Well, phooey, this turned out longer than I had intended it to be.
Having been to Brooklyn Beta for the last two years, I have to say, I was incredibly excited to be heading back here this year.
Each year has been fantastic, but this year promised to amazing for me: the emotional turmoil of previous years is absent; I knew a number of people at the conference from previous years and am very excited to see them; I have coworkers attending the conference whom I am very excited to spend time with in a non-work setting; and I have the new job that I'm both excited to have and excited to talk about. "Finally!" I thought, "a Brooklyn Beta that was going to be as emotionally satisfying as intellectually satisfying!"
The format of Brooklyn Beta is nominally speaker, social, speaker or two, social, speaker or two or something else interesting, social, repeat any two of those. The social parts are just as important as the speakers, because everyone there has something to say, something to give, something to share. Every person there has overcome her or his struggles, every person there has made something great, every person there is inspirational.
Knowing this coming in, even with that anticipation coming in, day one did not disappoint me.
Right from the start, Aaron Draplin came out swinging. I had seen Aaron at XOXO fest last month in Portland, and was a little confused. I had, unfortunately, been confused about what he did, and had stupidly mentally pigeon-holed into what he wasn't, based on my own historical prejudices. I'm an idiot sometimes, and that was but the latest time, because, wow, Aaron is a great speaker and have you seen his work? I have to wonder if he happens to love blowing up prejudices and stereotypes.
He started his talk with reasons why he shouldn't be speaking...
01. I shouldn't be up here
02. Have no credentials
03. No professional accolades
04. Have never won an award
05. Don't have a book to sell (yet)
06. Usually don't wear pants.
... then proceeded to show us all just why, yes, he was the perfect speaker to kick off Brooklyn Beta. Talk about setting the bar high! Aaron set the tone, telling us to do what you love, help friends, follow your own path, and when Farmer John calls, answer the damn phone.
Oh, and Futura Bold FTW!
The social parts around the speakers were incredible. The first day, I hugged and talked and laughed with Jonathan (of course! need to list him first!), Nate Abele, Josh King, Paul Reinheimer, Allison Moore, Sean Coates, Nick Sloan, Kyle Neath, Nick Disabato, Cennydd Bowles (who works at Twitter, too!), Cassie McDaniel (wrote in Distance Issue 02), Tracy Osborne, Lachlan Hardy (yay portraits!), Samanta Warren (yay, coworker!), Alex Giron (yay, another coworker), Marty Ringlein (and another coworker!), Marco Suarez (by including him in our conversation as he walked by), Chris Casciano, Cameron Moll, Josh Brewer (who sits like 30 feet from me, yay coworker!), Yaron Schoen (coworker, though amusingly enough, Jonathan introduced me to him), David Kaneda, Shaun Inman, Leslie Jensen-Inman, Terry Chay, Marie Williams (yay, lives close, never see her!), Jess (whose last name I never caught, but she's with Ian Coyle), Ian Coyle, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Jonathan Lu (yay @jonnygotham), Jenni Schwartz, Ed Finkler, Daniel Weinard, Greg Beldam and that was just on the first day!
That list is of the people I actually wrote down that I chatted with. See, that's the thing, I wrote down *a* list of people I talked with, and I'm sure I didn't manage to write down everyone I talked with. I chatted with a number of people in the lunch and dinner lines. I met another couple dozen people, at least. Everywhere I looked, there were all these amazing people around whom I had to look off, just to talk with these people. That's okay, it's just day one: I figure I have two more days!
Other speakers of the day (and not in the order they actually presented) included Alex Payne, whose talk I missed a large portion of. He worked for Simple, the new bank that doesn't suck, but, oddly enough still works in the parameters of the existing banking system. I wish I had caught more of his talk. More than just a picture.
Ben Pieratt, former CEO of Svpply, a site that allows window shopping of fine goods, talked about his lessons learned: three hard, three good, about the building of Svpply, running it, the mistakes he made, and what he took from the experience. It was hard to listen to Ben sometimes, not just because he was choked up a couple times during the talk, but also because it was clear he was still coming to terms with the mistakes he made. I wonder if, on some level, his talking at Brooklyn Beta was a way for him to accept the successes and failures of his time at Svpply, recently sold to eBay.
Ben's story was especially telling, in that he demoed Svpply at the first Brooklyn Beta, so it was almost a story come full circle.
I find it interesting to list his six lessons learned, because, without the emotion behind them, without the cracking of his voice, they don't have the same impact, they aren't as strong.
His lessons (with my commentary) shared were:
01. HARD: Pursuing scale (growing big) clouds the mind.
02. HARD: Business is talk, and businessmen are professional talkers (or, talk is cheap).
03. HARD: I'm capable of ruining a company that I love (best know thyself well).
04. GOOD: Hire for culture
05. GOOD: My designs are capable of disrupting a billion dollar industry (by which you can infer, so are yours).
06. GOOD: People are the medium
Too soon to see a pattern emerge from the speakers, but everyone was definitely talking from the heart about the lessons learned on their journeys.
After lunch, the third session of the day was Seth Godin. I'm a fan of Seth's work, I enjoy reading his blog, which are short but relevant (to his day, and delightfully for the rest of the world usually at the same time) posts. Easy to read, but thought and introspection provoking.
Seth talked about how we don't truly have a Capitalist society any longer. We have an Industrialist society. Capitalism is the process of taking funds to purchase capital (machines to make creating a product easier, such as a pin making machine which changed the process from a hand-crafted 5 pins a day, to a machine-made, no-schooling-really-required 10000 pins a day process), and making money from the capital (all the money going to the pin machine owner).
So, Capitalism isn't really about risk, or invention, it's about moving money to build an asset to increase productivity. Industrialism, which is where we are now, is polishing the process of Captialism to make it even more productive. Companies get their employees to do more, with less, to make the owners more money.
An example of this Industrialism in marketing would be the 16 ounce soda that is too small for the modern American was THREE servings in 1950s. The work of Industrialists.
Another outcome of Industrialism is public schools, formerly known as common school, where the goal is to teach all of us to follow instructions, sit still, learn lessons, follow instructions, graduate, get a job, follow instructions, work for twelve hours, go home, buy shit. The system is all about compliance.
And it was working until recently. A revolution is coming.
Consider the music industry in 1974: it was perfect. "If I wanted to listen to music, I had to buy a record. If I loaned the record to a friend, and I wanted to listen to it, I needed to drive to a record store, with the radio (whose airwaves belong to all of us) playing songs the music industry produced. I would have the options of buying music the music industry produced. It was a oligarchy which controlled the whole process and kept all the money."
Revolutions destroy the perfect and enable the impossible.
Today, there are more people listening to more music by more artists these days than ever before, and the music industry is dead. Destroy the life of the Industrialist and enable the impossible.
The people who are succeeding now aren't the ones who yell the loudest. The ones who are succeeding are the ones who connect. The only thing the internet is good for, the only thing the internet has ever been good for, is the ability for one person to say what he is interested in. People don't connect over boring stuff, or uninteresting. They connect over interesting things.
So, Capitalism. Industrialism. The next step, the revolution is Art.
Art is the story. And story is the only thing we are willing to connect over.
Art is seeking to do something original, to be able to say, "Here I made this." We are by nature, under pressure to conform. Evolution gives us the mindset to do what other people are doing. And this might not work. You're (where "you" was referring to those of us in the audience) more of an artist.
Of note, Seth commented that, "You are not an artist if you know it's going to work. If all you're doing is following the instructions, you're not a maker, you're free labor doing assembly work. If you don't know it'll work, you're a maker."
I was also delighted that Seth commented that he would rather "Make something that matters, instead of just something you love." Making something you love is a great hobby, but making something that matters is better. If all you're doing is gaining skills, you're hiding. If you're going to fail over and over and over again, you'll refine your art, you'll do something more, you'll make better art, and your story will get better. "If it doesn't work, make better art," was his more succinct way of putting it. Make better art until someone else says, this matters to me, too. You'll be criticized and ignored, which is what makes it art. Keep connecting.
Seth then moved to the practical and told us that, in order to keep making art, you pretty much have to sell your art. But how do you sell your art? You need to tell your your story. People don't buy your work, they buy your story.
And you can't yell about it, you can't make people listen. There is too much clutter of people yelling. Whisper to people who want to hear from you. Don't yell at people who are trying to avoid hearing you. Whisper to three people a day who want to hear what you have to say. Three people a day is 1000 people a year, it's 5000 people in five years, and at that point, you don't have to shout to be heard. You can whisper.
Seth also talked about building a tribe, people who are all interested in the same thing, all in sync. A tribe has a culture, its words, its dress. A tribe is people all trying to get to the same place. And tribes need a leader (so don't wait for someone to ask for permission to be the leader, if that's you, go lead).
As with Ben's talk, Seth's words were powerful in their delivery. And as Seth said, it's about his story. It was my first time seeing Seth speak in person, and really, I have to say, at this point in the conference, wow, I'm stunned. Everything after this point is icing on the Brooklyn Beta cake.
Over lunch, I had asked Kyle Neath how his public speaking was going. I had first heard about him a couple years ago when he expressed an interest in public speaking on a mailing list I'm on: he was wanting to do more and looking at different venues and conferences, noting that most conferences wanted people who already did public speaking, so it was a chicken and the egg problem.
At lunch, Kyle said something to the effect of, "Eh, it's going okay." A couple hours later, however, I had to laugh when Kyle stepped up to talk about Github and its development culture.
Kyle talked about building cosmic solutions, design amazing software, and dogfooding by using Github to build Github. He discussed how Github would hire slowly and consistently: hiring the best technically, socially, and culture-ly, enabling everyone to build a company he wants to work at for the rest of his life. He also talked about Github's internal intent to "optimize for happiness" with a culture free of managers, deadlines, core hours, mandatory meetings and top down plans. The sales department doesn't promise features, but encourages prospective clients to view what exists and see if it'll work for them.
The company also favors leadership over management, where leaders convince other coworkers to work on projects, over telling people work on this. There is buy-in from individuals and small groups, so everyone is working on what they want to work on. When you're working on what you want to work on, you're less concerned about hours, you're excited for your work, and more likely to do great work.
Other take-aways included:
01. Allow people to pay you money
02. Favor tangible work over meetings.
03. Build new tools over using shitty existing ones.
04. Having a company-wide Ideas file
05. Remote by default
06. Use open-source mentality in business, not just code
07. Be nice. Create a better world.
Much of Kyle's talk was "this is what we have, isn't it cool?" which makes me wonder how it could be replicated. Hiring slowly certainly helps identify people who fit in with the culture established early by the founders and early employees. There is, however, a strong element of "empowering the employee to take personal responsibility to do good work" and not having it be lip-service or bullshit words. That's hard. That's really hard. Peer pressure and "This is how we work" would help keep the culture going, but one or two bad hires could hamper progress (unless, of course, you hire slowly and fire quickly if the fit is bad, Kyle didn't address that aspect of things).
Seriously need to think about this more. Initially, I was somewhat dismissive of Kyle's talk's theme, with the take-away that one can create a happy work environment even in a big company, and questioning how one could actually replicate the Github culture; but, now I'm not so sure. It would be possible, but it would take a serious shift in thinking, or, maybe as Seth says, a Revolution.
After dinner, we had Rockband and dance instruction, with I don't know how many people rhetorically asking, "How awesome is this? A conference that closes the day with dance instruction?"
I was curious how Rockband was going to work, with the size of the conference, and the answer is that it worked really well. Not everyone wanted to play, there were enough people willing to brave singing that we had a singer every song, the songs provided background music for the room, and, for the really good songs, it seemed the whole room was singing along with the songs.
The dance lesson was a lot of fun. It lasted all of thirty minutes, including our "show", We learned a routine as a whole, then divided into groups and learned the choreography. After twenty minutes, we performed it. It was awesome. I was so happy to be moving and moving in a group.
And seriously, people, if you want to do dance with a group, you can't do much better than having Dave DeSandro or Jessi Arrington in your dance groups.
So, today's Brooklyn Beta?
Lots to think about. Lots to ponder. Lots to do. Not sure I'll sleep tonight.