A month ago, I attended MicroConf2011, a great little conference for self-funded software startups. I got a lot out of the conference and have already written positively about the experience. One big change in my own behavior since coming home has been to work harder at connecting with customers and prospects and getting real, honest feedback from them. It’s relatively hard to do this when selling through the quite anonymous app marketplaces but I’ve already had one eye-opening success at engaging with a user community and am laying the groundwork now for another.
It is in that spirit of getting and giving honest feedback that I’ve finally decided to write about the one really negative experience I had at MicroConf: a talk given by Noah Kagan. One of the oft-repeated themes at MicroConf was: just try stuff, see how it works, don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself by trying something new, just listen to the marketplace and learn from your mistakes.
So, as one small marketplace datapoint in Noah Kagan’s budding career as a public speaker, I am hereby speaking up: “Your talk didn’t just not work for me. It wasn’t just glib, edgy, and rude. It was deeply offensive. You embarrassed yourself. You need to rethink what you did, ditch parts of your presentation, and try harder next time.”
Now, it would probably surprise Noah Kagan to find this out, but most of the people who read this won’t have a clue who he is. What little I know about him is from the conference literature and snippets here and there on the web. He’s currently ‘Chief Sumo’ at AppSumo, which one online interviewer described as “a sort of Groupon for software, apps, and business/tech education courses”. (From the AppSumo FAQs page: “Companies give us these amazing deals for limited time to get people to try out their great services.”) Kagan is also an alumnus of Mint, Facebook, and another startup of his own called Gambit.
Apparently, in the small but influential industry of high tech companies and service providers who cater to high tech startup companies (yes, I’m serious, there is such an industry), Noah Kagan is a bit of a rock star. He was the last speaker on the first day of the conference and more than one preceding speaker — smart guys, good speakers — expressed excitement about the fact that Noah was at the conference and going to be addressing us.
I don’t think Noah Kagan was trying very hard to be offensive when he talked. Frankly, the first thing that struck me about his presentation was that he wasn’t trying very hard at all. His overall topic was how to be more effective — how to wring more accomplishment out of your day as a startup entrepreneur. And one of his major take-aways was, get this: type faster. Now that’s deep.
Noah’s presentation style wedded PowerpointNextGen visuals with a hardcore tech-blogger-speak style of delivery. Have you seen a PPNG presentation yet? PPNG uses Powerpoint as a high tech slide projector to splash strong visual images up behind the speaker, with few words and no bullet points. When done well, the images reinforce the speaker’s words, make the whole presentation more memorable, and don’t put you to sleep in 30 seconds the way normal PPs so often do. Tech-blogger-speak is fast-paced, usually a bit rude, occasionally quite funny, and, when done well can be very entertaining and effective. It’s a style that was pioneered by Joel Spolsky, who can be rolling-in-the-aisles hilarious in a way that is biting without, usually, being downright cruel.
Put the two techniques together in the wrong hands, though, and the result is a rambling rant in front of weird pictures. And that about describes the first half of Noah’s talk. He did add a unique element by lobbing plastic bottles of hot sauce across the room to ‘reward’ someone who asked or answered a question.
For example, as a way to bring emphasis to a point he was making about the mixture of pleasure and pain with which many of us approach our email inbox at the start of the day, Noah put up on the screen a picture of a young woman . . . writhing, I guess you’d say . . . on a floor, maybe? . . . in ecstasy — well, maybe. . . in pain, probably (a lot more pain than pleasure is what it looked like to me). And he tried very hard to get a couple of the audience members to describe the picture in some detail or put a word to her state. One of them stuttered out enough of a response to earn a bottle of hot sauce. Now, however weird and tasteless writhing-woman was, she was, at least, displayed on the screen in service to a point Noah was making in his speech.
But then came the faceless bitch: a headshot, not even particularly recognizable as female because the face and neck were covered by a huge opaque circle across which, in large letters, was enscribed BITCH.
A short time after the slide flashed on the screen, Kagan glanced over his shoulder, as if a bit surprised, since she clearly didn’t have anything to do with the point he was making, and said, “Oh, that’s just my previous girlfriend.” Then he just left her up there — for a long time. Long enough that finally I came to my senses, picked up my phone, and snapped a picture of the screen. At which point Kagan noticed me and said, “Gee, that’s not my good side” and I responded that I was not taking a picture of him. Which, for some reason, earned me a bottle of hot sauce. Not lobbed, though. Mine got handed carefully down from the stage and passed hand-to-hand. By the time it reached me, to say I was angry is to understate the case.
Yeah, I know. <L’esprit_de_l’escalier> What I should have done was stand up, walk the bottle of hot sauce back up to the stage, point out to Noah Kagan that he had not earned the right to give ME a token of recognition, and just kept on walking out of the room. </L’esprit_de_l’escalier>
But I didn’t. I stared at the hot sauce in my hand for way too long, getting way too mad. And then, finally, I just lobbed it back up on the stage. Or tried. Turns out that successfully lobbing hot sauce from a seated position in a middle row of a large conference room is harder than you might guess. Or, maybe you’d be smart enough to guess it’s hard; I wasn’t. And while Noah’s bottles had sailed across the room and landed hard without breaking, mine burst on impact. Onto people. Who were incredibly gracious about it. Meanwhile, Noah paused for half a beat, asked, “Are you MAD at me?” as if that was the oddest thought in the world, and then went back to his talk as if nothing had happened.
Now, seriously, back to the walking out. I should have. Because, frankly, if the word on that picture had been a racial slur, many of us there that day would have. And “bitch”, used in that way, in that context, can only be interpreted as a gender slur and hugely offensive. But I just sat there. We all just sat there as if nothing had happened (except the two guys in front who were scraping hot sauce off themselves and their electronics for the rest of the speech), and Noah kept talking and showing weird slides.
Such as the picture of his “current girlfriend,” when he was talking about how smart she was and what a great job she had done marketing herself for a job once. I get that being identified as Noah Kagan’s “current girlfriend” is, from his perspective, a very high compliment, indeed. However, given that she appears on his company’s website listed as one of the people who work there and he was talking to a room full of potential customers, I have to wonder if she wouldn’t have preferred being identified simply as “my friend and colleague.”
After that really disturbing sequence of slides, Noah settled down, stopped rambling so much, and made a few constructive/interesting suggestions:
- value your time (automate everything, get your people to bring you solutions not just problems, and, yes, type faster)
- think long term not short term (try to cultivate customers for life, approach every choice as if it was a long term decision)
Does that last point strike you as pretty ironic in relation to what Noah did in the first half of his speech? Good. I’m not the only one then. Frankly, I suspect that Noah has given 20-30 minute versions of his presentation many times before and that the weird stuff at the beginning was just filler he threw in at the last minute to make the speech last an hour.
I ran into Noah at the back of the room the next day. (MicroConf was GREAT for the amount of one-on-one access we had to the various speakers.) And I asked him if he wanted to understand what had happened during his speech. He replied simply, “No” and that was that. (Hey, I’ve raised children. I’ve done enough talking at small people who don’t want to listen to me to last anyone a lifetime.)
I’ve been going back and forth about the lessons of that day, for me, and find they fall into two completely different categories:
- When and how should we speak up, in this “post-polite society” of ours — that’s the only term I can think of to use for the world I find myself living in, when someone’s behavior crosses the line from being edgy and confrontational to being just plain offensive and unacceptable?
- What, if any, damage does Noah Kagan do to his own company when he crosses that line? Should he (and his partners and employees) care when he goes out in public and makes a “kind of an ass” of himself. Given the level of rude that “just works” these days, does Noah’s particular level of rude in this particular presentation present issues for his business or not? I’d argue it does but agree that, these days, that isn’t a given any more.
I hope to write more on each of the above topics. But right now, it is time to hit the Publish button and get on with my day.
Update: Note that, in addition to the comments below, there was a rather vigorous debate about this post over on Hacker News. Scan the comments below, though, before you click the link to HN. If the language or tone of anything posted here offends you, please don’t bother with the HN threads. There’s a lot of good stuff there but also much flaming not for the faint of heart.