Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The EntConnect conference - maintaining relevance, uniqueness, and distinction

A recent commenter asks how the EntConnect conference is maintaining its "relevance" given the low barrier to entry for technology business, the disappearance of the Midnight Engineering magazine, and what the conference offers that is in any way unique or distinct.

All of the commenter's points are 100% valid, but, frankly, irrelevant to the conference since the conference has always had a life of its own separate from the magazine. The conference is not a magazine or run like a magazine or dependent on a magazine, or any other form of "old media." Magazines have their limits, as even the most successful old media firms can attest these days. But... the conference is not about magazines or the magazine business model.

Sure, the original conference (MESKI in 1992) was a direct spin-off from the magazine, but ever since then the conference has really always had a life of its own independent of the magazine. Originally, the conference was billed as "the magazine, but in real-time." In other words, the conference is not so much about long-winded presentations, but short presentations, lots of time for lively question and answer interactions, and lots of what we now call "networking". The fact that the conference really is separate from the magazine is born out by the continuation of the conference long after the magazine ceased publication. So, the magazine definitely gave the conference its start and flavor, but, frankly, the magazine is no longer "relevant" to the conference itself or the value that the conference delivers.

Personally, I would have expect the conference to have died long ago due to the tremendous wealth of information that is so readily accessible on the Web today as well as the diverse tools for social interaction on the Web and Internet. Maybe the attendance for the conference is down significantly due to that one fact alone, but somehow all of that information has not managed to kill the conference even after all of these years. The value of the conference is born out by the fact that people still attend even in the face of "The Internet Tidal Wave."

Even with all of that information out there and all of those fancy interaction and social networking tools, people still have an insatiable demand for face-to-face interaction, as witnessed by the popularity of Meetup groups just about everywhere for just about every topic, including Meetups for technical entrepreneurs. Still, people come to EntConnect.

There are many esteemed (and big-ticket) conferences that overlap with EntConnect as well. Still, people come to EntConnect.

Even with the ubiquity of all of the information and all of those conferences and meetups, still EntConnect has its appeal.

In recent years "unconferences", "bar camps", "open space technology", and a variety of other alternatives to traditional conferences have popped up as well, but, somehow, EntConnect still has its appeal.

As I started to write this I was going to sidestep the question of uniqueness and distinction, but the simple fact is that EntConnect is unique and distinct. Meetups are typically too brief for any in-depth, hard-core technical networking. A meetup is like a meeting or informal get-together, while EntConnect is more like a retreat. The big conferences are still too big for most of us to feel comfortable diving in for hard-core networking. Unconferences, et al are way too unstructured for most people to feel that they are getting more value than they put into them. Somehow, EntConnect balances all of that and offers just enough structure to deliver hard-core value and plenty of interaction and networking opportunities that, well, "just work" for technical entrepreneurs.

Sure, attendance has fallen off since the peak (maybe 120 or so), which didn't have the greatest "feel" anyway. In recent years the group has been in the 15 to 40 range. Frankly, that in itself is significant advantage. Anything smaller would just be too small to have a critical mass and anything much bigger would be too impersonal for intensive hard-core networking.

Current barrier to entry nearly zero for a technology business? Of course! That was the whole premise of the term "Midnight Engineering" or my preferred term of "on a shoestring budget." If the low barrier is even lower now, it only increases the relevance of the core concepts behind both the magazine and the conference. Besides, the barrier for most people is somewhat above zero, so discussions about coping with non-zero barriers are certainly quite relevant.

It is interesting that even as the magazine and old media business models are considered archaic, the subscription or monthly service model has certainly staged a resurgence in Web-based services. Even if "basic" service is "free", everybody is seeking to offer "premium" and "super-premium" services for a fee or higher fee. The conference does not depend on any of this, at present, but it is interesting that not 100% of "old media" concepts are implicitly irrelevant here in the 21st Century, and potentially useful "technology" for midnight engineers.

Another factor that works in favor of the success of the conference is that it combines both hardware and software, and technology and business. Normally, each of these distinct domains is kept distinct in a hierarchical world, but in truth, each of these groups succeeds because of synergy with the others. It has been our experience that each group is curious about the others. That makes for a very appetizing combination. It also helps people improve communications skills, being able to communicate with people who do not know all of your jargon.

Another distinctive feature of the conference is that despite its hard-core technology focus, it has plenty of room for attendance and participation by a wide range of individuals with divergent interests. Technology is not used to gate participation, but it is what draws the group together, that and the focus on the entrepreneurial spirit. The lack of a narrow "focus" may be a limiting factor that prevents the conference from becoming a "big" conference, but it is clearly a key factor that gives the conference its appeal and staying power. Flexibility and adaptability are key survival traits.

The bottom line is that despite the wide range of information and interaction opportunities available on the Web and Internet and meet-ups and conferences (traditional and beyond), EntConnect continues to deliver a combination deal that has distinctive appeal. Maybe not to everybody, but to enough people to justify its ongoing existence.

FWIW, this will be the 19th year for the conference, 1992 to 2010. That means next year will be the 20th anniversary for the conference. Not too shabby in an industry notable for exponential change and rapid extinction of "dying models."

-- Jack Krupansky


At 6:30 PM EDT , Anonymous Rob Packard said...

One of the reasons I find this conference unique is that John understands that most of us are so busy running our businesses that we rarely take the time to "enjoy" the freedoms we have. So, the first two days of the conference are important to me to get myself in the right frame of mind. This years conference was an extremely productive use of my time. (after the first two days)

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