Business of Software 2012 highlights, letdowns, and a controversy

Business of Software features presentations and workshops from some of the most successful people in the world of software startups, including Kathy Sierra, Gail Goodman, and Bob Dorf.

One of my biggest dreams in this industry has been to attend the Business of Software conference. Business of Software is an annual event aimed at software entrepreneurs and people involved in startup software companies. It is a multi-day event that brings together presentations and workshops from some of the most successful and experienced people in the world of software startups.

Last week I was able to go to Boston and attend Business of Software 2012. In the coming weeks I will write about some of the most useful things I learned there, but today I will talk about each speaker's presentation to give you a feel for the event. (Recordings or transcripts of the presentations will post to the event's website in the next month or so.)

Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra (probably best known for doing the Head First O'Reilly books) gave a fantastic talk in which she detailed the connection between empowering your users to do great things and building your audience. She brought a ton of knowledge to the discussion. I really liked her emphasis that users don't use your application for the sake of using it -- they use it for the sake of doing something for themselves. When you make it easy for them to look good, they will show off their success and give you some credit.

Jason Cohen

Jason Cohen (of WP Engine and Smart Bear Software) drilled down into the science of statistics to show folks where being "data driven" can drive you off a cliff. He made great points about margin of error and how it is easy to focus on metrics to the detriment of the actual on-the-ground reality. If you do a lot of data collection, A/B testing, instrumentation, etc. to make decisions for your company, I highly recommend watching his talk or reading the transcript when it becomes available.

Joel Spolsky

Frequent readers know that I am a huge fan of Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software, Stack Exchange). I had been looking forward to his talk for a very, very long time; unfortunately, I felt that his speech about "the cultural anthropology of Stack Exchange" missed the mark (even accounting for my high expectations). I had hoped he would talk about how they figured out how to make Stack Exchange's culture work well; instead, it was more like a feature list presentation. There was value in it, but the information was only good to show how to make a Stack Exchange clone, not how to apply the same decision making process to your community.

Dharmesh Shah

Dharmesh Shah (Hubspot)'s talk contained a lot of very useful information about some of the challenges he has encountered in starting and growing a software company, what he tried to overcome them, and what worked and what didn't.

Peter Bauer

Peter Bauer (Mimecast) did not give an effective talk in my opinion; it was more of a company history, and his presentation style came off as rather boastful. The only takeaways I got were that his company just got a big injection of money and is growing nicely.

Noah Kagan

Noah Kagan (AppSumo,, Facebook) created a bit of a firestorm of controversy with his talk. The content was excellent. He talked about "rogue marketing strategies," and it was filled with useful information on how to get and retain customers. There were some very honest moments as well, like when he talked about how AppSumo had gone from being really cool to basically spamming people, and he decided to change their marketing techniques even if it meant hurting revenue badly.

Unfortunately, Noah not only used foul language (almost all of the presenters used some), but he made comments that many attendees felt were misogynistic. I can understand why people felt that way. Because of his style of delivery, a lot of people missed his otherwise excellent information. One attendee wrote a lengthy blog about his feelings about Noah's presentation, and Twitter quickly blew up with feedback on both sides. Mark Littlewood (the event organizer) issued an extremely heartfelt apology the next day, which I greatly respected.

I think that Business of Software is experiencing some growing pains (this year it had around 400 attendees, last year it was about 250), and as the audience includes more people from outside the world of startups, an increasingly professional and inclusive tone must be set. If you are willing to look past the lack of professionalism, watch Noah's talk when it's available (I make a cameo appearance as the man in the Magnum P.I. shirt who won a T-shirt).


Peldi (real name: Giacomo Guilizzoni from Balsamiq) did a fantastic job on his presentation, "Coding is the easiest part!" As software folks, it is tempting when we start a business to sit down and start cranking out code. Peldi explained really well that this truly is the easiest part, and like Dharmesh the day before, shared a ton of "lessons learned" from his experiences.

Mikey Trafton

Mikey Trafton (Fire Ant Software, Blue Fish Development Group), like Dharmesh and Peldi, shared real-world lessons. He focused on how culture impacts the business, and how to create a culture that helps the company succeed. This is definitely another must-see talk for folks starting a company.

Adii Pienaar

Adii Pienaar (WooThemes) spoke about starting a company based out of Cape Town, South Africa, an area that is not conducive to launching a technology company. He talked about the challenges of working with a remote team as well as internationally. If you are dealing with a lot of remote workers or are trying to start a company outside of the areas traditionally known for startups, there is some excellent information here.

Dan Lyons

The speech by Dan Lyons (Newsweek, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog) was mixed. The first part was a rather typical "traditional media is dead, long live mobile content delivery!" talk that ignored and overlooked a ton of important things, like the availability and cost of bandwidth compared to broadband. But then he transitioned into a fantastic expose of the tech industry's relationship with the media. He left no stone unturned as he ripped media outlets like TechCrunch for their far-too-cozy-to-be-objective dealings with the tech industry, the investors who basically pay off "reporters," and the companies that can cut journalists off at the knees by withholding access to information and devices to sources that are not favorable (ever notice the lack of Apple and Google coverage from me?). The highlight was in the Q&A when someone asked if a tech company really needs to deal with that circus. His answer was no, and I agree. His speech is top-notch if you want insight into how the tech industry deals with the news, PR, etc., and how to get maximum value out of your dealings with the news industry.

Read about more of the presentations, and find out whether I recommend the event.