Growth Lessons Learned from a Productivity Platform and Developer Conference

As the Director of Developer Relations here at Smartsheet, a big part of my job (and the team I’m building out) is to attend and speak at developer conferences. I’ve spent a good number of years speaking at developer conferences around the world. The keynotes, the vendor showcases, the boxed lunches – it all gets a little blurry after a while.

Still, there are a few events that stand out and keep me wanting to come back, including DevNexus, coming up at the end of this month. They’ve been around for over a decade, and these guys get it just right. During prep for my talk this year on various cloud systems and how to best make sure of them, I began to see some of the deep similarities between this developer event and Smartsheet, my current employment home.

It’s a fairly self-standing statement that conference events come and go. (Oh, CES, we hardly knew you.) So do startups with their ideas to make the world a better place (somehow). Yet both Smartsheet and DevNexus have proven to stand the test of time, well past a decade for each. Which then begs an interesting question: What does it take for an entity – be that a developer event or a cloud-centric productivity startup – to find true longevity?

Make Sure to Know Your Target Audience.

“DevNexus began in 2004 with some members of Atlanta’s Java user group. Friends and family spoke, and there were about 60 people there total. Fast forward to today, and we’re the second largest Java platform conference in the country,” says Vincent Mayers, Program Chair for DevNexus. When asked about the secret to sustained growth, Mayers and team say that understanding these developers who turn out for the event is key.

Which isn’t far from what we say about Smartsheet when the same question is asked of us. Our founding team kept seeing knowledge workers everywhere managing work – ineffectively – with spreadsheets and email. 

This isn’t a one-time audience connection; it has to be ongoing, or you risk losing touch.

Without knowing your audience, it’s pretty hard to build a framework for success.

Identify Their Needs.

According to Mayers, a large part of the event’s repeated success and growth stems from their deep familiarity with their audience – developers in Atlanta – and year after year intentionally create an environment worth showing up for, for attendees, volunteers, speakers and sponsors. “We facilitate an atmosphere that embraces the importance of networking for this community. What attendees learn from interactions with speakers, sponsors, and each other between sessions is often as valuable as the session content,” says Mayers. “It’s not often that we all get to step away from our desk jobs and learn from one another. This atmosphere keeps people coming back and spreading the word about DevNexus.”

That’s also a resonant tone for us here in Seattle. As anyone who’s tried it knows, managing work in email and spreadsheets is a fast road to work management nightmares. So why do people keep doing it? Why was it a problem 11 years ago when Smartsheet was founded – and still a problem today? Because when other approaches to managing work are too complicated and hard, folks fall back on the familiar. Our founding team identified that our audience needed a way to manage work that was easy to use, and we haven’t forgotten that.

DevNexus attendees want to get to know other developers, year after year. Smartsheet customers want an easy-to-use tool, year after year.

Nail down what your audience needs, make sure it’s crisp, and you’ll head in the right direction, no matter your endeavor.

Stay True To Your Community.

“The people that show up for DevNexus are what matter to us the most,” says Mayers. “As we’ve grown, we’ve expanded our sponsorship network to keep the cost of attending down. It’s more important to us to get the developer community in Atlanta out to our event than to turn a profit on DevNexus. Our mission is to put together an event that will resonate with folks to get out of their day jobs and show up.”

Same goes for us here at Smartsheet – that ease of use mentioned above has carried through as we’ve grown our feature set within our app and built out our developer tools. Keeping our community’s need for intuitive work management stays front and center. And when polled, customers continue to tell us: Ease of use continues to be one of Smartsheet’s key differentiators.

When you stay true to your users, you’re on the right path.

Sound Interesting?

Should you find yourself attracted to the idea of working for a company that prioritizes understanding its users, keeps things simple, and applies that same attitude to our workplace culture, Smartsheet may just be the place for you. We’re hiring.

**A version of this post first appeared on GeekWire.com**

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