MicroConf 2011 was an excellent event for bootstrapped solo entrepreneurs. It came complete with two days of great speakers, high quality attendees, and a free lunch from Microsoft. Thanks Patrick. It was all topped off when Andrew Warner and Hiten Shah secured a collection of refreshments and a suite at the conference hotel where many of the speakers and attendees could hang out for hours after the conference ended. A big thanks for that. More opportunities for interaction between attendees added a lot to the experience for me.
I’m going to summarize some ideas that stuck with me from the conference. I will highlight recurring themes from speakers and mention tips that resonated with me from talks and conversations. None of these ideas are completely new to me, but the practical presentation by high quality individuals allowed me to grok them in a way I didn’t before. Being surrounded by people pushing forward using these ideas changes the way you think about them.
Andrew Warner was the first speaker and he led with this idea. Hiten Shah, Patrick McKenzie, Noah Kagan, and Sean Ellis all echoed the need to test and verify everything. The idea of testing exhaustively is not new. Patrick reinforced it with numbers: if you improve 5% per month then you have improved 70% at the end of the year. Interested in 70% more revenue?
Todd Garland and Ramit Sethi disagreed with them in a small way. They wanted people to test. They wanted them to test things that might have a bigger impact first. Throw out testing button colors or pages with 30% conversion rates. Test everything but prioritize testing with other activities. Don’t spend 5 hours testing button colors. Spend a couple minutes once in a while on things like that. Test the bigger things: headlines, value propositions, testimonials, videos etc. Todd pushed the idea that you should build your vision and capitalize on what is working. Test less.
Talk to Your Customers
Many people involved in this space are familiar with the Customer Development process credited to Steve Blank. Hiten Shah spoke directly about that. Nearly all of the speakers had anecdotes about speaking with customers through email, in person, or on the phone. Justin Vincent called all of his customers. Marcus McConnell even called his competitor’s customers.
They used those conversations to understand the customer.
- Why do you buy?
- What do you like about the product?
- What is your biggest concern related to the product?
- What features do you need added?
- What features do you not care about?
“Your success isn’t in lines of code, but in what you know about the customer.” – Hiten Shah
You may not have to strictly follow Steve Blank’s process, but clearly you should be talking to customers frequently. Make it practical. One attendee mentioned that he connects with potential customers by posting ads on craigslist. If you are solving someone’s pain, they will want to talk to you. Find them.
Test Pricing and/or Charge More
Patrick McKenzie thinks you should charge more. Double it until you see resistance. Roll back to the previous price at the resistance level and inch it up slower to test. Call it the binary search model of pricing. Many people at the conference told stories about overestimating the price sensitivity of people you can solve problems for.
Double Down on What Works
Sean Ellis and Todd Garland both mentioned this in their talks. If you have customers that love something about the product, you should focus on that aspect of your product and improve what they love. You can always find people to complain about problems and missing features. Focus on what works.
Sean Ellis said the same thing applies to marketing. You can improve how people perceive your product by merely refocusing your messaging around what they already love about the product. Survey the customers to understand what that is.
Focus and Personalize Messaging
Ramit Sethi was the champion of this theme. He gave a great example of how P90X has a website where they market to anyone who is interested, but they have images and videos that connect directly to people. He said if people don’t see that the message is directed at them, they lose interest and leave. P90X shows videos that connect to all types of people in the before and after style. Fat guy becomes skinny guy? Young Mom slims down? Athletic guy gets cut? Etc.
Ramit reinforced that people don’t care about you or your product. They care about solving their problems. The last time you bought groceries did you ponder what it was like to work there or how the employees there would feel about your patronage? No one cares about those details. They have a problem and they want a solution. Your beautiful code, copy, marketing, background, skills, and income are irrelevant to them.
Automation & We Don’t Do One-Offs
Everyone seemed to agree here. Automate support, SEO tasks, keyword analysis, server maintenance, app monitoring, etc. Use videos to minimize your support burden like Justin Vincent and Pluggio.
Todd Garland made an exception for one-offs meant to make customers happy that didn’t involve one-off work on your product. Noah Kagan implicitly agreed when he talked about treating your customers like your life depended on keeping all of them forever.
“If you aren’t doing automation, why are you in the software business?” – Todd Garland
Avoid Difficult to Lose Expenses
I believe Mike Taber was the first to mention this directly, but Marcus McConnell and a few other speakers had the unenviable experience of signing on to leases and hiring employees that they could not afford.
It isn’t that you should never get an office or hire people. But can you find a month-to-month co-working space? Can you find contractors to fill the gaps?
Avoid expenses as long as possible. Find ways to go around.
No Silver Bullet
An overarching theme developed for me through the speakers and conversations with attendees. There isn’t a single path to success. The things that work still require a lot of work and persistence. It all reinforced Jason Cohen’s idea that quitting is the only way to kill a startup. Talking to customers and testing is great advice, but the reality is a long road of tasks that require discipline, persistence, and willingness to meet failure and rejection. This is a critical insight.
“There is a silver bullet…your product.” – Todd Garland