Community Truth vs Business Ideals

I was watching this video by Michael Wesch (Thanks Steve for the link)  It got me to thinking about business and community.  For John and I, the two are linked for two reasons:

  1. Our business is serving the community.  With no community, we have no business.
  2. We participate in the communities we serve.  We’re real people, not faceless business owners.

Michael makes the case for cultural inversion in his video:

The concept is people express one thing but really value another thing.  Here’s how I see those 3 inversions manifest themselves in the Flex community and our business.

Individualism vs Community

A majority of our attendees and nearly all our speakers blog.  It’s normally a personal blog, though a few are grouped (Adobe Blogs, InsideRIA).  This is where their individualism shines through.  These same people though also are the biggest advocates for our show.  They use their individual blog to invite their community (readers) to meet up with and hang out with them at our show.  Thus our community is actually comprised of many smaller communities agreeing to meet at one specific time and place.

The company (360Conferences) itself is two individuals: John Wilker and me (Tom Ortega).  We have no office.  John lives and works in Colorado, while I live and work in California.  We both have personal blogs aside from the business blog.  On our own blogs, we post on very different topics:  John’s are usually techy with hip and wit tossed in, while mine are mushy with tech thrown in.  Our styles are different: His are quick and stream-of-conscience, while mine are lenghty and (re)edited for days before posting.  Yet, he and I together help form and create the 360|Flex community.  A community that would exist in parts had we not created our biz, but a community that we proudly claim as our own.

Independence vs Relationships

Everyone screams of being independent: Doug McCune with his ‘hawk and frank speech, Jesse Warden on being your own boss, and every developer who wishes they could pick and choose which projects to work on.  Independence and relationships, however, live in a strange, self-feeding, yin-yang circle.

By being independent in our thoughts and in our actions, we attract like minded people.  This attraction leads to discussions, which in turn leads to relationships.  These relationships at times become business opportunities (consulting jobs on code, teaching, etc).  The money from those biz opps then turn right back around and allow the independence to continue and move to a higher level.

We’re independent from Adobe.  That is single handedly the hardest concept hotels and vendors have with us.  Here’s the typical conversation:

Them: “What’s the show about?”
Us:”A product from Adobe called Flex.”
Them: “Oh, you work for Adobe?”
Us: “No, we just put on a show about their product.”
Them: “Oh so they hire you to do this?”
 Us: “Well, they sponsor the show, but no they don’t hire us to do this.”
Them: “Oh, so you work for a big company that does trade shows?”
Us: “No, we are the entire company.  We’ll be negotiating the deal with you and signing the checks.”
Them: “Oh, okay.  I see.”

They really don’t see, but that’s okay.  John and I often think about our relationship with Adobe and  other big companies.  I always thought it would be dreamy to maybe cozy up with them more, but I recently read this.  I now see that to not lose focus on our customers, we’d have to stay independent.  (Let the record show, John was never so much on the partner kick as I was.  See, toldja he’s the smart one.)

Commercialization vs Authenticity

lonelygirl15, which Michael mentions, best illustrates this point.  She was a lonely teen that people fell in love with via her vlog on YouTube.  Then it came to light that lonelygirl was a fake and not so lonely.  There was a mad uproar as the community fought back for being duped. What’s odd is that businesses which serve customers (and thus by default, communities) are at times at odds with community.  I’m thinking of Paramount attacking Star Trek fansites in the early days.  Or Coke copyrighting their shade of red and banning it’s usage.  Or even more recently, the iPhone and the ban against discussing it’s SDK (The ban is now gone, I know but I’m making a point here).  There are many businesses that supposedly care about you, but make it so hard to let you show how much you care.

We want to grow the Flex community with 360|Flex.  Therefore, since that’s our goal, we need to try to do that as best we can.  The best way to do that is to do it cheaply and easily.  With 360|Flex, we try to keep the cost low.  We do have to charge for attending our show because the meeting space, food, speaker rooms, etc aren’t given to us for free. Thus, we’re commercial in our business because we have to be. But we generate a lot of content, over 40 sessions per show.  We have so many sessions that even as an attendee, you can’t see them all.  Surely, we could do something with them, right?  We needed to stick to that authenticity aspect of our goal.

We tried selling videos of the presenters.  That didn’t work out so hot though, even though we kept the price cheap.  Our distribution reach was way too small to make that successful.  Adobe came to us with an interesting offer before our last 360|Flex though.  “Let us record all your sessions and rebroadcast them for free.”  At first, the business side of me was hesitant.  “Don’t do it! Why will people pay to come to your show, when they can watch it for free later?”  I quickly came to my senses and said, “For the same reason they come now, to meet with and interact with the community.”  I think Ryan’s post best exemplifies what I mean by that.  People come to our shows not only to learn FROM one other, but to also learn OF one another and become a tighter community.

John and I try to be authentic as well in all our dealings with customers (we greet you all at the reg desk) to our vendors (we chat with them in the same manner as you).  One of the most interesting aspects for me is seeing how people react to our authenticity. Many hotel coordinators tell us the same thing, “We want you back.  Not because of your money, but because you guys are not like everyone else.”  Aside from wearing flip flops (me) and being funny (John), I guess we’re just not pretentious or distant like other conference planners are.  It’s odd to me to hear that, but nice to be that breath of fresh air for them.

It’s also funny to hear the shock in people’s voice when they call the “company number” and they get me.  “Like, Tom the guy running the show?”  LOL  If only my friends, wife and kids held me with that kind of awe.  Life would be much easier at times.

Business is an odd beast for sure.  Like I told John, the road seems long and lonely at times, but then we get to a show and life is grand.  There’s nothing like meeting a customer face to face and making that connection.  Yes, Michael’s post is about YouTube and connecting virtually while our “product” is about connecting physically.  However, I don’t doubt that soon enough, we’ll be seeing YouTube conferences popping up.  Hmmmm….now that’s an idea.  Who’s up for a YouTube conference?

One Reply to “Community Truth vs Business Ideals”

  1. Imagine that…. business people who are obsessively altruistic. How can we make this catch on?

    Tom, the really intriguing thing about your post is that it’s after the fact; you’re not saying “Here’s what we plan to do and will do”, you’ve just gently recapped what it is you and John have been doing for two years now.

    Here at O’Reilly Media, Tim O’Reilly has championed the notion of creating more value than you capture.

    You three are cut from the same cloth…

    Good on ya,

    –Steve Weiss
    Executive Editor, O’Reilly Media

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