The Killer Network: Trilogy Alumni and OTB2014 #SXSW

Scott Francis
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Vote to see my session at SXSW 2015!Trilogy and Entrepreneurialism

My first job out of college was at a place in Austin, called Trilogy.  Trilogy, for all its faults, definitely had something special in the water.   Every 18 months or so we pull together an alumni-reunion-meets-unconference for Trilogy Alumni.  The idea hatched over dinner in NYC a few years ago, and the first “OTB” conference was born.

A few key articles have been written about the Trilogy Alumni network – Lori Hawkins’ article on the Trilogy Effect, which asked the question: which Austin startups would pick up the mantle of recruiting talent to Austin?  – and Founder Dating’s blog post on the most entrepreneurial alumni networks, which ranked Trilogy #3, behind stalwart IDEO and recent IPO Bazaarvoice.

John Lilly, a fellow Trilogy Alum, former Mozilla CEO, and current Greylock Partner once told me (over Torchy’s tacos) that you could tell where someone’s formative experience was and that it would shape how they solve problems –  for Google, analyze the data – for Trilogy alumni, recruit insanely great people.

Why a SXSW Panel Proposal?

Given that background, I thought it was high time to pull together a session at SXSW interactive to talk about the Trilogy Effect – on Austin and on the startup ecosystem.  But moreso, to really understand whether Trilogy’s Alumni group was a unicorn – unique and non-reproducible – or whether it was just one example how a great corporate alumni network can make an impact.  Clearly Trilogy’s alumni have had an outsized impact on Austin – so we’ll pass along how to replicate that impact in your community with your corporate alumni groups. And we’ll talk about what the community can do to reinforce the effort. A big part of what it boils down to is understanding your unfair advantages and leveraging them to the hilt.  I hope to field some great questions from the audience as well.

Who is participating in the panel, you might ask?

  • John Price, CEO of Vast
  • Chris Taylor, CEO of Square Root
  • Heather Brunner, CEO of WP Engine
  • Scott Francis, CTO of BP3

The other three panelists are inspiring and approachable leaders, who have built great value in their companies.  Square Root and BP3 are both bootstrapped businesses with very different business models and paths to success.  Vast and WP Engine are both VC-funded and have experienced amazing growth. Vast is big data for big decisions, and WP Engine is the best value-added WordPress “hosting provider” in the business.  We all went through different experiences at Trilogy and after Trilogy, which should inform a lively debate.

Years ago, Trilogy recruited over 900 college graduates to Austin.  Austin was not then seen as this cool destination it has been made out to be in TV shows and movies since.  It was a tough sell to get people to move here.  If we can do it in Austin, you can do it in your town.  But we can’t do this SXSW session with out your vote!  Please click on the link above or click here. And vote for our session.  Voting really helps put new speakers at SXSW like ourselves over the top.

OK Fine, Have a Session at SXSW, but Why an unconference for Trilogy Alumni?

I want to take the rest of this post to share with you one of the killer features of the Trilogy Alumni network with you. While an email list is important and necessary to support the network, the killer feature, for my money, is the OTB conference.  These alumni conferences could have just been reunions.  And those have happened before, but left us unsatisfied with the result.  So we raised the bar and made the reunion a conference with a focus on content and value.  So it isn’t just reconnecting with your friends and peers, it is recharging your inspiration and motivation – and making new business connections that can propel you forward.

How do you get started down the path of creating a conference?  It started because my wife (also a Trilogy alum) and I were making a trip to New  York for her business. I reached out to an alumni super-connector (Amanda Terry) when I landed with a text: “Would you like to do dinner tonight with Cindy and I?”  She said yes, and she’d send out details in an hour.  3 hours later we’re sitting down to dinner with 6 of the finest people I know, in the West Village.  Appreciating the atmosphere and the conversation, the idea for OTB – and the name – was hatched on the spot.  Amanda, Vinaya, Karen, Sudhir, Gary, Cindy, myself.  And that’s how it starts – a few people willing to put their neck out and get something started, and a sense of community that makes that effort feel worthwhile.

the original co-conspirators

A little OTB History

The first OTB (2011) was right here in Austin, at the Driskill hotel.  I “curated” the content – meaning that I chased down people for talks and panels and each of the speakers pulled together the content.  Red Velvet Events took on the logistics of the event, and alumni paid for the costs of the event. It was a watershed event for our community.  For most of us, Trilogy was 10 years in our rear-view mirror at that point, and it was a great time to reconnect and reflect.  During the intervening years, many alumni were busy helping other people start and grow their businesses, though a few had bootstrapped successful businesses.  The focus of the conference was largely on startups, and what’s next.  Our original CFO, Wade Monroe, gave a memorable talk at happy hour, and John Price, our VP of Marketing at Trilogy for many years, gave the most personally moving talk I’ve heard at any OTB conference.  Not too many dry eyes for that one.

General Session at the Driskill Hotel

The second OTB (2012) took place at USV’s space in New York City.  The venue helped shape the discussions – sleek open space in an historical building and district in Manhattan.  With the help of Gary Chou (now at orbitalnyc.com ) and Jean Barmash, we pushed the conference to one day of “curated” content and one day of unconference content.  By far the most popular part of the conference was the Day 2 unconference format.  The alumni network in NYC is strong, and again the focus was on startups – but the makeup had changed – more founders, more would-be founders, and more people exiting successful startups.  A keynote from Sudhir anchored day 1, and Joe Liemandt stopped in to give us an update on Trilogy.  Another key innovation was the introduction of the Significant Learning Experience – which was a fantastic icebreaker that we carried forward.

We evolved the concept for the third OTB (2014), which took place at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, CA.  Some of the statistics of our attendees were mind-blowing.  43% of the attendees were owners or founders.  Another 13% were C-level executives.  The demographics have shifted – with alumni in more senior roles, ownership roles.  Our themes were “converting network into value” and “turning discussions into action”.  Our sessions were 100% unconference this time, doubling down on the most popular part of the previous OTB. I think it was the best OTB yet!

Topics included:

  • “Inventing the Future” – Andrew Chung of Khosla Ventures
  • “Getting started with Arduino” – by Austin’s own Mark Phillip of RUWT?
  • “The nuts and bolts of product design” – Wendy McKibben Spies, an early d.school grad. I personally attended this one and it was a great discussion of how to put process around design and innovation without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Love that it was all done with a simple paper easel.
  • “How to make a pie crust” – “Space” Kenny, one of the best renaissance men I know – and real pie crusts were made!  Now, if only there had been enough pies made to feed everyone…
  • “An insider’s view of Amazon’s ‘Working Backwards’ Approach to Innovation” – Mike Miller – this was one of my favorite sessions. Mike did a fantastic job of capturing how this thought process can lead to different takes on common problems, much like working backward in a project plan can uncover missing requirements that are hard to see when thinking “forward” in project planning.  This session could be another blog post all by itself.
  • “How I Gave up a Singing Career to Join Trilogy” – Andrew Chung – I wish I had been in this session too!
  • “What’s the best way to vet a start-up idea” – Discussion
  • “Education space startup meetup” – Discussion
  • “Pricing and Proposals” –  Reuben of Mimiran – Reuben is the “pricing whisperer”.  There was a joke in the room that the answer is always to “increase your price”. But Reuben’s approach to pricing is more subtle than that, and he acknowledges that it is more common for people to under price than over price.
  • “Technology Opportunities in China and Asia” – Kayliang Ong – Kayliang brings Trilogy experience to an enterprise in Asia, based out of Singapore.  You couldn’t hope to get advice from a more knowledgeable source.
  • “Part time talent, non-conventional hours” – discussion
  • “how do you regulate speed when backed by VCs that just want to go fast?” – discussion
  • Building and running agile teams off-shore, on-demand, and on a shoestring – discussion
  • Why is health IT so hard? – Cheng Zhou and Amit Maholtra, Advisory Board
  • Public Markets – Hemang Bhojani
  • Big Data Analytics – Toli Lerios of Metanautix
  • How do you run your management meetings – Discussion
  • Employee Bonus/Incentive Programs – Discussion (I got involved in this one long enough to share how BP3 approaches these topics, and in particular to share the unconventional aspects of how we do it).

And then several more “turning discussion into action” sessions on Day 2.

What’s next for OTB and the Trilogy Alumni?

Clearly, what’s next for OTB is that we’ll do another one.  And hopefully many more.  The unconference format creates an adaptability of topics that SXSW interactive attendees will relate to – and that adaptability allows OTB to be fresh every time and to adapt to the changing demographics of this high-value network.

What’s next for Trilogy Alumni?  Clearly more startups, more big successes, more angel investing and VC funding.  And more of “fixing” other companies recruiting efforts across the board.  But also: more families, more kids, more unconventional “startups”.  In particular I notice Trilogy alumni are good at applying startup thinking to traditionally non-technical businesses (think H.Bloom, or Red Velvet Events).  These businesses won’t always be big by investment standards, but they’re meaningful and rewarding to those who work in them and to their customers who benefit from them.

Vote to see my session at SXSW 2015!If you made it this far, you’ve made the investment in knowing more about Trilogy’s alumni network.  Make one more investment: vote for the session so that we can share more in a public forum.