Earlier this month, I flew out to Boston for the annual “Inbound” conference hosted by HubSpot. It was going to be amazing. I was pumped. I had attended in 2014 and loved it. This year it was going to be even bigger with Aziz Ansari and Amy Schumer headlining! I was pretty sure they wanted to put the ugly CMO transition behind them with a very PR friendly conference that would rival Dreamforce. To say I had high expectations is a gross understatement. I expected sales and marketing nirvana!
It didn’t quite live up to that.
The Boston Convention Center has a world class audio visual experience, and our senses were immediately overwhelmed during the opening video where we heard the first recitation of what would be a regular incantation: “This is not a conference, this is a movement!” What?! I was under the impression that this was a user conference. Movement? Like we’re marching on the Capitol or something. What are they talking about? Well, apparently inbound marketing requires a movement, and they went all in on trying to build a persona to support.
It goes something like this:
- Marketing is awesome! As long as it is passive and unintrusive. (Ok, yes, but how does that work exactly? I just write a blog?)
- Sales is bad! Evil! Selling is just the thing you do as you sign up all of the inbound leads your blog generates. Anything more is morally offensive and representative of a lower intellect. (Um, yeah, but isn’t it important to grow revenue? Doesn’t that mean that we’ll have to very intentionally take our message to the people that need to hear it, and sometimes deliver it in person?)
- If you are here, you have self-selected into the creative and intellectual elite! (Sweet. I can get behind that!)
Inbound was cool, but here is where I thought they missed the mark:
- Come on! It is a user conference, just admit it. When the prime keynote is the CTO and CEO talking about product updates for two and a half hours, that’s a user conference.
- The Persona they were pushing didn’t align very well with the product direction they are pursuing. Right after Dharmesh talked about the enhancements to their brand new sales CRM and exciting new partnerships that allow the user to deploy Google and LinkedIn Ads, Brian Halligan got up and said “Today’s selling is inbound, not outbound!” and “Cold calling and email blasts don’t work.” Come on guys, we know the landscape is in constant flux and yesterday’s success doesn’t mean anything today. It’s always a balance. Just because you guys focus on inbound doesn’t mean that all outbound is bad. All of us sales people in the audience felt like we were under attack and might be exposed as imposters at any moment. You’re not inbound! You’re outbound! Geez. Too far.
- The speaker line up was a series of hits and spectacular misses. Here are my highlights:
- Seth Godin and Brene Brown? Hits! Brown’s presentation was flawless and by far the best part of the conference. Strong start by the HubSpot team! Great work.
- We opened day 2 with Aziz Ansari. Whoops! Aziz is hilarious. He was particularly funny when ripping HubSpot for being lousy hosts and scheduling him for 9 a.m. (actually it was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., Aziz. NBD that you came out at 9:15). Here’s the problem: it didn’t have any flow at all with the conference. Everyone in the audience wanted to see him do stand up. Instead we got dating advice. The tie in was weak at best. It was kind of funny, but not as funny as his stand up would have been and not relevant enough to be professionally useful. Miss.
- On to the headlining entertainment act! Last year they had some musical artist I didn’t know and didn’t care about. I skipped it. But this year Amy Schumer! Dude! This girl is hilarious. She is also extremely (that word is not strong enough) graphic. If I were sitting in a club next to my buddies or my wife, that would have been amazing. Sitting next to a 23-year-old female employee though? I had legitimate HR concerns about what I was exposing her to. HubSpot went with the hot name and I am sure it paid off in the attendance. People were really excited about it, but the act itself was horribly inappropriate for what is supposed to be a professional conference. Disaster.
- Chelsea Clinton wrapped the conference for me the final morning. I wish I could have been a part of this discussion: “Hmmmm, who should we slot after Amy? She’s going to spend 90 minutes talking about her lady parts and punctuate her performance with a shocking narrative on the First Lady’s sex life. So, how should we follow that? What about Chelsea? She’s pretty boring. It will be a nice, soft landing.” Epic fail. I could not get over the juxtaposition of Chelsea’s monotone plea for more awareness of female rights and Amy’s enthusiastic portrayal of women as sex objects. I, like many others, left early during Chelsea’s interview. My brain was too scrambled to appreciate her points.
Unnecessary whine: thanks for scheduling Dan Pink as the last speaker of the event on 2:30 p.m. Friday so no one with a flight could attend! I bet attendance was awesome.
Couple the above with the fact that as great as Dharmesh is, speaking in front of 10k is just never going to be his strength and you’re left with a confusing and disjointed narrative. It was funny at times, but mostly for its facepalm moments. (Thank you to MC Dan Sally for being a human facepalm!) Somewhere Mike Volpe and Dan Lyons are laughing.
I like HubSpot. They are a company we have watched closely and tried to model as we have grown. I hope they continue to do really, really well for their investors. But this wasn’t their best moment. One of the themes of this conference was the popular fail fast, fail hard, fail often. Cheers to HubSpot for modeling that at their annual conference!
The guys in charge at HubSpot are really smart. I am sure they have already identified these problems and will get them fixed. I bet next year’s event is completely awesome. Unfortunately, after this year I won’t be there to see it.
Posted by Patrick Elverum