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.


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)


Jason Fried

Joel Spolsky (< 2010)

Chris Brogan

Steve Blank

Dharmesh Shah

Jason Cohen


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 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 “wow, you’re pretty” … while it might be a genuine sentiment, there’s a decent chance it’s not what the recipient wants to hear at that moment and is generally not an effective conversation starter.


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.

14 thoughts on “Neither of us is an abstraction

  1. Pingback: Show #85: And now for something completely different! « The Startup Success Podcast

  2. boesystems

    I think you conveyed it very well, Patrick, and I’m inspired by your enthusiasm.

    (long time SSP listener)

  3. Patrick Foley Post author

    Thanks, Richard!

    I think I got all the manic enthusiasm out of my system on this week’s podcast 🙂 Will now try to focus all that energy into finding and communicating useful stories. Please continue to provide input and feedback.



  4. Pingback: Give more than you take « Patrick Foley

  5. markee174

    I think you really captured the feel of the conference brilliantly. The weeks after the conference have been a bit tough after such a roller-coaster…

  6. markee174

    I think it is tough to come back from an intense experience as BoS (and we crammed a lot of ideas and interaction inot 3 days) and then come back to work and try and apply it all in the real world and try to explain it all to people who were not there without self-doubt creeeping in.

  7. Patrick Foley Post author

    Thank you so much for saying that, Mark … I was beginning to worry it was just me – “self-doubt” is very specifically what I’ve been wrestling with, so it’s nice to hear I’m not alone.

  8. markee174

    It is definitely not just you!

    I also listened to your birllian podcast (85) on Bos. Something that very much struck me as a result of thinking about things ad came back listening to you talking is that we tend to confuse ‘professionalism’ and ‘corporatism’ and spend too much time trying to achieve the second in the belief that it will lead to the first.

  9. Patrick Foley Post author

    Holy cow – great point! And that might make me cringe less when someone tells me they listened to that episode 😉

    I’m going to let that one roll around in my head for a while. Thanks, Mark! Look forward to having you on the show …

  10. Pingback: Show #85: And now for something completely different! | The Startup Success Podcast

  11. Pingback: Business of Software Conference 2010 | Light Point Security

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