Business of Software Conference, Day 1

I am not a big conference-goer, primarily because I am not big into travel. However, I find myself at the Business of Software Conference in San Jose, CA and think it well worth the trip.

Today, we heard from Joel Spolsky, Eric Sink, Guy Kawasaki, and Bill Buxton, among others.

Some interesting bits from today:

"I believe in God because there is no other explanation for Apple's continued existence." -- Guy Kawasaki, in reference to the days of Mac versus Apple II

Guy spoke first with his inspiring and engaging "Art of Innovation" presentation. They really should have saved Guy for last. I surely didn't envy the rest of the speakers today as he is a tough act to follow. The first two points in his ten point presentation struck me the most:

Make Meaning Don't set out to figure out how you can build up a company to flip for a lot of cash. Set out, instead, to figure out how you can change the world.

Make Mantra Scrap the mission statement. You need something short, quick, easy to remember, and meaningful. A mantra is two to three words that states why you (or your software) exists.

Bill Buxton, of Microsoft Research, and author of Sketching User Experiences, gave an engaging lecture on using sketches as part of the design process. His main assertion was use something cheap and quick (pencil & paper, whiteboard, storyboard, etc.) to model, or sketch, an average five different solutions/approaches to a problem. This sketches should provide enough detail to stimulate vision of the end product, but leave enough holes that it sparks good discussion and debate to finish it.

He made a good social observation that if you present only one idea to a coworker, it's extremely difficult to remove the "personal" stuff from the review/critique. If one presents five sketches, now the focus is on the ideas and not the person presenting them.

He also suggests not putting the sketches on some web page, email, or other medium that requires a person go to it to see it, but rather project it up on the wall, or display it on some form of ambient display. That way, people see it as they walk by it and mentally engage it more often.

He also said at some point, not sure what the context is now, that create stories about how your product is being used, how it has served some good or solved some problem for a customer in a unique way. These stories will seed viral marketing as consumers will co-opt the story and retell it.

Eric Sink talked about the hows and whys developers should be involved in marketing, stating that he decided not to hire any marketing/sales folks for his company and instead started doing that himself. One interesting thing to note is that he changed the product list page on SourceGear's site to sort the products by most expensive to least expensive and saw an almost immediate jump in sales by 30% that stuck (wasn't just a spike).

He also drove home a point, which I had long held as a truism in business worded a bit differently. He stated that you shouldn't worry about competitors when choosing a product, but rather be encouraged by it. Pick one or two things that are common among the big competitors and be the best at it. Don't try to compete on all aspects of the product, but focus (at least initially) on 1 or 2 things.

This reminded me of something I learned in Entrepreneurial Management (MGMT 230/231) with Professor Bass at Wharton. Bass used to stress the point that you don't want to be a first mover. To many variables are untested and you are not even sure if there is a market for your good or service. Let some other guy enter a market (or create a market, spending his money educating consumers on why they need the product or service), then you come in as a subsequent entrant and differentiate yourself doing something slightly different or better in some way or shape.

Finally, Joel Spolsky spoke on how to hire and retain good developers. I completely grok why this is important to know for a growing business. I am a firm believer in hiring only the best and on that am on the same page as Joel. It does seem curious to me, however, that this seems to be a favorite topic of his as of late. I was hoping for a little more nuts and bolts of building and growing a software company from the perspective of project management or SaaS(after all, that is the product he makes). That being said, there was some very good insight to take note of in how Fog Creek hires and retains talent.

He did reveal some numbers about various parts of Fog Creek's operations which i found interesting:

  • Jobs @ Joel On Software took about 2 weeks to write and it requires little to no maintenance (the code base that is).
  • Jobs @ Joel On Software nets about $45k/month; first year's profit was $543,727.
  • Was written by a summer intern because that intern thought it was something that would be useful.
  • $45k/month is equivalent to 4 average developer salaries at Fog Creek.
  • 4 summer interns cost about $180k, wasn't clear if this was their total cost (salary, room and board, etc.) or if this number was the total salary cost of the history of summer interns.