It’s tough to compete with the view from the Vancouver Convention Centre, but organizers of the GROW Conference are giving it a good run this week.

Outside the centre’s conference hall, your eyes can’t help but be drawn across the harbour and upward to the cloud-topped peaks that loom over North Vancouver.

That likely helps to explain the high quality of speakers and seamless scheduling that greeted attendees inside the hall Wednesday at GROWtalks, which preceded Thursday’s launch of the main conference.

One after another, presenters offered practical and compelling insights into the challenges tech entrepreneurs face and how to overcome them.

Kicking things off were Brant Cooper, author of The Lean Entrepreneurand Patrick Vlaskovits, CMO of Drumbi, who spoke about customer development as equally important to building product.

Along the way, they addressed the mythical narratives that often spring up around visionary innovators, reminding the audience that the term ‘visionary’ is usually applied only after someone has spent many years trying, and often failing, to put their dreams into action.

Cooper said it’s best to ignore the myths and instead focus on developing your idea. “If you believe what’s between your ears” instead of looking to so-called visionaries for inspiration, “you’re going to sit around and build the whole product,” he said.

Kate Rutter, co-founder of Luxr, took on user experience and its distinction from user interface, and the importance of treating UX and UI as separate concepts.

Using a breakfast analogy, Rutter described the UI as the spoon and the UX as the crunchy, tasty goodness of the cereal. She laid out a UX stack that places users at the top, then identifies their needs, the uses of a product to meet those needs, features of such a product, and the product itself at the bottom.

Her slide deck also included clearly laid-out narratives showing how to tell a simple story about a product’s user experience.

Search-engine optimization took centre stage next with a rapid-fire but engaging talk by Rand Fishkin, CEO and founder of SEOmoz, titled Don’t Buy Your Marketing. Earn it.

Stressing the key role of high-quality content in boosting web traffic, Fishkin shared tips on how to avoid expensive ads and build engagement organically, using social networks and analytics tools.

He also stressed the importance of being willing to slog through tough times to achieve momentum, citing his own company’s first five years of non-growth which has since led to $20 million in annual sales and a staff of nearly 90 employees.

After Neil Patel of KISSmetrics spoke about metrics worth measuring, founder Joe Stump gave a talk, titled Couples Counselling for Software Development, in which he offered some pointed advice to his fellow geeks.

“You are not an expert in anything” other than maybe coding, Stump said, taking aim at developers who feel themselves qualified to weigh in on marketing, copywriting, user experience and other aspects of product-building.

Scott Kveton of Urban Airship, Rick Perreault of Unbounce and Sean Ellis of Qualaroo filled out the schedule with talks on scaling, experimentation and growth before Dave McClure, founding partner of the 500 Startups accelerator, wound up the afternoon in typically provocative style.

We lost count of the f-bombs and colourful epithets McClure sprinkled over the proceedings, but his description of an effective accelerator as “a village of useful people” certainly rang true for anyone remotely aware of Communitech’s approach to nurturing startups and building an ecosystem.

It was almost enough to forget the scenery that awaited outside.

For more conference coverage, follow me on Twitter at @ajreinhart.


About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.