Conference: small stages

Good conferences create a range of stages for members of the cohort to try things out on. Workshops, seminars and meetings happening alongside the keynote and plenary sessions create value for presenters (a chance to meet interested people and try out material) and for the cohort (a testbed for discovering new ideas, finding new contributors and new speakers and leaders).

If you’re organising a conference, it’s worth being deliberate about making an on-ramp of smaller opportunities and chances for attendees to contribute.*

*The focus needs to be on contribution – opportunities for members of the cohort to share something valuable with peers, rather than to get on their own private soapbox or achieve five minutes of fame.

Conference

What does a conference do?

Conferences are a way of aggregating – of bringing together – several different valuable things.

Conferences aggregate people…

A conference brings together a group of people who are focused on a shared interest. If the people at your conference are similar to each other but not interested in similar things, you’re wasting your time. The more their interests align with the focus of the conference and the greater their interest, the greater the value of the conference.

… which enables the organisers to aggregate better speakers and content…

An audience with a high level of shared interest is a more attractive audience, which attracts better presenters and content.

… which creates a better cohort…

The more interesting the speakers, the more people will attend, creating a larger and better cohort.

… which creates a network with more possibilities…

With more attendees, the number of possible connections and partnerships multiplies rapidly (see Network Opportunities), so a larger cohort creates increasing (possible) returns in terms of connections and partnerships between people.

… which is more attractive to more people…

And so the virtuous cycle continues.

The switch (2)

“What am I hoping to get?”

Once we’ve admitted to ourselves that we’re doing our work (at least partly) for ourselves, we can think more clearly about our motives by asking “What am I hoping to get from doing this?”

And we’re probably hoping to get several things: the knowledge that we’ve helped someone, the satisfaction of a job well done, that we’ve contributed to solving a problem, or made things a bit better. We might also be hoping to get paid, to be liked and appreciated or admired, to do something we enjoy, or be in a particular place, or spend time with people we want to be with.

Once we’ve uncovered these sources of motivation, we can think more clearly about how we feel about our work and people’s response to it.

“I want to make a contribution”

… is a fine motivation. The next questions are “Who is it for?” and “What do I want to give?” (coming soon).

“I want to be appreciated and admired”

… are motivations that we’re less proud of, but it does us good to notice and admit them, because they’re usually there.

It can be helpful to think about the causal relationship (if any) between these motivations and our contribution. We want to be admired on the basis of our contribution, be it through our professional work, or our kindness as a neighbour. I’m reminded of Adam Smith’s saying:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

Adam Smith – Theory of Moral Sentiments

This is to say that we want genuine and deserved affection from the people we serve or work with, not wrongly-placed affection (which makes us feel like a fraud because we don’t deserve it).

Recognising this lets us focus again on the people we seek to serve, and on contribution. We start thinking “If I contribute my skill / care / art / humanity in a way that helps people, I’ll be appreciated. If I don’t, I don’t want to be.”

Thinking clearly about this is a step towards freeing ourselves from feeling hard done by or under appreciated – we’re no-longer doing our work for praise or affirmation (Seth Godin points out that there’ll never be enough of this), but because we want to make a contribution, with appreciation as a byproduct.

And we can go a step further: if we only wanted to be appreciated for our contribution, and we feel that we’ve made a contribution but aren’t appreciated or recognised… does it matter?

“I want to get paid… and maybe enjoy the buffet.”

Can go either way. Do you want to get paid through the nose for doing little work? Then you’re not working with contribution in mind, and you’re right to feel uncomfortable.

Do you want to get paid enough that you can keep doing this? This may be a lot or it may be a little depending on your circumstances. You may need to charge quite a lot – it might feel like a lot when you factor in fair wages, health insurance and pensions for your team… But you’ve made the switch from focusing on money to focusing on contribution, and on keeping on contributing.

It’s possible, of course, that there won’t be a buffet, and that people won’t pay you as much as you need or hope for. For one reason or other, your contribution isn’t worth as much to them as you think it is. You may need to change what you do, or change the story, or change your audience, or change who’s paying… and if you still can’t find a way, remember that you’re focusing on contribution, so the question becomes: “How are you going to find a way to do it anyway?”

Your business model might be “I will work a day job and do this for almost nothing,” because you’re doing it to make a contribution. Which is hard, but possible. There isn’t a necessary connection between the work you want to do, and getting paid ‘enough’ – but by looking at things the right way you might just find one.

Some questions for making change happen

  • What’s the problem?
  • What networks of people and things underlie the problem, and what context or environment are they embedded in?
  • Who wins if you solve the problem?
  • Who stands to lose?
  • What’s in it for you? What else is in it for you?
  • What or who is keeping you honest?
  • Who else cares about this? Can you join them? Will they join you?
  • What (potential) points of leverage can you identify?
  • Is there a technical or technological fix?
  • What are the key relationships, processes, and resources necessary to make the fix work?
  • What are the key relationships, processes and resources for doing it again… And again? (What’s the wrapper?)
  • What story do you need to tell, where and to whom, to make this thing happen?
  • When will you stop?

Work through these questions, act on your guesses, then work through them again.

Clayton Christensen on why customers pay a premium, or: bad products are expensive

If you hire a product to get a job done and it doesn’t do the job well, then you have to take it back, or throw it away, or give it away, or repair it, and go out and find something that will do the job well. And if that doesn’t do well then you have to test it, and talk to your friends…

When you find yourself buying a product and find that it doesn’t do the job well, it is very costly to find something that does it well. And that’s the reason why it can be so profitable if you organise around a job to be done: because customers will be delighted to pay a premium price for your product because the alternative – of something that doesn’t do the job well – is very costly.

Clayton Christensen – Where does Growth come from? (Talk at Google)

Spare 15

What do you do with a spare fifteen minutes?

Quite frequently, I’ll…

  • Continue a Whatsapp conversation
  • Skim the news
  • See who’s been coming to DriverlessCroc
  • Catch the next few minutes of whatever podcast or talk on youtube I’m listening to
  • Read someone else’s blog

More rarely, I’ll…

  • Think about a half-formed thought for a blog post
  • Make a foray onto Twitter, Facebook or Instagram
  • Spare a few thoughts for an email or problem I’m working on in my project (aka “work”)

Rarest of all, I’ll…

  • Think of the next thing I need to do at home
  • Plan a fun thing for my kids
  • Put my mind to the next family holiday

But those last three – and things like them – are keepy uppies for the most important things in my life, and the things that will bring me the most satisfaction.

Time to institute a new habit for those spare fifteens.*

* fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there, over a week, a month – sooner or later it adds up to real time.

Resources: Steve Blank Playlist

If you’re not familiar with Steve Blank, start here:

The Principles of Lean

“No business plan survives first contact with customers.”

On Acting on Customer Discovery

If you’re going to go out and discover whether customers like your idea or not, this is not an outsourceable problem. The founders need to do this. Particularly, the people capable of changing strategy need to be the ones hearing good news and bad. … Getting feedback from customers is the most valuable thing you will do as entrepreneurs. It is not outsourceable.

Customer Development

The thing is to think as much in terms of developing customers as developing products. Once you’ve got the basic idea, watch all of this (long) video:

Bonus Material

Steve Blank: definition of a startup

I’m horrified to discover that I haven’t posted anything much focusing on Steve Blank’s work on Startups, customer discovery and iteration.

His definition of a startup is a great place to start:

A startup is a temporary organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Steve Blank – The Startup Owners Manual

And here’s a little more:

Entrepreneurs who have run a startup know that startups are not small versions of big companies. Rather they are different in every possible way – from goals, to measurements, from employees to culture. Very few skills, process, people or strategies that work in a startup are successful in a large established company and vice versa because a startup is a different organizational entity than a large established company.

Therefore, it follows that:
a)  Startups need different management principles, people and strategies than large established companies
b)  Any advice that’s targeted to large established companies is irrelevant, distracting and potentially damaging in growing and managing a startup

Steve Blank – A Startup is Not a Smaller Version of a Large Company

This is a really useful insight: modelling early-stage organisations on large and successful organisations has its uses – Jim Collins suggests that big companies start thinking and acting like big companies before they become big – but we need to appreciate that they’re fundamentally different organisations.

An early stage organisation is all about the search, asking questions like:

  • How do we make the change we seek?
  • How do we make our ideas work in the real world?
  • How do we serve more people and have more of an impact?
  • Where will the money come from?

Finding answers to these questions is dependent on taking risks, trying things out and making mistakes – and is fundamentally messy. It’s supposed to feel chaotic.

Steve Blank argues that a mature business – is primarily focused on exploiting a proven business model. That is, they’ve found something that works, that people want, and that pays for itself, and the challenge is to get it into the hands of as many people as possible and fight off competition. I think mature non-profits are (or should be) a bit different (we should always be looking for new and better ideas, new people to serve in new ways) – but it’s a helpful perspective. Established organisations ask questions like:

  • How can we continue to grow and to serve more people with our product?
  • How can we get more efficient at what we do?
  • How can we secure our position?
  • What will we be doing in five years’ time, and how should we budget for it?

There’s stability, predictability, a degree of safety… and (Clayton Christensen would argue), almost inevitable decline. It seems to be the case that when you’re starting out, you wish you could become a ‘proper’ organisation, and once you’ve become established, you’re desperate for the excitement and dynamism of the start.

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what youve got til its gone?

Joni Mitchell

Resources: Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation

Clayton Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma is a business classic, providing a framework for understanding how technological or business model innovations (or more usually, both) allow new businesses to gain a foothold in markets or to create new ones.

It’s been hugely influential – and has come in for its share of criticism.

This post contains links to a range of resources for getting up to speed with disruptive innovation, as well as some of Christensen’s other theories – particularly his ‘jobs to be done’ view of markets and product development, and modularity theory.

The Christensen Institute:

Brief introductions to:

… and some decent blog posts illustrating some of these topics in different fields

Talk at Google

This is my favourite overview – Christensen covers most of his key ideas clearly and with humour.

At Startup Grind

On how to build a disruptive business…

And talking with Marc Andreessen about his ideas:

On the a16z Podcast

Highly recommend these episodes:

  1. Beyond Disruption Theory: Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz talking about how disruption theory has been important to them, with other insights into entrepreneurship in general:

2. Competing Against Luck: Another conversation with Marc Andreessen about how the Christensen’s understanding of disruption theory has evolved

At Said Business School, Oxford

I’ve just discovered these while writing this post – will add a note later once I’ve watched them.

Lecture 1: Disruptive Innovation:

Lecture 2: Management

Lecture 3: The Process of Research

Podcast recommendation: Mark Andreessen on Software Eating the World (2019)

Here’s Mark Andreessen on the A16z podcast summarising what it means for software to eat the world:

[In the original 2011 essay] I made three claims, which I would say increase as you go in audacity or arrogance, depending on your point of view. Or just flat out hubris, which is another possibility.

The first claim is that any product or service in any field that can become a software product will become a software product.

So if you’re used to doing something on the phone, that’ll go to software, if you’re used to doing something on paper, that’ll go to software. If you’re used to doing something in person that can go to software, it will go to software. If you’ve had a physical product – think about things like… telephone answering machines, tape players, boom-boxes, all the things Radio Shack used to sell, now they’re all just apps on a phone… There used to be a physical product called a camera, you know, that got vaporised. And by the way, physical newspapers, physical magazines.

If it can become bits, it becomes bits. So why does it become bits? Well, if it’s bits it’s better in a lot of ways. Bits have zero marginal cost, so they’re easier to replicate at scale and become much more cost effective. A lot of bits just drop to free. And by the way they’re much more environmentally friendly, which is an increasing thing for a lot of people. You can change bits much more quickly, you can innovate much more quickly, add new features, add new capabilities. So there’s just lots and lots of reasons why it’s good to get things from physical form into software if you can. And so anything that can get into software will get into software.

The next claim… is that every company in the world that is in any of these markets in which this process is happening therefore has to become a software company.

So companies that historically either did not have a technology component to what they did – or maybe had the classic conception of technology in business which is sort of like, IT, we’ve got these gnomes in the back office and they’ve got their labcoats and they’ve got their mainframes and they kind of do their thing … – there’s that, but then there’s modern software development – especially things like customer experiences: what’s the actual interface with the customer? Any company that deals with customers, especially consumers, is going to have to radically up its game in terms of its ability to build the kind of user interfaces and experiences that people expect these days.

So every company becomes a software company.

And then the most audacious claim is that as a consequence of [claims] one and two, is that in the long run, in every market, the best software company will win.

That doesn’t mean necessarily that it will be a new company that starts as a software company that enters an existing market that wins, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean that an incumbent that adapts to being a software company will win… And you see this in many industries including healthcare and insurance where you see these new pure-play software companies entering these incumbent markets and – usually from a position of youthful naivety, or maybe they’re wrong and maybe the ideas stupid, or maybe it’s Uber and Lyft entering the taxi market and maybe they just have a fundamentally better software driven approach. – and then you’ve got incumbents scrambling to try to figure out how to become software companies.

Marc Andreessen – a16z podcast

Andreesen goes on to outline some of the challenges to incumbents of adapting to the world of software – he argues that it’s a very different type of product and successful software companies usually have different types of workers…

The rest of the podcast is great too – highly recommend.