Tech & Work

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.

Gail Goodman

Gail Goodman's (Constant Contact) presentation was one of the top three I heard. Her talk was deeply focused on the internal relationships within companies and between companies and customers. Best of all, the information was presented in the style of "this was the challenge, this is what we tried, this is why we tried it, and this was the outcome," which makes the lessons a lot easier to apply to your company. The most illuminating part was when she talked about how you have to find out where your customers live and breathe and go there. Constant Contact had to do some decidedly traditional marketing (radio ads, Chamber of Commerce seminars) to get customers for her high-tech company. This is another talk you should not miss.

Paul Kenny

Paul Kenny (Ocean Learning) went into depth on the nature of sales. Wait, sales? We're tech people! Yes, we are, but startups need to sell something in order to survive, whether it is selling VCs on a vision, ad space to advertisers, or something else. Paul went deep into how to actually sell. This is a good speech to watch.

Professor Noam Wasserman

Noam Wasserman (Harvard Business School) went deep into numbers to show exactly where startups fail, and his talk completely blew me away. He had data spanning thousands of startup companies. One of the most shocking things to me was that 65% of startups fail due to things that aren't really business related (e.g., the quality of the product or marketing techniques) but people related (e.g., arguments between founders, wrong employees, poor company culture). I would watch this talk as soon as I could if I were you.

Bob Dorf

Bob Dorf (co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual) gave a humorous look into his experiences in starting successful and failed companies. He had fantastic insights that dispelled some myths I had about starting companies. For example, he showed how (a site dealing with a ton of physical inventory) was able to use a money-losing proposition in the first few months (driving around town to buy diapers from stores to fulfill orders at a loss) to prove the usefulness of a business model in order to get funding to build a logistics organization and become profitable. I loved his talk, and I can't wait to read Bob's book (copies were given away at the event).

Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink (author of Drive) closed out the event with a talk about how sales is as important as ever... and we are all salespeople. Like Noam Wasserman, Dan had a pile of data, some of which was quite surprising. One of the biggest takeaways for me was that ambiverts (people who fall between introverts and extroverts) are the most effective sales people, despite popular thinking that extroverts are. Another unique insight is that it is easier to win a sale by placing yourself in a position of disadvantage, which makes you better able to understand the customer's reluctance to make a purchase and therefore overcome it. I have Drive on my Kindle, so I declined the free copy, and I already pre-ordered his upcoming book (To Sell is Human) that the presentation was based on. You will want to watch his speech.

Overall thoughts about the event

The conference was very well run. It started on Sunday night (Sept. 30) with a reception. If you arrived in Boston on Sunday evening and left right after Dan Pink spoke, the only meal you would have needed to buy the entire trip was Tuesday night's dinner. The food at the InterContinental Boston hotel where the conference was held was absolutely fabulous. I was still recovering after a bout with pneumonia in September, and the food went a long way in helping my body rebuild its reserves after that illness. The staff at the hotel were amazing (which was in stark contrast to some of the folks at the Hilton on 89 Broad Street where we stayed, who were among the rudest people I have ever dealt with in a customer service role). Everything about the InterContinental Boston was perfect except for the Wi-Fi, which was a mess to get onto and very slow.

It is a very costly event. Tickets are expensive, the price of hotel rooms in Boston is crippling, and travel is pricey unless you live nearby. If you aren't going to network, there aren't as many reasons to go in-person rather than watch the live streaming presentations. I went with a team of people, and we ended up being a bit insular. It was a great team-building time, but I lost out on some of the networking chances. Next year, I will either try to mix a lot more or watch the live streaming. In fact, I'd even be willing to pay to watch the live streaming — the content was that good.

I struggled to get much value from just two presentations (Joel Spolsky and Peter Bauer), which is an excellent ratio for such an event. The workshop time was great; my team was led by Red Gate's Neil Davidson (one of the people I look up to most in this industry), and we got to do some very creative things and get to know each other. The "lightning talks" (presenters were given only a few minutes, and their slides automatically rotated every 30 seconds) were fun, refreshing, and provided interesting content.

The issues people had with the Noah Kagan speech were inevitable. When you are already pushing the envelope on these things, it is much easier for something to go wrong. In this case, an event where nearly every presenter was using language that would get you fired at a lot of companies and that you couldn't say on broadcast TV is likely to eventually have a speaker who says something offensive to a significant portion of the audience. It is a shame that an otherwise great event got caught up in a controversy.

Most of the content was of the "I can take this and use it" type. Best of all, Business of Software 2012 was inspiring. You leave the event ready to quit your job and start a company with your loose change and pocket lint, even if you are already running a company. If you run or work for a startup or are thinking about launching one, I cannot recommend the event enough.


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About Justin James

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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