Last Saturday I hopped on a flight (two actually, as I had to switch in Frankfurt) and flew to Dubrovnik for MicroConf Europe 2019.
First up, some background. MicroConf is the conference for bootstrapping founders. Most of the attendees have their own business(es), mostly digital businesses, or are in the process of creating such a business. I haven’t been to the US events, but in Europe about 100-150 people attend. This was my second MicroConf Europe, it was my pleasure to speak at the 2017 event in Lisbon. I unfortunately missed 2018 due to a schedule conflict.
Here are my impressions of this year’s event:
The location. I have to admit I was initially not that excited about the destination as it meant two flights each way, and Dubrovnik is very touristy (in that regard it is basically a mini-Barcelona). While it was more travel than I might have hoped, the venue turned out to be fantastic. We were actually some ways outside of the old city in a great hotel directly on the Adriatic. The weather can only be summarized as perfect, and I was surprised by how enjoyable the water was. I was able to really swim in the crystal clear ocean every day. Amazing. It is hard to have a bad mood after a refreshing morning swim in clear ocean water. I now hope next year is back at the same location, it was much better than just yet another big city. As to the Dubrovnik tourist crowds, I only went into the old town one evening for dinner, otherwise it was great to stay in the hotel.
Here’s a picture from my room to make you jealous:
The talks. In terms of format MicroConf Europe is like most conferences, there is a track of speakers. Some talks are longer, some are shorter. Some speakers are invited by the organizers, others are attendee volunteer talks. My personal favorite was Peldi’s talk entitled “Victories and Tragedies: The 3 Year Journey Building Balsamiq Cloud”. A great story about how Balsamiq launched their cloud service and all the challenges of the stuff you have to build about SaaS like on-going billing, trials, teams/permissions,dealing with GDPR, etc. He’s an entertaining speaker, and not scared to share examples where they learned lessons the hard way.
That said, I didn’t find every talk that useful. It’s a tough challenge for the speakers as the members of the audience are all at different stages of their business and come from different backgrounds; what is boring for one attendee is an important new insight for the next. In running my own event series (Geomob) I’ve also learned it is very difficult as an organizer to predict ahead of time who will be a “good” speaker and who won’t. I found some of the talks, particularly those around SEO, a bit too basic. I enjoy the tactical talks more. I also really enjoy the talks where founders tell the story of their success or failures. In this regard big thanks to MicroConf organizer Mike Taber who did a session on how he is moving forward with Bluetick his email follow up start-up that has had ups and downs over the last few years.
The attendees. Building on the point that the most value is learning from the experiences of others, the real value of MicroConf is the community. The chance to catch up and with other attendees, many of whom have attended multiple times is fantastic. Whether it’s to congratulate someone on their success, console them in their moment of despair, or just to bounce ideas around, the conversations with other attendees are excellent. Unlike most conferences I attend, everyone is in widely different industries - as an example, I shared a cab to the hotel with the co-founder of a company that writes software for coffee roasters (it’s called cropster) - and as such, we are not competing with each other. So people are totally open to sharing not only what is going well in their business but what is going badly. Everyone has a story to tell and relevant questions to ask. The life of a solo founder or head of a remote team can be very lonely, so these conversations are very needed, and I think most repeat attendees will say it is the real reason they keep coming back.
One thing I did note was that there were more “financial” attendees than two years ago, by which I mean teams of people from companies that help sell bootstrapped businesses (FE International, QuietLight) or people who buy them (SureSwift Capital). One of the most interesting conversations was a dinner where I happened to sit next to some of the team from FE and learned the details of their business (which seems to be growing rapidly).
Other things: in the days leading up to MicroConf Europe the first TinySeed cohort had been having their retreat (as an aside, why are the retreating when they should be attacking????) and I was able to join them the final evening ( I’m a very minor investor in TinySeed’s fund). It was great to meet them - most for the first time - and very impressive to see how hard they are all pushing to build their businesses. Congrats to Einar and Rob and Tracy for their progress with TinySeed over the last year.
In an inspired marketing twist my amigo Craig is now being featured on “The Tiny Seed Tales” a new podcast series going behind the scenes of the challenges of being a founder. The first episode just came out this week. Nice work Craig and Rob! I made many a joke about the switch to a reality show business model, but really I think this is quite clever, not least for Craig since his business, Castos, provides podcast services. I have begged them to let me guess star as a villain or perhaps a love interest. They are still warming up to the idea. My people are talking to theirs. Anway, applications for the next TinySeed cohort open up next week.
Overall, MicroConf was well worth the trip. It’s great to get out of the day to day and reflect on your business with others going through a similar journey. The talks, the other attendees, and the chance to think all create a great atmosphere that helps recharge the batteries while also generating a long list of actions to take on the business.
I’m looking forward to next year. if you are a European founder bootstrapping a business I encourge you to come along.