The Business of Software Dublin conference brought together the best minds in software & SaaS from across the globe. The event was held at Powerscourt Hotel, Dublin, on the 16th & 17th May, 2016. Curation Wall attended the event and we're glad we did! Unlike many conferences we've been to, the Business of Software event wasn't full of the usual masked sales-pitches, being instead composed of highly engaging, thought-provoking talks from industry leaders.
A single-track event that purposefully restricts attendee numbers, the show has an intimate feel, where attendees have a chance to interact with speakers during coffee & lunch breaks, resulting in a friendly, open and creative atmosphere.
Although I've listed my three favourite talks from BOS2016, I feel I have to say that all the talks were amazing and it was extremely difficult picking my favourite three. I've attended many events in the decade or so I've worked in digital and Business Of Software is up there with the best of them. I whole heartedly recommend this event for anyone involved in the software industry or a SaaS company.
Below are the three talks that I feel topped the bill for me, along with my key takeaways. This is very subjective however and will likely be different for other attendees. I guess it depends on what business someone is in and what stage of their business they are at. These are the three talks that engaged me the most, struck more of a chord with me, and had a marked impact on our own SaaS launch plans, in some way.
With that said, below are my favourite three talks from the event. I've listed these in alphabetical order on surname, as I found it impossible to rank them by any quality focused metric.
As CEO of project management SaaS, teamwork, Peter Coppinger heads-up a business that has annual sales of $12million. It'd be easy to assume that Teamwork was successful from day one. In fact, it wouldn't be unusual for start-up CEOs to try to give that impression, however Peter took a different tack. His talk leads us on a warts & all journey from the initial idea behind Teamwork through to it's current success, including any mistakes he feels were made and difficulties he experienced along the way.
For anyone looking to launch a start-up, particularly a SaaS business, this information is invaluable. In business just as in life, we generally learn best from mistakes. As well as learning from our own, we can also learn from others' mistakes, so listening to and learning from those who're already successful is hugely important.
Teamwork started with teamworkpm.net, which, as explained during the talk, was not good for branding. There's a lot to consider when choosing a domain name, branding, memorability and trust are all factors (please, don't mention 'exact match domains', when looking to build a brand EMDs are, in my opinion, a mistake!).
Peter felt that their initial domain name didn't earn them the trust they needed to grow their brand. Such a long domain name, he felt, implied the company might not be around for long. Brands that take the time & money needed to invest in short, branded .com domains are generally more trusted, giving a feeling that they are here to stay. For this reason, Teamwork eventually bought teamwork.com for $675'000, which Peter feels gave a more professional image of their brand.
I found this point interesting, as it highlights the importance of ensuring you have all the elements of a strong brand as early as possible.
"Build it and they will come" is not exactly a brilliant launch strategy, however Peter admits that's pretty much the tactic they used when launching Teamwork. There was no user-testing pre-launch, no PR push and, generally, a complete lack of a marketing plan. From his talk, it sounds like if he could go back and launch the tool again, Peter would invest much more in a launch strategy.
So if the launch had such a lack of marketing, why did Teamwork grow to be so successful?
There are a few things that Peter feels were done the 'right' way with Teamwork, from the start:
The above three points are key elements to any business success, but are vital for a SaaS business. As Teamwork developed a great product to launch with off the bat, word-of-mouth marketing and referrals are more likely to come naturally, even without marketing.
Furthermore, treating customers with respect and listening to their suggestions helps them feel valued. When you offer customers a tool that helps them to be successful, show that you care about their success, and listen to any suggestions they make, you set yourself up for high retention and low churn.
So if the Teamwork launch was a success in the end, why would Peter have done things a little differently? Simple. Although having a great product and treating their customers well helped Teamwork survive despite the lack of a launch plan, with a decent launch plan it's likely that these benefits would have helped Teamwork achieve much greater success, much faster.
Whether or not to take VC (Venture Capital) funding is a very contentious issue in the start-up world. In fact, even at #BOS2016 there were mixed opinions amongst the speakers. Some felt that VCs benefit a start-up by bringing experience and also expectations of success (and, of course, money!). However others highlighted the risks involved with VC funding. VCs may expect a very rapid growth, on a steep trajectory, with business goals at odds with the start-up founders. To a large extent whether or not to take funding is down to each individual case, the business goals of the founders, and how well matched the VCs are for those goals.
During his talk, Peter recommends, as a SaaS start-up especially, not taking VC funding. As he points out, it's never been cheaper to start a software company. Domain names, dedicated servers, or cloud-based solutions such as Amazon Web Services are extremely cheap these days. So with a well-designed tool that answers a need, a launch plan, and good management, Peter feels that there's no real need for VC funding these days.
In fact, Teamwork offer a one-year free period for start-ups meeting certain criteria, one of those criteria being that your start-up has not received funding.
Peter explained a near-disaster that stuck their company. The server hosting Teamwork went down for a long period overnight. With a lack of response from their hosting company, Peter was left pulling his hair, whilst he handled rafts of complaints from customers.
Because of this, Peter recommends investing in a robust cloud-based solution, such as AWS (Amazon Web Services).
As I'm currently working on our own plans for Curation Wall, I found Peter's point really useful. It helps to cement in my mind the need for a robust and well thought-out launch plan, which should include scalable hosting considerations. We're already developing our SaaS tool using AWS hosting, so it was pleasing to hear this recommended by the CEO of such a successful SaaS brand, it means we made a sound decision.
Edit: In addition to this slidedeck, check out Peter's blog post, over on Teamwork.
Rand's talk was an interesting one. What, with the benefit of hindsight, would he tell his younger self if he had the chance? I'd be very surprised if anyone reading this hadn't, at some point, wished they could do similar, either in their business or personal life, or both (for entrepreneurs, the boundaries between the two often get blurred somewhat anyway!).
In a similar way to Peter's talk, Rand's retrospective was full of gems for anyone involved with a SaaS start-up. Rand's style is very open, not shying away from tricky topics and not hiding what he feels are his regrets.
Rand's talk consisted of three main sections; What he'd change, what he'd keep the same and what he's not sure of either way as yet. My main takeaways were:
By this, Rand doesn't mean a few quick Udemy courses on a selection of coding languages, more the engineering mindset that experienced coders develop and hone over the years. A lack of this knowledge, Rand feels, has resulted in him feeling he's been less adept at software development over the years than he could have been, having an impact when it comes to situations like:
I find this interesting personally because, although I'm lucky enough to have a very experienced software engineer as my business partner, I feel that having an understanding of the core of software engineering would help me better communicate with our dev team. It would also help me understand any issues they need to discuss, as well as be more knowledgable about the development cycles of our SaaS tool.
It's actually a very similar story for our Technical Director, Catalin. As an equal partner in our SaaS start-up, he's interested in learning more about marketing. He feels this will help him be more involved in discussions around our marketing and business development.
Going a little broader with this topic, I think our SaaS company will work better in general when staff members have at least a little more than a rudimentary understanding of each other's subject area. This will hopefully help our team to be more collaborative, less 'siloed' in their work, and make for a happier office environment.
Rand's wish for his younger self is that he'd not just learned to code a few PHP-based websites (which he did), but had worked hard over the years to develop a solid understanding of the end-to-end dev cycle of a solid, reliable and scaleable software product, especially before launching such a product.
I feel I have to point out here that despite Rand's feeling of a lack of expertise in this area, he is responsible for launching what's grown to be a very well respected software company (and community) with around $38 million in revenue (2015). Moz is pretty much a household name amongst digital marketers.
This point was really interesting (and reassuring) for me. Rand explained that traditionally with Moz, when someone signs up to the SaaS tool, there's no real personal interaction. He feels this may be a mistake, possibly resulting in a higher churn rate and lower retention.
Moz are currently in the process of changing this and Rand feels that the expense of a dedicated and experienced onboarding team will be worth it.
As pointed out in his Moz post about his BOS2016 talk, retention is the biggest predictor of success of most SaaS businesses, so it makes perfect sense to invest in anything that can have a marked impact on increasing retention & reducing churn.
I recently attended a training workshop in London by Lincoln Murphy, focusing on driving growth for SaaS businesses through customer success. It was a really interesting 4hr session that covered a LOT of ground, much of which focused on, as the subject title suggests, ensuring the success of your customers, which will generally result not only in a higher retention and lower churn, but also a gradual increase in ACV (Annual Contract Value) of customers due to the success you help them achieve.
We're currently working on our own onboarding and retention plans, so both Lincoln's training session and this topic in Rand's talk are super interesting for me. So, like many SaaS companies, we're going to use customer engagement software, Intercom as part of our in-app and email communication strategy for sign-ups, which I'm hoping, in combination with well trained staff, will help us achieve excellent customer communication standards. I've noticed that Moz use Intercom too, which is reassuring (I've been a Moz subscriber for years - I love their tools & respect their community).
Despite feeling they have a lack of interaction with customers during their onboarding phase, Moz is clearly a successful SaaS company. It's likely their success is in-part due to the usefulness of their tools (and also their community, the community element of Moz shouldn't be downplayed). However it may be the case that, as Rand hints at, their success would have been amplified had they had a more personal onboarding workflow established earlier on.
I hope Rand & Moz, once they have established their new, more personal onboarding workflows, have some interesting insights and facts to share with us smaller SaaS start-ups. The info would be invaluable to us (Hint hint Rand/Moz!). :)
When this slide hit the screen, it made me smile right away. Deciding the exact point to launch your SaaS product can be very difficult. A lot of advice out there is to launch as soon as you have an MVP (Minimal Viable Product), which was, at the time of this talk, making me feel a bit like we should rush to get our SaaS product live.
The internal argument I faced, however, was that whilst we could launch with just our core set of features and offer a bare-minimum (but usable) product, I wasn't keen on doing this as I felt that other features that we were currently working on would make the product so much more than 'usable'.
Hearing someone who's software company has growth to over $30million in revenue state that one of the things they'd change, if they could, is to only launch when they have an Exceptional Viable Product, rather than when are at the Minimal Viable Product stage, helped calm the storm that was the argument in my head.
One of the comments Rand made when talking around this slide that really stuck in my mind, is that when launching into an industry with a strong competitor, it's very hard to get people to switch from the incumbent to the challenger, even if the new challenger is better. Rand mentioned the 9x effect and intercom's 'jobs to be done' ebook, which explains that happy customers tend to overvalue existing products by 3x, whereas new innovative companies overvalue their benefits by 3x. This means when launching your product, especially when launching with a strong competitor, your product should be at least 9x better than the currentincumbent product.
For me this means argument over. When we launch, we have to be significantly better than our competitors.
I can't list any points from this section without at least mentioning Rand's No.1 slide from this part of his deck: No.1 Geraldine. Rand explains how, although not a formal Moz employee, his wife Geraldine (who is a runs a successful travel blog called The Everywhereist), has been a key part of not only Rand's life, but also the development and growth of Moz. You can read more about this in Rand's blog post. I admire the openness of this section of his talk, it's great to see someone celebrating their partner and being grateful for everything they've done to help with their success.
Though, I suspect Rand got in a little trouble for Geraldine unexpectedly being ushered onto the stage at the end of his talk!
Moz publish an explanation of TAGFEE here. What I like about this is that it's not the usual corporate 'CSR' document that all too often appears to be a bit of 'green washing' of a brand. Moz are serious about the TAGFEE tenants and it shows in many ways, not least the way that, in Moz, there are two tracks for employees to advance in their roles. This is actually a separate slide in Rand's talk, however I'm mentioning it here partly to save space and partly as it seems to me to with the 'Empathetic' tenant of TAGFEE.
Employees at Moz can advance in their role not only by becoming a manager (which, in most companies, is the only route to promotion), but on what Moz refer to as an 'Individual Contributor' track (IC). The IC track allows staff to progress in seniority and salary, based on their growing experience and individual work contributions towards Moz.
This means that people have the ability to grow in their professional life without having to take on a 'people management' role (which isn't for everyone). What I like about this, is that it gives folks a way to grow in their professional life without being forced into a box they don't feel they fit in.
I take quite a lot from this. Although we're a very (very!) small start-up at the moment, we obviously have a growth strategy that involves hires and acquisitions. It's important to both myself and my co-director that we treat our staff not only fairly, but also help them advance in their career in ways they'd like.
It's all too easy, I think, for founders of a fast-paced start-up to focus heavily on their company's needs, they may (often unintentionally) neglect the needs of those who join the business, failing to make the journey as exciting and potentially beneficial for all staff members alike. Moz, having a clearly defined strategy in place to ensure this is taken care of is excellent and something we'll be putting thought into too, in our own little way.
Understanding your customer is key to any business. All too often though, this is restricted to a few hours creating 'persona cards' and a bit of demographic research. What Rand discussed during this part of his talk goes way beyond that. Rand took part in a 'CEO swap' with Wil Reynolds, founder of Seer Interactive. During this time each got a deep insight into the other's professional lives, their needs, and their pains.
Whilst it may not be possible for everyone to undertake such a bold move, it does give a good example of going above & beyond the norm to get an understanding not only of how a customer uses your software, but also of their needs, their pains and frustrations.
I doubt there's many people I'd like to swap director roles with due to both trust issues (Rand clearly knew and trusted Wil already) plus the fact our start-up is a little too early stage for this. That doesn't mean there's no inspiration to take from this however. One twist I can think of that may work for us is arranging to shadow a client in their company for a few days. As thanks the client could be given a year's account upgrade or other benefit and we'd get to see exactly how clients use our tools, as well as what else they do in their roles. I can see how this could easily lead to greater insights into how we can help our clients succeed, in turn lowering churn and increasing retention.
Just as with the other two talks mentioned in this post, Rand's talk was exceptional. A blog post of Rand's talk has been published over on Moz (linked to a couple of times above).
I must admit that, until attending this event, I hadn't heard of Rory Sutherland (Vice Chairman of marketing & advertising giant, Ogilvy Group UK) Oh, what have I missed! Rory's talk was so great that nobody noticed it running considerable over time, as it was amazingly engaging from start to finish.
It's actually quite hard to sum-up Rory's talk, or pick-out any highlights as it was one brilliant whirlwind of interesting facts delivered in an extremely witty talk . I'll give it a go though!
Rory's discussion focused on the psychology of human interactions, covering topics such as how we make decisions, ways in which we trick ourselves into thinking our conscious mind is making important decisions, when really we're often overruled by our 'elephant brain' (more on this later!) and how these can be used to advantage in business. In short, the subconscious mind plays a much greater part in our decision making than most of us care to admit.
The first take-away from Rory Sutherland's talk: Find out more about Rory Sutherland. It's rare to see such an engaging speaker who clearly has a razor-sharp mind and the communication skills to match. I wholeheartedly recommend watching some of Rory's talks.
I'll certainly be following Rory on all the social channels I can, as well as looking out for his next speaking events.
On the whole, humans hate uncertainty. When we're not sure of something, we're more likely to feel anxious and stressed. Conversely, having a sense of certainty can relieve anxiety and reduce stress.
An example Rory gave was people waiting at tube stations. If someone is waiting for a tube at a station for 5 minutes, but they're not aware they will be waiting 5 minutes as there's no indication of how soon the next tube is due, the level of stress will be higher than if the tube was due in, say, 10 minutes, but the digital sign has a minute-by-minute countdown of when the train is due. The sense of certainty makes the person feel more at-ease.
This has serious implications for businesses, both online and offline. For example, ensuring a website visitor knows what they should do next, what to expect when they take the action, and what the outcome is going to be has a good chance of lowering traffic drop-offs and increasing conversions.
The human mind is often said to be divided into conscious and subconscious, Haidt likens this to a rider on an elephant. The conscious mind is like the rider, who, in his somewhat deluded state, thinks he's in complete control. In factual fact, the subconscious brain (the elephant) is ultimately in control, steering the direction the rider is going and determining the outcomes.
The rider can issue demands to the elephant and, on the whole, the elephant may obey - However the times that the elephant (our subconscious mind) decides to go in one direction, the rider is taken on that journey. Rather than admit the lack of control however, the rider (our conscious mind) will often retro-fit an explanation as to why 'he' chose to go in this direction.
What does this mean for marketing & advertising? Chiara Pelizzari explains it well in their post:
...Rory believes that in advertising, we focus too heavily on trying to change consumer attitudes in the hope that it will change their behaviour. Using the elephant and the rider analogy, we can see why this isn't very effective; advertisers can convince the rider that the way to safety is to turn right but if the elephant wants to turn left, he will turn left regardless. Therefore, we should invert this approach and instead give the elephant a reason to turn right. We can then rely on the rider to conform through his post-rationalisation.
Using an example of how cats react swiftly when they suddenly spot a cucumber behind them, rather than taking the time that would be needed to realise it's not in fact a snake, (don't worry, there's a video below!) Rory explained that our brains are not designed to always consider carefully and optimise for the best possible outcome, rather we're calibrated to avoid catastrophe.
Another example Rory gave, is that when lost atop a foggy cliff, if we find a path, we'll likely follow it. We'll do this even if we know that it's not the fastest route to safety, simply because it's not likely to lead us to falling to our death off the edge of the cliff - we make a decision to avoid disaster, rather than risking our necks to find the fastest route.
This can be considered within marketing and advertising. If we take more time to study brain science, as Rory recommends, we will gain greater understanding of why we, as humans, make the choices we do. This has the potential to make us much better marketers and advertisers.
Okay - I promised a cat video:
The Business Of Software was an amazing event. I've never been to a conference where the speakers were so engaging, shared as much personal and professional insights as they did, or where the speakers mingled with attendees in the hallways and over breakfast & lunch.
I will, without a doubt, be attending their next European event (I'm even considering their USA event later this year) and if you're reading this and are involved in the software business, I couldn't recommend BOS more.
The only thing I regret is that we at Curation Wall found out about the event so late, it wasn't possible to set-up a social media wall at the venue in time (though we did have discussions with the organisers).Although there wasn't time to create an at-event social media wall, we did create an account on our platform to allow us to track social media engagement for the event.
We turned a few of the social media stats we recorded into an infographic about the event, which can be seen on the Business of Software site.
View the Business of Software Infographic
The Business of Software events are awesome, the talks are highly engaging, and the way the organisers purposefully restrict attendee numbers ensures high levels of interaction between attendees and speakers.