I go to a lot of entrepreneurship “stuff.”
In 2013, my professional journey took a hard left from my dream job of economist, and I realized that entrepreneurship had been my calling all along.
It was a realization tainted with a lot of pain: I had, after all, been building websites since I was 14. I had two online stores when I was 16, one on eBay and one on my own website. How did I not know? My parents, friends and boyfriends – no one – suggested that I was showing a competency for business. It was just this annoying thing I did for fun. My mom complained about the shipping boxes in the apartment. My boyfriend complained about the low return on my random web projects, time that could “better be spent working.”
It all came down to community. My community was full of low-income people begging me to get an education and a job. Without a community that would support my ventures, they were dead before they ever got started.
There’s a smudge of gender bias in there too, but that’s a different conversation.
Seeking A Network
I figured out early on that if I was serious about this, I couldn’t go at it alone. Thankfully, I had lots of support from people who believed in me and were willing to put their money where their mouths were at Florida State University (now the site of the country’s largest public entrepreneurship college, by the way). I received grants from institutions in both the social sciences college and the business college. I tried, I took risks, I had big wins and spectacular failures. This support is how I learned.
One of the things that the university funded for me was exposure to community. The people who believed in me knew it was a good idea to ship me off to New York City to meet people, learn, ask questions about my business idea, and generally just spend time imagining that entrepreneurship could be mine.
That means I went to a lot of events. One of the things I learned through that was how to identify bullsh*t entrepreneurship “stuff.”
Bullsh*t is everywhere, especially in New York. The promise, after all, is as old as work itself: be your own boss! Never work again! Get rich! Even those that aren’t that blatantly scammy are still semi-bullsh*t. For example: hustle mindset! Pay us a fee and learn how to get to the top of Google search results! Pay nothing and our glitzy diversity in business nonprofit organization will help you craft the perfect pitch to attract millions of dollars of venture capital!
I’m An Entrepreneur Who Helps Entrepreneurs Become Entrepreneurs!
It’s all bullsh*t. I am a real entrepreneur, not someone trying to sell you entrepreneurship. I make websites work for a living, so I get no financial benefit if you decide to mind my advice. In fact, I usually lose money on the people who want to run a business: they need more attention from our support team, and sometimes they give up after those conversations and request a refund. You can’t normally be my customer until you’ve successfully differentiated yourself and are making serious money. So, I just want to help people who are now in my old position maximize their time.
Generally speaking, my filter is as follows: if they’re not putting their money where their mouths are, it’s not a community, it’s a feel-good scam.
So what do you do if you’re looking for this essential community aspect of your business journey, but you don’t want to waste your time? This is what I’m here to talk about.
I’ve been wanting to write a “how to spot fake entrepreneurship initiatives” post for a very long time. It never came together. The first draft was more of a heated opinion piece than anything else, and the second draft wasn’t actionable enough.
Then, at the beginning of this month, I went to MicroConf Starter Edition.
Here’s my new opinion on what budding entrepreneurs should do if they need to find community without wasting their time: go to MicroConf SE.
What Is MicroConf?
Transparency disclaimer: this is a completely voluntary, unrequested, and unpaid for review of MicroConf. I am writing it because I was impressed by the experience that I had and I sincerely feel every word in this review. With that said, I did receive one of MicroConf Starter Edition’s diversity scholarships, which covered the cost of my ticket and a small stipend to offset travel costs. I believe this aspect of my experience adds to the fact that these organizers’ “put their money where their mouths are,” but this review would be incomplete without an honest mention of this fact.
MicroConf describes itself on its website as “The World’s Biggest Conference For the World’s Smallest Self-Funded Software Companies.” While that tagline references software companies, and indeed, most of the content was tailored towards them, I met a lot of people taking on more than pure software projects.
The What, Where & When
There’s two versions of MicroConf: Starter and Growth. Starter is oriented towards people who make less than $5,000 a month in their business, while Growth is oriented towards those who make more. But, from what I saw, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. If you believe the fundamentals of your business could use some support, Starter seems excellent at all revenue levels. I found the content extremely valuable and we make more money than that. With that said, I heard about some of the Growth content at the Starter+Growth mixer, and it sounds like their content was quite differentiated. My goal is to attend Growth next year.
The conference happens in Las Vegas every year in springtime, and the attendee list is from all over the world. There’s also a MicroConf Europe.
The organizers of MicroConf are Mike Taber and Rob Walling. Both are successful serial entrepreneurs whose current ventures you’ve probably heard of: Bluetick and Drip, respectively. They also cohost a podcast called Startups for the Rest of Us. I had never heard of their podcast until after I had secured my MicroConf ticket and someone else in WordPress told me they were attending because of the podcast. I started listening, and it’s fantastic. I would recommend starting to listen to the podcast because it is free, and if the advice you hear in the podcast is useful and actionable, you will love MicroConf.
Here’s what I liked the most about MicroConf: it’s an unassuming conference. I went to a Consensus event last week. I competed in NYC BigApps. The thing these conferences all have in common is that it’s all glitz, glam, new. Here’s the problem: when you’re a new entrepreneur, you’re already taking a risk. The community you find needs to be tried-and-true. They need to teach you strategies that work, not whatever “latest newest secret updated strategy to get 10,000 users in your first month!” that may have worked for a handful of people, but has little track record of mass success.
At MicroConf, I heard not a single thing about blockchain, AI, machine learning, headless CMSs, and everything else I spend the rest of my days nerding out over. I heard tried-and-true: user onboarding. Landing pages. Facebook ads. Video content.
This isn’t non-innovative, it’s foundational. It’s often amazing to me how much budding entrepreneurs I talk to who want build an ecommerce store and are talking to me about recommendation engines and influencer marketing before they’ve even given consideration to abandoned carts.
When I was a teenager, I was very involved with the music world. I’ll never forget what one of my music teachers told me when I protested why I should learn scales when all I wanted to do was create weird sounds in Ableton: you have to know the rules to break them.
The MicroConf Starter Edition Content
Day 1: Morning
The first session was “An Unconventional Way To Validate Your Product Idea” by Justin Jackson. Admission: I had no idea who Justin Jackson was before this conference. Apparently he’s quite famous and popular, but I had no idea who he was. It was a little embarrassing.
After his talk, I could see why. An affable, engaging speaker, Justin kicked off MicroConf with the ever-important thing every budding entrepreneur needs to hear: how are you sure that it’s not just you that thinks this is a good idea?
Justin essentially gave the minimum viable product talk. However, he gave it in my favorite context ever: can you just get money from people?
I have strong feelings about what I would call fake traction: social media followers, emails, and other digital capital that isn’t actually an item that translates into revenue. And, admittedly, these are strong feelings I developed after touting my social media followings and website traffic as proof of traction, then watch that fake traction not turn into success.
Watching the first talk address this issue was excellent.
After this, we heard from Adam Wathan, who discussed product launches by talking about creating hype on Twitter, being genuinely useful in your content, and designing a solid and consistent landing page. Again: tried-and-true.
The next talk really impressed me: it addressed user onboarding and why you should care about it before launching. Yes! This is a lesson we learned the hard way with Caldera Forms. We are now playing catchup to make sure that our new users, who have heard great things about our product, are onboarded correctly and thus have the experience they are expecting.
Expectation management is everything, and onboarding goes a long way in facilitating this. I loved seeing onboarding emphasized to people just starting out.
Day 1: Afternoon
After the user onboarding content came a series of small talks being delivered by attendees. Again, the topics selected were impressive to me: we had a healthy dose of practicality and inspiration. On the practical end, we had a good guide on how to conduct a high-quality user interview. On the inspirational end, we had talks about risk taking and talks about small exits.
Another thing I’ve often lamented is the business conference that is overly inspirational.
I believe that a good conference doesn’t throw up presenter after presenter on stage to deliver a “you can do it!” sermon. People go to conferences to learn and network, if they are inspired by the practice of their pursuit, this is an excellent way to tell it’s right for them.
Don’t shove feel-good in my face. I will personally decide if this makes me happy.
The day was then closed by host Mike Tabor. Mike gave a talk that had me laughing the entire time. It was about email followup.
This last talk was the perfect representation of why I now believe in the MicroConf program so strongly. I’ve often thought that there is a noticeable difference between the advice successful entrepreneurs give you, and the advice that professional consultants give you.
Professional consultants say things like “it’s time to try landing page tests” and “have you heard of crowdfunding?”
Successful entrepreneurs say “send the follow up email, I promise you they don’t hate you. They probably just forgot to answer.”
By the way: I implemented this strategy yesterday with someone that I had emailed 7 days ago. She got back to me immediately and wished me good luck with what I was asking for.
MicroConf is real, actionable, and tried-and-true.
Day 2: Morning
The day started off with Patrick McKenzie from Stripe Atlas. I would tell you what he talked about, but then I would have to kill you.
Is that a joke? Yes, but what’s not a joke is that Patrick talked about confidential information that truly demonstrated that MicroConf was reinvesting more into every attendee than the attendees had paid for the full-price tickets.
After Patrick, we heard from Mojca Zove, the newest cool girl I hope will be my friend someday.
She talked about the art of Facebook ads, and specifically how to create effective, budget-conscious ads that work by serving a tier of ads that create interest, use retargeting intelligently, and close the sale.
Many new entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to underestimate the difficulty of building an audience. I talked to a couple of people at this event even who communicated that they felt their product wasn’t a good idea because they put it on a marketplace and no one paid attention.
Building an audience is hard. This is why intelligent strategies like targeted advertisement, creating excellent content and tying yourself to an existing audience or niche work. It was good to see this presented.
Day 2: Afternoon
The following session, “It Won’t Be A Straight Line: A Founder’s Journey Starting, Growing and Selling a SaaS” was inspirational, but in a way I really appreciated. The SaaS aspect of Caldera Forms Pro has been difficult to explain and market. I’ve spent an unusual amount of time trying to define straight lines with an upward slant, and I’ve had to learn that this isn’t how it works. Having this presented at a starter event is important, and made me think of the difference between advice from those who have actually been there.
Unfortunately, I missed the following talk, “The Sustainable SaaS, what permaculture can teach us about building software” because I had to take a phone call.
However, I would encourage you to look at the title of that talk to develop an appreciation for the MicroConf culture. What can you learn from permaculture? In case you don’t know (I didn’t!), permaculture is the development of sustainable agriculture ecosystems.
Sustainability was something that we are now reckoning with at Caldera Forms. We have, one might say, “rich people problems” – we have too many users and we’re trying to crack the code of providing all of them a consistently good experience.
Thinking about sustainability is important.
Finally, the last talk, “Navigating the Startup Landscape” from Courtland Allen at IndieHackers essentially finished solidifying my opinion of the quality and value of MicroConf.
Watching this conference end with a talk about all of the strange things that we may be exposed to as startup entrepreneurs: press, internet trolls, personal struggle – it was all a perfect conclusion to an extremely high quality event.
The MicroConf People
The content selection at MicroConf was clearly excellent. I’m sure they received lots of submissions for talks, so the order and prioritization given to what was selected, given what I know of what it’s actually like to run a software company, is impressive.
But if content was the only value, I could tell you to go Google everything I listed above, in that order, and you would get the value I got out of MicroConf.
However, the real value of an event like MicroConf comes from the camaraderie that builds sitting in a dark room with several hundred other people listening to these talks, in this order. The value comes from seeing the shared struggle, the nodding heads, and then talking about your opinions of the talks during lunch and the networking events.
I met very interesting people at MicroConf: people who are creating templates for mobile app development, wellness virtual reality products, online platform for health and fitness. I saw good ideas and smart people focusing on getting customers and creating value.
It’s Like A Shortcut
Here’s the thing: I have community, and I have examples that this work can yield results – now. I have lots of friends and colleagues in the WordPress community that support me and believe me and people from my university cheering me on. My mother has progressed from “oh my god, what are you doing, you had a sure thing with Bank of America,” to “my baby owns a company!”
Not only that, but I have my customers. The customers of Caldera Forms are every day proof that sustainable, self-funded businesses are completely possible, all the time, in my inbox. They open support tickets to help with their projects, and Josh and I endlessly marvel at the ways in which people are using Caldera Forms.
We’ve seen our product powering meal delivery services across the country, time sheets for construction workers, quote forms for service providers, and so much more. Today, I am bombarded with images of successful, enthusiastic, clever, and real entrepreneurs.
But as I said at the beginning, it wasn’t always that way. For a long time, I mostly had concerned family members and internet trolls. I had people who distanced themselves from me because I “wasn’t fun anymore.” I had friends who said they supported me, while simultaneously making fun of the startup world (and often with good reason).
So when people ask me what shifted the tides, I always say community. But seeking community can be an intimidating experience at first, especially if you’re someone like me, who was never really good at being a popular person in a crowd.
The highest value I got out of MicroConf was that I felt like I had found a little tribe of people that “got it.” They all seemed to share my struggles, concerns and interests. To me, it was more friends to add to my pocket. But I know that if this had been one of the first communities I had ever found, it would have been revolutionary. Instead, I had to struggle my way into a few communities that worked, and then found the shortcut at MicroConf.
No review is complete without an overview of weak points.
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of complaints. But in the name of continuous improvement, let’s cover some of the things I think could’ve been better.
Point 1: Creepy Las Vegas
First of all, the hotel. Oh, the hotel! Of course at some point it got fun for me to be at a Las Vegas resort, so my weak point wouldn’t be “find a better venue.” But, outside of the MicroConf setting, it was an all-around uncomfortable experience. After all, I had to be a “conventionally attractive” 25-year-old all alone in a Las Vegas resort.
When I got there, a stranger came up to me, grabbed my hand and asked me if I was married. Another stranger came up to me and told me that I was invited to go to their hotel room. In between the conference sessions and one of the socials, I was followed by a hotel guest from the elevators to the doors being asked for my phone number.
I am bold and even a little reckless. But I wouldn’t doubt that there has been at least one young woman who has looked at MicroConf, wanted to go, could afford it, but has said to herself, “Las Vegas all by myself? That sounds like how I get kidnapped.”
I obviously don’t expect the organizers of MicroConf to fix the misogyny of our world, but in the world of young ladies, we have tried-and-true strategies for avoiding these types of situations. A common one is the buddy system. I would’ve very much benefitted from having a roommate so that we could venture out between sessions together. Giving us an organized system for this would go a long way for future diverse attendees.
Point 2: Inclusive Socials
My only other piece of feedback is the inclusiveness of the after-event socials. I’m the kind of person that is ultra-weird and mostly uncomfortable at a “let’s stand around and drink” event. I never know who to talk to or what to do with my arms.
But my awkwardness is second in importance to the fact that “stand around and drink” socials exclude recovering alcoholics, people of certain religions, etc.
It seems small, but something as simple as the availability of games or some other activity goes a long way in making sure that all of us find ways to forge connections.
My Tips For Future MicroConf-ers
There’s also a lot I learned from going that are mistakes I won’t repeat next year. For future MicroConf attendees, I would advise you keep the following in mind:
Tip #1: Use Twitter
I procrastinate a lot of Twitter. It’s a habit I’m trying to fix. However, by this bad habit, I accidentally did one of the best things I could’ve possibly done for my experience at MicroConf. Tweeting at people who were saying they were attending meant that once I got there, I recognized people and they recognized me. Don’t underestimate the power of taking an online connection offline.
Tip #2: Use The Gym
The venue gym was really nice. It has an amazing floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the pool, a sauna and a meditation room. Take advantage of it! But beyond that, squeezing some exercise before and after really helped me stay focused and energized during those long conference hours.
Tip #3: Set Up Slack and GetFaces Before the Event
This is where I went so wrong. I’m so bombarded by email every day that responding to the MicroConf emails about joining the Slack and setting up my GetFaces profile got pushed way down my priority list. Then, I got to the event, and everyone was planning breakfasts, lunches, outings, etc. over Slack and I missed out on all of it for the first half of the first day because I hadn’t set up my Slack account until lunchtime. Don’t be like me!
Tip #4: Drink Water
I had never been to Las Vegas before, so I was totally unprepared for the dry heat and dehydration. It’s no joke. I learned to fill up my reusable water bottle twice as often as I usually do and to stay close to my lip balm. Most importantly, I learned that I couldn’t drink nearly as much as I thought I could. I love a good glass of wine, and at home, will easily have two glasses with dinner if I’m feeling indulgent without much effect. I did that the first night, and I was a little hungover the next day! Make it a point to stay hydrated so that you are at 100% during the conference.
Tip #5: Get Out and Do Something Fun
At Caldera Labs, we have a very important rule. We think that when we travel for work, we should have some days off in that city. May was very chaotic for us so I did not do this, but because I am so aware of this important emotional effect, I made sure to get out on Saturday and do one Las Vegas thing I had always wanted to do. That thing was to go see Beatles LOVE, the Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show at The Mirage. It was a little treat that kept my spirits up.
It’s not often that I’m impressed enough with an event that claims to help entrepreneurs that I write a 4000 word review of it. MicroConf was truly exceptional. Now, it is a priority in 2019 for me to go, and to go to Growth edition.
What made MicroConf so good is that it’s real. Everyone at MicroConf tells it how it is: it will be hard, but it will be worth it.
MicroConf seems to hold the spirit of one of my favorite saying about starting & growing a business: “your first fundraising round should be a Series R, for revenue.” Beyond that, MicroConf strikes that balance between being a business event and being an event where, as one of our advisors tells me before any important networking event I go to, “you’re there to meet your newest best friends.”