Here is my “decompression” post from Highlight Midwest, held this week in Kansas City.
First and foremost, there are a lot of very neat things being done in Iowa and the surrounding states.  There is absolutely no reason why the company I work for can’t compete with the major web production studios in California, New York, Philadelphia or anywhere.   That being said…
One of the main things I got out of the conference was that everybody there was there because of one reason:  they want to be the best <something>.   It may sound egotistical at first, but once you peel it away, it makes sense.
The only reason to be doing what we are doing is to be the best.   If you don’t want to be the best, then find something else you want to be the best at, and do that.   This is true both on the personal side and the corporate side.   If I could, I would walk into our programmer area and say “Anybody who doesn’t want to be the best web design and hosting company in Iowa, leave now.”
These people don’t describe themselves as “one of” anything.  For instance, there is a social marketing company in Des Moines called Lava Row, started by a classmate of mine at Ames High.  When they go speak, they don’t get up and say “Hello, I’m Nathan Wright, and I am with Lava Row, one of many social marketing companies in Iowa.”   He says “Hi, I’m  Nathan Write and I work at Lava Row, *THE* social marketing company in the state.”
Believing you are the best at what you do is half the battle to becoming the best.   But it can’t just be programmers, it has to follow through with all departments in your company.   If sales doesn’t think you are the best, how can they represent you fully to clients?   If they don’t think you are the best, they may feel like your prices are too high, other people unmotivated, and their sales numbers will suffer to.  Think of a cold call that goes “Hi, this is Troy and I’m from Captain Jack Communications, the best web developer in Central Iowa, is XXXX available?”   vs “Hi, this is Troy and I work at a web design company in Des Moines, can I talk to XXXXX?”
Everybody has to be on board with making the company #1 in its field.
Next, I learned that it doesn’t take a lot of money or resources to do neat things.   There are a lot of free tools on the Internet that people are using to further their businesses.  Whether they are harnessing the power of hundreds of servers hosted at amazon.com or using Basecamp as their project management software, utilizing the tools that have come out of this “web 2.0” era of web design and development is key to a successful company.
Along with that comes the next thing I learned.   If you are going to try and make a product based on what someone else has already done, you better make it better.  If you can’t make it better, just use the product that already exists.   Facebook saw MySpace and knew they could make it better.   Twitter has spawned a bunch of third party web sites that use its technology to make different services.   If you are going to try and make a Slinky ripoff, you had better make sure it goes “up the stairs” as well as down.
And the last “overall” theme from Highlight Midwest is that companies are not alone anymore.  Where once we stood within our walls and refused to communicate with other companies because they are the “enemy” and our secrets were to be held close to the vest, the new era of doing business is about openness and transparency.   Networking has always been a key strategy of the business owner, but usually it was a network of unrelated fields at a “BNI” group or “business after hours” round table.  Today, it is a group of like-minded, similar fields that come together to share ideas and insights not necessarily about projects each is doing, but where they would like to see the industry as a whole, in the area and the world, go.
Very. Powerful. Stuff.
Here are the specific panels I attended:
Iowa Web Awards / Iowa Flood with Andy Brudtkuhl (Des Moines)
It was hard not to keep socializing with people from the #dmtweetup group, but I really was interested in what Andy had to say.   He has done a lot of work with WordPress CMS systems, as well as Yahoo Pipes – pulling in content from a lot of sources to make one “point of contact” super-site using RSS feeds.   Good stuff.
Building a Better City Web Site with Dusty Davidson (Omaha)
This one interested me because the city web site for Ames is really bad, as is one of the “city portal” type sites in town, as well as the local newspaper.   Dusty has built a platform of content aggregation, sorting and display that will blow the other city web sites, newspapers, and media outlets out of the water.
SmartyPig with Michael Ferrari
The SmartyPig panel was less about the technology and more about the service, so a little disappointing… only since I already knew a lot about it.   Still, it was interesting to hear Michael talk about the origins of the company, and where it was going.  I only wish he would have come to Captain Jack’s instead of Happy Cog for his site design, if for nothing else but to stay local.
Comics on Rails with Scott Kahler and Doug Sparling
This panel was about uclick, the online comic site that combines the properties of a major publishing house that syndicates Garfield (among others).  Of particular interest was a discussion about how everything was dynamic on one of their redesigns, and it brought their servers to their knees.  Then, they redid everything as static pages and things were happy again.  Definitely a lesson in using database content efficiently in there someplace.
Messages, Membership, and Money with Christina MakiChristina
I attended this panel since I had been having some issues getting our local community theater to embrace technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.  She provided some good starting points for non-profits to get into the space, most of which I had already tried … but good info.
Bringing a Japanese Phenomenon West with Derek Maune
Derek spoke about a new web site / service he created to help with a specific kind of microblogging – writing a book.  Apparently in Japan, many people are using short updates via SMS on their cell phones to write books.  His company, Quill Pill provides an online reader that is easy to use for your book, and plans to offer the ability to order a real book with the service in the future.
Microblogging, Macro Impact with Mike Templeton
Mike, another Des Moines tech evangelist, spoke about the different microblogging platforms, and how his new web site is providing a way to keep track of all the micro-blogging solutions out there.
Cleared For Landing: Building a Social Media Business in Flyover Country with Nathan T. Wright and Hillary Brown
Nathan and Hillary or Lava Row gave a good representation of how to build a social marketing business no matter where you are located.   Between the two of them, they are very engaging.   The panel focused mainly on Lava Row itself, and not necessarily on tools, tricks or techniques per se.
Bottom Line – if you don’t want to be “the best” – then get out.  If you want to be the best then there is a huge, welcoming community waiting to help you get there.  And yes, there are some really cool things happening in the midwest.

0 thoughts on “What I Learned at Highlight Midwest #hm1

  1. Nathan T. Wright

    Hi Troy, thanks for the kind comments regarding Lava Row! First, kudos to you for waking up at such an ungodly hour to make the drive to KC for Highlight Midwest. That is not something I could do!
    I’m glad you enjoyed the presentation and the entire event. Regarding your comments about us being THE social media firm in Iowa – right now we are truly alone. However I look at guys like Mike Templeton who I think are pretty close to emerging as a force in this industry and market, and I know that within the next 2-3 years we are going to see more of them popping up.
    Yes, Lava Row is committed to being the best not only in the state, but the Midwest. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us if we’re going to achieve that status, especially after meeting all the talented social media peeps at Highlight Midwest from KC and Omaha.
    For our presentation, we chose not to focus on tips/techniques largely because we felt the audience (lots of new media / social media gurus) already knew that stuff, so we wanted to focus on – as you said – being able to grow a social media biz anywhere.
    Thanks again for the remarks and I will hopefully see you at the next tweetup!
    Best,
    Nathan

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