How to Build and Grow a Thriving Software Company: 11 Takeaways from Business of Software 2010

Software gurus from all over the world descended upon Boston last week for the Business of Software 2010 conference. Engaging and inspiring for any businessperson, #BOS2010 is custom-made for technology entrepreneurs, specifically software company founders and core team members. It’s run by software blog superstar Joel Spolsky and Red Gate joint-CEO Neil Davidson — both bootstrappers of their own successful companies — and powered by Who’s Who in the Software Industry speakers like Seth Godin and Dan Bricklin. If you write software, chances are you idolize at least some of these guys.

I am in awe. I am humbled. I feel deficient. I’m told I can spin a good story, but I struggled for two days to write a word about Business of Software. Humanity, transparency, and humility pervaded the conference in refreshing and unexpected ways, but I still feel overwhelmed by the genius of my fellow attendees, and let’s not even get started about those presenting.

conf1 resized 600 I’m in good company. Peldi from Balsamiq noted in his wildly well-received talk that 40% of successful people feel like frauds, a number recognizable from SmartBear founder Jason Cohen’s blog on the subject.

Eventually I took a deep breath, dove in, and started highlighting favorite nuggets in my notes. Trawling through 36 typewritten pages of brilliant observations and poignant experiences, I was struck by how many of the speakers brought up the same points. I’ll take this consistency both as a sign of a strong tribe and as reinforcement of the concepts’ validity. So rather than offer a detailed conference summary, I’ll share my short and sweet version of the most pervasive advice.

Sound Bytes and Highlights

  1. Instill passion! Having and cultivating passion is critical: it begets a cycle of passion. Suddenly you have a culture of passion! There’s no better place to work than one characterized by a culture of passion. Fall in love with the problem and believe in your product. People like to follow people, and the market for something to believe in is infinite. — Seth Godin, Peldi Guilizzoni, Youngme Moon, Derek Sivers
  2. Be a good egg: Follow the path of truth and justice. The path of truth is paved with profits. “Commitment” culture models are fastest to go public, surprisingly financially successful, and least likely to fail. Leave the world better than you found it. — Dharmesh Shah, David Russo, Joel Spolsky
  3. Draw people in: Be a company others are proud to do business with. — David Russo, Peldi Guilizzoni, Paul Kenny
  4. Build trust: Returning website visitors [and returning customers] buy more. The goal of your website should not be to sell, but to get people to come back. — Rob Walling
  5. Tell stories and listen: Tell good stories that people relate to — stories they see solve their problem. Engage your customers with dialog. Ask good questions and listen carefully to the responses. — Paul Kenny, Eric Sink*
  6. Focus: You can’t do everything. Pick a few key areas in which you want your company to excel and focus on them. The hardest part of feature design? Knowing what to leave out. — Peldi Guilizzoni, Youngme Moon, Dan Bricklin
  7. Be different: If you want to stand out, do what others aren’t doing. In our world of increasing choices, everything is becoming increasingly the same, so to differentiate you need to take risks and go where no one has yet gone. Keep in mind that different and crazy often look the same at first. — Youngme Moon, Scott Farquhar, Paul Kenny
  8. Be irreplaceable: Do something that leverages your inherent creativity. In a virtual world of infinite abundance, only creativity can ever be in short supply. — Seth Godin, Mark Stephens
  9. Be yourself: Culture is important; let who you are shine through authentically and honestly. — Eric Sink*
  10. Break the rules: Advice comes from everywhere, but you have to take what works for your situation. Sometimes you have to break the rules! — Jason Cohen, Peldi Guilizzoni
  11. Failure is the path to success: If you don’t fail, you can’t learn. Even if you build the wrong thing, it’s still time well spent. Test often and fail as fast as you can. — Eric Ries, Sanjay Singhal, Scott Farquar

Of coures, many speakers not credited above touched on these themes as well. And alas, I didn’t have space to list every concept that resonated (please leave a comment with your favorites!). If you want more detail and some context, read Mark Littlewood’s outstanding real-time summary of each session, complete with photos. You’ll even find some interesting history about how SmartBear clawed its way out of obscurity.

Other stellar summaries:conf2 resized 600

To everyone who shared their experiences at the conference – both on and off stage — I want to express a heartfelt thank-you for your brilliance, humor and openness, and for reminding me that the answer really is 42. Until next year, so long, and thanks for all the fish.

Photos
Above: Seth Godin, Su-uper Gen-i-us

Right: Dan Bricklin, Then and Now

*UPDATE: Oops! I’ve just realized an error in my notes propagated here (information overload –> data processing error). Eric did not touch on the themes attributed to him above. Although the concepts represent common sentiments at BOS both this year and last, they weren’t part of Eric’s highly informative talk. I’m sorry, Eric!

Eric, many apologies for putting words in your mouth!