Advice for First-Time Attendees to MicroConf

In April, I attented MicroConf. The talks and conversations were invaluable to my business. As the tickets for MicroConf 2016 are going on sale shortly, I wanted to write up advice for first-time attendees, especially those who are early in their business and want to learn a lot.

If you’re attending, read the “Preparation” section now to get ready. The rest is best read in the days before the conference to start off right, but might also be useful if you’re on the fence about whether to get a ticket. But the short version is that if you’re starting or growing a tech-related, self-funded business, yes, you absolutely want to go.

Preparation

First, read How to Win Friends and Influence People. This mindset of being curious about and generous to people is exactly right for MicroConf. You’ll get practical advice that significantly improves your experience (not to mention the rest of your life). Prefer the original version to the 1970s revised edition, but don’t skip it if you can’t find the original.

The only other thing you need to do more than a week in advance is get business cards. There’s only ~250 attendees and you’ll meet a quarter to half of them so you don’t need a ton, but really don’t want to be without. Leave the back blank and stick a pen in your pocket. Then, when you talk to someone, write them a note to jog their memory about who you are, what you’d like to hear more about, and what you can do for them. This will dramatically increase the quality of the connections you make and the conversations you have after the conference.

Think hard about what you’re working on or could be working on, and choose the most important thing for the “business” field when you register. This will be printed on your badge, so almost everyone will ask you about it.

Speaking of your badge, when you pick it up, they’ll offer a ribbon you can stick on reading “First-Time Attendee”. Don’t decline it because you feel self-conscious. People will use it as a conversation starter and be happy to see you; no one will roll their eyes at the newbie.

You should prepare a short description of each of your business projects. Not an “elevator pitch”, it’s rude to try to sell to other attendees, but a few sentences to introduce people to what you’re doing and what you’d like advice on. It’s worthwhile to finish by saying that you’re looking for practical, unfiltered advice rather than polite questions.

Some questions are very common, so also think of what your answers to them will be:

  • Has that launched?
  • Who are your users? How many do you have? Are they all paying customers?
  • Are you full-time on it?
  • Where are you going with that?
  • What’s your goal for the business?
  • What’s your marketing plan?
  • What brought you to MicroConf?
  • What’s your revenue? (It’s OK to decline to answer or be vague, but there’s a trusting atmosphere and sharing more will get you better info. Likewise, keep the revenue/profit amounts that the speakers or other attendees share with you private.)

Some questions you should be ready to ask are:

  • Design questions specific to your business
  • How should I market this?
  • What else can I offer my customers?
  • What’s going to get your unlaunched business bringing in revenue?
  • What’s going to make your existing business many times more profitable?

Mark three hours on your calendar for the day after the conference to reread your notes, move your to-do list into whatever you use to track to-dos, and email all the people you met.

Presentation

The talks are generally goldmines of real business experience. Most slides will be available after (though unfortunately not every speaker will mention this in the first minute…), and if the trend of previous MicroConfs holds, someone will be taking detailed notes.

So you should plan to take notes on things that are especially interesting to you or relevant to your business. Don’t try to take everything down, it’ll distract you from learning. If you’re using a laptop, close your email, close Slack, close Twitter, close everything that might distract you.

The conference will probably have an official “backchannel” website or iOS/Android app for attendees to chat amongst themselves. I was frustrated in 2015 because didn’t have an iOS/Android device to follow it, so I missed out on kibitzing and some social planning. This year I plan to try setting up an Android emulator so I can get it, though maybe it’ll be easier to buy a cheap Android phone to use a few days, I dunno. Phones are awful.

In any case, Twitter will also be a backchannel. Set your client to search for “MicroConf” and “MicroConf2016”.

As you listen to talks you’ll start putting things on your to-do list. Don’t intersperse these with your talk notes, you want all the to-dos in one list so you can review them after the conference.

The Hallway Track

This is the best part of MicroConf. While it’s fun to meet the people who are famous in our little community, it’s not worth your time to seek them out. You’ll get far more out of a random chat with someone you’re surprised to learn has done something exactly like what you’re doing, and the event is small enough you’ll run into the famous people anyways.

MicroConf is not mercenary. Don’t pitch, even if your thing is valuable for other entrepreneurs.

When you talk to people, take notes during the conversation. It’s not rude, it’s practical. Get their name, business, major challenges, and top-of-mind topics. Follow-up after the conference with more information, advice, or questions for them. Don’t forget to give them your card.

Use the talks as conversation topics, but mostly think about and ask how you can help them. Think about who you could introduce them to here at the conference or by email. If you thought it sounded silly and skipped it, seriously, read How to Win Friends and Influence People. The conference is about generous collaboration, be prepared to give as much as you get.

If you need polite conversation-enders: say that you’re going to wander around some more, you see someone you’re meaning to catch up with, you want a cup of coffee, you’re heading to the restroom, or simply, “It was good talking to you, I’ll send you an email about [topic].”

Then look for an unfamiliar face and do it again. It’s loose and unstructured and far more social than technical conferences. If you keep talking to new people you will have conversations that significantly improve your business and your life.

Evening Socializing

In the evenings folks head out to dinner and social activities in groups. These are generally informal, arranged after the last talk as clumps of people head out. It’s not impolite to ask a group where they’re headed and if they’d like one more person.

If you’re organizing a group, don’t have a democratic group where you try to poll everyone about what they’d like to eat and reach a considered consensus. If someone isn’t the leader of the group, you are the leader. Nobody cares much where they go as long as they can keep talking. Pick a place you can walk to on Yelp, say that’s the plan to give anyone with dietary restrictions a chance to object, and go.

If your clump of people has 4-6, go, don’t wait to grab one more person. A restaurant can easily seat up to 6 people without a reservation. And past 6 you get coordination issues because in the time it takes someone who wants to stop off and do a thing or grab one more person or finish a conversation, another person will think of some little thing they need to do and you’ll all stand around until you starve to death. If you walk into a restaurant and it’s too noisy for easy conversation, turn right back around and eat next door.

After dinner, check the backchannel or contact someone you met earlier to ask what they’re up to. People will often socialize over drinks, in the hotel bar/restaurant, or at a gambling table, so you’ll recognize faces and can join groups by walking around. No one will pressure you to drink alcohol or gamble, even if you are the only person in the group not doing so. I was at a craps table with a handful of people who were drinking and betting $20-200 per roll and nobody batted an eye that I was sipping water, totally ignorant of the rules, not betting, happily chatting about life and business, or that I called it a night earlier than they did.

Don’t go to play casino poker in a group. There’s always a bunch of people who want to play poker, and a casino will not seat you all together (you might be cheating collaborators) or start a private game for you (apparently that’s illegal). You’d walk all the way over there, get shot down, and then stand around at loose ends. This happened to at least three groups last year.

Leave time at the end of the night to glance at your notes and flesh out anything that’s occurred to you or that you can jot down about the people you met. Then go to bed early enough that you can get up and do it all again.

After the conference, email the people you met to talk about what they’re doing, what they told you, and thank them for your conversation. If the previous 1,600 words haven’t made it clear, it’s all about the people. Humans are socially driven, so the connections you make and community you participate in will is vital to your success. That’s the moral of MicroConf.


That’s all I got about MicroConf, I hope to see you there. And if you’re living in Chicago and reading this, you are now required to email me at ph@ this domain so we can meet up.

Want more? I'm not as good at forgetting to update @pushcx on Twitter.