MicroConf 2011

By Stephen Kellett
8 August, 2011

Two months ago I went MicroConf in Las Vegas. MicroConf is a conference for the self-funded statup, organised by Rob Walling and Mike Taber.

I always said I’d never visit Las Vegas but I Las Vegas Camelot decided pretty quickly that I’d have to change my mind. I had ummm’d and ahhh’d about going to Business of Software for the past 2 years and always left it too late, but having been to ESWC last November I’ve change my mind about conferences and despite the long distance and travel costing more than the conference I thought I should go.

I’m glad I did. But I’m going to talk about Las Vegas and The Hoover Dam first.

Las Vegas

I live in the UK, in the flat fenland just north of Cambridge. Its an area of 1,000+ quare miles drained by Dutch engineers a couple of hundred years ago. Its not the warmest place in the world, nor the coldest. But suffice to say after the confines of the airport, then the aircraft and then standing in US border control for an hour, when you step outside (after I think 14 hours) the heat hits you like a wall. I was surprised. I knew it would be hot, but it was a shock.

Las Vegas is an incredible place of excess, bold, brash, bright lights and gargantuan statements of wealth, mainly expressed in the form of ever taller and grander buildings. Donald Trump’s building (which has an enormous terrace) demonstrated this quite well.

Due to my jet lag (8 hours out of sync) I never really got in sync during my brief stay in Nevada. As a result I’d wake up at strange times and look out of my hotel (which I initially thought was tall until I viewed Las Vegas from the other end of the strip) I’d always see people walking around the strip. The place really does not sleep. I walked from one end of the strip to the other on both sides of the road just to see what it was like. Considering the amount of alcohol being consumed (and carried around in giant plastic cocktail containers) there was very little disorder. If it had been the UK on a Saturday night it would have been a full on street fight in most cities.

In addition, I have never been anywhere where women could wear what they wanted and walk down a street unmolested. Its so warm that even at 2 in the morning I saw women dressed very provocatively safely walking down the street. Incredible.

So full marks for law and order (on the strip at least).

But those women are tourists. The women that work in Las Vegas, that is a different thing altogether – dancing on tables, strip clubs and “private” dances. And for 3 out of the 4 hours it took me to walk the strip I was incessantly pestered by Latinos trying to hand me leaflets for strip clubs and private dances “women to your room in only 20 minutes!”. I’m pretty relaxed about issues to do with sex, but I didn’t like women being treated as a commodity to be traded. Its really sleazy and something Las Vegas should get a grip of. I’ve been told it used to be worse. Have strips clubs sure, but don’t make me put up with your advertising for 3 hours, I’m trying to enjoy walking down the strip. I quickly learned that the worst job is handing out these flyers. It seems to be that only Latinos hand out flyers (which says a lot about their job prospects, really sad).

In terms of money well used to create more money I’d give Las Vegas 10/10 but in terms of money well used to improve the lives of others I think anyone creating a startup (even if it fails) is spending their money and time more wisely. Las Vegas is such an incredible demonstration of how not to use your money well. Interestingly every attendee of MicroConf that I met when they found out Las Vegas was my first visit to the USA, all said “The rest of the USA isn’t like this” in a tone that clearly indicated they also didn’t think much of Las Vegas.

Victory over fascism I found this wonderful reproduction poster from World War II in the Victoria Pub inside the Riviera Hotel. Never seen anything like this in the UK.

It seemed that the Latin community seem to have drawn the short straw in Las Vegas and only get hired to do menial jobs. If you are white, black, asian you’re OK, but if you’re Latino, bottom of the heap. That may be an incorrect conclusion, but I didn’t see anything to change my impression of that during my short stay.

I saw very few homeless people. But of the few people I did see that were homeless some were in a real mess. I’ve never seen anyone bearfoot (except out of choice) before. I’ve since been told by people I know that have worked in Las Vegas that much of the homeless folks you do see are down-at-heel gamblers and you are just as likely to see them a few weeks later dressed in Armani. What a strange life some folk lead.


Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam turbine hall On the Sunday after my arrival I went on a coach trip to Hoover Dam. Very impressive structure.

The spillways were incredible as was the size of the generators in the turbine hall. They made the forklift trucks next to them look like matchbox cars. Getting into the tour for the turbine hall was like going through airport security all over again. There was a potted film about the construction of the Hoover dam that lasted 15 minutes (and is a pale shadow of the awesome documentary on the same subject made by the BBC – if you get a chance to view the BBC work do take it).

If you go to Hoover Dam do take the turbine hall tour, you’ll see some things you had no idea existed. Well worth it.

If I’d had a whole day spare I’d have gone on a trip to the Grand Canyon but you get picked up at 6Am for that tour and I didn’t find out about it until 11AM on my only free day.

Micro Conf

OK, so I didn’t like Las Vegas. What about MicroConf? I liked it. A lot.

I was the only attendee from Europe. My blood sugar was all over the place and I was 8 hours out of sync. As a result I really wanted to sleep at the end of each day before the meetup. The problem was on both Sunday and Monday evenings I overslept and missed much of the meetup. If this had been Europe, arriving at the meetup at 10:30PM wouldn’t be an issue – people would still be around and talking/drinking until 2 or 3 in the morning, but American culture is different and everyone faded away by about 11:30. So I didn’t make the most of those meetings, but I can’t fight my blood sugar levels and body clock.

The conference itself is a 2 day, single track conference.

The single track is one of the aspects that I really liked and that many other conference organisers would do well to note. The single track means that everyone gets to hear/see the same talk. So when you meet someone you have that in common even if the work you do is vastly different. A single track also prevents choice paralysis – which track should I go to? If I go to this I have to miss that and if I see that I have to miss that. Such a dilemma. And quite real too. Sure there may be a speaker you know nothing about or you already know their stuff and don’t want to listen to them. OK, so go for a walk, answer email, read a book, play Angry Birds.

It seems that feedback indicates this went down well with many other attendees and future MicroConf (if there are any) will also be single track.

Of the attendees I did meet there was quite a range of businesses present, from software developers (surprise!) to educators to bridal shop owners to registered nurses to people selling products I didn’t know existed (Paleolithic diet food). Despite the variety of businesses only 5 of the 110 people were women. Hopefully there will be better representation next year.

The main themes that seemed to stand out were (in no particular order):

  • Testing – as in A/B testing, not unit testing. Test everything.
  • Email marketing.
  • Failures teach you as much (if not more) than success.
  • Do consulting or do your own business. Do not try to do both.
  • Read.
  • Create products with recurring revenue.
  • Automate as much as you can.
  • Web based apps preferred compared to desktop apps.
  • SSD based laptops are fast – based on chatting to MacBook Air owners.

Rob Walling The speakers were all approachable, but as usual when I meet someone “famous” my mind goes blank and I can’t think of the questions I had wanted to ask. So now you know, you are not alone. On Tuesday evening Andrew Warner very kindly hosted a party in his suite because we couldn’t get the Victoria Pub to ourselves. Thanks Andrew. That was a good chance to talk to some people I’d missed before and get a photo of Rob’s famous ‘create’ tattoo.

I recorded all the speakers (except one for some reason) and have written their talks up. All of the speakers but one have given me permission to post their talks as MP3 (and Rob and Mike have also said yes). I have 20 pages of notes I made during the sessions. I didn’t think that was much but Rob was impressed. I’ll be posting my take on the talks and the MP3 of each talk here during the next few days. (2024: I have since taken the MP3s down, but if you would like to hear them, email me and I’ll make them available for you).

Would I go to MicroConf again? Yes. But I do hope its not Las Vegas next time 🙂


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