RALEIGH — The Triangle is getting a big boost this fall with the arrival of the Business of Software (BoS) Conference.
The event will take place in downtown Raleigh for the first time this October 2-4 at the Martin Marietta Center. Beginning with a welcome from Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, the conference promises three days full of sessions and insights. Tickets are still available.
Mark Littlewood and his team have been steering the conference and community for the past 16 years. Prior to this year, the U.S. event had traditionally taken place in Boston each fall. It’s a nice counterpoint to the spring EU conference held in Cambridge, UK.
But for the past few years Littlewood, a UK native, has had some Triangle attendees whispering in his ear about the merits of NC. Bill Spruill and Carl Ryden have been regular attendees (and occasionally speakers) at BoS going back to the early years of the event, and they’ve been singing the praises of the area for a while. It’s finally paid off.
“Well, Bill’s pretty persuasive,” Littlewood told me, grinning over our Zoom call. “There’s something about that Southern drawl, you know, it sucks you in.”
The conference has also found a partner in the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED). The organization coordinated attendance for 10 local companies to attend last year’s event in Boston, funded by a donation from Spruill. This year 20 local start-ups have received scholarships to attend.
The Business of Software was started in 2007 by Neil Davidson, a co-founder of Redgate Software. Davidson built a successful, profitable company but still believed he could be doing things better. To learn more, he decided to attend some conferences.
“And he looked around the internet and there’s tons of conferences about code and funding,” said Littlewood, “but nothing about the stuff that he was really concerned about. Building teams, culture and strategy, sales and marketing and product, and all of the good things like that.”
Davidson made a list of the people he wanted to talk to at a conference, and when he invited them to come speak, they said yes. And so, the Business of Software was born.
Davidson recruited Littlewood to help run the event and Littlewood stuck around after Davidson stepped back. But in taking the reins, Littlewood has done little to change the original concept.
“Because [Davidson] was super, super on the money about what entrepreneurs really want. He was scratching his own itch, so it was set up as a single track, long-form talks, just about learning from smart people. No sales pitches, no panels, no big vendor compound,” says Littlewood. Eyes twinkling he continues, “It’s really almost like a big house party.”
Business of Software isn’t the biggest event around; they cap attendance at 400. But that choice is strategic. The conference is focused on being a meeting place for learning and creative conversations – but don’t say networking.
“I’m slightly loath to say networking because we did some interviews earlier this year with a lot of attendees and they were like, ‘I really just wanted to come to listen to the talks’,” said Littlewood. “So yeah, there is definitely a little magic trick there about creating a space for people where they can just start conversations easily without feeling it’s forced.”
The conference has other non-traditional aspects as well. There are no vendors. There’s only one track of talks. Speakers have to be invited. And the event truly lasts all year with additional “Mastermind” cohorts, an EU conference in the spring, a podcast, and a Slack group for continued collaboration all year round. It’s a conference that’s very much built on a community.
A New Home
Littlewood is extremely complimentary about what he’s seen from the area.
“Very, very relaxed, very friendly, but then a massive amount of stuff going on,” he told me. “And you’ve got one of the biggest private software companies in the world, SAS, and you’ve got this incredible flourishing of new companies coming through the Triangle.”
Littlewood has seen some of the BoS conference attendees making the move to the Triangle which also helped spur them southward this year. And he has big plans for his time in the city including dining at some Ashley Christensen restaurants and taking in some tailgating and an NC State football game.
I asked him if this meant they were planning to keep the BoS in the Triangle for a while.
“I certainly would say that that is the plan,” Littlewood confirmed. “It’s been a great experience so far. And the idea is to build it here. For the long term.”