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MicroConf: How it all went down

About three months ago, Rob Walling and I announced that MicroConf was coming to the Riviera in Las Vegas. Two weeks ago, it happened. And more than 100 people descended on the hotel for a conference we put together from beginning to end in a mere three months. If I saw you there, then I want to say “Hello, and thanks again for coming”. If you weren’t able to make it, I think you missed a great conference.

Rob and I kicked around the idea of having a conference for nearly a year before we decided to do it. Several people asked us to put it on but it never seemed like a good time. But I suppose it’s like having a child. There’s never a good time and if it’s something you want to do, you have to just do it.

But why have this conference in the first place? What made it so important? Justin Vincent from the TechZing podcast asked me if we were going to make a lot of money on it and I explained that the economics were such that we would most likely break even, but it would be close. On his podcast with Jason the next day, he called it a “labor of love”, which is a pretty accurate assessment.

But that doesn’t quite answer the question. Why bother putting on the conference if we weren’t going to make money? What made this conference so important to us?

After seeing how everything went down, this was exactly the type of conference that I would have wanted to attend more than five years ago when I was first starting out with my business. More than 100 people came to the conference with exactly the same goal in mind: to learn about how to build a software business from other people who were doing it and how to go about it without external funding. Virtually everyone there had a product they were building or a product idea that they wanted to launch but most needed a bit of help in figuring out how to do it.

Ideas flowed like free drinks at the casino. It wasn’t the type of atmosphere where people were afraid to talk about their ideas for fear that someone might steal them. Everyone was too busy working on their own products to take an interest in someone else’s, so everyone talked quite openly about their problems, their fears and more importantly, were willing and able to help each other solve those problems.

During the evenings, speakers mixed freely and at great length with the attendees. We got a lot of compliments on that. I got the distinct impression that many of the other conferences people have attended, speakers show up for their speech, give their talk and are out the door shortly thereafter. That didn’t happen at MicroConf and it was, in a word, awesome. Every speaker hung around to listen to all of the other speakers. Some of the speakers asked some of the harder questions during the Q&A sessions. There was genuine interest in what everyone else was saying and in learning from the experiences of others.

Lunch on both days was a highly intimate affair with about a dozen entrepreneurs sitting at every table and we made sure that the tables were packed together in a really tiny room. Everyone just sat there talking about whatever came to mind with people commenting left and right on a variety of topics and sharing their experiences. Speakers were mixed among those tables, handing out advice and even cannibalizing their upcoming talks to help people. I felt like I spoke with nearly everyone there, although I know I likely missed a few people. Minutes before I had to catch my flight, I ran into the three guys from Ninja Otter and thanked them for coming. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones I didn’t quite catch up with.

Sunday night at the pub I was told: “This conference has already paid for itself and it hasn’t even started yet.”

One attendee came up to me between sessions and said “I think Patrick McKenzie just saved me $5,000 on AdWords.”

And yet another introduced himself to me and said: “You probably don’t remember, but I’m here because of the very long explanation you sent to me about why I should come to this conference. I wanted to say thanks. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that email and I’m really glad I came.”

For days afterwards, blog posts about the conference appeared. On Sunday, I listened to the Techzing podcast discussing the conference, and read through hundreds of tweets about the conference. We set up an online group for conference attendees and more than 30 people joined it within 72 hours. Another couple days and the membership was over 50. Between the times my speech started and ended, my Twitter following increased by more than 60 people. By the end of the conference it was up by more than 80 and today is more than 100. I imagine other speakers got the same treatment.

It feels good to get that kind of a response and I can’t begin to express my thanks to the speakers for giving up their time, the attendees for taking a chance on the conference, and to all of the people who helped out with all the random things that came up, like Dave Rodenbaugh taking photos and Ruben Gamez recording video.

Not to mention the sponsors. Whew! We had Microsoft, Red Gate, Balsamiq, bvsoftware, Bidsketch, UserVoice, Pluralsight and Appsumo. Rob and I also contributed on our own with sponsorships from our podcast Startups For the Rest of Us and our online startup school called the Micropreneur Academy. There were loads of giveaways and it was hard to squeeze them all in, but we managed it. Special congratulations go out to the Xbox with Kinect winner. I bet he’s a happy camper!

But there was one question that burned in my mind the entire conference and I took every opportunity to ask people the same question: “Would you pay to come back next year.” I asked that question not because I was looking to make more money next year, but to make sure that we delivered value to people and they were able to justify attending it again. If they said they wouldn’t come back, then we didn’t get it right. But you know what?

Not one person said they wouldn’t come back. And I realize that most people are going to be nicer in person than they would be in an anonymous survey, but the responses I heard were over the top and overwhelmingly positive. I would expect that there were a couple of people for whom the conference probably wasn’t a good fit, but the networking opportunities abounded.

In short, the overwhelming answer was always “Yes”. Several people said we didn’t charge enough and most said they couldn’t wait for the next MicroConf. One attendee even commented that he’d pay any amount of money to come back next year.

If that’s not a testament to what we were able to put together, then I don’t know what is.

I’m looking forward to reading the surveys that are going out this week. Thanks again to everyone who attended, helped out, or sponsored the event. We really appreciate your support.

And one more thing. If you’re interested in coming to MicroConf next year, be sure to sign up for Early Notification.

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