What’s Hustle Con about, anyway?

Before I went to Hustle Con 2019, any conversations I had (with co-workers, friends, my husband, or anyone else) went something like this.

“Why are you traveling to San Francisco?”
“I’m going to a conference.”
“What’s the conference about?”
“Well, a bunch of entrepreneurs talk about… business stuff, I think?”

Yep, that’s all l knew going into the experience. Now that I know better, I’m sharing the highlights—the best tips, quotes, inspiration, and advice—with everyone who’s ever wondered what Hustle Con is all about.

It’s about ideas

If you’ve ever wondered “How do people even come up with these brilliant business ideas?”, you’d find many different answers at Hustle Con. Some founders described starting with a product, others with a concept, and many found themselves starting with one idea and building upon it over time.

Michael Acton Smith, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Calm, says the whole thing got started when he was bouncing ideas around with his co-founder, Alex Tew. One day, they started talking about a domain name that Alex had noticed: calm.com. That idea—creating calm—stuck with them. A couple of serendipitous moments later (including meeting Calm’s mindfulness instructor), they had a viable business idea.

Adam Grossman, founder of Papa & Barkley, started with a product. He described being pretty much driven to desperation when his father was sick. He was willing to try anything that might help, so he suddenly found himself buying cannabis and cooking it down in a crock-pot. The balm he made significantly relieved his father’s pain—when nothing else would—so he was inspired to create it and share it with others.

Eric Ryan, founder of method, OLLY, and Welly, shared two main tips.

  1. First, he says that his business ideas came from looking at a category and trying to find what’s missing. For example, with method he and his co-founder took the cleaning products category (which was, at the time, very utilitarian) and applied branding and design that was more in line with what you’d see in a personal care product (indulgent, fun, beautiful, and natural).
  2. Don’t be afraid to design for yourself. He said, “If you want to lead the consumer, you have to be the consumer.” This one rang true for me, especially since it’s now possible to reach markets anywhere in the world. You can start a successful business even if you’re designing for a very small niche, and you might find that the niche is a lot bigger than you projected.

Finally, I can’t leave the subject of business ideas without sharing a few tips from Cortland Allen, the founder of Indie Hackers. He led a breakout section devoted to finding, testing, and improving your business ideas. His process starts with intense self-examination, followed by learning about your market before you decide on a product. Only then, he says, should you determine what product you’ll be offering. He also stressed having real, meaningful conversations with your potential customers throughout the process.

It’s about action

Although there was plenty of discussion about the importance of preparation and planning, one theme came up over and over again: you have to start, you have to launch, you have to monetize, and you have to hang in there and keep going.

When Michele Romanow, co-founder and president of Clearbanc, talked about what she wishes she’d known before she became an entrepreneur, she said: “I wish I’d known I’d have to move from planning to doing sooner rather than later.” Her point was that there are things you can’t plan for, and you’ll be forced to adapt. If you get started and build momentum, you can adjust the course as you go.

Another speaker who emphasized the importance of action was Moiz Ali, co-founder of Native. They launched the company in a ridiculously short time—I think he said it was just a couple of months between when he came up with the idea and when they were sending out his first shipments to customers. When Native launched, they knew the product was imperfect and their strategy was imperfect and they had a lot of work to do. On the other hand, they believed that people wanted what they had. Sure enough, they did: they were able to grow the company substantially as they reformulated their product and improved their marketing strategy.

It’s about tenacity

Many—most—of the speakers were what you’d consider success stories. They’ve built businesses worth millions or billions. They’ve raised money from investors or they’ve sold their businesses for tidy sums. They’ve made it.

So, it was pretty cool to hear about what happened before they made it. Of course, practically every success story starts with “It wasn’t always easy …” It’s not surprising that these people faced challenges and obstacles. The cool part was hearing how their perspective changed as they approached the challenges, lived with them, and eventually overcame them.

For example, James Reinhart was rejected by investors 27 times before one said yes. One of the audience questions, of course, was “How did you get that pivotal yes?” His answer was that he eventually found an investor who was open to his idea—but clearly part of the answer is that he just didn’t give up. In the moment, when he had been rejected 25 or 26 times, he probably didn’t know when (or how, or if) he was going to get that yes. But he kept trying.

That story was echoed again and again. There was a panel later with a group of serial entrepreneurs (Marc Rusci, CEO of MIXhalo, Gina Bianchini, founder and CEO of Mighty Networks, Jeff Yasuda, founder and CEO of Feed.fm) where they talked about the different twists and turns they’ve pursued over the years. It took many iterations to get to the point where they had a profitable product that they were also passionate about. One quote that stuck with me from their discussion was this: “The goal is to survive long enough to succeed.”

It’s about the money

Funding is a hot topic for any startup event, in my experience. Hustle Con was no exception. Many of the speakers obtained funding from venture capitalists, and they spoke about the advantages and perils of that approach.

In general, their advice was that VC funding is great if you can get it and you want to run a company that VC investors will love.

The problem, of course, is that only a small percentage of founders end up falling into this category. It’s hard to get VC funding, and many founders want to run companies with slower, sustainable growth (rather than chasing the rapid growth and returns that VC investors typically want).

If you’re wary of VC funding, you might find it heartening to know that many of the speakers self-funded. Often they didn’t get too deep in the financial details, but founders from Zapier, Native, and The Athletic all described getting to launch on surprisingly small amounts of personal savings. (Some of these founders did get investors later to accelerate their growth, but they launched and started scaling on their own).

There were also conversations about other funding options like Clearbanc (they were a Hustle Con sponsor, by the way), accelerators, and business lending.

If I tried to capture the theme of all the money conversations in just a sentence, it’d be “Funding is hard, but don’t let it be a barrier. Find a way to get started with whatever you have.” Moiz Ali, co-founder of Native, also shared some funny-but-totally serious stories about his cost-cutting measures, including how he didn’t pay rent for office space until his company was worth millions.

It’s about inspiration

At the end of the conference, I was feeling pretty pumped. Downright invincible, even. I guess that’s what happens when you spend two days with a bunch of overwhelmingly smart, driven, competent people.

Of all the inspiring things I heard, here are the three that best capture the mindset it takes to face and overcome the mental, financial, and emotional challenges of entrepreneurship.

“I don’t worry about looking dumb. I worry about wasting time.” —Alex Mather, co-founder and CEO of The Athletic.

“Successful people do what unsuccessful people aren’t willing to do.” —Michele Romanow, co-founder and president of Clearbanc.

“Starting a business is what I call ‘Type-2 fun.’ It’s miserable in the moment but it feels great after.” —Mark Gainey, founder and chairman of Strava.

It’s about connection

Starting a business can be incredibly lonely and exhausting. As a leader, you’re responsible for shouldering many challenges—many of which you cannot (or feel you should not) share with your team, friends, or family.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Hustle Con is that it included people at every stage of their entrepreneurial journey. Some people were just thinking about getting started, while others were serial entrepreneurs with decades of experience. There’s something incredibly comforting about knowing that other people are struggling with the same problems, the same unanswered questions, and the same doubts.

Will I be there next year?

I sure hope so.

Everyone has limited time and energy, and practically everyone has limited money. It’s hard to know how to spend it. But the sheer amount of energy, insight, and inspiration I gained at Hustle Con made it unquestionably worthwhile. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Chelsea Hoffer
Chelsea Hoffer is a writer at Azlo, where she gathers and shares knowledge about building successful businesses.

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