Beg, Borrow, or Steal (Okay, Maybe not) Your Way into O'Reilly (Pt. 2)

The SF O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo was a defining moment for me, and for my startup. True, I was just a noob there. I thought I knew what I was doing with my social networking app.

But from the workshop sessions on the first day — the serious, four-hour kind (I chose ‘Strategies for Financing,’ which included startup CEOs telling their war stories) — to the evening ‘Launchpad’ startup pitch competitions, to the interviews with the likes of Max Levchin (ex PayPal, now Slide) and Marc Andreessen (him you should know) — to the Booth Crawl (a sort of ‘Weed & Feed’ where you walk around the exhibit floor sipping beers and margaritas) — it was positively giddy.

Now just so I don’t sound too much like a starry-eyed fanboy, the real stuff of O’Reilly is in the main sessions.

Pay attention. You will learn about viral acquisition (it’s about nuance, and testing — did you know that RockYou! (creators of Facebook’s SuperWall), with 100M monthly uniques across all its apps, sometimes does as many as 30 releases a day? That they A/B test samples for as few as five minutes? (Guess that makes sense, when you have 100M users.)

And you’ll learn about retention, cohort analysis, monetization. Those were just a few factoids, from a couple of sessions. Multiply that by four days, five sessions a day, and nine parallel tracks! (The worst part of it all: your inability to be in multiple places at once.) Sure, you can get the Cliff notes — a lot of the presentations are available — but seeing it, tasting it, discussing it at the parties (oh, yeah) . . . is indispensible.

There was much more than I can go into here. All I can say is, figure out which one makes the most sense, and find a way to get there.

And if you still can’t seem to justify it, maybe this will convince you . . .

End of the Booth Crawl, my last day at the conference, getting ready to board BART for the red-eye. Beers and blenders at every booth . . . but no one seemed to have any food. Until a nice young lady offered me an extra sandwich she had (I promise never again to refer to them as Booth Bunnies!). I sit down to eat it, and there’s all this commotion around a booth. Turns out, the Make people were doing free laser-etching of phones and laptops. (I’ve seen places charge upwards of $100 for it.) Two minutes before the show closed, thanks to a nice gentleman who offered me his place in line, I had annotated a little piece of history.

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On BART, I drunk-twittered the world that I had marked my virgin O’Reilly experience with a ‘tattoo.’ And it’s just as permanent — which means, for my startup, failure is not an option. I’m reminded of that every time I take out my MacBook Pro.

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Beg, Borrow, or Steal (Okay, Maybe not) Your Way into O'Reilly (Pt. 1)

Conferences, MeetUps, BarCamps, (even Par-Tays) play a critical role in your startup’s development. Don’t underestimate their value in networking, knowledge-building, and recruiting. Get out there, don’t wait. And budget for one big one.

In an earlier post, I talked about PodCamp/SearchCamp Philly — these, like Refresh DC (and other Refreshes) are no-brainers, because they’re mostly free. Get on their lists — and check DC Tech Events for others upcoming.

Now I’ll tell you about the other end of the spectrum — the vaunted O’Reilly experience (cue the ethereal angelic choir) — that was my epiphany in April.

My partner and I often talked about meeting up at some event (he’s in Phoenix), if nothing else, for the inspiration and change of venue (that’s French for ‘a place where our wives can’t bug us’). But with a self-funded start-up, the ~$1,500 Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco was a tad out of reach. Now, necessity is a mutha, so here’s what I did: I found every blog I could that offered free tickets, and entered their contests. Some were raffles, others with deep questions I spent hours working on responses to.

And I won.

The email arrived just before midnight — I woke up my wife like the house was on fire. “I won I won I won!!” It was fate — meant to be! An omen (the good kind) for CHALLENJ.

Just after midnight, I got the kicker while checking SideStep for flights. Since winners weren’t notified until four days before the conference, the cheapest airfare was $700. Gakk! Find some points — “Honey, wake up! Where are those vouchers we had”” — must get there, I said.

I even called a cousin who lives in SF whom I’d hadn’t seen in over twenty years. (“Hey, cuz, how the hell are ya? Mind if I crash at your place for a few days?”). As I said, necessity. . .

(btw, I have since learned about AirBed&Breakfast — a startup (of course) that enables people to offer their place (pad?) for you to crash at for way less than a hotel. (It kind of takes me back to my hitchhiking hippie days — my wife thinks it’s a perfect scenario for murder.)

Anyhow, somehow, it all came together. California, here I come!

Remind yourself that this is what startups do, that someday when you’re on your yacht in the Caribbean, you can bore people with this story!

Next post: Part 2: Why you must get to at least one O’Reilly a year.

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What, Couldn't Make it to Pod/SearchCamp Philly?

Why not” Here’s the scenario: Two and half hours away, dozens of very smart people were availing themselves to anyone with $21 interested in learning about podcasting, search engine marketing (SEM) and optimization (SEO) from 10am to 4pm on Saturday and Sunday. Did I mention that it was only $21? And the organizers (bless their hearts) were apologizing for charging at all — even though 100% went to charity — acknowledging they did it only to minimize the excessive no-shows.

To be sure, it was a BarCamp style event — you won’t find the sheen, food, and glitz of an O’Reilly affair . . . but then, it’s not >$1k either. I was particularly interested in the SearchCamp side. What I did find was a superb set of speakers — folks who’ve been working the search engines since AltaVista was a pup — and who were there to answer questions in true interactive fashion (meaning, you shout out at will). Try that at most other confabs and they’ll probably call security.

I shouted at will — actually, at Wil Reynolds. Wil said he “eats, drinks, and sleeps” SEM, and you believe him. Likewise, with Greg Meyers, Giovanni Gallucci, and Brian Cosgrove, to mention a few others. Now, we entrepreneurs probably can’t afford what their organizations would charge (yet), but that’s my point: they were right there, ready to help. And they all offered email, phone, and twitter outreach for questions you might have once the event was over.

Plus, every speaker I heard had nuggets to offer — from basic tips like using search data to create keyword lists, naming images with keywords, and using subdomains to improve organic search — to dozens of free tools. You probably know about Google Analytics — an important first step — but how about Trellian Keyword Discovery, SeoTools, IndexTools, LinkDiagnosis, Link Assistant (gives you a history of all of a site’s links), SheerSEO (gives you the Google and Yahoo ranking for each of your keywords — no more endless clicking through pages), Search Engine Genie (find out if you’re anywhere in the top 1,000 listing), QuantCast.com (gives you demographics of users of your site), and SpyFu (find your competitors’ keywords and adwords)? Oh, and be sure to check out Compete, Digital Point, SEO Egghead, and BruceClay.com. (Sorry, you have to do a little work to look these up.)

Worth 21 bucks, wouldn’t you say?

So why didn’t you go? Maybe you didn’t hear about it — one of my missions at Technosailor is to make sure these opportunities are flagged. But what amazes me is that I attended a DC New Media Meetup two days earlier that was combined with an SEO Meetup — two dozen folks attending — told everyone about it, even offered a ride (I drove up to Philly), and no one took me up on it. (Okay, I’ll allow for the possibility that you weren’t sure about getting in a car with me.)

So I got up at 6am Saturday morning and drove to Philly alone.

I think you know where I’m going with this. If you consider yourself a seriously committed entrepreneur, killing a weekend is something you’d better plan on doing every now and then. (Evenings, forget those.) Especially when the ROI is such a no-brainer. Not conducive to family life, you say? I say, the only way to succeed with a bootstrapped business — or convince VCs to give you money (they’re very good at detecting passion and commitment) — you’d better be ready to make the sacrifices.

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