Lee Schafer
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The point of going to the Enterprise Rising Conference last week was to see if this sophisticated version of “virtual” meetings could be a good experience, now that many of us are sick of Zoom video meetings and YouTube training.

It was, too. But it wasn’t what’s new that seemed to work best. It was the old-fashioned business of storytelling.

This was a tech conference, and you may have even seen these mocked on TV, with their self-important and jargon-filled presentations. But they seem similar to about any industry’s meetings.

Back when these conferences happened in person, attendees could count on networking at happy hour or around coffee pots, hearing good speakers and maybe seeing if the sponsors have services that could be useful.

To get a similar experience online, Enterprise Rising founder Casey Allen adopted technology by a small firm called Remo to create a rich virtual space for this year’s meeting. It clearly worked.

There was a rooftop hangout space to go to, a coffee shop, fire pits and chairs for the sponsors to meet guests as well as the theater for presentations. If you wanted to go from the theater to the coffee shop, you clicked yes on the screen and were teleported there.

Once appearing in the coffee shop, others may recognize you and say hello with a chat message or even plop down in the next seat, their presence announced with a gentle knock.

On a short break one morning, Allen’s face popped up, his avatar having just sat down next to mine in the third row of the virtual theater. He only had a few minutes before introducing his next speaker, but he got to point out the virtual coffee shop where one-on-one meetings were taking place between venture capitalists and founders.

This conference is aimed at the technology niche of companies creating products or services used by other businesses. It’s a strength of the Minnesota tech startup community.

So it made sense for Allen to invite as a speaker Jai Shekhawat, the co-founder of a highly successful Chicago-area company called Fieldglass that created software for big companies to streamline the hiring of contract workers.

With Fieldglass now part of SAP, Shekhawat’s an investor and an industry statesman. He had great stories. So did Twin Cities entrepreneurs Thompson Aderinkomi and Eric Martell, later in the day.

Some of the stories of entrepreneurs (and married couple) Renee Warren and Dan Martell were worth writing down, too, even though their presentation approached self parody. It was all about how to apply sound business management principles to a marriage, from setting quarterly goals to giving each other a performance rating every Friday.

A day of technical presentations would have been a far shorter day — test drive the conference technology, say hello to a few acquaintances and then leave. Staying for hours was a surprise. And curiously, the virtual technology seemed to bring the stories more to life, maybe because a speaker up close and on screen made it harder for the mind to wander or drift to a smartphone.

The conference industry might want to call what we heard “content” or “tips and tactics.” Yet “stories” is best, even though the word suggests entertainment more than business value.

No boss would be satisfied with just a good story after some month-end hiccup, of course, and stories are admittedly affected by all sorts of human biases, too.

We value the advice of those who have succeeded just because they’re the survivors, and we rarely hear from the CEOs who encountered bad luck and failed, who might have had far better insights.

Yet hearing stories is one way people come to better understand what to do in their own lives, including their work with other people in business. Stories grab and hold our attention, teach us something important and hopefully even make us smile on a snowy October day of a very challenging year.

One of Shekhawat’s good stories came from the early days, about the landing of the first customer.

It came down to asking Verizon Wireless if they wanted to go with an established provider that didn’t need the business, or his company, a startup that would shut down without the deal. Verizon decided to take the risk because it wanted the supplier whose life depended on getting this project right.

Yes, that’s funny, but one lesson is that entrepreneurs should stay away from pilot projects or free trials, as they need a customer that’s fully committed, too.

The audience also heard a story about getting cheap (at least in cash) executive help from Eric Martell, co-founder of a Minneapolis company called Pear Commerce that has just four people.

Martell and his partner, also founders of a previous success story, would love to recruit executives away from their well-paid, big company jobs, if only they wanted to pay the big salaries.

Instead, they’ve found that some executives are intrigued enough by the challenges of a scrappy startup to help out as advisers in exchange for a small stock option grant.

The most reassuring stories of the conference might have come from Aderinkomi, co-founder and CEO of Twin Cities-based Nice Healthcare and a founder of a few previous companies.

You could succeed without being a tech expert or spending much money, he said.

His third startup company quickly got to meaningful sales by using Gmail to communicate with customers, Google Calendar for scheduling, Slack for process management, Dropbox to store data and so on.

Good luck getting a patent for what gets built out of a box of parts like these, he acknowledged, but patents aren’t a key advantage for most startups anyway.

This was the same company, by the way, where venture capitalists booted Aderinkomi and later shut it down. He wasn’t sure last week, now finding success with Nice Healthcare after having gone 0 for 4, that he could call himself a “serial entrepreneur.”

“I’ve just had to try a lot of times,” he said.