SEED Conference Recap

I attended the first SEED Conference on Monday. It was a great event - it exceeded my expectations, and was a bargain at only $395.

The event itself was small (the website says 135, but it seemed like there were a few more than that), and relatively informal. The venue was the McCormick Tribune Campus Center on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. The building is very interesting in and of itself, lots of different colors and textures, and the El runs right through the building.

Mike Rohde did a very well-written summary of the conference (complete with very nice sketches), so I’m not going to do that here. I’m going to highlight some key thoughts from each of the three speakers. As a side note, I got to meet Mike Rohde at this conference. I’d been reading his blog for a number of years, and it was very enjoyable to get to know him. If you’ve not seen his site before, check it out.

Carlos Segura

Of the three people presenting (Carlos, Jason Fried, and Jim Coudal), Carlos was the one I knew the least about. I knew he was a designer, and was one of the original founders of 37Signals, but beyond that I knew very little. I really enjoyed Carlos’s talk - it was much more visual than the other two. He has a very impressive body of work, including reviving the Corbis brand. Overall, Carlos’s talk was very engaging - he conveyed a lot of his information through photos and stories. Here’s a collection of thoughts I jotted down while he was talking (all of this is paraphrased, none of it should be taken as a direct quote):

  • Stretch yourself - expose yourself to new things. He gave an example about how he didn’t like country music, but then visited someone’s office who was listening to bluegrass music, and fell in love with it.
  • Don’t be afraid to break all the rules. His company did the covers for a very well-received comic book series called “The Filth” that defied all of the conventions of what a comic book should look like, and as a result it stood out in a sea of identical-looking comic books.
  • Stay small. He talked about the problems you face when your design firm gets big (his company is currently 2 people, although it has been up to 18). When you get big, you end up having to take work just to “feed the beast”, as he put it. When you are small, you can be much more choosy about the work you take. This was a recurring theme throughout the day, from all three speakers.
  • He doesn’t do focus groups - he thought it led to mediocrity.
  • Failure isn’t a bad thing - good things often come from it.

Jason Fried

If you’re reading this, you probably know who Jason Fried is. In case you’ve been under a rock, Jason is the founder of 37Signals, and it’s most visible employee. Here’s a summary of his talk, which focused on collaboration:

  • Keep your teams small - 2 or 3 people. When you do this, you are forced to focus on what’s important. You also get clearer communication for free.
  • Keep your team apart. Keeping them away from each other helps them to stay focused and get things done. “Interuption is the enemy of productivity”
  • Use passive, not active, forms of communication. Active is stopping by someone’s desk, tapping them on the shoulder. Passive is email, IM, Campfire, etc. When you’re getting ready to interrupt someone, you need to ask yourself “Is this really worth interrupting them for?”.
  • Meetings are toxic. They should be a last resort. Meetings break your day into small, unproductive chunks (amen to that!). A 1 hour meeting with 10 people in it isn’t a one hour meeting - it’s a 10 hour meeting. Think about that.
  • Judo. Chop your problems into smaller and smaller problems. Don’t make big decisions, make lots of smaller ones. Decisions are progress, and progress is great for morale.
  • Manage quality by using the software while you build it. (My commentary on this is that only works if you’re building software for yourself. It breaks down if you’re building a medical records system for a doctors office. Still sound advice though, if you can apply it.)
  • On hiring and retaining, Jason talked about how they pay competitively, but offer lifestyle-based perks such as 4 day work weeks in the summer, flexible hours, etc. He noted that someone will always pay more, but the work environment and lifestyle perks can make a big difference.

Jim Coudal

Jim runs Coudal Partners, a design firm. Jim’s talk was the most entertaining of the three. He’s a very funny guy. He showed several videos, including this one, which I identified with a little too much. Here’s the key points I got from him:

  • You have to try things all the time. This was my big takeaway from the conference as a whole - try more stuff and expose yourself to new things. Jim is one of these guys who comes up with new ideas all the time. Some work, some don’t. From each one, you learn something.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. They’ve tried a bunch of stuff that didn’t work out, but they learned things by trying, and often times the failures led to something else.
  • Don’t talk things to death. When you have a good idea, do it. Even if it’s a small part, do it.
  • Curiosity is a craft
  • Take your short attention span and turn it into something creative. This tied back to the video I linked to earlier. There’s nothing wrong with jumping around and trying different things.
  • “Taste trumps skill” - this is one of their hiring criteria. Skills can be acquired, taste not so much.
  • Choose your clients carefully. This was a recurring theme as well throughout the conference. Coudal judges every project on three criteria: Is it profitable, can we do great work, and can we learn something (that may not be 100% what he said, but it’s real close). That doesn’t mean that every project needs to meet all three - they might do something where they make litttle profit but learn something, or a project where they make a lot of money, but can only do average work. They won’t take work where they won’t make much money, can’t learn anything, and couldn’t do good work.

So these are the high points. I took 7 pages of notes, not all of which I’ve recreated here. At the end of the day, I got a lot out of this conference. It was a unique day, in a unique setting, and gave me a lot of food for thought. According to the SEED Conference site, they will be hosting more of these. I would highly recommend attending.

SEED Conference

I will be at the SEED Conference in Chicago on Monday. If you’re reading this, and you’re going as well… say “Hi” in the comments below :)

Paul Graham on Stuff

Paul Graham has a new article up called Stuff:

I first realized the worthlessness of stuff when I lived in Italy for a year. All I took with me was one large backpack of stuff. The rest of my stuff I left in my landlady’s attic back in the US. And you know what? All I missed were some of the books. By the end of the year I couldn’t even remember what else I had stored in that attic.

And yet when I got back I didn’t discard so much as a box of it. Throw away a perfectly good rotary telephone? I might need that one day.

On a related note, Paul’s site now has comments, which is a first. They’re powered by Disqus, which is a Y Combinator funded site. The comments look nice, and it supports threading and some advanced functionality like forums.

Random Things

I have a few articles I want to publish, but I’m holding off until I have this site moved over to Slicehost. In the meantime, here’s a kottke - style list of random things that have caught my eye lately.

How to Charm a Woman

I am(thankfully) long past dating, but just because you’ve convinced her to marry you doesn’t mean you don’t still need to charm her.

How YouTube scales

Summary of a Google Tech Talk on how YouTube scaled, both pre and post acquisition. With the massive storage requirements (they have servers dedicated just to serving thumbnails), this is certainly not a typical scaling story.

Catch The Best

Catch The Best is a new “applicant tracking and ranking system” from Ben Curtis, who is fairly well known in the Rails community. This looks promising. Ben is also looking for sample resumes to test his system out.

The Brand Called You

10 year old article by Tom Peters on the importance of developing a personal brand. Still very relevant.

Surely This Is a Sign of the Apocalypse

Just seen on TechCrunch:

Why are you people searching for Britney Spears!? She is hardly the eye candy she once was so I just don’t understand how she has topped Yahoo’s most popular search terms for the fifth time in six years but is appears that the flashing, divorcing baby mama has.

Tonight at 9 p.m. PST, Yahoo will release their most popular search terms of 2006. In the top five are Britney, WWE, Shakira, Jessica Simpson, and Paris Hilton.

This makes me want to cry.

Seth Godin: The Best Time to Start

I’ll try to prevent this from becoming another Seth Godin lovefest, but Seth’s article on the best time to start a business was too good not to write about.

From the article:

  • The best time to start is when you’re out of debt.
  • The best time to start is when no one is already working on your idea.
  • The best time to start is after you’ve got all your VC funding

…the best time to start was last year. The second best time to start is right now.

Full article here. Go read it now.

A Change in Perspective

Photo by Tom Stone

I often find that it’s difficult to be content with what I have in life. It’s too easy to focus on what you don’t have - a new car, a bigger house, that shiny new MacBook Pro - and forget about how much you do have. Modern society doesn’t make this any easier, particularly in the geek culture where something you must have comes along every few seconds it seems.

The reality is, I’m fabulously wealthy. I mean, I’m no Warren Buffet, but compared to the rest of the planet, I have more than enough.

I drive a 10 year old car, but there are millions of people who have no car at all. Millions who would be happy to have a car, any car.

I have a laptop computer that’s 4 years old, and has seen better days. But there are millions who don’t have any computer at all, and would be excited at the thought of having mine.

I’d love to have a bigger house - who wouldn’t? With two young boys, you can never really have too much room. But there are millions who live in houses a fraction of our size, many that aren’t what most of use would even consider houses. There are millions more who are homeless, and would consider any kind of shelter to be a gift from God.

I struggle with this a lot - trying to be content with what I have. Perhaps it’s just human nature to always want more. Perhaps it’s a reality of modern life - we’re being conditioned to not be satisfied with what we have.

I thought of this again today, as I came across (via kottke) a collection of photos on Flickr by photographer Tom Stone. Tom is known for photographing the homeless and others “living along the edges of society”. Looking at his photos of people living on the streets of San Francisco, and reading the stories that go along with them isn’t easy. They’re pretty stark and depressing, but it reminds me once again of just how much I have, and how blessed I am.

Apparently, I'm a Joiner

I typically avoid joining each new social networking thingy that comes along, but I’ve joined two lately.

The first was LinkedIn. You can view my public profile here, feel free to add me if you’re so inclined. My email address associated with me there is larrywright at gmail dot com.

The second one was Twitter, which is a new-ish site from the folks at Odeo (which, as an aside, was recently bought back from the investors - way to go Ev), that lets you keep up with what your friends are doing at any given moment. You can send and receive updates via text messages, the web site, and now by instant message. Pretty cool. View me here, and feel free to add me as a friend if you’re so inclined. Or come to to my home page and look at the left hand side of my page to see what I’m doing at the moment. As if you care.

On an unrelated note, things have been a little quiet lately, due to other commitments. Things are quieting down a little now, though. I’ll have some more technical posts up soon(ish).

Quote(s) of the Day

“We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.”

Frank Tibolt

“Far better it is to dare mighty things to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered with failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that know not victory or defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Via Garret Dimon