The alumni speak. Who do they think we are?

Over the past month we have been in contact with our conference alumni – the people that have come to BoS more than once, to see why they keep coming.

Alongside an online survey, we arranged telephone interviews with almost 100 previous attendees about what they learned at BoS, what we can do better and why they come back.

Lots of very interesting ideas from people about how we can build a stronger online community that can be more supportive of independent software people around the world as well as some brilliant ideas for topics of conversation and ways to make the event run better for everyone.

Three things kept coming up.

“Attendees are the No1 reason for attending Business of Software Conference”.

We have always known this is the conference’s biggest secret. Almost everyone we spoke to stressed the value of the people, the audience, the connections that are made in the Hallway track as being the single most important aspect of the event. In fact, some people urged us to have fewer speakers so that they could spend more time talking in the breaks. While this is something that we have always known, it is good to be reminded and we want to do more to help make connections happen.

  • This year, we will circulate all attendee details bar email addresses, (Name, company, Twitter, areas of expertise, areas of interest, problems to be solved), to all other attendees one month prior to the event. We ran a trial of this at Business of Software Europe this year and it proved to be a very useful way of getting people connected prior to arrival.
  • Problem solving lunches. Not the kind where you drink enough wine for your problems to wash away, the kind where you come to the lunch table to solve a problem. We will be facilitating this over the course of the event to make sure that people get to meet the right people over the course of BoS 2014.
  • Networking for introverts. As an introvert, no really, I understand the importance of providing a ‘safe’ place for people who are naturally introverted to contribute and draw from discussions. This year we want to match previous attendees with first timers so that everyone has a few people they know from the get go. We are also going to seed mealtime conversations around specific issues shared by many attendees in order that we maximise the value of break time conversation and draw on the incredible expertise of people in the room.

New content vs developing stories. Rockstars vs virtuosos.

A number of alumni said that they wanted to see more new content rather than previous, regular, speakers. Equally, about the same number appealed for more regular speakers to develop themes. We will never resolve this completely but it is worth pointing out that we simply don’t believe in serving the same meal twice.

Over the past four years, the percentage of speakers who spoke in the previous year has dropped from almost 50% to less than 10% A few years ago, we decided that no one should expect to speak on consecutive years unless there was a clear advancement of a topic. We don’t want people, no matter how good at speaking, thinking, ‘What do I have to talk at BoS about this time?’. The exceptions to this have been very specific – Mikey Trafton spoke about building a world class culture in 2012 and then discussed how to build a world class team of people in 2013. Kathy Sierra has spoken more sense about product management than anyone has the right to for two years in USA, she also spoke at BoS Europe on motivation. Each talk was a standalone talk however and neither repeated content from the others or indeed assumed you had seen them. This year, there are a lot of new faces on stage even if a lot of them has attended BoS before on a regular basis.

Often, we get asked to bring in a specific ‘name’ speaker – Tony Robbins & Guy Kawasaki are mentioned in this context a lot. We honestly believe that this is not generally a good use of conference time. The Tony Robbins experience is very different to a BoS Conference experience and honestly, if someone wants to see him, go on one of his courses and get the while thing, not a packaged soundbite which we will unlikely to be comfortable bringing in. Not to pick on Guy Kawasaki in particular but he does a lot of speaking. I have heard him speak 4 times and he has said pretty much exactly the same thing, with the same pauses for humour etc each time. We believe that when a speaker is well known enough that their agent shares you the menu of 9 speeches they do with a link to a show reel to each that you are better off  watching the video online.

It is as unlikely that they will deviate from the talk that works as they will stick around to spend time with people afterwards.

You want to come to a conference like BoS to spend time with the audience and with the speakers and you have the right to assume that speakers will have thought a lot about how to relate their talk to the audience. We aim to ensure that speakers, whether you have heard of them previously or not, will engage with you and bring a lot more to the event than their standard talk.

Who are you? Perhaps we shouldn’t judge?

One of the biggest questions/discussions that comes up in talking to alumni is who we are and who we are for. Words like startup, scaleup, bootstrapped, single founder and corporate are used a lot and it made us realise how ‘politicised’ these terms have become. We will look at this in more depth in another blog post and would welcome other views but the short answer to who BoS is for is probably not any of these groups. Startup is a term that can be used for so many types of organisation that it really isn’t very helpful. Even the people that use the word, ‘Startup’ insist it means wildly different things.

In some cases, we had conversations with people who insisted they were a bootstrapped startup even though they were now over 50 people and with a round of institutional funding. I am really wasting my breath having a discussion over semantics.

So who do we run BoS for – bootstrap, startup, grown up or other?

Forget labels, we run BoS for independent thinking software people to help them build better software businesses. Any time you see us move away from that, please let us know.