I’ve tremendously enjoyed every Brooklyn Beta conference I’ve gone to, but this was easily the best yet. The “Make Something You Love” slogan has been around since the beginning, but this year’s choice of speakers really seemed to push that consistently, even when Ben Pierrat spoke about how he felt he failed his startup.
When Aaron Draplin took the stage, I wasn’t really sure what to expect; I was mildly concerned that the orange hat, beard, and demeanour were some sort of act. But he turned out to be one of the more authentic, down to earth, and genuine people I’ve heard speak. If this wasn’t an election year, I might refer to him as a solid “salt of the earth” type of guy. Not bad for someone who designed the recovery.gov logo, and was friends with John Hughes. To me, his talk was all about doing good work you enjoy, and being a good neighbour. He talked about doing jobs for friends, or ‘farmer john’, and how those pieces of work were important to him, even if the clients were small.
I think that there’s a great message for developers and designers in there not to forget clients we may perceive as “little” as our skills and reputations grow. Some of the work Aaron treasured most were those small clients, where his designs had the greatest impact. I was sad when I discovered I’d missed the chance to buy something from his temporary store.
I knew Alex Payne back when he worked at twitter, and to be honest I’m more than a little jealous that as a Canadian I don’t get access to [Bank] Simple. The vision for Simple was that banking doesn’t have to suck: the technology required to help people save has existed for a long time, but the banks and regulatory hurdles involved in helping people solve those problems are tremendous. He mentioned that part way through development they stopped and moved all the developers into a single location to make things easier. Having done some work on strictly regulated systems, I very much sympathize with that decision.
Alex was a much calmer speaker than Aaron, but I really enjoyed hearing the story of him working on something he cared about. As much blame as we put on the banks for the recent economic turmoil, if we’d better managed our finances things wouldn’t have been as bad. The interface to our money that Simple provides, such as easily answering questions like “can I afford this” can help move us in the right direction.
I’ll be honest, I was absolutely amazed when Seth Godin took the stage. While the speakers at Brooklyn Beta have always been a very high caliber, they’ve generally been people who are famous within Design, Development, or Computing circles. As a New York Times best selling author, Seth Godin is properly famous well beyond those groups. He wove a story talking about how capitalism is dying, and the next revolution will be art (whilst weaving in his views on tribes).
His mention of how our education system was really designed with the industrial view of the world struck me squarely. It really reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk (and two books: Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything) which also centred on Art. Sir Robinson’s viewpoint was more centred on how we’ve no idea what kind of problems we’ll need to solve in the future, so creativity should be the thing we cherish the most in schools (not test taking). Seth also pushed us further than simply making something we loved, he wants us to make something that matters.
Ben Pierrat’s story was a bit different. I’ve seen many speakers stand up and talk about their success, or at least their work so far. It was simultaneously refreshing and challenging to hear Ben talk about how he felt he’d failed his startup Svpply. It was a very introspective talk, examining the reasons he didn’t want to step down as CEO as his company grew, and how he felt that his leadership ultimately failed his vision. While getting bought out by eBay is by no means a failure, it wasn’t the success they were looking for.
Ben’s talk was difficult for me as an entrepreneur. I’ve been leading WonderProxy and WonderNetwork for a few years now, and we’ve kept all the real decisions internal. Ben’s talk has me wondering if we should have brought someone else in to lead us, accepted sales help, etc.
Kyle Neath is a director at GitHub, and gave me a lot to think about. He talked about how Github handles hiring, and how they manage their distributed teams. All employees are welcome to work from home, and they’ve developed and improved a series of tools to better support their distributed workforce. The tools and such (as well as the paid hours they’re encouraged to put into them) really seem to have captured the spirit of a “fun workplace” without having everyone in one place.
I think for me Kyle’s biggest point was between the lines: Remote employees can work at scale. As WonderProxy has grown, and as I’ve encountered many a rough edge for remote employees at $DayJob (where things continue to get better), I’ve become concerned that remote just didn’t work past a few people. Kyle’s convinced me otherwise.