Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Two New Experiments from The Lean Startup Conference Team

Guest post by Sarah Milstein, CEO of Lean Startup Productions

The 2013 Lean Startup Conference was a hit on several levels, with many people telling us it was the most valuable business conference they’d ever attended. To extend what we learned and help more people build and scale successful companies, we’re testing out two brand new events this spring:

* Office Optional, a one-day conference on April 22 in San Francisco. One of our most popular talks at The Lean Startup Conference was my interview with Matt Mullenweg, in which he talked about Automattic’s unusual setup: They have no true central office, and everyone works from home. With partially and fully distributed teams on the rise—but few established standards for running them well—we see an opportunity to bring people together for a rich exchange. This conference hits close to home for us, as Lean Startup Productions has two desks at WeWork Soma, a coworking space, but no office of our own and team members scattered around a range of cities and time zones.

* Quick Consulting, an evening event on March 27 in San Francisco. Inspired by the popularity of our experimental office-hours sessions at the 2013 Lean Startup Conference, we’re gathering more than 25 accomplished experts to bring you consultations for your business in a series of 15-minute, one-on-one conversations. This will be an intimate event designed to make it easy to meet other people and have high-quality, targeted discussions.

Below is more information on each event and some of the hypotheses we’re testing.

Office Optional. Although Yahoo famously recalled its remote workers last year, there’s no question that the workplace trend is toward more distributed teams. Driven by mandates for lower carbon emissions through reduced commuting, increased employee productivity and greater quality of life, paired with flexible technology, as much as 30% of the U.S. workforce now telecommutes. And yet, there’s still confusion over what to even call this kind of setup and who qualifies as a participant—let alone how to do it effectively. Our primary hypothesis is that with a growing number of remote workers in a variety of arrangements, innovative businesspeople—our core community—will find it valuable to come together to focus on solutions for successfully collaborating and managing from a distance.

(An in-person conference about remote work?! Is Henry Ford keynoting?! We get it. But we’ve found that certain discussions thrive in a live environment, and we believe this will be one of them. In fact, using face-to-face time really well is a topic for the conference—and we’ll help you make this event a highly useful place to meet with coworkers you don’t see often. For instance, we offer group packages that include meeting space for your team on the day before or after the conference. And, of course, we’ll provide a livestream of the talks; look for details on our site soon.)

How will we know we’ve succeeded? We measure event success in a number of ways including: whether attendees, speakers and sponsors say they would return again; whether our speakers get requests to talk at other conferences based on their presentations at ours; whether we’re able to cover our costs; and more qualitative feedback that we collect through interviews after the event.

We’ve just begun to announce speakers for Office Optional, with about a third of them now on our site and the rest to be revealed over the next couple of weeks. As you’ll see, we’ve got people from companies like Automattic and Yammer that are leading the way on distributed work, along with people from forward-looking service firms and non-profits that have terrific ideas we can all learn from. At the conference, which will have lots of Q&A with speakers, we’ll explore issues that include:
  • Building trust at a distance
  • Hiring, onboarding and training remote employees   
  • Managing across time zones 
  • Systems for communicating more and emailing less 
  • Convincing colleagues to experiment with new tools 
  • Tips and tricks for video calls, group chat, brainstorming software and more 
  • Making in-person meetings very useful 
  • Setting up satellite offices  
  • The mechanics of successfully working from home 
You can expect to leave with several big ideas for thinking about distributed teams, plus 20 or 30 concrete pieces of advice you can implement tomorrow. Early-bird tickets are available through this week, and they’re priced to let the biggest range of people attend.

Quick Consulting. At the 2013 Lean Startup Conference, we were amazed by how energizing and valuable mentors and attendees alike found the office-hours sessions. Our primary hypothesis is that a structured format with short, focused, one-on-one conversation will help eliminate awkward introductions and the distance between experts and attendees. Because it’s a bit tricky to ensure that all of the attendees have enough conversations to make the evening worthwhile, our secondary hypothesis is that we can create a format that meets everyone’s needs. That “everyone” includes Rackspace, which is hosting this event at their cool Soma space.

How will we know we’ve succeeded? The event is small—just over 25 mentors and 45 attendees—so in addition to a baseline survey in which we’ll ask whether people would join Quick Consulting again, we’ll be able to have follow-up conversations with a big percentage of participants after the event. Incidentally, we’re concierging the expert-attendee matchups, doing it by hand, which is no small task (the software we used for scheduling matchups at The Lean Startup Conference doesn’t have enough flexibility for the approach we’re taking here). If the overall format is a hit, we’ll look at automating this aspect of the event.

Our stellar list of experts have deep expertise in Lean Startup methods, entrepreneurship, user research, design, analytics, engineering management, PR, social media, startup law, corporate innovation, social-sector innovation, venture capital and more. Tickets for Quick Consulting cost $99, and there are just a few left. (If you can’t swing the standard $99 ticket price, we’ve set aside $30 scholarship tickets. Apply here to be considered.)

 For both Quick Consulting and Office Hours, we’re continuing our work to ensure that we chose speakers by the most meritocratic processes possible and that we foster an atmosphere of lively learning. We hope to see you at one or both events, and we look forward to getting your feedback on whether our experiments are on target.