This is the transcript from a three-minute talk I gave at Side Project Society recently. I crammed a lot in those three minutes, and I hope it encourages you.

Photo by @april_lelia on Instagram

Photo by @april_lelia on Instagram

As a UX professional, I care deeply about talking to the people I build products for and meeting their needs, and, as I often preach to others, so much insight is hidden deep in the bowels of casual conversation. So, it should come as no surprise that a string of these types of conversations changed my career and helped me launch multiple successful side projects, starting specifically when I decided to move on from doing creative media in churches.

I decided to ask what I call God—you can call it your gut if it pleases you—hard questions and decided to listen to an inner voice, instead of making it scream like we’re prone to do. From there, I knew my wife (the smartest person I know) would help guide me. I asked God and April hard questions often and listened intently to their responses. I still do.

When I had final interviews for one startup and a massive company that both offered exciting jobs, I asked them directly about my family coming first. I listened to their response.

So, I didn’t take either of them because I asked good questions. Later, I’d have lunch with John Saddington, who would actually end up telling me what to look for in an opportunity. I listened to him.

When I interviewed at Pardot, and my then boss told me he wanted me in a different position, it rang of what John had told me, so I asked the owners of the company how they approached running a company and how they felt about my family coming first. I listened. I launched my career in UX there, which has felt like what I was always supposed to be doing. I now affect thousands of peoples’ lives every day.

When that same boss encouraged me to keep up the public speaking, I listened. I toured Europe last year.

When I went to Grok several years ago, I asked a group a question about a music startup I’d worked on. Their answers directly led to a long-lasting partnership with local record stores in which we’re not only making money, but a difference for these stores.

When I had an idea for something now called Evermore, I dedicated a year to asking people about their needs, and truly listened. I asked a smart, older mentor type a question about pricing and listened. A friend of mine became my co-founder because I was listening while we were talking casually one day. It all paid off: we’re growing, our customers love us, and we’re achieving product-market fit more quickly than most.

So, stop trying to get the answers you’re looking for.

Start talking to smart people, ask hard questions, shut up, forget about yourself, and listen.

People are always the key.

Grok is a conference designed for conversation, and that’s what makes it oddly unique.

I say “odd” because it would seem that many conferences strive to foster conversation. I can’t think of a conference at which I’ve spoken or I’ve attended that didn’t offer some form of afterparty/happy hour/networking event. But, Grok flips the whole thing on its head: yes, there are a few presentations, but conversation is the attraction. That format completely overcomes the common complaint that “we could have just seen that presentation at home”.

You cannot replicate the type of conversation that happens at Grok, because you’re diving head first into discussions with folks you’ve never met before.

The tendency would be to think that such a format would eat into your ability to “network” (whatever that means to you), but that’s also not the case. I’ve attended three years in a row now, and I’ve seen a tangible business-related benefit from each conference. One “10/20” chat (the main component of Grok) two years ago led directly to working with local record stores to provide paid services that benefit everyone.

It works, but it works by not trying so hard to make it work. So, how does Grok do it?

People Over Structure

Yes, Grok has a schedule, but it’s entirely built around what they call a “10/20”. These are hour-long sessions with a random group of attendees where anyone can take 10 or 20 minutes to ask a question or pitch an idea—and when I say “pitch”, I mean just throwing it out there; no presentations or selling. There’s a moderator in each group to keep time and offer some topics if there’s a lack.

I think many organizers would fear the awkwardness here. You know what? It is awkward, especially when it’s someone’s first 10/20 in their first year. It can sometimes be a circle of people standing around looking at the ground. But it’s totally worth it. I’ve never failed to see at least one interesting topic come up where everyone could contribute, regardless of their field or experience. That sort of natural inclusion helps otherwise nervous people open up, and you see true honesty—not to mention, surprising insight from yourself and others.

People Over Technologies

Instead of categorizing people by field or interest, as most conferences do, Grok does no such thing. The lack of focused programming creates an inviting atmosphere to more folks, regardless of field.

Because of its origins with designers, Grok naturally attracts plenty of folks in the web industry—but that’s often the only known similarity you have with others until you talk to them. See how this is working? And, pretty often, you’ll be surprised to find that you’re actually talking to a painter or biologist or stay-at-home mom.

That type of interaction matters because it means you meet people as people, and not a collection of knowledge about a similar topic. The only thing you can assume is that you both know what Grok is.

People Over Alcohol

Certainly, beer was had at Grok. But what’s more important is that alcohol was not needed to have the best conversations. 10/20’s happened in the middle of the day with no offered booze. This. Matters.

Believe me, I’m not opposed to conversations that happen over beer. Not even a little. I don’t even mind those folks who take an open bar to heart and end up half-silly.

But, when there’s been an entire day of sober, heartfelt conversation prior to a nightly gathering, you have far more to go on. You know more people. You know what you have in common. Conversation has a jumping-off point, and those evenings serve as extensions of a prior discussion. Introductions to friends and colleagues are suddenly more graceful.

Most importantly, though, you can tell that folks, overall, use alcohol less as a crutch. Regardless of your views on drinking at events, we can all agree that less of a crutch is better. Getting to know people in their truest form is best.

So, what’s Grok doing that other conferences aren’t? Grok fearlessly features people as its main attraction. Not speakers, not organizers—just people. Its success speaks to something we all ought to do more often: use context to look past what we can offer each other professionally and just be.

Make more than a new LinkedIn connection. Make a friend.

April 7, 2014 — 3 Comments — In Blog, Conferences, Grok