The Startup Conference: Seattle 2012

by Deborah Drake on 2012/02/19 · 11 comments 21,607 views

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This guest post by Deborah Drake shares her experiences of the Startup Conference in Seattle last week… Find some interesting tidbits below – and we would welcome your thoughts in a comment!

February 16, 2012 was a crisp, cold, grey day in Seattle, Washington. Yet again, but I didn’t care at all.

Lucky and local me was attending the latest offering of The Startup Conference, organized in partnership with the Founders Institute. As the non-tech entrepreneur that I am, I had registered on an intuitive whim back in December.

I was personally interested in the sessions on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Building a Tribe, Fixing Elevator Pitches, and Attracting Media Attention. I was particularly looking forward to hearing Rich Barton of Zillow (who originally founded Expedia) and Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz (the web’s most popular SEO software provider and resource) speak.

It was the idea of hearing Rich Barton and Rand Fishkin speak about their Seattle-based startup experiences that initially got me to register in a flash. And, it would turn out to be a content-rich, dense, and well-organized day-long conference that introduced me to other fine examples of brilliant wisdom and business smarts that honored people consistently.

I enjoyed every minute, all day, furiously taking notes as I listened intently. I was a sponge.

They were smart in how they ran the day. Held from start to finish in one large ballroom at the Westin in downtown Seattle, I spent the day with 350 other eager students, entrepreneurs, investors and a handful of media representatives. With wide open interest and no expectations, I discovered each and every presenter had valuable perspectives and insights and there was a common underlying theme.

It comes down to PEOPLE and who we partner with as we leverage emerging and evolving technology to solve the big problems in business and living. The vision of the founders and the team incubating that vision make all the difference in the end. People using technology. People make it happen.

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Alan Raynaud, organizer of the Startup Conference and Director of the Founders Institute Paris warmed up the room with opening remarks that addressed ‘finding a co-founder’ by way of illustrating the five mistakes many founders make. (I couldn’t help but ponder how finding a co-founder and dating and marriage (aka a long-term relationship) seem to have a lot in common.)

Take it or leave it; his best advice garnered from all the years he’s been starting and growing and selling companies (for profit) goes something like this:

  1. Work with someone you know for a month without agreement, before you lock in (sounds like dating to me).
  2. Remember that people don’t copy ideas, they copy success, so don’t be afraid to talk about your idea with potential co-founders (have an attitude of abundance not scarcity).
  3. Gather good people with skills who complement and supplement each other (those who are needed for your dream team).
  4. Splitting equity fairly is not always a simple matter of equal division (division of labor in relationships is seldom 50/50) – a mix of full-time and part-time founders seldom works long-term (all parties must be fully invested in success).
  5. Choose a CEO (so there is a head of household when needed).

And what if you are an ideas person who needs a developer to join your project? To attract that technical rockstar to the team when necessary (that potential investors will also care about), consider these enticements:

  • Can you show evidence of traction?
  • Are customers signing up to your beta version?
  • Are investors interested, but asking for specifics?

What struck me about EVERYTHING Alan Raynaud suggested is that it is ultimately about choosing GREAT PEOPLE to work with. People you could imagine spending years with in times of struggle and hard work and celebration (again, to me this is sounding like a REAL marriage or long-term relationship)!

I was now officially primed to spend the day listening to successful business founders share stories of trials, tribulations and success, meaningful tips, smart strategies and practical tactics for creating my own venture.

But what would fascinate me even more this day was the fact that every CEO’s story of an idea (a grand problem to solve) that became a company that succeeded and became profitable had its roots and story of origin in passion, determination, resilience, creativity, and adaptability, to name a few of the key qualities present from almost the very beginning.

And the Opening Keynote by Zillow CEO Rich Barton hasn’t even happened yet…


From Botox to travel

Serial Entrepreneur and CEO Rich Barton has started a series of businesses with a common theme: maintaining transparency for the everyday person. This allows them to access information previously available only to members of an inner circle. As he put it:

Empower the people with information so they can make good decisions.

He’s got quite the list of projects he is or has been a part of!  (created from within Microsoft, the first spin-off company) (making real estate data transparent for all) (what is going on inside companies regarding jobs/salaries) (up and coming – this idea is a social, local, mobile travel resource) (in short, the truth about boobs and botox services and fees) (start here to find a good lawyer/doctor/dentist)

Entrepreneur versus intrapreneur

I didn’t realize that Expedia began as a ‘travel version of Encarta’, backed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen and developed within Microsoft. It was inspired by Barton’s awareness of a functional but ugly Prodigy product used primarily by travel agents. Expedia would also be the first company to spin off of Microsoft. Apparently, creating the separation agreements and contracts was also a first and an interesting process in itself.

Barton’s suggestion based on his experience: You don’t need to leave the company you are with to build your own (at least not prematurely). If you are casting about for something to do (inside or outside a company) and come up with an idea you want to pursue, consider incubating it while still employed! (Now that makes great sense, doesn’t it?)

Have an idea? Need a co-founder? Start with people you know. (Again, that people theme.)

How do you tell whether it is a big idea? Be advised, whatever you think it will be is never the end result. Focus on the pond and the fisherman. How big is the pond? How many fishermen? How much dysfunction in the industry? The BIGGER the dysfunction, the BETTER the prospects for creating a winning SOLUTION that could attract INVESTORS.

It’s who you climb in the boat with and those you add as you grow that matter. It’s the people, people!

And according to Barton, where two co-founders are concerned, never 50/50, better 49/51. Someone must have the deciding vote in tough calls (translation for me: check your ego at the start and make it about the bigger vision). And being flexible is key, so build that in from the start. (You’ll last longer and weather more storms that way.)

Reality check: “Most people don’t have what it takes to make it through any weather like the mail… rain, sleet, or snow. The best way to make something happen is to be a sharer, a communicator, involve others to engage in giving you feedback.” (Yes. Yes. Yes.)

For Rich Barton, his success as the Serial Entrepreneur and CEO he is is all about PET: people, empowerment, transparency. His Opening Keynote was a home run for this participant who couldn’t take notes fast enough.

And what came next was inspiring to me on a whole other level…


Earn customers without spending

Rand Fishkin, founder and CEO of SEOmoz, is not only smart and personable, his commitment to transparency is evidenced by his slides. He shared the financial story of SEOmoz, which is projected to earn over 18 million in revenue this year, creating and maintaining online SEO software tools, so that customers big and small can improve their organic position in search results.

You and I and Dell can pay US$99 a month for membership and access to the brilliance of SEOmoz’s brain trust on organic search and how to get it for yourself!

From what I can see, he developed a passion into a service right from the beginning. That became a product anyone could access and all the while he cultivated a passionate community of users.

– Fishkin has never spent a dime on paid search.
– US$35 billion is spent on paid search for 18 percent of click-throughs.
– Google Search grows at 18 percent a year – organically.

That means there is a big opportunity for attracting customers who find you through their search. Why not attract customers rather than buy them?

I loved the definition of search he offered: “I want this thing right now.”

So besides becoming a member/user of SEOmoz, what can one do to attract customers without spending a dime?

a) Realize a need (for which you are the solution).
b) Do research on search by acting like the searcher (explore and take note of what you discover).
c) Ask some friends how they search (again, starting with people you know).
d) What tactics will earn people’s attention to start a relationship (may they earn people’s business for you)?

Bottom line: It’s about content. Content influences everything (including people) and comes in many forms. Content that takes key words into account is smart, and content that inspires online community and conversation is golden. When these come together to inspire trust and connection, and go viral, they are really golden – or platinum? Product developed out of this collective conversation that solves big problems is bound to be well-received.

The writer, marketer and community builder that I do my best to be was grinning from ear to ear. Why? Because each Tuesday at the Writers Support Group for the Reticent Blogger (that I facilitate – two years and counting), I am – in a word – preaching the same message. Build strong relationships through the content we create/share and in the dialogue that follows, and ALWAYS be real, generous, and transparent and see what is attracted to you.

Content. Community creates content. Product or distribution may be the content. It all serves as content that people may be compelled to talk about and share, bringing you potential customers with less outbound marketing effort.

The sort-of truth is

Search (done by real people) continues to grow.
Social (media activity and participation) is discovery prior to interest. It demands great content and rewards it.
Social (media activity and participation) can spread a message like nothing else.
Social (media activity and participation) has a huge influence on search and how people change the way they do things.

Rand’s short list

Stumbleupon (Yes, once upon a time I opened an account.)
Reddit (Um, can I handle one more on my list?!)
Digg (Yes, I dig it.)
Delicious (Great name, I always thought.)
Tumblr (May make my future short list.)
Twitter (Still hasn’t enchanted me, though I know it is time to say yes to that relationship.)
Wikipedia (My favorite resource!)
Pinterest (Gaining eyeballs daily!)
Quora (Here begins the conversion funnel, says Rand.)

So what is an ambitious yet busy entrepreneur with a great idea that wants to be found by its users to do?

1. Blog – check!
2. Social networking – check!
3. Social bookmarking – on my way
4. Post video – not there yet

I am (for the present) good with my 2.5 out of four key activities as suggested by the creator of the web’s most popular SEO software for the do-it-yourselfer (DIY). And I think I will read The Art of SEO while on winter break in Denver!

Remember, says Rand, a lot of conversion comes from soft metrics – content, search and community.

I so agree with that. Which makes me intensely curious: how do I improve searchability on the community blog I co-founded that is filled to the brim with awesome content?

TipSearch for more ComMetrics and CyTRAP sources on start-ups, soft metrics, SEO  (click to query).


It’s only 11:00 and there are still six more compelling topics awaiting a room of eager listeners… This attendee’s review of her experience to be continued after a short intermission and coffee break!

Disagree? Agree? Sure. Leave a comment!

  • Chris Isaac

    The Startup Conference: Seattle 2012 (parts 1-2-3)

  • Alain Raynaud

    The Startup Conference: Seattle 2012 (parts 1-2-3)

  • World Economic Forum

    #tips2follow – The Startup Conference: Seattle 2012 (parts 1-2-3): part 1**********************… – #metrics2watch

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  • Urs E. Gattiker

    @DeborahDrake:twitter   Thanks so much much for this insightful post about the Seattle 2012 conference.  I felt it gave me a chance to attend at least virtually and checking up on the links.
    I found the summaries about the talks given by:
    ====>  @randfish:twitter  @Rich_Barton:twitter @mark_britton:twitter  @NeilPatel:twitter @brian_wong:twitter and @glennkelman:twitter   <====

    These were particularly useful. These experts made many thoughtful suggestions. However, I wonder if I can follow all of these. I probably have to make some tough choices.

    As @RobaAssi:twitter recently pointed out ithat not every channel – e.g., Twitter works for every company (click to read). The same applies for Pinterest that can be a huge wast of time if you are a banker.

    This is one reason why I have and continue to use Flickr (click to see what we have up)and not Pinterest (I am on but not much content).As well, it might have come up during the conference but we have to address context.  

    Context of your business (e.g., selling software versus a service), country (US versus Indonesia) and B2C versus B2B plus, of course, size of business – small versus big (click to read) all affect how you can best use social media.

    Ultimately it is all about – know your customer, isn’t it? Thanks Deborah for sharing.

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