EntConnect 2010


I posted over a short article on my consulting site about the upcoming EntConnect conference and I figured I’d make sure that anyone who checks in here gets the message too. The EntConnect conference that sprung out of Midnight Engineering magazine in the 1990s will take place in less than a month, March 25th-28th in downtown Denver. If you’re a tech entrepreneur, or would like to become one, you may want to join us. You’ll learn a lot and have some fun while you’re at it.

EntConnect 2009


Many years ago I came across an electronic hobbiest magazine called Radio and Electronics. I first recall subscribing to it in college and I continued on for many years and enjoyed until it went out of print. One of my favorite authors in the magazine was Don Lancaster. There was something about his writing style that just set him apart from everyone else. It was refreshingly honest, and just a little irreverent. I’ve found that it’s rare that someone gets to write that way because most people who write magazine articles usually have an ulterior motive. Most often it’s to sell you something, either a product, and idea, or a point of view. Sometimes people write simply just to keep their jobs. But when you don’t really have a job, and Don Lancaster never had a real ‘job’ as long as I’ve known about him, then you can write and say whatever you want. When you spend time in the company of people who can say whatever they think, things are very different.

While reading Radio and Electronics I noticed that Don was making favorable comments about a new magazine called ‘Midnight Engineering’ which had been started by William E. Gates from Fort Collins, CO, not to be confused with the other Bill Gates of Redmond, WA. The concept of the magazine sounded intriguing to me. The magazine was all about entrepreneurial engineers who were working on their own companies. The thought of people who loved engineering so much that they could be found working on technical issues at all hours really appealed to me. If they were successful, perhaps they could even start their own companies and break free from the shackles of corporate servitude. Many of the people writing articles in ME were surviving on their wits, providing useful products and services without a large corporate safety net to protect them. Now that the corporate safety nets have been shredded, possessing the skills of an entrepreneurial engineer has taken on a whole new level of importance.

Midnight Engineering magazine spawned an annual conference in Colorado called ME Ski and later renamed EntCon. It was billed as a ‘real time version of the magazine’. I was living in Pennsylvania at the time, but dreamed about coming to the conference to rub shoulders with this unusual breed of engineer, one who wasn’t afraid to strike out on his (or her) own and make things happen. I attended my first conference in 1996. You can imagine my trepidation, here I was a corporate guy, hanging out with real entrepreneurial engineers! It was both intimidating and inspiring. They took me in as one of their own. Many of them had been cubicle dwellers in a previous life and some still were, but were working toward their own escape from the corporate world so that they could pursue work that they truly loved. Some of them related amazing stories of making millions, and then losing it all, and then getting it back again! As a cubicle dweller, I could hardly believe some of the stories, but here they were, highly skilled engineers, daring to make a difference by striking out on their own and more than willing to share their stories and knowledge.

Even though I fantasized about the life of an entrepreneurial engineer, I stayed with HP for another 10 years. Each time I would attend the conference, I’d be inspired by more entrepreneurial stories. As a result of hanging out with these folks, I got to learn a lot of things that I had no exposure to in the corporate world. Yet I wasn’t ready to be on my own yet. HP had made it difficult to leave. HP was an American icon, founded by Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, the original entrepreneurial engineers and the company had a unique culture and was filled with talented people. But witnessing the fearlessness of other engineers at Entcon motivated me to take a lot more ‘interpreneurial’ chances. It helped me to decide that I wanted to work on cutting edge products. It’s largely why I went on to help create products like HP’s Digital Entertainment Center, the HP DVD Movie Writer, and HP Media Vault. These products were risky and ahead of their time, a combination that in corporate America will quickly get you a pink slip if you’re not successful. But I’d rather have suffered that fate than work on products that didn’t inspire me. Working on projects that are so exciting that you’d do it for free makes life worth living. And many entrepreneurs do sometimes work essentially for free for years before becoming proverbial ‘overnight successes’.

The conference is taking place this year from March 26th through the 29th in Denver. It is not a large conference and generally attracts between 25 to 40 people that represent some very cool companies. Everyone has a chance to contribute. It’s hard to say how the economy will affect attendance this year but we’ve got people flying in from both coasts and there will be a lot of Colorado folks like myself, and we always have a great time. If you are interested in visiting Colorado and maybe even getting in a day of skiing or snowboarding and some other fun activities, why not join us? You can find the conference details at EntConnect.org. By signing up within the next week, you can still get the early bird pricing of only $149 which is half price for the conference. You’ll also have a chance at winning an HP Media Vault and some of you will also get your own Picture Keepers!

Midnight Engineer’s Forum


Each year I attend a conference in Denver that grew out of a magazine called ‘Midnight Engineering‘. The magazine was dedicated to engineers that loved the work so much they could be found doing it at all hours, even in their spare time, hence the magazine’s name. Many of the readers were entrepreneurial types engaged in moonlighting activities. A yearly conference called Entcon was started that became like a ‘real-time version of the magazine’. It was a great networking event with lots of interesting people that kicked off with skiing in the Rocky Mountains followed by a weekend of presentations and informal networking sessions.

The magazine is out of print, but a conference which is now called Entconnect is still going on each year in Denver around the last week of March.

We don’t get a chance to talk much with the other conference participants throughout the year, so I’ve put together a forum on Yahoo Groups. If discussions about entrepreneurship, tech startups, and free agent engineering appeal to you, perhaps you’d like to join the group.

Entconnect 2008 Recap


EntConnect 2008 is over and it was another great conference. We had a number of new people there this year, thanks to the efforts of our regular attendees in recruiting like-minded individuals. Historically, our attendees were primarily made up of those who were Midnight Engineering Magazine readers or who had attended previous conferences. With the magazine out of print, we recognized EntConnect was taking on the feel of a reunion which is not a sustainable way to run an annual conference. People often acquire other responsibilities so eventually, without new recruits, a conference that depends only on previous attendees will shrink down to the point where it makes no sense to continue holding it. We all enjoy the conference too much to let that happen.

At the end of each conference in the past, we had brainstormed on ways to make it better, but in the time that elapses between the conference, everyone gets busy and no one has the time to do the promotion. EntConnect is a small conference and it’s not a money-making venture, just a labor of love that barely covers its expenses, so we don’t have a big budget for promoting it. This year a small group of volunteers started having regular conference calls about 8 weeks before the event. We offered a substantial discount for early bird pricing (which is now in effect for the 2009 conference), and we also enabled the ability to register and take credit cards on-line via a service called RegOnline. In addition, more of us have the administration privileges to modify the website, which reduces the workload for John Gaudio, the conference organizer.

After the early bird pricing expired, we offered discount codes of up to 1/3 off the cost of the conference and promoted it to local groups and individuals who would be a good fit for EntConnect. That effort didn’t really produce the results we had hoped for. I’d estimate that more than 1000 people became aware of the conference through various email and on-line promotions, but only one person signed up with a discount code. Most thought that the reason for the low response rate was that it was done within 4 weeks of the conference and people have their plans already solidified by that time. So it may have been too late for this kind of last minute conference promoting. It seems that word-of-mouth has remained our most effective form of recruiting.

As much as I enjoy seeing the regular attendees, the highlight of the show this year was meeting the new attendees who are engaged in startups and other entrepreneurial activities. Several of the new attendees also gave presentations. Nathan Seidle of Spark Fun Electronics gave a great presentation on how he started his company while a junior in college and has experienced 100% year-on-year growth in his business for the past 4 years. Rob McNealy of Startup Story Radio talked about his startup experiences and gave a great storyboard presentation about his thoughts on entrepreneurship. Howard Keating of ZANA Network talked about his company’s mission and on the topic of intellectual property as it applies to the small business owner. Steve Schmutzer of Firefly Medical gave an engaging presentation entitled ‘Ten Lessons I Learned as an Entrepreneur’ as well as bringing along a prototype of his company’s revolutionary Infusion Management System.

We had 35 people sign up for the conference and with 5 cancellations, we ended up with 30 attendees. Of the 30 attendees, we had 11 first-timers, which is probably a new record. In addition to those I mentioned previously, we had Mike O’Neil of Integrated Alliances who gave a presentation on using LinkedIn, Gary Lundquist who talked about his latest venture, InnoSearch Colorado, and Andrea Shaver, the 13-year-old daughter of Dave Shaver, who gave an outstanding presentation on leadership and how she helped raise money for a specially-designed wheelchair for a disabled girl.

It was also great to meet other first-time attendees, including Kristie Colby of Colby Creating Consulting, Isaac Davenport of Syncroness Product Development, and Susan and Christopher Smith.

This was the first year I had time to participate in the pre-conference activities. We had intended to go skiing, but after having a delayed start on Thursday morning, my friend Court and I decided to just do some sight-seeing in Denver instead. First we stopped at the REI Denver flagship store and Court demonstrated his rock climbing prowess, quickly ascending a 5.10 level difficulty climb on one of the the tallest indoor freestanding climbing walls in the world. Next we went to Casa Bonita for lunch. I had never been there before, but had heard so much about it. It’s a combination of carnival, theater, indoor theme park, arcade, and yes, you can eat there too. We explored many of the restaurant’s 52,000 sq. ft. which seats approximately 1100 people in a number of areas with different themes. After that, it was off to do some Indoor Skydiving where I got to experience a whole new sensation of flying on a column of air. Later that evening we met at the hotel lounge for some dinner and conversation with several other conference attendees.

On Friday, we had a very late breakfast, which actually became our lunch, and about a dozen of us went out for some high performance go cart racing. The carts will go over 50 mph, so it was quite a thrill the drive them around a track which bore more than a passing resemblance to a scaled down Formula One track, complete with tight hairpin turns and super fast straight-aways that really required one’s full concentration to stay in control. After that, we went to the Cherry Creek Family Shooting Center to do some trap shooting. It had been about 20 years since I had last gone trap shooting, so I struggled to break just over half the clay targets, but it was still a lot of fun. In the evening, we headed across the street from the hotel along with about two dozen other conference attendees to the Black Angus Steak House for dinner. There we met Nathan Seidle, who entertained us with his Port-o-Rotary phone. Later, we assembled in the hotel bar until they told us they were ready to close.

On Saturday I went down to the conference room about 8:00 to see if they needed any help setting up. I won’t go into the details of the speakers, but you can get an idea of the speakers/topics from the 2008 schedule. We broke for dinner and got back a little late, around 7:30 p.m., and launched into the evening presentations. After the last presentation was over at 11:00 p.m. I got to play some poker, a game of Texas Hold ’em, which I had never played before but the rest of the players were familiar enough to talk me through the number of chips I needed to put in to keep up with the others. It wasn’t like any other poker game I’ve ever played, but I ended up coming in second. Surprisingly, the winner, Rob Packard, passed on the Garmin C340 GPS and so I walked away with the grand prize. My wife is thrilled with it ;-). I didn’t get back to my hotel room until near
ly 2:00 a.m.

Sunday morning I was able to wake up at 7:00 a.m. without too much trouble and met some of the others in the restaurant where we had breakfast. The presentations started at 9:00 a.m. and continued until about 2:00 p.m.. We then packed up the conference room and about 16 of us headed out for a late lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. After that, I drove Court to the airport for his flight back to California and then headed home myself. I was tired but content that the conference had gone very well and that we’ll have a number of new recruiters to help expand next year’s conference.

If you’re reading this and are interested in running your own small business or startup, you should consider coming to the 2009 EntConnect conference. It’s 50% off if you sign up now, and you can keep you calendar clear so you know that you’ll make it. There’s no better way to learn than to get advice from those who have gone before you and you’ll certainly meet many of them at EntConnect which will be held in Lakewood, CO March 26-29, 2009.