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Reflections on MicroConf Europe 2015

I go to conferences. That’s one of my quirks. I think there’s an evolution of a conference goers. You start with big, flashy conferences. Everything is exciting, new city, people, big brands, technology. But then you start noticing the cracks. Talks are just marketing hype for new technology – not too useful in everyday engineering. Big parties and participants that just want more free beer and to party. The stress of it all.

At some point, you start going to smaller events. Targeted, single track, speakers mingle with attendees. These are either a hit of miss. MicrConf was a hit.

MicrConf is a conference that’s targeted towards bootstrapped entrepreneurs. Because the focus it’s not on how to get VC funding, it significantly changes the discussions. 

Christoph already made good notes from the talks, so I won’t publish mine. What follows are more high level ideas that I got at the event.

Being inspired by success of others

It’s possible, the dream is real. People can actually make money by producing content that others want. While I have friends that have done it, it still doesn’t feel real. But talking to 10+ people, that make good money from WordPress plugins made it real for me. You can still make money by selling shareware!

I got a lot of nudges from people, to put all the online advice into practice. Just publishing that first WP plugin and making a paid upgrade is enough. You won’t get rich, but you’ll learn enough to improve on it.

That was an overwhelming theme of a lot of talks. Explaining how they were looking for a product/market fit, how they recognised it and what kind of challenges they faced.

Asking the right questions

At technical conferences, people don’t usually talk about their feelings. It’s easy to be unhappy about customers when you work for somebody else. When you are self employed, you can decide. Did you pick your customers because you want to work with them, or just because they had money?

The other way of thinking about this problem is – what is the natural size of company, that is solving this problem. A small plugin can be done by a single person, while more feature complete software as a service app, requires a team. The decision becomes – do you want to lead your own team, or would you be happier alone.

Forming good habits

It’s easy to dismiss business books as “nice story, but not for me”. Then you hear the stories from people, that actually followed their advice. Going to a retreat, where they rethought their strategy. Started writing down operating procedures. Hired people that actually wanted to do important things, that they were avoiding or were too stressful for them. Understanding your own shortcomings and working around them.

A new world

I think I burned out on startups. All that pressure to raise funding, get insane growth numbers and prove that you can get more funding, isn’t for me. But in this community, the focus is on every single user. Why did they join, what made them select this service and how does our service help them. There is still pressure to deliver, but you don’t the extra stress of unrealistic expectations. 

Talking to attendees of MicroConf, showed me that it’s possible to be an entrepreneur, without having to raise funding. Now to see what I can build in the next 12 months.

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Why you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of introductions

Networking always seemed like a big waste of time to meet. Why go to all these events and talk to new people. Why can’t I just focus on building my product. People will recognise greatness when they see it. Won’t they?

It depends. Do they already know you? Have you met them before? If that’s not true, you’ve just made things harder for yourself.

Let me explain on Prevoz.org: every month, somebody wants to buy it. If they don’t want to outright buy it, they have a complicated business idea. They also don’t want to share it in writing. It’s always in personal meeting. The problem is – I don’t know them and they usually have no knowledge about this area of business. Which means that it’s a huge waste of time for both of us. I’ll have to explain to them why it won’t work or why I won’t sell you the site for pocket money. This is stressful and has negative impact on my other work.

What does that has to do with networking and introductions? Everything. It means that if you send me an email from your personal gmail address, I will most likely reject you. Many previous failures taught me that it’s not worth the time.

There are only two exceptions: you email me from a reputable business address (think agency or company that I heard of) or you’re introduced by someone I know. It’s a low barrier to entry, but most of prevoz.org business email I get, doesn’t pass it.

Extrapolating from my personal experience, I can see why professional networking is important. It’s not a silver bullet – just a foot in the door. But that should be enough. Professional community is small (even on global scale!). Getting that introduction from mutual acquittance shows that you did your research.

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How I sped up WordPress 4x on mobile

With new Chrome, we got even more developer tools. Newest version has a feature “Capture screenshots”. It will record your page load and display how it looks as it’s downloaded to your browser.

After watching Paul Irish comment on some of the large media sites, I started wondering – how is Val 202 doing? It’s getting a decent amount of traffic on mobile devices. It also has a large amount of traffic through Facebook and Twitter, meaning that they probably don’t have our assets cached.

First test – 3G, no-cache: 9.34 seconds until title is displayed!

slow-1Ok, that’s clearly bad. It also means that they potential readers will probably abandon page load and go watch kittens that load from a faster domain.

Looking through all the assets that our theme loads, I see a bunch of potential problems:

  • Plugins that we’re starting to deprecated, but they still load resources
  • External assets and iframes that we don’t even display on mobile
  • Disqus for comments, that we could hide
  • Images that are lower on site, and we could lazy load
  • We load all our assets from our domain, so we hit the limits of how many resources browser downloads in parallel

I try to disable as much of above functions, just to see if it’s worth of development time. Here’s my second measurement (3G, no-cache): 5.65 seconds until content appears.

slow-2

I got the page to load in about half the time. Better, but not good enough.

As I cut even more things, I try to disable TypeKit and with it, time to content falls dramatically. Aha!

Reading TypeKits’ documentation reveals that it waits 3 seconds by default, to ensure that fonts load and there is not flash of unstyled content. But on mobile, we could decide that we’re ok with the flash as long as we show our reader content as soon as possible.

Third measurement (3G, no-cache), with async TypeKit: 2.5 seconds until content appears

slow-3

Still not the best, but it’s a 4x faster than current version.

For now, I’ll try to load TypeKit in Async mode for devices that have smaller window width:

While this approach is not optimal, it gives us a quick win, while we work on streamlining the rest of the frontend code.

Conclusion

WordPress is great for quickly iterating and running content experiments. The problem is supporting this in the long run.

It’s also easy to forget elements of previous experiments in code – custom fonts, icons and whole scripts. It’s good to take a step back and reevaluate our code in terms of new usage patterns and best practices.

WordPress Analytics Engine

data-scheme

I think I’m obsessed with numbers. They give me a feeling of control. Page views, trends, visitor count and more. Not measuring things, makes me sad. If we have a historical data, we can check if our changes worked. Are certain topics more popular? Which stories are more popular on Twitter compared to Facebook? Infinite amount of questions.

I’d like to build a better analytics engine for us. I’ll explain my constraints, and how I’d approach it. Primary plan is that someone can say – “just use X”. If that fails, I can still build it.

Problem definition

We have multiple WordPress installations with overlapping authors. They create blog posts, that are shared to Facebook and Twitter. Each post can include multiple embeds, that they produce – Sound Cloud, YouTube and similar. For each blog, we can also lookup into Google Analytics API and get stats on sessions, page views and time on site.

There are two primary limitations of these external data sources. Firstly, we’re rate limited – so we can only query them about once a day – per post URL. Secondly, we mostly get aggregated data.

We would query these external API’s about once a day. The only limitation we have is that we get aggregate/sum data from them. Facebook only gives us total number of likes, so we need to make subtract previous value. This way we get number of likes in that day.

Potential

Having all the information in one place, it would allow us a couple of things:

  • Weekly reports for authors – sending them encouragements on how their stories did
  • Information for content editors, what got most attention that week
  • Identify old content that suddenly got interest
  • Get information on success of embedded content (Sound Cloud, YouTube)
  • Develop customised indicators – authors with most viewed YouTube videos

Potential Solution?

When researching this topic, there is a software stack that almost fits. It’s LogStash with Kibana. LogStash provides data storage and logging capabilities. Kibana support display of data in many different ways.

The other approach would be to just code it any web framework. But it seems like a huge duplication of work.

Technical Questions

Would ELK stack work? Can LogStash provide input filter that will automatically normalise data for me? It is the right technology stack at all?

Is there anything that solves this in a much better way?

Content Questions

Is it worth building this at all? Is it a good idea to attach numbers to (journalists) work? Did I miss any questions that would be worth exploring?

Would you use such a service?