Don’t like the rules? Change them

Every once in a while Tom and I get caught up in organizing a conference and lose sight of what really makes us, us.

Sure we organize conferences, but that’s not that hard part, lots of others do it (to varying degrees of sucess). What makes 360|Conferences different is that we’re about community. What took us a while to realize is that the community we’re about is actually two communities.

We’ve served the developer community faithfully from the start, pricing our events so that anyone can afford to attend, making our events about technology not marketing, making our events about community not cliques. We take what we learn and what we’re told and grow our events based on that knowledge.

But what about sponsors? From the start Tom and I approached event sponsorship just like every other conference organizer (albeit we started much less expensive), having levels, based on minerals (why is that the norm? LOL), essentially forcing sponsors into a 3 size fits all equation.

That changes today. Why should sponsors spend 10, 20, 30, more thousand dollars for 2 of this, 1 of these, a booth table, etc. when maybe all they need is 2 passes to the conference and an expo booth, or maybe just room on the USB key,  or access to email attendees?

As of this morning, sponsorship for 360|Flex is $1,000. That’s it, if you want your logo on the website, and 1 pass to the conference, you’re done. If you’d like a booth in the expo area, add that on. If you’d like to have a banner on the eventvue community site, add that on. If you need more conferences passes add those on.

Each sponsor can build the sponsorship that suits their needs, paying only for what they want out of the conference.

We think this is pretty big. Conferences charge sponsors way too much to participate, and offer way too little to those sponsors in return for their money. We want to change that paradigm, sponsors are a conferences partners, and more than that, they’re a community too, and we’ve decided that our business partners and sponsor community deserve better treatment than what they get from other conferences.

We’re more than one thing.

One of the things Tom and I discussed a lot, was my fear that we couldn’t branch out. We started 360|Flex, because we were flex developers looking for a conference worth it’s salt to attend, so we made one. We’re both CF developers (not as much now, but back in the day), but that technology is saturated with ‘ok’ events, it’d be really hard to come in and unseat even the dud event, because of it’s size. So what else?

Tom’s a tinkerer, but to me that didn’t seem genuine, not to mention if we’re both not tinkering then it’s even worse (in my mind). We looking in Cel processor programming, to work with the community of game developers working with the Sony PS3. Tom even had lunch with some folks, who more or less told us to shove off. Scratch that.

We thought about doing an event on events, since most other event organizers we’ve met, that do as large or larger events than ours, are well, sorta lame, putting on the same type of event, over and over, because “that’s how it’s done”. But realized that while we think pretty highly of ourselves, no one else in our adopted industry knows about us (save our friends, EventVue and Alli, and Eric) so that was kinda out.

Enter the iPhone. I’ve been trying to learn Obj-C to build iPhone apps for conference use, schedulers, etc. Tom also has been digging into Obj-C. We started looking around and realized, there was no solidifying agent in the iPhone community. Apple, unlike Adobe, could care less about it’s developer communities. Not really surprising, given Apple’s overall attitude to it’s consumers. Enter us.

O’Reilly tried to start a conference and had to bail out, for their own reasons, so the door was left open to us. We reached out to the leading developer forum, to help spread the word, and then moved forward at full speed. We’ve now launched and are fully in “Go” mode for 360|iDev. It’s a rush for sure, we had limited room to add another event to our calendar; 360|Flex was scheduled for May, we have a soon to be announced event for summer-ish, and another 360|Flex sometime late in the year. That left “sooner rather than later” for the first 360|iDev. Yes it’s a tight time frame, our tightest yet for sure! But we’re very positive that the community will enjoy what we offer and benefit. Registrations are brisk, sponsorships are slower than normal, but that’s largely due to the tight time frames, but we do have a few awesome companies in the works, so that’s good. We’re going with our good friends at Ebay to host to keep costs extra low, knowing that sponsorship money will be tight.

We feel it’s a good time for the iPhone development community to get a little closer to each other. Apple’s draconian NDA set a terrible precedent in the community of keeping quiet and not sharing. We’re hoping to break down some of that and get everyone talking.

If you’re an iPhone developer, or know one, make sure to spread the word, help the iPhone developer community grow and prosper. The only place to go is up (corny, I know).

Conference wireless DOES suck

Doc was at Le Web recently and blogged about the crappy wireless. AMEN Doc, conference wireless DOES suck. Providers are terrible, giving no guarantee, delivering less than they promise, etc. Here’s LeWeb’s official take on the wireless, plus another review from the Guardian.

This is something Tom and I have struggled with since starting 360|Conferences.

We’ve had a wide range of experiences with conference wifi.

At eBay, we have no control over wifi. It’s there and that’s that. If it’s insufficient, there’s nothing to be done. It’s corporate IT, and they have no SLA and aren’t paid to provide wifi, end of discussion.

At the Red Lion in Seattle, we made it clear, “Whatever you think, you’re wrong. We’ll abuse your wifi.” As such, for what we paid, they really did their best. They brought in a tech from the vendor and had him stay the week to be on call. Guess what? Yup, he was called. In fact, he came down in the morning in his PJs to put more access points around the place. They definitely earned our money. Wifi wasn’t 100% spot on, a few people had troubles, but overall it seemed to work well.

In Milan, we had no wifi, the hotel used Swisscom, and wanted to charge us $20,000 which (from the paper work we saw) included upgrading the hotels internet infrastructure. We just couldn’t afford it, and were a bit offended to be paying to upgrade them, so we had to forego internet for our attendees, that sucked!

In Atlanta, we tried to get the point across that we’d have high demand and overall I think it didn’t suck too bad.

I think we have an ok track record as far as wifi. It ain’t perfect. I’ve never been to a large (I guess large is 400+) conference with perfect, 100% wifi. There’s always some one who can’t connect, always. I’ve been to one conference in the 200-300 range and have to admit wifi was nice. I did hear a few people complain, but overall it wasn’t totally sucky.

Doc gave me a good idea. It’s never occurred to me, but I think it’s totally fair to expect some level of SLA from wifi vendors. If they fail to deliver, you don’t pay. I think moving forward we’ll see if that can’t be included. For what internet costs, I think it’s fair to expect to actually get it, when we pay for it.

Sadly, rather than come clean and admit they messed up, Swisscom has claimed no foul and is acting like nothing is or was wrong, with the wireless at Le Web.

Tom and I will always strive to provide our attendees with a stable and reliable wireless network. We haven’t given up by any stretch! We will conquer conference wifi. Ok well, we probably won’t, but we won’t settle for crappy wifi either. If we can avoid it, we be sure to avoid doing business with Swisscom!

If you’re going to do something, make it meaningful

I was watching TV and USA Network was giving a bunch of celebs lip service for giving back and such. They showed a clip of Oprah saying (Paraphrased), “If you’re going to do something, make it meaningful.” That really struck home for me.

We’ve talked about our giving back, so I’m not gonna rehash, why we do it, and such, rather I’m going to talk about our next moves. We’re expanding our offering (finally!) to include the iPhone community.

This is a big step for us. Tom and I have had several conversations on where to go next? Should there be a next? Can we recreate the awesome community vibe that 360|Flex helped create in a different community?

We threw around ideas of the next community we’d like to be a part of in a meaningful way, and how to do that. Cell Processor developers (PS3 games), Silverlight, JavaFX, even events. None of those flew because:

1. Cell Processor – We’re not in that space. Tom tinkered a bit, but we’re not actively participating, which for us was of huge importance. We didn’t want to come in as if we’re some saving angels, “We’re here to help this god forsaken community to grow and prosper, as only we can.” We don’t feel that it’s genuine, or that we could actually know what a community we’re not any type of part of, wants or needs.

2. Silverlight and JavaFX – We’re not developers in those languages. We don’t have anything against either, but we’re not going to get serious or even tinker in either language as they don’t interest us. We may partner with some one who does, but on our own: no.

3. Events – This one was the front runner during a late night conversation in Indianapolis, where we were doing an onsite and an informal “corporate summit”. A lot of conferences suck; trade shows suck; The reason, we think, is the event planners and organizers. They see it as a cash cow ($2000 for a 10×10 booth carpet? Just the carpet! Not the booth, which costs even more) and so the experience reflects a love of money, not a love of the content. We found out that there are conferences on conferences, and thought, “This whole community, which we’re super into now, really needs a wake up call.”

Then we both started reading up and playing with iPhone development. My goal (lofty maybe, given my other obligations) is to have an iPhone schedule/program guide for 360|Flex Indy. I’m still hopeful, even though I haven’t picked up my iPhone dev book in about a month. We both looked at the iPhone developer community, growing as fast as it is and thought, it made sense. We both already love the devices, so we’ll definitely be participating. O’Reilly tried to offer an iPhone conference that failed for (to me) a few reasons. We saw this not as an indication of the community’s desire for a conference, but as O’Reilly missing the mark, which was good for us. And great (we hope) for iPhone developers.

Getting back to the meaningful part, we hope this gives you a little insight into our thought process. We don’t just pick a random topic and decide to 360-ize it. We look at ourselves and what we can do for the communities we’re a part of. If we can do it well and with the same passion we brought to 360|Flex, then we give it the thumbs up and move forward. That being said, we hope to see you all at 360|iPhoneiDev!

25 startup commandments.

Someone (i can’t recall whome) twittered this. As I read the list, many didn’t apply, Tom and I have no API. I suppose maybe we’re our API, does that analigy even make sense? I dunno. Some of them however made a ton of sense to me, and I found myself feeling better about some, and worse about others.

1. Your idea isn’t new. Pick an idea; at least 50 other people have thought of it. Get over your stunning brilliance and realize that execution matters more.

 Ain’t that the truth! Conferences and trade shows date back to Jesus. Granted we’re small and nimble and taking the big ones on, but still we’re the same too.

3. If you don’t have scaling problems, you’re not growing fast enough.

 This rings true to me a lot. Tom and I have odd problems of scale. We’re both employed full time, yet our model of events doesn’t bring in windfalls on a single event. We can’t scale up to more shows without doing more shows, you see where I’m going with this :)

13. If you don’t pay attention to your competition, they will turn out to be geniuses and will crush you. If you do pay attention to them, they will turn out to be idiots and you will have wasted your time. Which would you prefer?

 Tom and I spend a pretty good amount of time thinking about our competitors. There’s no direct but many, many indirect competitors that could decide to become direct competitors, and likely will. Most are in the Charge too much model, some are in the Community isn’t the important thing model. We all have our differences.

21. A startup will require your complete attention and devotion. Thought your first love in High School was clingy? You can’t take out a restraining order on your startup.

 This is a big one IMO, and one that Tom and I fight about a lot. 360Conferences is a two man show, done part time, our attention is stretched and often things don’t happen when it might make sense to or things don’t get done. It sucks, but for now is the nature of our business model. The upside is, most people don’t seem to notice, but I think I have an ulcer the size of Rhode Island, I know that’s still not very big, but come on!

25. Abject Terror. Overwhelming Joy. Monstrous Greed. Embrace and harness these emotions you must.

 Done. Tom and I thankfully aren’t greedy. We’re not very good capitalists in that sense, but it works for us. Sure we’re not our Startup’ing full time, though I’d like nothing less, we’re not raping our customers, and that’s what’s most important to us. We give a ton of money to charity, even though we don’t make enough to pay us salaries yet, because it’s important to us. Monstrous Greed, squashed. Now terror, that’s another story :)

I only took a few, go read them all. They’re incredibly salient no matter what your startup does, and may open your eyes to a few things.

And so it begins. Big over priced events are failing

Last week Adobe announced that it would not be participating in Macworld (they also laid off 600 people, wonder if it would have been less if MAX didn’t cost so much to produce?). Following that announcement was Seagate and Belkin.

Tom and I aren’t surprised. We’ve believed, and said that events of this magnitude are doomed for some time. The economy is speeding the process up, clearly.

“And while these by themselves aren’t necessarily dangerous to the show’s health, people familiar with situation also claim that attendee registration is down by 20 percent versus the same period last year, providing the main reason for IDG’s last-minute extension of the Early Bird discount for registration until December 8th.”

I can imagine registrations are down. Companies are laying off hundreds or thousands (AT&T announcing something like 12,000 jobs to be cut), sending a single person to an event that runs well over $1,000 just to get in the door, let alone, airfare, hotel, and incidentals, is likely out of the question for many businesses, let’s not even look at the cost of sending several people. No duh, they’re not gonna send them!

Looking at these events from the consumer stand point, I can also see why registration is down. If I’m an indie iPhone developer, looking to network, how successful am I likely to be at an event the size of Macworld? Is it worth spending my own coin to go be lost in a sea of people? Even more so, a sea of people who aren’t all in my sphere of interest. Do I care about the Pro tools people? No not really. I’m sure they’re nice, but our worlds don’t intersect much.

It makes much more sense to attend an event focused on my sphere of interest, with sponsors and speakers talking about iPhone Development. It also makes sense that this much smaller event will cost less (it should, and those that don’t are robbing people), and oh yeah at an event that’s focused on my interests, the community will be more than a huge ocean of people, it’ll be a smaller sea of all people I want to meet, and it’ll be easier to meet them.

Sure super huge mega shows will never go away, they’re marketing expenses usually and help clean up the books. But the conference and trade show space, is quickly making room for the smaller indie events, that serve a tighter (better IMHO) community, affordably, while still offering top notch sessions, speakers, and sponsors.

Oh yeah, this example also serves to make clear our intentions :) 360|iPhone is coming.

Youtube videos that really capture "US"

Tom sent me this video, It’s long, but worth every minute. It’s about youtube, but the community aspects really resonate with us, on a 360|Flex level.

This one, I came across and sent to Tom. It speaks (through Gary’s voice) to why we do it at all. My favorite quote, which really rang true in the tech conference space, was “Listening to your users, great, but giving a shit about them, that’s huge!” That’s not verbatum, but close. And I agree. Lots of conferences and conference organizers, claim to “be community” and say they “Listen” but in my experience, that’s totally bogus. They may ask questions, but don’t seem to act on the answers, and “being community” is more about having a lot of people in attendance, but not really caring that they enjoy themselves, or that they get something out of the event.

Tom and I run 360Conferences at night, because we have to. We didn’t look at the job and think, “Well we’ve got jobs, so we can’t start this business”. We just started it, in the time we have. Sure we don’t want to keep it as a side job, we hope to pay ourselves to do what we enjoy, if not love, but in the mean time, we do what we have to do, to serve our customers and community.

Take a look at these, when you have time, the Gary V. one is only a few minutes long, so watch it now :)

What do you think?

Showing our appreciation, MVP program

On top of giving back to the commnity, Tom and I decided that we needed to show our appreciation, on a smaller scale, at the person level. We decided to start the MVP program just after we got back from Atlanta and Milan. Nick Kwiatkowski and Michael Labriola really stepped up and helped us out. They did so for no other reason than to help.

Upon reflecting on that help we realized that each of our events had an MVP: someone from the community that went above and beyond any expectations. Either with guidance in business, logistical help negotiating the Adobe landscape, or helping us burn USB drives, or acting as translator for us in Italy, helping smooth out some of our harrier international incidents :)

To quickly recap from our Wednesday keynote from San Jose ’08:

  • San Jose ’07 – Ted Patrick. Ted was an orginal founder and was instrumental in getting this ball rolling.
  • Seattle – Ed Sullivan – Our man on the inside of Adobe; Eddie helped us find the right people to talk to for whatever problem we had. He helped us not go crazy dealing with the Adobe corporate machine. We love you Adobe employees, it’s just the machine that gets in the way sometimes.
  • Atlanta – Nick Kwaitkowski – Nick helped us burn USB drives and man the registration desk. We were admittedly a bit unprepared and Nick helped us not look completely lame.
  • Milan – Michael Labriola – Mike helped us a TON. His Italian mighta been rusty, but our Italian was corrosive, so Mike was a god send when dealing with registration issues. Plus he was instrumental in ordering dinner without nasty looks. :)
  • San Jose ’08 – David Bigelow – Dave is possibly an unlikely source of business knowledge for us, since most of his advice directly impacts him as a sponsor. That said, he’s been the closest thing to a mentor in business Tom and I have had, and we’re hoping that relationship (as well as the organizer/sponsor one) continues to grow and flourish. Dave has opened our eyes to a lot of business realities we had overlooked. 

Thanks you guys!!!!

We wish we could do more, but hopefully the cheesy plastic trophies and Olympic-like medals show how much we appreciate you more than words can :) Plus you can defend against ninjas with them, which has to be worth something.

The Bowling League shirts are worth something though, so we’ll have to get together and play a few games.

Why we chose USB thumbdrives

Did the last conference you attend give you it’s material on a DVD or CD? After browsing the disc one, did you find yourself stacking the disc with that pile of AOL discs? Hoping someday, some new drive will be able to wipe them clean and make them useful again?

Yeah, been there done that. Sucks, I know.

Remember the last conference you attended? Was there a worker bee standing outside to hand you a piece of paper with questions on it? Was (s)he there to collect your paper survey? Did you rush to fill it out as the session ended? Did you opt to not fill it out because you had no time or no pen?

Yeah, been there done that, too.

Those are the two reasons we went with USB drives. CDs and even DVDs are useless for the most part. Once you’ve copied the materials off onto your computer, you chuck the disc. What a waste (Literally). It occured to us that USB thumb drives aren’t that expensive, so we looked into it. After finding a sponsor to split the costs with us, it was just about the same price as having a CD mastered. Oh and we could update the content, any time. Burned discs are a bit hard to update. Speakers like to update their presentations once or twice between handing the “final” over to us. With drives, attendees come and get the latest and greatest right there at the registration desk.

Feedback is the cornerstone of how Tom and I do things, so getting feedback from attendees on sessions was paramount. We had to know who should be invited back and who shouldn’t. We also wanted to make that data available to speakers so they could evaluate themselves. Who wants to wait months to find out what people thought?

We wrote an AIR survey app so that attendees wouldn’t have to fill out paper. They could even fill out survey’s in their hotel room, going back to the other sessions they had sat in on. Killing trees to make paper surveys just doesn’t make sense. Add to that the amount of work that went into manually (remember, it’s just Tom and I) recording the data from the paper surveys into a meaningful digital repository so speakers could get feedback. It was months before speakers had their feedback. Weak Sauce!

Some interesting numbers:

Paper Surveys:
San Jose ’07 – 300 surveys
Seattle ’07 – 880 surveys

AIR Survey Submissions :
Atlanta ’08 – 750 surveys*
San Jose ’08 – 930 surveys

*I think we’d have had more but the app had some initial issues on the first couple of days.

We’re trying to make sure it’s worthwhile for attendees to answer the survey (paper or electronic). All raffles are based on submissions. You give no speaker feedback, you don’t win any prizes. We think that’s fair, everyone benefits.

The USB drives were one of those kill many birds with a single stone things; 1. we’re saving trees, 2. we’re delivering a survey app to attendees that allows more and faster feedback to speakers, and 3. allows us to add content for attendees right up until 5:30 on Wednesday.

Win, Win, Win Dont’cha think?

It’s nice to see openness and transparency

tap tap tap, makers of several iPhone/iNewton apps, posted their sales figures for a week.

It’s nice to see others being as open as Tom and I try to be.

Tom and I try to be as open as we can, we’ve called on some of our competitors, to no avail, to be as open. We feel that a company should have nothing to hide or be ashamed of, if you’re embarrassed by your profit margins, and don’t feel comfortable telling your customers, well that says it all. Tom and I aren’t.

It’s cool to see how the iPhone application market really works. We’ve all read about it, etc, but Tap, tap tap SHOWS us, which is the most powerful way to communicate!

As businessmen, Tom and I give our Kudo’s to tap tap tap for their openness.