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.