Mon 9 Mar 2009
First, it was hard not to notice the contrast between this conference and the world outside. Ireland is getting hit hard by the crisis and it shows. Taxi drivers were protesting the day we arrived and those that drove us around explained why: they are squeezed hard because demand for their services plummeted and supply skyrocketed as people laid off elsewhere try to earn a living turning their cars into taxis. Everywhere we went we have seen other signs of the crisis – like 1 Euro burgers advertised at McDonald’s. Walking the streets in Dublin you could smell the stale air from the burst bubble.
Enter the conference (ironically hosted in a trade unions building) and you are in a different world. The optimism was maybe not as exuberant as just two years ago, but still defiantly present. That is good – because we’ll all need liberal doses of optimism in the coming months and years. However, an event like this could have been a great moment to discuss how this industry should prepare to weather this coming storm – or even profit from it.
And prepare it should. The fact is that with angel investors disappearing and VCs getting tougher the (all too frequent) usual path to stardom and riches – develop an app, usually free for the end users, sell most of your company to the VCs, who will float it on the stock market, which will allow you to profit immensely from the 10% stake VCs left you with leaving the task of figuring out how to make your app profitable to someone else – is gone for good. And as more and more people get laid off (unemployment in Ireland is officially reaching 10%, so it is in the US) things like yet another social network won’t be high on their priorities.
But that just means only really good and useful ideas, applications people would like to pay for as users, things that will really help people (like, say, innovative job sites) will make it. I waited for the reality outside the conference room to be discussed – and I was sure I will wait in vain when finally at the very end David Heinemeier Hansson took the stage and told the audience few words of truth.
He told them, that days of counting on VCs to give you money for your cool but utterly useless idea are over. That you have to provide valuable service to users that you yourself would be willing to pay for. That what you are doing is a business for God’s sake and you should think of it as such. That you have to contribute valuable stuff to the community and world at large to earn recognition and fame – and it won’t come fast. That you have to believe in your idea no matter what others will tell you. And that you have to work hard and persevere in face of difficulties to get anywhere – which is probably something most people miss when they want to build “next Google”, “next Twitter” or “next Facebook” (When I hear people saying they will build “next” something I roll my eyes).
To all this I’d just add: and even with all of this you can still fail. Brace for it.
That talk was for me one of the highlights of this event. I have never heard Hansson speak before and I was really surprised that he clearly was a guy who did not forget that what got him where he is now was steadfast hard work.
In an event like this many of those attending are wannabes that want to be as rich and successful as those on the stage. Good that someone with a cult status like Hansson reminded them it is not all rosy and cool – but that hard work and overcoming difficulty is how to get anywhere.
Another great talk on FOWA Dublin was exactly aimed at those who follow the success stories too closely – especially design their apps to mimic some other software. This may be a good idea, but usually isn’t and leads to boring software.
Eoghan McCabe and Des Traynor of Contrast were trying to transmit exactly this with their impressively smooth and dynamic presentation. I don’t like the UIs they shoved in their slides – I prefer clean, minimalistic design, with no big graphics, no animations, no Flash etc. – but I think FOWA audience benefited from seeing examples of doing thing different. And from the Eoghan’s & Des’ general message: question conventions, question the “standard way” of doing things, question “design standards”, question them all the time.
But “question” doesn’t mean “throw away without considering”. If they are useful for you, follow them, but if you have a better idea – go for it.
Worth mentioning were also presentations on security (mainly for its delivery, as nothing really new was said) by Simon Willison and on accessibility by Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet (a very needed prospective on making the web open to those with disabilities, especially vision impairment).
Overall, this was a great day despite clear organizational shortcomings (crowded venue, rip-off bad coffee, flaky Wi-Fi etc. etc.). I’m sure Carsonified team will improve their events organizational side with time.
Other FOWA reviews:
- Dave Concannon’s very detailed review (will take half an hour to read ),
- Peter Szinek’s laundry list of all organizational shortfalls.