the similarity between Kung Fu movies and software development. Another clever topic! (I’m just going to go ahead and spoil this one …) Corey roped me in when he used the example of a Kung Fu master who took out the perfect villain with a wet willy – a reminder to think outside the box. Things were going well, but then, on about the fifth or sixth slide, Corey experienced a dreaded technical glitch – his image didn’t show up. I believe the caption was “Bruce Lee gets kicked in the nuts,” so it was reasonably easy to imagine the missing picture, but Corey was clearly disappointed. We’ve all been there … I found myself tightening my own stomach muscles in “you can do it” solidarity. The next slide’s caption was “sometimes you get hit” … and yes, the image was missing again. At this point, I began to marvel at the relationship between what the slides were saying and what Corey was experiencing (some people thought it was staged!) … I was thinking that this was a pretty cool opportunity for Corey to show his true Kung Fu self.

The next slide’s title was “poise” and Corey was just about to call it quits, but the crowd would have nothing of it. I remember motioning to the title of the slide with a questioning look at Corey, thinking “dude … this is your moment!” (later, Corey told me he noticed my gesture … cool!). At this point, with the support of the crowd behind him, Corey steeled himself … he was going to finish his lightning talk no matter what. Everybody cheered as he continued (and the A/V person fixed the glitch a slide or two later). I’m getting goose bumps just writing about it. It was awesome … that was some serious Kung Fu, Corey – bravo!

Corey’s interest in Kung Fu reminded me of a friend from summer camp years ago who was similarly crazy about Mahler. I had just experienced my first Mahler – Symphony #1 with Benjamin Zander conducting at Interlochen – and was blown away by it. My orchestra- and cabin-mate explained that there were 9.5 more symphonies (counting Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished 10th) and listened to each one with me over several weeks until I had heard them all. He helped make me a Mahler fan for life (new to Mahler? Start with the Adagietto from #5). Corey recently shared his list of essential Kung Fu movies with me, and I look forward to watching them all (none is available via Netflix streaming, unfortunately, so I haven’t even managed to watch one yet). I suspect he’s going to turn me into a Kung Fu fan for life. As my wife says, “when you find a goose bump, share it!” Thanks, Corey!

Down to the last two lightning talks. Mark Watts did a pretty good talk on how to succeed in life as a bum … but he didn’t use auto-advancing slides – so he didn’t get credit for the same “degree of difficulty” that the rest of us did. Sanjay Singhal didn’t go for that either, but his experiences with his company, Fusenet, were compelling enough to me that I would have been happy to listen to him for well more than 7.5 minutes. Maybe next year.

with Neil Davidson

That’s my lightning talk experience at BoS2010. A silly 7.5-minute presentation led to one of the best weeks of my working life. Thank you, Neil! I came up with an idea for another lightning talk on the way home, so I hope I make it back to share it for BoS2011. Maybe you should think of one, too! You can practice it at your local Toastmasters chapter. As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m a big fan. I’ve learned so much by practicing my speaking and also by creating and leading a geek-focused chapter. A credo of Toastmasters is “learn by doing” … I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s all volunteer, so taking a leadership position is a great way to practice giving more than you take.

mirror

At a recent Toastmasters meeting, my friend Amanda revealed the key to being an effective networker. When most people meet someone new, they inherently think, “What can this person do for me?” … but if you want to be effective, you have to turn it around and ask, “What can I do for this person?” What is your gift, personally or professionally? What can you share – not in a quid pro quo way but in a genuinely giving spirit? The people who think this way are apparently demonstrably better at networking. I believe that if you live this way – if you give more than you take – you will be more successful at business and happier as well. I only have a “data point of one,” but it’s working out better for me so far.

Please remember that it’s my passion to help software companies succeed. If you think there is a way I can help you succeed (personally or professionally), please email me at Patrick.Foley@microsoft.com. I might not be able to help you directly, but I’ll give my best to help you find the right resource who can.

Idea for pricing car repairs

I have more ideas than I can use, so I’m starting to share them. They might be BAD ideas (also, a lot of my ideas are more about a problem than a solution) … I’m just hoping that my thoughts can help you think of a genuinely good idea.

I just got my wife’s 2001 Subaru Forester fixed, and I noticed there is no easy way to find out how much I should really be paying for a specific repair (front brakes on a 2001 Forester in Grand Rapids, MI for example). Why not? This seems like a very solvable problem.

A solution should take into account geographic differences – I suspect it costs more to repair a car in San Francisco than it does in Grand Rapids. It should consider specific makes/models/years with specific quality of parts. A solution should probably use social media to “shame” companies that give bad service or over charge.

Angie’s list does something similar for service businesses, but I don’t think that’s the appropriate model for car repair. If you solved this problem really well, then your site would be the starting place for people looking to get their cars repaired … if you can reach that point, then you should be able to get money from reputable repair shops who want to advertise on your site. That seems simpler than trying to charge “members” and it should make it easier to get the critical mass of reviews needed to get people to come the site if it’s free and easy to get their repair data onto the site.

That’s a key point – it has to be really easy to get data into the site. Try to do something like tripit.com does with itineraries … perhaps let people send copies of their receipts to the site (snail mail even) and have the data anonymously added to the database of what a given repair should cost. This is NOT a trivial problem to solve, but it would ROCK. Such a feature could even force car repair companies to email receipts as a competitive advantage, making it even easier to add data into the system.

Once you corner the market on good car repair data, then it’s easy to add mobile apps using that data or even open that data up to third parties for limitless uses (http://www.microsoft.com/dallas is a great way to open up data for third party consumption).

Good luck, and if this idea helps you create a new business, please let me know!

Idea for Lightning Talk software

If I had more time, I’d love to create software to facilitate Lightning Talks … you can get by without custom software (using PowerPoint, Keynote, etc.), but custom software would increase the quality of the presentations and allow the speakers to focus more on their content.

Lightning Talks are auto-advancing talks with precise timing. At #bos2010, we had precisely 15 slides advancing every 30 seconds. There was a timer visible to speakers, but it was off by 2-3 seconds. I found myself getting slightly distracted by this, and I noticed other speakers getting distracted by it, too (not Portman, though … somehow he just nailed it). The natural response is almost universally “uhhhhh” accompanied by a terrified widening of the eyes … It would be much nicer if speakers saw a special view of the presentation with a 30-second count-down timer on each slide (and/or some other indicator that the slide was about to advance).

There is also the increased possibility of technical problems when working with decks from so many sources, different OS’s (and versions) and presentation software (and versions). We had one of those kinds of glitches. Would be nice if everyone just used the same software, using high-quality images for the slides.

And then you have to practice it, validate it, share it, etc. … custom software could help with all of that. This wouldn’t be difficult software to make it, but it would really add a nice touch to Lightning Talks, Ignite, or similar presentations.

So this is a great problem to solve with software … the second question is “can you make money” from the idea? I don’t know … seems like a perfect small example for using Lean Startup testing principles. As I’ve been recommending a lot lately, Rob Walling has a very concise chapter in his book that would help you figure out if this could make money.

I would love to do this one myself, but I don’t have time. I’m working on a grand, startup-like concept within Microsoft to share software stories (as Eric Ries argues, you can have a startup mentality even within a big company) … I’m going to have to focus all my startup energy on that until it succeeds or fails. I’m already preparing my Lightning Talk idea for next year, so I hope you can have it ready by then.

Sharing ideas

In his book Start Small, Stay Small, Rob Walling refers to that “secret list” of ideas we all keep. Loved that – you know you have one …

Ideas come easy to me, and as Derek Sivers points out, ideas are only a “multiplier” … execution is where the money is.

I’ve got more ideas than I’ll ever be able to use, so I’m going to stop hoarding them. If I share them more readily, maybe I’ll get to use the results if I help inspire somebody to make something I want.

The scary part of this for me is that I’m sure a lot of my ideas really suck. That’s OK – don’t use them as-is – but maybe they’ll help you find the good idea that’s right next to mine.

As much as possible, I’m going to describe scenarios/problems instead of solutions. That way I’m committing to less and might come off as less stupid. I’m sure most of my ideas have 23 solutions already – but maybe there’s a twist that reveals a still-profitable niche to be served. Have at it.

So here’s one that came to me during the second roundtable at #bos2010 … connect people wanting to be involved in a startup with appropriate cofounders (unfortunately cofounder.com is taken, but it looks purchasable). There are so many directions this could go … you could focus on an eHarmony-like compatibility matrix. You could focus on friends-of-friends via facebook. You could create more of a craigslist free-for-all. I don’t know the answer. I just think it’s an interesting area of opportunity. And I’ve heard multiple people say that they need a cofounder. Hope this triggers a good idea for someone.

Neither of us is an abstraction

Business of Software is over, and I want to stretch it out as much as I can. Peldi inspired me to take some pictures, so I’m running around snapping myself with as many people as I can. Should have started that on day 1.

Each time, it’s hard to pull away, because everybody has such an interesting story. Finally I sit down next to Rob Walling and Jason Cohen … I was a huge fan of Rob already, but I wasn’t aware of Jason before the conference, and I really wanted to chat more with him – his perspective is reasoned and serious and willful, and he seems like a really nice guy to boot – I feel so lucky to meet people like this.

DSCN0028

And then I realize I’m about to miss my flight.

I jump up, grab my stuff, shuffle out the conference doors into the rain, scramble to my car – and then I remember, as Mark Stephens told us at BoS2010: Don’t Panic. I might miss my flight. Oh well. It’s not worth getting in an accident. I slowed down, got to my car, set up my GPS before driving off (novel concept). And then I discovered that I was only 8 minutes from the airport. Problem solved (although it still took me 25 minutes with no traffic – I have a pathological inability to find my way in Boston, even with a GPS). And the flight’s delayed anyway …

I’ve been wanting to come to this conference from the beginning, but I had to earn my way to justify it; this year Neil Davidson accepted my Lightning Talk proposal. Lightning talks have a very specific format – 15 slides, 30 seconds each, auto-advancing. Brutal pressure.

If that’s not enough on its own, they make it a contest for good measure. Mark won the contest from last year (hilarious). His reward was a full speaking slot this year. He demonstrated his virtuosity by delivering 42 slides of 42 seconds each to fit nicely into a 30-minute session (one filled with plenty of Douglas Adams (and other) requisite geeky references). I enjoy Mark’s referential style immensely … fitting for his message: “In a world of infinite abundance only creativity can ever be in short supply.”

This conference was amazing. Joel bills it as a conference full of keynotes – heck, I think half the attendees could have been speakers. Everyone I met was so interesting. More specifically, people were real at this conference. Things got personal. It was genuinely inspiring and remarkably free of bullshit.

Think about lunch at every conference you’ve ever been to and notice the social algorithm for filling the tables. In general, most tables get just a couple of people (typically friends) before any tables start filling up. At this conference, most tables were nearly filled (often with people who just met or hadn’t met) before someone almost reluctantly started a new table.

Most of the speakers actually participated and stayed engaged in the whole conference. I think that’s key, along with having a single track. This was a shared experience, and when people share, we create a collective story. Isn’t that what humanity is?

Seth Godin kicked off that theme – it’s not about the software, it’s about the people who use it. It’s about their experiences. Seeing Seth speak is like hearing Itzhak Perlman play violin … you know you’re listening to one of the best. Seth did not stay for the whole conference, but I lost track of how many speakers included the phrase “As Seth said ….”

I marched right up to thank Seth for speaking … and inadvertently managed to do a pretty good Chris Farley Show impression. (‘member when you were on my podcast?)

The rest of the first day was a bit of a blur for me, because my Lightning Talk was in the afternoon. I was more prepared than usual, but I still felt wobbly all day – the speakers are people I’ve read, learned from, and looked up to for years. Joel Spolsky was going to hear me speak! How cool is that? Oh wait … all these luminaries are in the audience … I think my knees are shaking …

Business of Software is not a “Microsoft” conference. I don’t think there was much outright hostility for Microsoft – mostly indifference mixed with some impatience and perhaps some aggravation. I actually met quite a few Microsoft partners. Microsoft is relevant in an obvious, omnipresent (but not necessarily welcome or interesting) way to this community. There are many communities who ask us to come. This is not one of them. I asked to come.

One of several lessons I learned about public speaking that day was that you don’t want to immediately follow Seth Godin. This was David Russo‘s plight. I found his message about creating culture interesting and useful, but I could tell he’s used to speaking to people who don’t mind giving their attention willfully. Seeing a speaker like Seth sets up an expectation to be entertained. David’s not Seth, and he didn’t try to be. He’s not the kind of guy to turn cartwheels just to grab your attention. Instead, he’s extremely experienced, smart, and sincere. Works for me. Speaking to David before dashing off to the airport, he wanted to tell me about one of his clients – a Microsoft partner he is clearly fond of – he wanted to make sure they were doing what they could/should to get the most from their Microsoft partnership. I like people who genuinely care about their clients.

The appetizer and bread taken care of, the first entrée was Dharmesh Shah, founder of hubspot and of OnStartups fame. Holy cow – I need to read a LOT more. Learning is one of my great loves, which means I love discovering people who know things I don’t. Dharmesh knows a LOT of things I don’t.

Part of business is keeping score, and Dharmesh keeps score particularly well – what he values most is making happy customers (not the same thing as making customers happy), and he’s boiled it all down into a single number – the Customer Happiness Index or CHI. He measures everything his company does and evaluates actions compared to their effect on CHI. I need to read more of his work.

That theme hit home even harder with Eric Ries – I’ve had the good fortune to have Eric on my podcast a couple of times, and he’s brilliant. So much knowledge crammed into that head, and it turns out he’s been writing it down for convenient consumption. One of Eric’s premises is that you can be a startup inside a larger entity. It made me realize how relevant these principles are to ANYONE trying to change things – act like a startup. Reading more Eric Ries is my number one work-related/learning follow up from this conference.

I didn’t get to see Scott Farquhar because I was getting ready for my round of Lightning Talks. Heard he was great, so I eagerly await the video.

I’ll write more about the Lightning Talk experience itself in a later post

After my talk was finished, I could start breathing again and just drink in the conference. Jason Cohen wrapped up day 1, and I really enjoyed his story. Jason shared his experience of following “rules” and then learning he had to break them. His “advice in context” slide was one of the most useful of the conference for many people. Consider the following matrix:

 

King (hold my company for life)

Rich (cash out when appropriate)

B2B

Jason Fried

Joel Spolsky (< 2010)

Chris Brogan

Steve Blank

Dharmesh Shah

Jason Cohen

B2C

Matt Mullenweg

Peldi Guilizzoni

Patrick McKenzie

Eric Ries
Dave McClure
Evan Williams

These are all entrepreneurs with strong points of view (ok, I confess – I’m not familiar with 5 of them … as I said, I need to read more). If you tend to hold the fundamental view of one of the two columns, you are more likely to relate to the advice of the people in those columns. If your business is in the same row, the advice from people in that row is more likely to be relevant to you. Great point, Jason.

The party came next and was quite fun … I didn’t get to stay very long, because I had to drive to my friend Jason’s house to crash on his couch. One aspect of Microsoft that I’ve grown strangely proud of is our cost control – I get a travel budget at the beginning of the year and am told to “make it work” … I make my own business decisions about it, and because it’s not a ton of money, it means I treat it as if it were my own money – and I want to have the flexibility to fit in the valuable extracurricular activities like this conference. In retrospect, however, I missed some opportunities to interact with people socially that would have been quite valuable. Next time. (I’m already making the business case internally about why this conference is so important).

Another odd detail for me – three good friends from Atomic Object – an awesome consulting company in my town of Grand Rapids, MI – attended the conference as well. I didn’t know they were coming until I got here … thanks to us, Grand Rapids represented more than 1% of the conference attendees. It’s really nice to have friends to hang out with at a conference, but it’s also important to meet new people. After a while, I realized I could see my mates at home, so I better take advantage of the opportunity to venture out of my comfort zone a bit.

Socializing at a conference like this is not trivial for me. On the one hand, I thought I fit in reasonably well. On the other hand, I get so excited about stuff, that I know I come off as yapping dog sometimes. This is a tribe I very much want to belong to, and I experience all of the social awkwardness that goes along with a strong desire to fit in and be liked. On top of all that, because I work for Microsoft, I AM Microsoft at this conference. I love my company and get excited about it – I want to represent it in a genuine and positive way without coming off as a shill. I want to be useful. After the first day, I fell asleep thinking I did a pretty good job on my talk and hoping that somebody – anybody found value in it.

Paul Kenny kicked off Day 2 with a solution to a specific problem that has been nagging me in my “day job.” Paul was the first person I met at the conference (at the Sunday night reception). Sipping a beer, I gamely asked, “What do you hope to get out of this conference?” Paul laughed, “well, considering I’m one of the speakers, I’d have to say ‘thunderous applause’ …” Nice – always good to insult the first person you meet, but I’m pretty sure he forgave me.

Paul’s talk was about creating dialogue with your customers. It’s common sense, and it’s even easy – yet most people don’t do it. I don’t do it, at least not well enough. I will now. I knew leaving Paul’s talk I would be better at my job. I took Paul’s card, because I want all my evangelist brethren to learn from him as well (perhaps at our next internal gathering).

I felt a bit wistful when Paul spoke about the importance of stories and telling them in the language of the listener. He described all the details his son expects in his bedtime stories. I’ve never considered myself a good storyteller – and specifically, I’ve never made up stories for my son, Gus (7). We read stories a lot, but for some reason, I don’t have confidence in my ability to create original stories. That seems a bit of a loss for Gus, so I’m going to work on that. Thanks, Paul.

Next came Rob Walling, and as I mentioned, I’m a big fan of his … he’s appeared on my podcast a couple of times (once with Mike Taber, cofounder of www.micropreneur.com). Rob’s recent book gave very specific advice about bootstrapping. His talk went deeper into a particular aspect (marketing-related). I assume it will be recorded, so I won’t go into detail here, but Rob made one toss-off comment that burrowed its way into my head: “I don’t have a cofounder to collaborate with, so I have to bounce my ideas off data” – wow! What a cool concept! Talking about that, someone else (who was that?) summed it up in bumper sticker form: “Data is my cofounder” … BRILLIANT! A later speaker (I THINK it was Sanjay Singhal’s Lightning Talk, but I’m not certain) had a slide that said “experiment = creativity + measurement” … well, I have loads of creativity, but I’ve never really bothered to measure things. That was a HUGE insight for me from this conference. It’s so funny – it took several people to repeat the “lean startup” message in different ways before it clicked for me. Repetition is good. Repetition is good.

<chant>Peldi! Peldi! Peldi!</chant>

Peldi Guilizzoni founded Balsamiq mockups a couple of years ago, and it’s taking off, because it’s really good. I knew of Peldi because he was one of the first interviews for my podcast (I didn’t even appear on the interview … Bob did that one). Peldi is one of the most infectious people I have ever met. He has that perfect Italian accent that I can’t help but adopt when I start describing his talk. He displays that “aw shucks, I’m not an artist” attitude before he paints his Mona Lisa in front of our eyes. I thought people were going to start throwing their wallets on stage. I reached for mine.

I hope Peldi’s presentation was recorded and can be shared, because it was a classic. It’s the first one that I want to go back and watch, pausing on each of his points. I’m not going to go through them here, because there were so many. I would summarize his message as “worry about the right things” – this IS hard and you ARE going to worry – but don’t worry about the things you can’t change. GTD? Yeah, do it as best you can, but you’re never going to perfect it – you’ll never have enough time. Don’t worry about it. Charging for your software? Turns out people have been charging for goods and services for eons. They’re willing to pay for your stuff too. Don’t worry about it. One that really hit home for me was that feeling of being a fraud. Turns out 40% of successful people feel like they’re a fraud. Wow. I don’t know if I’m successful, but I sure feel like a fraud most of the time. Don’t worry about it.

Advice on what you should worry about came from various sources, including Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That’s what you should be spending your time worrying about. Point taken.

I can’t do his talk justice – just watch the recording, OK? I don’t know if the Bobby McFaren clip he showed at the beginning will show up, but it was beautiful. I was crying before he even started talking. It was a joyful 60 minutes.

Afterword, I went to introduce myself to Peldi and thank him for helping our podcast get off the ground. I wasn’t sure if he’d remember me, so I was thinking of the words to remind him when halfway across the room, he calls out to me, “Hey! Patrick! So good to meet you! Come over here, I want to make sure I get a picture with you!” … ? … Is he talking to me? I turn around to see if maybe Patrick McKenzie is behind me. Nope. Me. Wow. Peldi actually remembers me!

So there’s a bunch of us standing around chatting, and we’re all still in the glow from Peldi’s presentation, and Peldi is graciously keeping the conversation going – and at one point, he says something like “it’s like that episode in Patrick and Bob’s podcast where …” – and I think I interrupted him right there. “Woah, woah, woah – wait a minute – you actually listen to my podcast?” “Yeah! Of course!” I’m twisting my face as I look at him … AND THEN A COUPLE OF THE OTHER PEOPLE STANDING THERE NOD AND MURMER, “yeah, of course!” to me as well … “Really?”

Then they all agreed that Bob and I should put pictures on our podcast site, because we don’t look anything like our voices. Wow. I had no idea (and as for the pictures, I’ve never really thought much about pictures and memories – especially of myself – I only take pictures of my son, I guess).

Keeping in mind that my lightning talk was called “give more than you take” THIS was the epiphany for me at this conference. I’ve been doing this podcast and thinking about, WANTING to blog effectively for ages, but I never really knew who I should be speaking to. Now I know. I actually met people who listen to my podcast and get value from it. I talked with some of them and learned what their challenges are. Now I know who to work for, who to listen to, who to help. On the way home from the conference, I clearly imagined months worth of podcasts and blog posts, because now I know who they’re for. Just need to write them down.

Thank you, Peldi!

I was so jazzed from talking with Peldi that I was beginning to get that over-caffeinated-looking edge I try so hard to hold back. Ultimately, I failed to hold it back, because we had a breakout session after lunch. The conversation was great – we talked about many things, but two specific thoughts stuck out for me. 1. Some people know they need a cofounder and haven’t found the right person yet. My instincts tell me I need to listen to these people. 2. I talk to many, many people who are thinking about starting a business but for whatever reason haven’t pulled the trigger (we noted that Peldi squirreled away a significant sum, essentially working two jobs to kick his startup off). Lean startup principles may offer a hint: consider treating a startup as a “life experiment” … give yourself a week, a month, a year – whatever fits your situation – and a clear goal to achieve (15 customers, $500/month revenue or whatever). If you reach the goal, keep going. If not, that might be an indication to call it quits on that particular idea or on the startup lifestyle (whichever you are measuring). I wonder if the open-ended uncertainty of starting a business is a big part of what holds people back. Agile and lean startup techniques help manage risk. Might as well apply them everywhere you can. Great table discussion.

After the second round of lightning talks kicked it up a notch (again, more in a later post) and Mark’s talk (described earlier in this post), we heard from Eric Sink, the founder of SourceGear, talk about what he learned by selling part of his business, Teamprise, to Microsoft (apparently he is contractually bound not to describe many of the actual details). This was a fascinating and deeply personal discussion. Selling a business is an emotional, exhausting experience, and Eric seemed somewhat shaken by it. The Q&A period was particularly lively – this is an area where it clearly pays to learn from the experiences of your peers.

It was a little odd being a Microsoft guy (ok, THE Microsoft guy) in the audience while Eric talked about this stuff, but thankfully he didn’t say Microsoft did anything wrong – he seemed to express a “this is just the way it is with big companies but why does it have to be?” frustration that I could identify with. I’m miles away from any M&A activity, and I remember seeing the public announcement in the press and thinking this was something my partners would be happy about. I had no idea how stressful the actual process might have been. But you know, when I buy a latte, I still say thank you to the barista … I’m guessing we don’t say thank you when we buy a business.

Youngme Moon capped off the day with her presentation on being “different” … She was the only speaker to opt for the podium mic instead of a lapel mic (Eric used a handheld). From behind the podium, her sweet but firm voice gave her a professorial air of authority. Her talk was based on her book which emerged from her teaching and research at Harvard Business School.

In a crowed marketplace, competing on features makes everyone bland – if Volvo tries to come off as sexy and Audi tries to come off as safe, what’s the difference? Using the powerful case studies of the US Mini Cooper rollout and Ikea, Professor Moon explained in great detail the benefits of doubling down on your positives instead of trying to shore up negatives – it might even be better to embrace your negatives. It was a great presentation, and I can’t get it out of my head. During questions, Professor Moon was much spunkier than I expected – I’m pretty sure she could keep up with the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert … I’d like to see that in fact.

Dinner with a handful of new friends reminded me how important the social aspect of a conference like this is – For example, Mark Littlewood was one of our group and mentioned that he had been blogging feverishly the whole time. His great summaries helped give permanence to the experience, and I’m so happy to have spent some time with him – when you meet a writer, it adds context to their writing.

That same night, the speakers enjoyed dinner together and continued shaping the tone of the conference. Apparently, they noticed how personal the speakers had been thus far and how many communicated with stories. That pushed the final day speakers even further down that path.

Dan Bricklin had plenty of stories to tell. He had some pearls of relevant and current wisdom to share as well, but it was so much fun to hear about the early days of our industry that nobody really wanted to linger too much on the present. He showed tons of pictures and even shared some home videos during the break.

Derek Sivers scrapped his original talk (using a pretty funny and effective A-B testing mechanism) and told his personal story of CD Baby, how he “lost” it, and why he ultimately gave it away. Extraordinary.

Joel wrapped up the conference with a deeply engaging account of his experience seeking funding for Stack Overflow. I don’t know if this session was recorded or not, but anyone seeking funding for the first time would benefit from listening to Joel’s story.

At the very end of his talk, Joel described his beliefs and how they have affected his life in business. He noted that three days of context allowed for subtlety to enter the conversation, so I wouldn’t feel good trying to encapsulate it into a bumper sticker for you.

Somehow that didn’t prevent me from encapsulating it into a bumper sticker for Joel – while thanking him for sharing, I wanted to say something of value and managed only to blurt out “your talk had soul.” That’s not a lot different from meeting an attractive woman and saying “nice boobs” … while it might technically be true, there’s a good chance it’s not what the recipient wants to hear and is generally not an effective conversation starter.

DSCN0021

I look up to Joel a lot … nothing wrong with that, except it makes him a bit of an abstraction to me, and he is not an abstraction. Neither am I. Neither are you. It’s incredibly useful to share our knowledge and best practices with each other, but it’s also important to remember that behind all that intellectual stuff are real people who are sensitive and unpredictable moment-to-moment. This conference somehow managed to shed the typical abstractions and reveal real people. That was special to me. Stories seem to be key.

I wish I could convey more of the spirit of the conference, but this is the best I could do. Next time I’ll take more pictures.

Why I loved the Business of Software conference

It’s taking me a lot longer than expected to complete my write-up of the conference, but I wanted to share this preview …

“Think about lunch at every conference you’ve ever been to and notice the social algorithm for filling the tables. In general, most tables get just a couple of people (typically friends) before any tables start filling up. At this conference, most tables were nearly filled (often with people who just met or hadn’t met) before someone almost reluctantly started a new table.”

Possible that I’m romanticizing my memories, but that’s how it felt to me.

Good reads

Linchpin

Nonviolent Communication (practical manual for learning how to love your neighbor as you love yourself)

Start Small, Stay Small (Rob Walling)

Windows Phone 7 development | metro design language

Vintage Joel on Software

Andy Brice

Hyland Software

Enough

BizSpark (Microsoft for startups)

Imagine Cup (competition for students)

Five Whys (something I just learned from Eric Ries … so cool)