I don't envy conference organizers these days - most of what's being said can be read the next day, for free, on line, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home, and without spending a bundle of time and money to sleep in a far away hotel.
Competing with that is not easy, but the guys at MicroConf managed to. I would sum up the weekend by saying that it was a "very high bandwidth experience". Every day, from breakfast until I turned in, I was chatting with people or listening to speakers during the conference itself. That's aproximately 16 hours of being "on", and by the time I got home to Padova, I was exhausted! But at the end of the day, I felt like it was worth it being there in person, because of all the interaction with other people. The speakers' talks all ended up on line, more or less, but all the chatting and discussion and getting to know everyone is the human element that is tough to replicate on line, and one of the most important reasons to attend a conference in person. Prague is also a beautiful city - I wish I had had more time there to check it out.
Here are some highlights and notes, in no particular order:
- Rob Walling talked about actual, concrete numbers when discussing his current project's revenues. There's a ton of handwavy stuff out there on the internet, but real numbers are tough to beat. What makes it especially nice is that they also felt "real": they're good numbers, no doubt about it, but not stratospheric, science fiction numbers that leave you feeling like "ok, whatever, but that's not the planet I live on". They're numbers that make you think "maybe, if things go well, I could do that too".
- The number of "I'm from X, but live in Y" people at the conference was high. Irish but live in Spain, American but live in Japan. Or maybe just noticeable because I'm in that category myself. There were people attending from the US, Europe, Japan, South Africa, and even Australia. Impressive!
- Almost all of the speakers had very specific, concrete advice that I can and will apply to LiberWriter, time permitting. I read, and have read, a lot of business books. Most of them are kind of fluffy, truth be told, in that they've got one decent idea, and a lot of filler to turn what could have been a tight, ten-page article into a book. This was quite different in that there were a whole lot of tips and tricks being thrown out.
- Rob's wife Sherry gave a talk about life with an entrepreneur. Having two kids and a wonderful wife myself, it's a point of view that I was very interested in hearing about. Judging from the people I chatted with, this was not your typical "startup" conference with a bunch of 20-somethings with no family and no ties - a lot of the other people attending had kids to think about as they launch their ventures. A question I asked of Rob was how much of a leap he took from consulting to working on his own products, with the answer being that he's actually pretty risk adverse. No Silicon Valley story about betting the house and everything else on the company - apparently, revenues from the web sites and products were good enough that there wasn't even really a leap to make when he quit consulting.
- The size of the conference was just right: enough people that I didn't quite manage to meet everyone, but not so many that it was overwhelming. In downtime between talks, and during dinners, breakfasts, lunch and so on, the speakers were very available to chat with.
- Patrick McKenzie seems to have stumbled into his life's calling as someone working at the border of software and marketing. The amount of advice, anecdotes, and data that he was continually spinning off was incredible. He comes across as being a down-to-earth, approachable, friendly person.
- Part of the balancing act the organizers have to work with is where people are at: some people had an idea but no concrete business. Some of us (me) make some money but not too much. Others have viable businesses that they make enough to live off of, and then there are those who seem pretty much 'set'. It's difficult to find people to speak to each audience without losing some of the others.
- The thing I liked the most about a lot of what was discussed was that it seems realistic. Few people at the conference were from Silicon Valley, and yet... they're successful! I like hearing about success stories that work out really well for the people involved, but still feel like something attainable. People should be looking to emulate the successful guys here, not looking at extreme outliers like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
- I'm used to tech conferences, where it's all about the technology. There was very little actual tech talk at MicroConf - it seems like everyone knows their stuff and was interested in learning about marketing, sales, and so on.
However, since it was a business conference, I also have to put on my cold, hard accountant hat. Will the conference pay for itself? Only time will tell. I learned a variety of interesting and useful things, many of which I think I can put into practice. The problem is finding the time between consulting work and family, but that was a bottleneck before, too - I had, and have, more things to do than time. Also, to be very direct about it, how much of what I learned could not have been learned by carefully reading accounts of the conference, slides, and other material published on the internet? A lot of it. I'm not sure I would have paid attention to all of it though, so the conference was definitely nice in that it exposed me to some talks and ideas that otherwise I might have brushed off before giving them a chance. In terms of dollars and cents, I won't be able to say for a while whether it was a sensible investment or not.
Would I go again? I'd like to - it was a lot of fun and the people were great.
Like I said, it's tough doing conferences because your competition is the internet!