Most everyone has attended a business conference, gone to a seminar or breakout session there, and discovered that the talk wasn’t what they thought it was about. To avoid offending the speaker, it’s polite to sit through the presentation, avoid checking your phone, and try to get something useful out of information that you wouldn’t have intentionally signed up to hear. If you get up and leave, you worry the presenter may take offense and feel like people are bored or leaving in protest.
The organizers of Startup Accelerator 6 Un-Conference in Madison, WI mentioned this scenario at the opening of the event, saying this scenario will not be tolerated here. Everyone was encouraged to wonder in and out of breakout secession without compunction. Attendees called out possible topics. Attendees and organizers then worked out which topics could be consolidated to fit into four breakout timeslots with four separate meeting rooms available during each timeslot, supporting a maximum of 16 topics. There was ample space and time in the main room for meeting new people.
The event was free to attendees, with food another other expenses provided by sponsors. Madison’s hackerspace, Sector 67, provided the venue. It easily supported the 35 or so attendees all in the main room. Sector 67 founder Chris Meyer is very passionate about empowering people to create new businesses. Sector 67 members are encouraged to use the space for personal experimentation or building for-profit businesses. You can rent cubicals to work out of there. You can even use the space for things like production and storage, as long as your activities don’t interfere with other people’s use of the space.
The very first question asked at last Saturday's event was from Wendy Soucie: What’s the hashtag for this event? The organizers responded #SUA6 without missing a beat. They said it’s good to connect with people present using social media but to try to avoid keeping your head buried in your phone.
The first breakout session I attended was on Product Development. Dave McCabe of Intense Engineering led the discussion. We discussed many topics of interest to me:
- MVP - What exactly should "minimum" mean in a minimum viable product (MVP)? Does MVP mean promoting a buggy product or just assiduously avoiding scope creep?
- “Valley of Death”- The zone that lies between technology development and product commercialization - Dave McCabe discussed his experience with clients who use a combination of Sector 67 and contract design firms to move their technology from prototype to commercialization.
- Disruptive Technology - We discussed Clayton Christensen’s ideas and our experiences watching large firms respond to disruptive technologies.
The next session was on child Education. Much of the discussion focused on educational products and services. They talked about the need for education focused on innovation and education that is student-centered rather than system-centered. Employment at large corporations is decreasing, someone pointed out, so we need be teaching our children to solve problems, not preparing them for corporate employment. I kept thinking of something engineer Norm Augustine wrote: Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness. Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation.
During the session on contracts and business structures, an accountant and veteran entrepreneur coached a startup founder on practical issues associated with business entities types and what to ask from an attorney in these matters. No one tried to sell setting up something complex. They rightly advised to keep it simple at first and only add complications as the needs arrise.
The final session was on business failure. Failure is something discussed not nearly often enough. It’s easier to talk and write about success, but we can learn a lot about other people’s failures. In this session the facilitator invited feedback on how this very conference could be improved. This was my first un-conference, and I was amazed at how smoothing it went without a pre-set agenda. I could not imagine it being improved. We also discussed the need for a safe place for entrepreneurs to discuss our failures, without competitors, customers, investors, or employees present.
The organizers provided plenty of the staple foods of geeks: pizza, Mountain Dew, and cookies. There were a few healthy choices, too, although I was more interested in the junk food. During the lunch and between sessions I met many interesting people. When I first heard of an “un-conference”, I wondered if it would be chaotic and attended only by people with a radical anti-establishment bent. I certainly detected an individualist sentiment but no chaos. It was about as well-coordinated as a typical conference. This is amazing considering the topics for discussion and agenda were set up mostly democratically in the first 45 minutes of the conference. I would recommend Sector 67 and events like this even to people who don't consider themselves part of the "hacker" or "maker" community.