Brooklyn Beta: A Few Tips
We just wrapped our fifth and final Brooklyn Beta. We’re happy with how it went which makes us even happier that it’s done. We did right by our old friend (and all our old friends who attended). I thought I’d share a few things we’ve learned along the way in case you are interested in running a friendly, web conference. Many times I’ve sat down to write a comprehensive guide to running a conference and many times I’ve failed. Until I pull it off, these few tidbits which have proven themselves every year will have to do.
No WiFi is (still) a feature, not a bug.
We lucked into this one because wifi is expensive and we ran out of money in our first year. Once we saw it in action, though, it became canon. No wifi means no faces backlit by laptops while a speaker is sharing a story. No wifi means an audience focused on the moment and enjoying the speaker’s words and each other’s company. Many speakers told us they never felt so supported on stage. That is a very nice thing to hear.
Minimize Content. Maximize Community.
If you focus all your energy on bringing together a great community, content can become secondary. The space between the talks is as important as the talks themselves. Brooklyn Beta was always at its best when we had “just enough” content. At our least confident, we’d add more and more to the agenda at the expense of long, relaxing breaks. This always backfired. Remember that first season of Arrested Development, some of the best content of all time, is about 7 hours long. Even watching that in one day felt like work. Aim for a smaller amount of high-quality content with lots of white space for people to talk to each other about what they heard. The result is not a conference, but a community.
Don’t do it alone.
This year’s Brooklyn Beta was the product of the efforts of at least 50 people. Each year of our event we enlisted more help than the year before and each year BB got easier to run and more enjoyable to attend. There are quite a few ups and downs associated with running an event. You’re always hand out (Would you please sponsor? Would you please speak?) and when the nos come in (which they always do) it is emotionally taxing. Don’t do that alone. Have at least one other person you can grab a drink with during the downs and then grab a happier drink with during the ups.
Other things that worked for us, with no explanation: sharing attendee list, not announcing speakers, making sure to have great food / drink, doing the event somewhere reasonably accessible, being relatively inexpensive, interesting venue, luck.
Anyhow, it’s up to you all now. Looking forward to seeing what you do. We’ll be off making apps and playing cards. PS not a bad time to buy playing cards.
Idea Person FAQ
I’m sure you’ve noticed it. Pretty much everyone seems to have an idea for an app. I’ll go to a wedding or visit home or even just open my inbox and there they are, “Idea People.” They heard about the latest billion dollar acquisition, they saw Social Network, and now they have an idea for a product of their own.
There’s just one hitch: they have no clue how to build a product.
Fair enough. It’s not like it’s an easy task. But I get so many requests from Idea People that I felt the need to write something up to at least make their task a little easier.
My Pastry Box entry this month is a series of excerpts from something I’ve been working on called The Idea Person FAQ. It’s designed to help folks who are passionate but inexperienced. Ideally it sets a healthy framework in their heads for the kind of struggle they’re signing up for along with best practices and such.
I’d love to hear what you think (@fictivecameron), and please let me know if you come across any questions from Idea People on a regular basis that I should include. I’d love to take a stab at answering them on behalf of all us folks who’ve built a thing or two.
From the Intro:
I’m a person with a great idea. Not just a great idea. The idea that ends all ideas. How valuable am I?
Not very. You’re probably a wonderful person with a sweet personality, but if your value only goes as far as sharing the initial idea, you’re in a tight spot. It’s not nothing, but it’s also not a whole lot. This Derek Sivers article reflects the prevailing feeling regarding the value of the idea. And while I don’t completely agree with the article, the sentiment it presents is pretty widespread throughout the industry and you should assume that everyone you meet feels that way.
On the plus side, at least your idea is a good one which means you’ve got a chance of convincing good folks to work on it, it’s just gonna take some work. The whole “good idea” thing is worth an extra beat. Your passion, if coherent, for your idea will be one of the primary things (along with your personality) that will get people interested in working with you.
I then go on to talk about two paths to finished product.
1. Paying for a product (hiring contractors)
That sounds great, how much does it cost?
No easy way to answer this question, but we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars. Products are extremely complicated to build and good designers / developers these days cost quite a bit. This is especially true of iOS developers who are in tremendously high demand right now and often get priced at $7500 / week. Good work if you can get it.
Yeah, but I just have a quick little app. That shouldn’t be too hard. Right?
There is no such thing as a quick little app. All apps take a long time. Also, never say this to a designer or developer. Let them say it to you. Remember that you don’t know what you’re talking about and they do. This is one of those comments that is considered a red flag by designers / developers. You’ll do well to avoid it. If you wanted to send a positive signal (a green flag?), you could say something like, “I’m committed to keeping this app as simple as possible and am going to rely on your help and your judgment to do so.” That's pretty spicy.
2. Partnering for a product (finding partners who will work with you for equity)
OK. NM. I can’t get all that money. But why do I have to play it so cool? I’m ready to get building. Shouldn’t I just pitch people right away?
You have to understand that as an outsider, you’ll be viewed initially with a big old dollop of skepticism. Believe it or not, talented designers & developers are approached frequently (maybe daily?) with idea opportunities. Idea people also have a reputation for cluelessness about the practicalities of building great products. This is mostly because they’ve never actually built anything before. The result is that they want things faster and cheaper than is really feasible. This leads to a pretty unfortunate work environment that generally implodes before the product gets finished. Almost every designer and developer has a story that resembles this one. Keep that background in mind.
That's the general vibe. Hopefully, the end result will be a valuable resource for clients, family members, and cocktail party acquaintances alike. Don’t forget to hit me with any questions you may have.
Cameron Koczon, Fictive Kin
SCENES FROM AN INTERNET:
A Short Screenplay by Cameron Koczon
INT. STUDIOMATES, BROOKLYN - AFTERNOON
Mandy, Jason, and David announce that they are shutting down Editorially. In a post marked by class and honesty, they cite the primary reason as: “Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change.”
INT. SOMEWHERE NEAR WEBSTOCK - NEW ZEALAND TIME
Amy Hoy reacts to Editorially’s shut down.
dammit, this is what happens when you approach software like a fairy unicorn princess & not a business http://t.co/xuEtZnm1VW
— Amy Hoy (@amyhoy) February 13, 2014
.@ceonyc spend more money than you take in… the definition of the VC experience, and also an irrefutable (mathematical) path to failure
— Amy Hoy (@amyhoy) February 13, 2014
EXT. MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - DAY
Brian Acton, Jan Koum, and 53 others seen freaking out à la that scene in Home Alone because of the $19 billion dollar acquisition of their company, WhatsApp. Ripples of jealousy and bewilderment spread throughout the Internet and assorted tech meetups.
INT. PORTLAND, OR - MORNING
Josh, Shamir, & Co. announce their decision to sell Simple to Spain’s BBVA for $117 million dollars. The response is more somber than celebratory. CEO Josh says that the only way to build the kind of company they want is to get off the VC treadmill and partner with someone who would give them (let’s hope) both the resources they need and the autonomy to build the kind of product and organization that they want.
EXT. HANOI - NIGHT
INT. ITUNES APP STORE - 10 DAYS AFTER FLAPPY TAKEDOWN
The top 3 spots on the free app charts are taken by cheap Flappy Bird knockoffs.
INT. YOUR MIND - SO WHAT?
Here’s the deal. We’re a community of technical practitioners and business1 is still new to us. But we’re a scrappy bunch, and we’ve been figuring it out on the fly, building our own community lore and understanding on the subject. I’ve watched this process unfold and noticed two themes that concern me: the vilification of VCs and the assumption that startups are the only game in town.
- VCs are not villains.
VCs are not villains. They’re people with money who invest in a very specific kind of story: the blockbuster. For the most part, the money they invest is not their own. They invest on behalf of large institutions like universities, pension funds, and insurance companies. They invest that money in a very risky thing called a startup. Startups fail much more often than they succeed, so a VC fund makes all of its money on one or two home runs.2
Hence, the need for blockbusters. If your startup doesn’t have home run potential, they can’t fund it. If it does, they’re happy to give you all the money you want. If you take that money, you agree to something that looks like the following:
I [sign name here] will run my business on rocket fuel in order to attempt to become a billion dollar company. If my fuel reserves (cash) get low and the billion dollar business feels less likely than when we started, I will consent to either conserve fuel (cut costs / fire people), return fuel (call it quits and return the remaining cash), or give up the ship (sell to a larger company).3 Otherwise, more rocket fuel please.
Nothing sinister here. It’s just a game with a set of rules that everyone is expected to follow. And, when that game goes well, it can go extremely well.
(WHATSAPP - Enters Stage Left)
WhatsApp is the stereotypical Silicon Valley startup4, but they found their success outside of the iPhone-centric tech community that funded them. They painstakingly translated a messaging product onto platforms that no one else would touch. J2ME! That’s a whole lot of thankless work made possible by a big pile of VC cash. The end result of all that cash and effort is that millions of underserved people have access to what is essentially affordable Internet for the first time in their lives. Kind of a win.
Of course, it doesn’t always go that well. Even when things are going well by most standards, as in the case of Simple, it may not be enough for VCs to get their home run so an alternative is sought out. In the case of Simple, the alternative is a huge bank that has a lot more money and more “patient capital.”5
It might be helpful to think of VC money as a funding source for a bizarre branch of science that tests the size of markets. In the case of Editorially, they were running an experiment to test the following hypothesis:
Is the market for building tools for writers big enough to sustain a $1 billion dollar company?
Given their shutdown post, it’s clear that they concluded it is not.6 With a small team, you can only run one experiment at a time7, so they didn’t get to run the following one:
Can you grow a solid $2 million business out of building tools for writers?
That one is now up to someone else to figure out.8 Someone without VC funding.
- The startup game isn’t the only game in town.
The VC-funded startup is just one of a variety of options for starting a business, but it’s definitely the one with the best marketing team. Startup news dominates our streams and at the outset it can be easy to equate “starting a business” with “doing a startup.” Try not to do that. You don’t need to build a blockbuster. You can just build a business. The Silicon Valley™ way of building a business is a fine option for certain circumstances, but you’re welcome to skip it.9
If the startup™ isn’t the right fit for our industry culture then we need get better at seeking out and discussing the narratives that do fit our vibe. I’ve got my eye on quite a few. Some, like MailChimp, Basecamp, Pinboard, Tattly, and Hoefler & Co. are fairly well known. Others, like Harvest, Ghostly, and Cultivated Wit are perhaps less so. There’s also the growing bootstrapper movement that Amy Hoy champions which targets B2B products with “small” markets by VC standards but plenty big by regular human standards. These all represent potentially successful alternatives at various scales to the startup™.
We need to remember that there are many narrative options available to us, not one. Each has its own pros and cons that we as an industry can learn more about and you, as someone interested, can discover your favorite. As we explore these options, and discover the ones that excite us most, we must remember not to become dogmatic. Don’t assume that other approaches, and those taking them, are somehow wrong. There are many ways to build a business, just as there are many ways to design a web site. In both cases, it’s about choosing the right tool for the job.
In conclusion, VCs are not villains, startups aren’t the only game in town, and I love the way you look today.
1the non-client services kind
2This includes all the money lost in the failed investments and enough to give back.
3This is a pretty big time simplification. Lots of nuance and detail left out. For example, a more realistic number than the Austin Powers billion for VC returns is 10x money.
4 Based in Mountain View. Founded by ex-Yahoo. Backed by Sequoia. Bought by Facebook.
5 There’s a term for you kids. Just means they’re not in as big of a rush.
6 Which is both surprising and sad. Come back writers! Come back!
7 Before you get to pivot!
8Maybe if they had more energy, they could pivot their way into oblivion.
9 So long as you know what you’re skipping. Ignoring something without understanding it first is rarely wise.
I think I’m just going to talk about content all year. And why shouldn’t I? I love it. But, when was the last time I showed that I love it? Not so much as a tweet since I wrote Orbital Content in 2011. How hard is it to pick up a tweet? So, for the next eleven pastries, I’ll be handing out tidbits about content that have occupied my mind over the last few years. Expect to maybe hear about:
- What does content ownership mean these days?
- How can advertising adjust to meet the new way content is liberated and passed around?
- What role does content play in the building of web products?
- Speaking in interfaces vs. Speaking in content.
- When does an experience become content? And how should that be preserved?
- More Orbital Content
- Apps come and go. Users are here to stay. What happens to their content in the long run?
- Managing user expectations of content on your service
Should be a good time. If you’re looking for a little more meat in the meantime, check out Erin’s book on content strategy (particularly the first half) or muscle through Orbital Content to get a sense of where I’m coming from.
Now that we got that out of the way, can we please talk about Downton Abbey (old news for the Brits)? Specifically, the “incident.” What in the name of all that is prim were the writers thinking? I know actors are leaving left and right, so new story lines are needed, but this one feels a bit lazy. Have you forgotten why people watch this show? I guarantee you it is not to head to bed anxiety-riddled after a surprise “incident” scene.
Anyhow, I’m grumpy. I had to chase my Downton with a shot of Bob’s Burgers, so I could hit the pillow with any chance of getting some sleep. We’ll see how they handle it, but I’m guessing it involves more Mr. “Martyr 4 Lyfe” Bates than I care to listen to.