MicroConf 2019 Recap, Confronting Ageism In Tech, And Badgercon 2020

The guys dish about their experiences at MicroConf. Ben talks about entrepreneurial ADD, Josh explains why the "good old days" at Honeybadger are now, and Starr challenges younger developers to a coding battle royale. There is also a preview of Badgercon (pending wildlife insurance procurement).

Full Transcription:

Ben:                ... and now Ikea, they're coming out with a blind that's going to be home kit enabled, so we can be like, Hey, Siri, open the blinds.

Josh:               So you can have the Vegas experience at home.

Ben:                That's right.

Starr:               Oh my god guys, I can't believe you've been holding back on me. Maybe I would have gone to more MicroConfs if I would have known there would have been some James Bond automatic blind situation happening.

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Starr:               I really enjoyed going the MicroConfs with you guys. It was a lot of fun getting to see everybody, getting to be there with Ben Findley and stuff. It was pretty intense in terms of conferences. I feel like everybody there is way more extroverted than I am, but I got my little connections and networking in.

Ben:                I guess it's probably overall more extroverted than your typical developer conference because a lot of people there are interested in running their own business, and they're already down with the idea of doing marketing and sales. They are more out there than your typical developer might be.

Starr:               Yeah. So, there's two additions right? The starter edition, and the growth edition. The growth edition happens first, which is where you mostly have people like us who already have small businesses, and are reasonably successful. The starter edition comes after that, that's people who are looking to start something up from scratch, and maybe haven't done it before. I wonder if the starter edition captures most of the introverts.

Ben:                That could be.

Starr:               Okay. Let's talk a little about the conference itself. MicroConf is a business conference that focuses on term, micro-size businesses. That means anything from zero employees, you're just starting out as a one person developer. It is a very developer heavy conference. Lots of people there are devs. It could be from zero employees, up to, the large people there maybe have 50 to 100 employees, but that's getting up there. Us, as a five person company, I would say we are pretty normal there. Right?

Ben:                Yeah, I think we fall on the bigger size.

Starr:               Oh really?

Ben:                Yeah, I think most people there are probably a company of one or two.

Starr:               Wow. I'm not used to being the big dog.

Ben:                Yeah it's kind of crazy.

Starr:               How long have you guys been doing this? Ben you've been doing this for decades at this point?

Josh:               He's going to be there soon.

Ben:                Yeah, I think I started in 2011. I was there at the first one. Its been a lot of fun. The first one was kind of neat because you know the lean methodology right? Where you go out and you find the customers first, and then you build whatever they want. Rather than making the product first. The lean methodology was really hot in 2011. So, when they first started MicroConf they were like, do you know what, we don't even know if anybody is going to want to do this, and we don't know if anybody is going to show up. They totally advertised the conference before it even existed, just to see if there was interest. When people we signing up, it was like oh, we should probably put on this conference. So, Rob and Mike gathered everything together and it was a lot of fun. It was at the Rio, or the Hot Rock I can't remember which one.

Starr:               Yeah. This one was in Vegas.

Ben:                Yeah, it was in Vegas. It's been going on since 2011. They actually added European ones as well. I haven't been to any of those. Every six months there is a MicroConf, either in Europe or in Vegas.

Starr:               When it started out it was this kind of revelation. It was this scrappy little thing. People were figuring out, okay well we have this new world we are living in, where you have Ruby, you have Rails, you have Heroku. All these things that allow people to make a software business with very few people, as long as you know how to make software. People were sort of figuring this out and it felt very exciting. Well I didn't go to the first one, but I was sort of in the scene, I was around. And this one was good, but you could tell it's been around for a while. It is a little bit more stable. Most of the people who we met there, and who we hung out with, we've met there and hung out with at other MicroConfs. It's not bad, but how do you guys think it has changed over the years? You've been to more than I have.

Josh:               I was going to mention that, as Ben said, it started out kind of small and grew. Up until recently it was just a single track. I guess it's always been a single track conference, and it still it, but we mentioned they recently split it into two separate events. There's the growth and the starter. We are in the growth now. I have a suspicion that the starter would feel more familiar to us because that's where we spent more of our time in the beginning of MicroConf.

Starr:               Okay, that's a good point. Maybe the people in the starter are getting that new conference experience, like this is all new and exciting for them

Josh:               I would assume that a lot of the people at growth have been there for a while if they have a successful business. Or at least in our case, that's the case.

Starr:               I can see why they split the conference into two because after you've been going to the equivalent of the starter edition for a while, it's all similar stuff. You're like, okay that's great you're telling me how to validate market, but I've already validated my market, I've got customers, I just need to figure out how to get more of them. That's good.

Starr:               Let's not just spend all of our time playing the grumpy old man talking about how things were better when you're younger. Before we were so jaded by reality but hard business, facts, and life. What did you guys really like about MicroConf this year?

Ben:                I think the best part of MicroConf is the people that are there. Hanging out with my tribe, really.

Starr:               Yeah?

Ben:                Meeting other entrepreneurs, other people who are really into both technology and business. You don't find that crowd around very much. You go to a developer conference, you are meeting a lot of developers, obviously. That intersection of developers that care about business at a technical conference can be very small, but at MicroConf it is huge. Almost everyone there is into both. It's a lot of fun hanging out with people who are doing the same thing you're doing. To me that's the best part, meeting up with people that I've been keeping track of for the past 10 years and seeing how their businesses are progressing, and learning from what they've learned, commiserating about mistakes made. That's to me, the really awesome part about MicroConf.

Starr:               I agree, it's really fun to be able to talk to people who are doing the similar stuff that you are. Let me tell you boys, I've never felt so completely enclosed in a demographic before. I was sitting there watching the speaker, looking around the room, and I'm like, everyone here looks exactly like me, exactly the same age as me. I never seen so many balding, shaved head men in a room trying to rock the Jason Statham look, and not really succeeding. That's sort of how I view myself.

Josh:               I think you're succeeding Starr.

Starr:               Well thank you, I've got this beautiful shirt so that's helping.

Starr:               It's just so strange being around because you go to tech conference, and tech conferences are very monotone. There's lots of white guys and everything. I'm usually the old guy in the room. I'm usually not quite fitting in, even though nobody questions my right to be there. But this time it was just really bizarre how median I felt.

Josh:               So you're saying if you're a aging software developer, that MicroConf could be a good career path for you.

Starr:               I'm not sure I would say I'm an aging software developer, I would say I have an excellent vintage.

Josh:               That sounds better.

Starr:               We're maturing.

Ben:                That's interesting. When I was getting started in my career, I would look forward and see there's definite ageism in tech. Right? The older you get, the more skeptical the looks are when people are trying to evaluate whether or not you're really skilled. I thought about that, like when I was in my 20s I was like, okay what am I going to be doing in my 40s? Then I started making some plans, like if I have to age out of tech then I think I want to go get a law degree. Ill go to law school, and I'll become lawyer and go into intellectual property law or something like that. I ended up not doing that plan at all. Instead I ended up founding my own business. Maybe there's something there, some connection, like the reason why you're seeing a bunch of people about your age, or about your style, is that they're all like, I'm doing my own thing so I'm not subject to the whims of ageism that might be out there.

Josh:               Yeah. I always thought that building your own business is like, you get to solve similar challenges to software development in a lot of ways. It scratches that itch a little bit for me too. Maybe there is something there.

Ben:                Yeah.

Starr:               That's interesting. I've also spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I've just decided, you know screw it. I'm going to be loud and proud. I'm an old man, great you can come look at my wrinkles, I'll still code circles around you. I don't care. Come on, let's do this.

Josh:               Just get a gold plated walking stick, you know?

Starr:               Yeah, come on children. Let's rumble, let's see who comes out on top.

Josh:               That story Ben tells about how he had a back up plan of becoming an attorney when he was 40, in his 20s. That is why Ben is in charge of our infrastructure. He always has a back up plan. Back up plans are good when you're running a traffic heavy application.

Starr:               That's true. Did I ever tell you guys I took the LSAT? I sat for the LSAT?

Josh:               I think so. That was really cool. That surprised me.

Starr:               I haven't told the listeners.

Josh:               I mean, no! Tell us, Starr!

Starr:               You guys didn't get the memo about presentation. So, after i got my chemistry degree, my bachelors. I was casting around, didn't know what to do. Was looking into law school because at that time lawyers made a lot of money, but I guess a lot of people had that same thought. Economics and the invisible hand had something to say about that. I studied, I took the LSAT and everything, and it was the weirdest thing. I didn't really feel particularly good at it. I didn't feel like I did particularly good, but I ended up getting a 99 percentile. At the time I took the test I had decided I was not going to law school, but you know I paid 100 bucks for the test, and at that time 100 bucks was a lot of money. It was a serious investment, so I was like, well I'm just going to take this and, whatever, come what may, let's see what happens.

Starr:               I think that is the power of not being nervous in a room where everyone around you is sweating bullets. It was the strangest experience of my life because I was just sitting there completely relaxed and happy, and everyone around me was so intensely terrified. They could see their future hanging in the balance. That doesn't have anything to do with tech, but it is an interesting story. Plus I get to humble brag that I got 99 percentile, and I didn't even want to do it.

Josh:               Yeah.

Starr:               If I put my mind to something, think of what I could do.

Josh:               You ended up making more money than a lawyer in the Midwest anyways. It's all good.

Starr:               I think I might make similar money to a lawyer in the Midwest. We'll see.

Ben:                On that note, I think one of the things that is interesting about MicroConfs in particular, it wasn't so much much this time as it has been in years past, but the focus of MicroConf, the micropreneur, the solo entrepreneur community that's been built up around MicroConf is too be able to support your life, and your family, and the things that are important to you. As opposed to maximizing for revenue. Right? The message has consistently been, we're in this to be able to do the things that are important to us, like spending time with our family, or travel the world. As oppose to, I want that billion dollar exit. Right?

Ben:                We've definitely taken that approach in our business. We have a similar kind of mindset, like we are in this to support our lives. We are not here to slave away, it's not like we can have a lottery ticket that makes us multimillionaires so we can have that private jet to the private island. Right? I mean, we wouldn't turn those things down but that hasn't been our goal. That's one of the things that is really interesting about the MicroConf crowd. Is that pretty much everyone there is on board with that idea.

Ben:                In previous years, every speaker would have a slide that had a picture of their family. They're like, yeah this is why we are doing this. That wasn't as much there this year, maybe it fell out of trendiness, but still I think that thought is there. That we do this not necessarily for maximizing our income, but for maximizing the joy that we have in our life.

Josh:               I liked Jason Fried, who did a Q&A at MicroConf this year. I really liked what he had to say about how they optimize for profit at Basecamp versus optimizing for revenue. Which kind of helps them run a stable business and give everyone a really good salary, and plan for a sustainable long term, versus always chasing the next way to make a dollar. When I was thinking about how that applies to us because we've always talked about optimizing for profit, I don't know I think we have put it different. I think of us as optimizing for freedom or independence, over profit. You can still work 60 hour weeks in search of profits, and I don't think we are about that. We are not about that at all, we're more about, do we have to work at all? Or if we don't feel like it, maybe we want to go out for a bike ride or do something else, hang out with our families.

Starr:               Yeah, it took me forever to realize that I am not morally obligated to make as much money as humanly possible. Which you wouldn't think that you have to realize that because it's obvious, but for some reason, I don't know. One thing Jason Fried also said, that really bumped him up a couple notches in my estimation, is when he was asked something like,

Starr:               "How would you do it again? How would you do a start up if you wanted the same level of success that you currently have?" he basically said, "I don't know." He said, "The reason that we got so successful was mostly luck, and timing." He said the reason why he is so intent on pushing base camp as a single product entity is because he doesn't really have much faith that he could equal that success with something else. I thought that was really honest, and it seems very real to me because having been involved in a small business myself, Honeybadger. I think a lot of our success if due to luck, and timing. We can try, and find another way wave, and be lucky and have good timing again, but it's not really something you can decide to do.

Josh:               Yeah. One of the things he said, I think it was in relation to selling. Someone asked him, "Would you ever sell Basecamp?" Because it's kind of the template to, you sell, you have a big exit, and then you go and grind, and build the next thing and try to sell that too. The thing he said was, "I don't want to lose the good old days." You know, you don't know if you sell your company, and you have a good thing going now, you don't know that you're going to get that back. If you do, it will be with a ton of hard work, and sweat, and toil. So, I kind of like that, and I feel like we're still in the good old days with Honeybadger.

Starr:               We're definitely in the good old days.

Josh:               Yeah totally.

Starr:               That Happy Days. Who's the Fonz?

Josh:               I think you're the Fonz Starr.

Starr:               Aaaayyyy! Yeah. I'm not cool enough to be the Fonz though.

Josh:               Well I think you could be though, I think you're getting there.

Starr:               One thing that I noticed was kind of this trend, and it crossed several MicroConf talks. Was this, okay we built this company, here's some thing that haven't gone right, maybe we expected to built a billion dollar company, and we didn't. This is really interesting to me because a lot of the time when you start out, well I don't know about you guys, but when we started out I was like, yeah lifestyle business, optimize for happiness and all this stuff. But secretly there's a little voice inside my head that was like, you know what you're still going to be freakin' rich. You're still going to get the yacht, and the iron man suit. I mean, let me tell you. At least with this business, that's not going to happen. We make a nice living, we have a great lifestyle, and everything. I wouldn't trade it for the world, but we aren't making Jeff Bezos. Our lifestyles are a rounding error. Jeff Bezos pays more in tips in a year than we make, probably.

Josh:               I don't know Starr. There are some pretty cheap yachts out there. They don't all have to be shiny. You could get a budget yacht.

Starr:               Do they have inflatable yachts?

Josh:               I'm sure they have something, yeah.

Starr:               Like a Zodiac or something? Oh yeah, okay.

Josh:               Yeah we could totally have zodiacs.

Starr:               How about one of those big swamp things? You know how they have those swamps, big fans in the back.

Josh:               Yeah I'm trying to remember the name of those. Yeah. I've ridden in one before.

Starr:               What?

Josh:               Yeah, I kinda grew up in a swamp, but yeah.

Starr:               What? You grew up in a swamp?

Josh:               My family grew up in Sacramento Valley, wetlands area in California and they would ride those boats around sometimes.

Starr:               Were there gators?

Josh:               No, we don't have gators out there.

Starr:               There's no gators. It's not a swamp josh, I'm sorry. Stop trying to appropriate swamps.

Josh:               It's mostly muskrats to be honest.

Starr:               I don't know, business is a brutal reality, and it will crush you on the shore. The waves of business will crush you on the shore, and then you have to figure out what you're going to do with your crushed, little shattered, broken dreams. That's when some real growth maybe happens with you as a person, and you realize that maybe you're dreams weren't actually you're dreams, they were just some bulls*** that you somebody told you, you should believe. I think business is very interesting because it really forces you to confront your desires in your life, and how your desires match up with your willingness to do work. Right? Because we all want to be rich, but I'm not going to put in 80 hour weeks to become rich. I don't care. I'm not going to do that. I want to see my daughter. So yeah, there was that sort of feel, which I thought was really cool, and interesting, and honest.

Josh:               One of the highlight for me from MicroConf was the mixer at the end. Since they switched to the growth/starter kind of two track thing, and people don't often get to see each other because before it was all one thing, but now some people might go to growth, and some might go to starter, but they don't go to both. They do a mixer on the last night of growth, which is technically the night before starter. They do a networking events where both conferences can get together and mingle, and network. That's kind of been one of my favorite things over the last couple years. Since I haven't been able to go to starter because I can't handle Vegas for that long, it's nice to see some of those people and also to meet some of the new people that are just getting started. They are, where we were five, six years ago. It's nice to be able to talk to them. I feel like I can be a lot more helpful, than I can to someone who has got a 50 person company.

Starr:               What were some hot tips that you gave the aspiring young business people?

Josh:               Oh I don't know. I don't really give out hot tips. I kind of just listen.

Ben:                I was asked by one of those attendees, "What kind of lessons learned would you share?" It just so happened that I had been thinking the last couple days that topic. One thing that stuck with me was that doing something that you really enjoy is very helpful because you've been at this for seven years, and we've had ups and down, and they've been some pretty exciting times, and some long slogs. Having a mission, like where we care about what we're doing, like we really care about making developer's lives better, and building a tool that developers love. That really helps. The day to day, the ups and downs, ad getting through the slogs.

Ben:                He was asking, I could do this or I could do that because a lot of entrepreneurs I think you'll find have this entrepreneurial ADD. You have five days, you have five different businesses you could work on, and he we was telling me about the ideas he had, and they all sounded good. I said, "The one thing I would tell you is that find the one that you really think you'll enjoy working on." Not that you have to have a passion per se, because some people say you have to do your passion, but I don't necessarily believe that.

Ben:                If you have two options, and one of them is something that you enjoy and one of them is like, meh it could make money... I would go with the option one. That's going to help keep you going much better than the money at end of the rainbow.

Starr:               I would even add to that and say that even if you think the option that you don't enjoy is going to make money, maybe still go with the option you'll enjoy because frankly none of us are very good at predicting what is going to make money. Let's be real. If you're going to succeed, succeed in something you enjoy. If you're going to fail, you might as well have a good time while the ships going down.

Josh:               I think even just being able to focus on something for a sustained period of time is kind of a success factor too. A lot of the time if you're not interested in what you're working on, you're not going to want to keep working on it. Being interested in what you're working on helps you keep the focus over the long term.

Starr:               How long did you guys stay at that mixer? I cut out early because I was exhausted.

Ben:                We stayed until nine-ish, I think.

Josh:               Yeah that's our usual. The audio levels tend to raise progressively as the night goes on, and I think 9:30, 10 is usually when Ben and I hit our limit.

Starr:               Okay, you stayed like an hour, hour and a half after I left.

Josh:               Yeah.

Ben:                Yeah.

Starr:               That's not too bad.

Ben:                Usually my limiting factor is my voice. Because of the volume always going up you have to speak louder, and louder, and basically I'm yelling at people for an hour straight. Right? So I'm just done after a while.

Starr:               Oh totally. You guys liked the closing mixer, but I like the opening mixer because my problem at conferences is I'm an extreme introvert. I can be friendly with people, but I only have an hour of friendliness in me per day. Something like a conference where you're just constantly interacting with people all the time, by the end of the conference that gets down to maybe 10 minutes a day. So, I just need to crawl back into my cave and be in the dark, and fondle my precious ring or whatever. I really enjoyed the opening mixer, I feel like I met a lot of cool people. I met the guy who does the art of product, podcast-

Josh:               Yeah, Ben.

Starr:               Yeah, Ben. He was really cool. I met Eric from LessFilms.

Josh:               Yes, LessFilms.

Starr:               Eric is from Florida, and he will talk your ear off about Florida, and by the end of the night you'll want to go to Florida. He is literally the nicest, friendliest man I think I have ever met.

Josh:               Yeah, I like Eric.

Ben:                We should totally relocate to Panama City.

Starr:               Oh, my mortgage would be a lot less.

Ben:                That's for sure.

Josh:               Yeah, so speaking about Eric. One of the coolest things that I have done at any MicroConf, or at least in Vegas is the pinball hall of fame. I had no idea that this place existed, but it was a mile or two up I think Tropicana Boulevard. But yeah, it's a couple miles up the street from the Tropicana, where the MicroConf is hosted, and it looks like it's in an abandoned shopping center. There are no signs or anything, there is an open sign above the door, but that's pretty much it. But you walk in, and it is wall to wall vintage pinball machines. Some dating back to the 50s, and a lot of them are in great working condition so you can go and play a lot of them. That was a lot of fun.

Starr:               Yeah, I'm so jealous that I missed that. I love pinball.

Josh:               Yeah, I know you do. We will definitely have to go. Maybe all three of us will go back next year if we happen to be there. Definitely will be going back to that.

Starr:               The main thing we did at MicroConf is we launched this heckin' podcast guys!

Josh:               Yeah!

Starr:               Good job.

Josh:               Go us! You can put in some clapping, or some crowd audio effects there.

Starr:               Yeah, totally I just have those on a button.

Josh:               Yeah, a Kramer. From Kramer. We could get you a little keyboard or something with some sounds effects, if you want.

Ben:                Yeah, we can get you a sound board.

Josh:               For sure.

Starr:               Really? Really? You will come to regret that decision sir.

Josh:               This is why we do what we do, because we are the boss. We can get you a sound board with fart noises if we want to.

Starr:               We'd be doing a podcast in six months where we talk about our biggest mistakes, and that would be one of them.

Josh:               Yeah, but you know anything is worth trying, right? Because you just never know how it's going to turn out. So, it's all about experimenting.

Starr:               Ideation. So, okay.

Josh:               Exactly.

Starr:               Well it sounds like we all had a pretty good time, like I know I did. Did you guys have a good time?

Ben:                Yeah, it was great.

Josh:               Definitely.

Starr:               Are you going to do it again?

Josh:               Yeah, I think so. Ben and I talked about that. I think, like he said, you really go for someone that talks, but for what you really go for is the people and the relationships that you make while you're there, and over the years. I think it would be pretty hard not to go, and see all of the friends we've made, and make some new ones.

Starr:               Yeah, if I go again next year I think I want to focus a lot more on this luxury, VIP, Spa experience.

Ben:                Yeah, you can go for the penthouse suite next year.

Starr:               Oh totally. So one thing I'm kind of tempted to do is maybe rent one of those places out for the night, and just have our own event there.

Josh:               Yeah.

Ben:                Yeah.

Starr:               Maybe have a DJ, or something. I don't know. Can you have a DJ in your penthouse in Las Vegas.

Josh:               I think you can do whatever you want.

Starr:               It seems like we should be able to.

Ben:                Can we have real, live Honeybadgers?

Josh:               Yeah.

Starr:               Maybe we'll save that for later in the night.

Josh:               You might need some special insurance, but I'm sure Honeybadger insurance exists in Vegas.

Ben:                Well you know, we haven't made plans that extravagant before, so that would be new, but what we have done is set up a dinner before. This is my favorite MicroConf hack.

Starr:               Any conference really.

Ben:                Yeah, I guess you could go to any conference. You know what happens is, you get out of the conference at 5:30, and everyone is like, okay I'm hungry, I want to go eat. I go, and what's the nearest restaurant, and of course you're trying to do that with 200 of your closest friends trying to get into the closest restaurant. Right? I've found one thing that make a great experience for me is making a reservation at a restaurant. I know this is simple, but it's a mind blowing experience when you're hungry and you don't know where to go, like oh we already have a reservation for table of eight, let's just go over there. You sit down, you eat, it's amazing. So, I hardily recommend that to anybody, anytime.

Josh:               Yeah, it makes it easier to get people to eat dinner with you too.

Starr:               Yeah, it's pretty cool to be like, "Hey we're having this nice conversation, why don't you come to our table at dinner? Why don't we continue this over tapas?"

Starr:               So I think yeah, we talked about this. I think the ultimate MicroConf experience for us would be to get rid of the talks, get rid of the trappings of the conference stuff, we just go play paintball with people, or go camping.

Josh:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Starr:               That would be so much fun because the funnest thing about this whole experience is hanging out with other people. If you could have a place where you had more opportunity to hang out with the interesting people, then that would be great.

Josh:               I think you're talking about Badgercon.

Starr:               Badgercon, yeah!

Josh:               That's what I thought. Is that what we are talking about?

Starr:               Badgercon 2020.

Josh:               No I would totally be into a conference with some of the same type of people, like Ben said, like our tribe. That's just all about hanging out, and doing whatever we want.

Starr:               Well this was fun, I enjoyed this. I think this will make a good episode because it was very conversational.

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