LessConf 2012

This past week, Highgroove sent me to LessConf to learn the secerts of successful startups. LessConf is a little different from other conferences in that they don't publish the speakers or sessions ahead of time, and instead require that attendees be willing to laugh, high five and hug one another, and learn new things.

There were a wide variety of speakers, all of whom were somehow successful in starting something new. Presentations were poignant and informative, and the interview style questions from the conference organizers after each speaker were fantastic: "Are you successful?", "How much money do you make?". Everyone had a great story and loves what they are doing: from the guy that started an organic kid's snack company (Little Duck Organics) in his basement that is now in over 3000 grocery stores, to the guy that started Mental Floss, to the husband-wife team that run Freckle and a handful of other business and is starting up a new community: Bacon Biz (which is a better name for 'lifestyle businesses' with better connotations). All are now pretty successful and speakers were making anywhere from "a founders salary" to upwards of $500k a year doing things they love. It also seems that everyone reads Hacker News.

Inbetween talks were delicious food, all the Capri Sun I could drink (which, for the record, is a lot) and various competitions to win iPads/Kindles/etc. "Who want's an iPad? On stage!" -> You might be stuck doing the Limbo, insulting a conference organizer, eating the most spicy peppers, or hugging a stranger for 6 hours.

I met a wide variety of people, from those that recognized my Highgroove shirt and had technical questions or were interested in knowing more about Highgroove Studios, to a guy from Hawaii working on a blog content generation startup, to a EE at Georgia Tech that is working on an open source hardware site: Open Hardware Hub.

So it's a conference: theres food and networking and all the usual things, but there weren't technical talks on anything and I have no notes or project ideas, but the takeaways for me are more valuable than that. These themes came up in most of the talks. Some are moreso reminders and reinforcements than they are something new, but all are pretty good:

  • Do what you love and stop doing things that make you unhappy - Every single person that spoke was successful at doing something they loved. There was a huge range of salaries (minimal to $500k+), time spent working (60h/week to 5h/week), family lives (single to married with kids), and priorities, but every speaker was successful and had left what an outsider might consider to be 'stable' or 'better' to do something they love. This does mean that you have to figure out somehow what makes you happy, and your criteria will be different from everyone else's.
  • Measure the cost to acquire a customer and the lifetime value of that customer - Especially for Software-as-a-service apps, the cost to get a new customer can be unexpectecly high ($250+ via Google Ads) and the lifetime value can be low. There is no reason to charge $1/month because anyone that will pay $1/month will pay $5/month. It's easy to get emotional about what's important, but when you're running a business these numbers matter a lot.
  • Not everything measureable is meaningful and not everything meaningful is measurable - The numbers matter but you can't measure everything. Give away t-shirts and don't worry about how to quantify it's impact on your bottom line. If some numbers don't feel right, get different perspectives on them until you understand what they actually mean. Do figure out what numbers are relevant to your business and make sure you're checking them as frequently as you need to be.
  • Embrace change - If something new comes along, or something you are doing isn't working right, or your priorities shift: change. Sell your business, change it's direction, quit your job, change your pricing (triple it!), start something new, etc.

I may or may not attend this one next year due to all the other cool things that happen throughout the year, but if you're interested in how to do a startup the right way or want some proof that these things can actually work out, LessConf might be for you.