Lessons from MicroConf Day 3

The third and final day of MicroConf 2017 was focused on a few themes: revenue, time and value.

Any conference Patrick McKenzie (patio11) speaks at will surely have a simple message: double your prices. Patrick has been making this case tirelessly for years and with good reason. His own page on his past consulting rates still strikes me an unobtainable madness. When someone says they are closing software consulting projects at a rate of $30,000/week i listen.

Charge more.

Also interesting about Patrick's talk was the perspective shift that has come with his recent employment at Stripe. This is a novel position for Patrick in recent years. For as long as i have been following him, he has never had a "boss" in the traditional sense of the word. This also means he is experiencing a degree of imposed structure and process that may be unusual.

Finding time

He spoke of the importance of spending time generating value instead of working on menial tasks that every company requires operationally. At Stripe these are termed "toilsome" tasks. They have a culture of trying to automate as many of them as possible. This is a valuable lesson. Many of us assume these to be a sort of cost-of-business. There is no reason we should accept that. Elimination or automating menial tasks are a great way to free up time to work on the things we care about. The things that excite us.

Automate the toilsome bits

Another speaker touched on a similar topic. We work on side projects because we believe they will improve our lives by adding to our income or replacing the need to work for someone completely. But how much of our current quality of life should we sacrifice to gamble on that dream? We can expect our quality of life to fall as side projects consume more of our day.

I tried staying up "until my eyeballs bleed!" Bad advice.

In order to stay happy and not feel consumed we need to either free up time or work less. I would argue that both should be the goals. Side projects, practically by definition, don't have a due date. We may self-impose dates to enforce productivity, but we shouldn't need to race to market to beat bigger players. Race-to-market ideas are not good fits for side projects. The "i'm first" value prop is easily crushed by deeper pockets.

Instead, bootstrapped side projects do best at targeting underserved niches. The agility of a small project allows you to build a highly focused tool that perfectly solves the problems of a specific group. Bigger players have more resources but build for more generalized markets. This strength also means there is no impending doom if you fail to ship this week. Take your time. No amount of "success" is worth sacrificing your happiness and relationships to achieve.

Provide real value

The final theme of the talks was towards achieving that niche and providing a highly specialized tool for highly specialized people. The point that struck me most was remembering that it isn't about the product. It is about the customer.

I know that is "obvious". But as a developer, it is easy for me to be excited about what i built and what it does. Neither matters. Customers don't buy a product. They buy the improvement to their lives the product will bring them. This fundamentally alters how you talk about your product. It changes how you market your product. Because you aren't marketing your product. You are marking the life improvements your product brings.

Your customer isn't buying your product. They are buying the version of their life they hope your product gives them

This is why a highly specialized customer base is a more approachable start. When you speak about a specific niche, you can market directly to the pain points they experience. Not general platitudes, but addressing real issues.

Talk to your customers

All of this talk about providing specialized value to specialized people is impossible without a deep understanding of the problems in the first place. We will either get this understanding by having lived through the problems ourselves or by talking to our prospective customers.

Talk to your customers. You won't, but you should.

For those of us who think we are lucky because we have in fact lived through the problem, i'm sorry to say but you are a single data point. You need more feedback. Talk to your customers.

The entire premise of our side projects is to target a niche and provide a solution superior in quality and marketing than all the others. This is impossible without empathy and a deep understanding for those customers. Intuition won't cut it here. Speak with them.

Good conference great people

My earliest suspicions of MicroConf were confirmed by the end of day 3. The real value was being here and talking to the other attendees and speakers. There is so much hunger, creativity and perspective to be had from the people here.

If you have an interest in bootstrapping products but feel like you keep falling short, it is probably a worthwhile event to attend next year. The price tag may be hard to swallow. But if MicroConf helps you launch even one product, it will pay for itself many times over.

tl;dr: Understanding your customer is the only way to successfully bootstrap a product. After that, charge more and work smarter.

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Written by Ben
Ben is the co-founder of Skyward. He has spent the last 10 years building products and working with startups.