My Themes from #XOXOFest

It’s been a week since I attended #XOXOFest in Portland, OR. It was a Kickstarter-funded conference that…well in their own words:

XOXO is an arts and technology festival celebrating disruptive creativity. We’re bringing independent artists who use the Internet to make a living doing what they love together with the technologists building the tools that make it possible.

The festival and its “fringe” events were incredibly inspiring, very fun, and very delicious (PDX 671 and Salt and Straw win for best foods consumed). The attendees were universally wonderful and insanely creative. More ideas were exchanged and riffed upon in this 3 day weekend than I could count.

Throughout the scheduled talks I picked up on a few themes that seemed to repeat, or otherwise stick in the minds of myself or attendees with whom I conversed. Before getting into that, I want to quickly mention some individual talks that had an effect on me:

I thought the two “keynotes” (attendees and speakers alike poked fun at there being two keynotes at the end of each day) were the best “keynotes” I’ve seen. 

  • Dan Harmon was hilariously self-deprecating, playing on the “Why the hell am I keynoting this event?” card well. Though it wasn’t likely intentional, he summed up one of the common themes of the day pretty well - Do what you love and forget about money.

  • Adam Savage spoke of some of his seriously embarrassing and crazed obsessions, like his desire to exactly recreate movie props to painful lengths. He started his presentation by claiming that he “copies” these items, but concluded by revising this obsession to copy as a desire to “continue the conversation” about the ideas he loves so much. 

I also enjoyed 4chan and Canvas founder Chris Poole’s simple metric for success: You’ve succeeded when your product creates more value than it captures.

And now, the themes that seemed to permeate throughout the event talks:

Ship Dates Suck

A few talks discussed the frustration around ship dates. It seems most anything that is created by someone/some group that is obsessed with creating a great/perfect product will slip on ship dates. It’s basically unavoidable. It seemed to me that the speakers were advocating to not announce ship dates at all. There was no Q&A for the talks that mentioned ship dates, which is a shame because I think it warrants followup discussion. In a lot of ways, I disagreed. I think ship dates, even if missed numerous times, allow followers to make a connection with a product that is missing from ship date-less products. 

From a slightly dirty marketing and PR perspective, a missed ship date might resurface your story. That story will be ignored by users that are already familiar with your product. They probably already knew it was delayed. But those that are unfamiliar with your product are made suddenly aware of a product that apparently has a rabid enough following that a missed ship date creates a stir.

This goodwill can turn if you’re consistently missing ship dates, of course. 

And anyway, Half Life 2 was still the best video game I’ve ever played. I’m sure Half Life 3 won’t disappoint.

Finding the Influencers

Quite a few of the talks mentioned the one moment where things took off. More often than not, the catalyst was a blog post, a tweet, or some other form of endorsement by one of the web’s ‘taste makers’. Working in web marketing, this is not unfamiliar territory for me. We (at distilled) don’t launch anything without having at least one ideal target. Of course, the scale is different here - we’re just looking to get a clients’ website mentioned positively across the web, while the products mentioned at XOXOFest are looking to surpass a Kickstarter funding level, sell a certain level of product, etc.

I was initially a bit frustrated when this kept coming up at the conference. The theme seemed to repeat:

  1. Have a goal
  2. Things Look Grim
  3. ???
  4. Mentioned by Gruber/Andy Baio/Paul Graham
  5. Profit

I wanted to know more about that third step. Again, the lack of a Q&A kind of bugged me here.

I’ve come to terms, though. After considering step 3, I wondered what it could have even been. An outreach email? An @ mention on Twitter? Paying (gasp) someone? I’d venture to guess that step 3 for anyone who mentioned this phenomenon was some form of A) put your head down and keep working on product, and B) quickly tell people who care and get the hell back to A. 

Tell A Story

So many of the presentations focused on the importance of telling a story with your product. This means chronicling the journey of your products’ creation, talk directly to your (potential) fans, and/or give your product a personality. Couldn’t agree more.

On the quality of the presentations

One thing that stood out for me was that so many of the presentations were simply stories themselves. Having attended and spoken at a number of internet marketing conferences, this was incredibly refreshing. It might simply be the nature of the beast, but there’s almost a ravenous obsession with ‘Takeaways’ in the web marketing industry. A presentation without takeaways? 0/5 Stars! Personally, I find this maddening, and its one of the reasons I don’t attend web marketing conferences. I try to walk a fine line when I present, but it takes a bit of finesse.

Many of the presenters simply went up on stage, and told you the story of their rise. It was refreshing, because I consider myself a skeptic - I don’t know everything and to pretend I do for the sake of driving people to take action is disingenuous. The talks embraced a “I don’t know everything there is to know, but at least I can tell you my story” mentality. I love that. I’d love to take that approach in my presentations moving forward. 

With story-based presentations the viewer is subtly forced into drawing their own conclusions and takeways. I like that.

Kickstart Everything

I knew and loved the idea of Kickstarter long before XOXOFest. But for all I understood and used it, I have to grant it an even higher level of importance after XOXOFest. In my mind, it might be one of the most important products created…I don’t know…this century? Yeah, why not? 

Crowdsourcing the funding process and empowering people to pursue projects that, without an intro to a VC or big pockets, would otherwise be completely impossible? Talk about creating more value than it captures. 

Sure, there’s fodder for Your Kickstarter Sucks in there, but that’s going to come with the territory. So are the copycats. The idea is just too good. As for the copycats…

Ignore the Copycats and Patents and Get Back to Work

I can’t say that I’ve even been in a position to make this decision, but it seems like a valuable lesson to hold in the brain bank. Take it from those who’ve tried: Pursuing legal action against patent violations and copy cats will lead to a world of pain that will never end.

Find the Balance between Obsession and ‘Just Ship It’

Nearly every product discussed at the festival had some obsessive-types at the helm of creation. They’re in love with their idea, and to ship some incomplete version of it seems incredibly painful. Though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, I suspect this is some Lean Startup thinking creeping into the presentations. At some point, your obsession with tweaking your product will reach diminishing returns without customer feedback. I suspect this balance point will never be quantified, but will instead remain the holy grail that separates the successful founder from the rest. I’ve not ‘started-up’ anything quite yet, but I can only hope I’m able to recognize that point.

That’ll do. Thank you Andy Baio and Andy McMillan. I’ll see you at #XOXOFest 2013.


  1. mikecp66 posted this