MicroConf: Things That Rocked and Things That Could Have Been Better

MicroConf Speakers
Photo by Dave Rodenbaugh

MicroConf Badge

Anytime you spend 3 months planning an event, whether it’s a wedding, a product launch, or a conference, you need a post-mortem. A time to reflect on things that went right and things that needed work.

This post is my post-mortem for MicroConf 2011, which took place last week in Las Vegas, NV.

Mike Taber (my conference co-host) and I had a 45 minute conversation about it that will be published next week as episode 46 of our podcast, but when we stopped recording I felt like we had just scratched the surface of discussion topics. There were so many interactions packed into 60 or so hours that I’ve had a hard time getting my head around them.

This post is an attempt to review the awesomeness that happened as well as the stuff that I’m hoping we can change if we wind up holding MicroConf in 2012. If you’re looking for specific information about the talks I don’t cover them here, but I’ve included a list of write-ups from attendees at the bottom of this post.

What Worked

Speakers
The fact that Andrew Warner, Hiten Shah, Ramit Sethi, Sean Ellis, Noah Kagan and Patrick McKenzie were in the same room sharing their deepest startup secrets blows my mind. One fear if we decide to hold MicroConf 2012 is how we’d replicate this kind of line-up again. It was so awesome it will be hard to follow.

Attendees
I was also blown away by the quality of MicroConf attendees. I should have assumed that anyone who would pay $500-600 out of their own pocket, plus airfare and hotel, is serious about their business. And it showed…the level of interesting stories, informative conversations and instant connection was as high as any conference I’ve attended.

As one person said to me the first night: “The speakers are just an excuse for all of us to get together and connect.” Indeed.

Size
Our original vision for MicroConf was to have 225 attendees. The final headcount was 105. I saw this as a bad thing heading into the conference, realizing the size might limit the value for speakers and attendees.

By the end of the first day I knew I was wrong. In fact, I began to receive feedback pretty quickly that if we have a MicroConf 2012 that we should cap the number of attendees at 125 or 150. The intimacy of a group of 105 vs. 225 is enormous. I spoke personally with almost every attendee, and nearly everyone I asked had been able to have conversations with several speakers.

Mission accomplished. This is one thing we won’t be changing.

Welcome Reception
The night before the conference we held a welcome reception in a pub where 75-80 of us hung out, had a few beers, and got acquainted. The momentum from this initial gathering carried into the event. We got this idea from the Business of Software conference, and would absolutely do it again.

Afterparty
On the final night Andrew Warner opened up his penthouse suite for an afterparty. I would guess we had 60-70 people funnel in throughout the night and it was the ideal private environment to recap, discuss, and process the previous two days.

Mike and I received a ton of feedback, both positive and negative, much of which is appearing in this blog post. That evening was one of the highlights of the conference for me.

Lack of Major Glitches
For a first year conference with two inexperienced hosts, I was happy there were no major glitches. The wifi had some issues for a few hours on the second day, and one of our speakers had to fly home before his talk to take care of an emergency…but we were able to deal with both issues with minimal stress or fall-out.

Before the conference I had visions of faulty audio equipment, collapsing stages, and a food shortage. But none of them came to pass.

Las Vegas
I was iffy about Vegas. I’m not a big fan; I’ve been there too many times and I don’t enjoy the vibe now that I’m a bit older. But you know what? It’s a great place to have a conference. The energy level is high even at 1am on a Sunday night. There are sights to see, gambling and drinking to be had, and a slew of good restaurants.

There’s a reason so many conferences are held in Vegas…it’s inexpensive and the atmosphere is ideal.

What I’d Do Differently

Fewer Speakers
11 speakers in 2 days was just a bit too much information. If we do it again I would look at reducing the number to 8 or 9 speakers.

Shorter Talks
An hour was the perfect length for some of the speakers, and just a bit too long for most (including me – the best talk I’ve ever given was 45 minutes long). Giving 2-3 headliners an hour each and keeping the rest to 45 minutes would allow for more breaks and more interactive segments (see my next point).

More Interactivity
When David Hauser had to fly home we improvised by having Patrick McKenzie and Hiten Shah critique websites.

Ramit Sethi had just completed his review of 4 landing pages, and these two segments were highlights of the conference. They applied the principles we were learning, brought interactivity to the group (people were shouting out their URL and having them reviewed on the fly), and generally increased the energy level in the room.

Next year, I would plan for one or two 30-minute critique sessions per day, and perhaps throw in a Q&A panel for variety.

Better Venue
The Riviera hotel in Las Vegas is not the oldest hotel on the strip, but there are certainly more glamorous places to hold a conference. We chose the Riviera for financial reasons since Mike and I were bootstrapping the conference. But if we do it in 2012 I would aim to go just a bit more upscale.

Outsource Logistics
This wouldn’t affect attendees, but Mike and I spent an inordinate amount of time putting this conference together. I wanted the experience of handing things ourselves at least once, but offloading a lot of the legwork is something I would do in the future.

Videographer
We didn’t have funds for a professional videographer (cost was $5k due to union issues) so I brought my HD camera and asked Ruben from Bidsketch to run it for 2 days. Things turned out reasonably well, but nothing compared to what a professional videographer could achieve. If the budget allowed I would look harder at making this happen next year.

MicroConf 2012?

I’m not sure yet if we’re going to hold the conference in 2012, but if you’re interested in attending you can subscribe to our early notification list here.

You can bet you’ll have early access to discounted tickets if you’re on this list.

MicroConf Write-ups

Here are several write-ups from attendees that include more detailed information about speakers and the vibe of the conference. Email me if you do a write up and I’ll add it to the list.

Special thanks to all of the speakers and attendees who took a chance on a first year conference, to Ruben Gamez for working the video camera, and Dave Rodenbaugh for taking photos.

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9 comments ↓

#1 Ralph Haygood on 06.16.11 at 5:26 pm

It was a great success from my perspective. Some of what I learned, especially from Sean Ellis, is already changing how I do business. Thanks for doing this.

I agree about the Riviera, though. It isn’t exactly bad, just very bland, like spending all day in a beige cave.

#2 Jacob on 06.16.11 at 6:39 pm

I too thought the conference was great. I learned a lot and am already putting it into practice.

My one criticism is that the whole thing seemed 100% focused on “marketing.” I’m thrilled with the things I learned in that area (and incidentally, I don’t think there were too many speakers), but I went to MicroConf with 3 “pain points” in mind, and marketing was only one of them. Here are the other two:

* Managing technical support as a micro-isv
* The whole work/life balance thing, especially as it relates to those of us who have families and work from home

That said, I’m still glad that I went and very happy with what I came away with.

Finally, there will be those who will try to convince you not to hold another conference in Vegas. Please don’t let them sway you. A little more “upscale” venue on the strip might be nice, but there are tons of reasons why the Las Vegas Strip is the ideal location for a conference like this (and this is from someone who does not drink or gamble). If you’re unconvinced, let me know and I’ll post my pro-Vegas diatribe.

Here’s to MicroConf 2012!

Rob Reply:

>>I went to MicroConf with 3 “pain points” in mind…

Great point. In the future I will make it a point to vary the speaking topics more.

#3 Ben Zittlau on 06.17.11 at 11:58 pm

I thought the conference went incredibly well, especially considering this was it’s first year. Hat tip to you and Mike for all the work you put in to make it go off so smoothly.

I would similarly agree that maybe there were two many speakers. I’m still going through my notes to try and digest all the information I tried to jot down as it went flying past my eyes and through my ears. I have to admit that I probably did some of the later speakers a disservice in my attention level due to shear information overload.

I would also agree that the size seemed about perfect. I had an opportunity to speak with most of the speakers, and made tons of great connections. I followed this conference with a trip to Austin to visit a friend there, and swapping stories comparing my experience at MicroConf to his at SXSW, there’s no way I would trade.

Already signed up for the 2012 mailing list.

#4 Sean on 06.18.11 at 11:13 am

Rob, it was an awesome event- kudos to you and Mike. Only change I would advocate is splicing in a session each day that is entirely interactive (ie. teardowns were great but even still it’s a “hub & spoke” interaction vs. mesh of people in audience working together). It would be really cool to see 1 session/day be some type of challenge you give the room where they break into small groups and work together under some constraints to solve it.

anyways, great work. would definitely come back.
sean

#5 AJ Finch on 06.20.11 at 7:01 am

Rob, I love your posts here, I bought the book, and a I’m a regular podcast listener.

But…

Are you crazy? Limit the event to 125 or 150 attendees?
Surely it’s obvious to any technologist that 128 is the correct number?

😉

Also, I’m interested to know what value a professional-quality video would really add? This is a question which often genuinely puzzles me – what actual value is there in a pro video which is missing from a shaky amateur attempt? (As long as the amateur captures the whole thing?) I would love to hear your answer.

Keep up the good work.

Rob Walling Reply:

>>Surely it’s obvious to any technologist that 128 is the correct number?

You are absolutely correct. I can’t believe I missed that 🙂

>>Also, I’m interested to know what value a professional-quality video would really add?

This is a good question. A few things:

1. This time around we don’t have usable video for 40% of the talks because we didn’t really know what we were doing and didn’t figure out the right way to film these talks until the end of the first day.

2. For the talks where I have footage, we have raw footage of the speaker, but no slides. A video editing company would furnish us with a finished product including titles, slides, etc…

3. The audio on our videos is terrible. A professional company would have a better mic or would patch into the main mixing board.

4. Our video quality is fine, but it’s not the most professional video you’ll ever see (meaning speakers often walk out of the frame and the camera moves unevenly at times). These videos are the front-facing image of MicroConf for anyone who doesn’t attend, so I want them to feel top notch.

5. If I can make all of the above headaches go away for a couple thousand dollars it’s totally worth it. Outsourcing is my best friend.

Andrew Willey Reply:

Audio is THE differentiating factor for “pro” production value</opinion.

http://www.musiciansfriend.com/pro-audio/mackie-profx16-compact-4-bus-mixer-with-usb-effects/h74980000000000

Having multi-track audio instantly makes outsourcing much simpler. Having multiple camera angles to choose from is a plus too, but audio is king imho.

#6 Gustavo Cavalcanti on 06.21.11 at 3:46 pm

Rob, congratulations! I can see from your report and from attendees’ comments that the conference was a big success.
Hopefully I will be able to join you on the next one.