Tom’s leaving after the next 360|Flex

As you may or may not know, I (Tom Ortega) will be leaving the 360|Conferences business after our next 360|Flex show in March of 2010.  You can read about my personal reasons for leaving here. You can try to replace me over at the 360|Flex blog.  :)

360|Conferences was one of those companies that just “happened”. There was no planning for it.  One day it wasn’t there and the next it was.  In the 3 years since it appeared, we’ve built an internationally recognized brand.  We’ve helped the low-cost conference revolution take place.  We’ve delivered strong value during one of the worst financial times in our lives.  In other words, we’ve done many things we’re proud of.

If you’re a follower of this blog, then you know how much we value transparency.  It’s one of the reasons why we feel the company is so successful.  Therefore, we’d like to tell you what the plan is after 360|Flex in March, but to be honest we’re not sure yet.  While 360|iDev is going down in Denver, John and I will be talking about what the next steps are.  I know I’m leaving, but John is not.  Whether that means selling my stake in the company to him, someone else or a company, I can’t say.

One thing we are sorta contemplating is stronger partnerships and possibly even a merger.  The conference space is tough, especially now.  The more value you can get under one company brand, the better off the shows will be. Shows that offer good value for the price, like 360|Flex and 360|iDev, will continue to grow.  Others will fall by the wayside and likely never return.

Another idea we’re tossing around is one that has me shedding conference planning duties.  Under that model, John takes over the biz’s time consuming duties: planning and setting up the events.  I spend most of my time working on my passions and become more of a spokesperson.  Mordy and Barry of MogoMedia seem to have a similar model, only I’m no Mordy.  I’d have to work quite a bit to build that type of reputation for myself.

I always tell people that by 2013, 360|Conferences is poised to be a hugely profitable company.  When the economy starts to pick up and ePublishing finally takes off, this company will be in a great position to reap the benefits of the years of hard work we put in.  Until then though, it’s going to take a lot of time and effort.  If I stuck around I’d be short-changing our customers, because my heart would be elsewhere.

360|Conferences is not the kind of company you can run while your heart is somewhere else.  It’s the kind of company that deserves love and devotion.  It’s the kind of company where you have to wake up in the morning knowing it’s your passion.

While it’s tough having to say goodbye to something that’s been a constant in my life for the past 3 years, I know it’s in good hands.  I’ll be around somewhat until March, so you’ll have to put up with a few more blog posts yet.  After John and I chat in Denver, we’ll post an update here letting you all know what we plan.  We’ll expect you to voice your feedback.  Like always, we’ll take it to heart and try to add that to our thought process.

Now, that being said, hurry up and go register for 360|Flex.  San Jose always sells out, and everyone loves a Farewell Tour!  LOL

Tips for Event Planning for Developers

We don’t want to sound cocky, but there’s no way for us to write this without it.  Therefore, call us cocky, but really, how hard is it to throw a developer event?

People constantly tell us how our shows rock.  We give credit to speakers (they do most of the talking) and sponsors (they do a lot of the paying), but there is something about our shows that people just like.  It’s the community, it’s the feel, it’s the vibe.

We think the main reason why we’re successful is that we know what developers like.  It’s not because we interview them extensively, but rather because we are/were developers.  Like Todd McFarlane said, “I just make what I like and I figure other people are like me and enjoy the same things.”  I’m paraphrasing there, but not much.

If you’ve been tasked with putting on something for developers, here’s some tips to help make it a success. Note: We don’t follow all these rules at our shows because, well, because rules are meant to be broken once you learn them, but you’re likely just learning so stick to the list, okay?  :)

1) Giveways: T-shirts are a must, product (i.e. hardware/software) will get you brownie points.  Developers love two things: t-shirts and product.  In their dream world, they’d never pay for either.  Both however are required for their lives to be fulfilled. You may ask, “Do developers need another shirt?”  Just look around.  What do you see?  Tshirts…lots of them.  Some are very worn out due to the amount of use they’ve gotten.  This *despite* the fact that they probably have 30 others in their closet.  The point is to try to become that worn out shirt.  You want these developers to pimp your product for as long as they live right? Make and give a great shirt, and you’ll more than make your money back in free advertisement.

2) Toys: Developers are really just kids at heart.  They’ve never stopped playing with LEGOs.  Only now, instead of linking plastic bricks, they’re linking lists and classes, etc.  If you’re having an event for a product, you better make darn sure the product is there.  If Prince (Yeah, the singer) throws a party, you expect Prince to sing at the party.  When Sting got married, even though the Police were already broken up, they got together to play for the reception.  Why?  Because there’s just certain expectations you must live up to, or people will be mad and feel cheated.  If you don’t give away any product, but at least have some to play with, you’ll escape the wrath of developers; though you will likely get many, “Are you sure you can’t part with just this one?”.  If you don’t even have some product to play with, then really to be blunt: your event is worthless.  Developers can read and read they do: blogs, tweets, reviews, etc.  If you don’t give them tactile gratification of your product, your event is pretty much a waste of time minus the free meal (see below).

3) Presentations: This one’s a toughy.  If you’re going to have presos, make sure it’s clear and that the alcohol is far from the presos.  DO NOT expect a crowd of 500 to quiet down when you “Shush” them after they’ve been drinking and chatting for an hour.  Place chairs in a room to signify “This is for watching quietly”.  No chairs equals rock concert and sadly, very few people (except maybe Steve Jobs) can command rock star status at a developer event.  Therefore, people will just keep mingling and will ignore the presenter(s). There’s nothing wrong with having presentations, just make sure you prep the crowd and set expectations.  Having your presenters yell over the microphone to *try* to get people’s attention is just annoying to the attendees and the speaker both.

3A) Name it correctly: This goes with #3.  If you call something a “camp” or “conference” or “presentation”, people will know to expect a speaker with a screen spouting off some diatribe.  If you call it a “party”, people expect lots of free drinks and no strings attached (i.e. NO presentations).  Think about it.  In real life, if you went to a “party” where a friend (or group of friends) were giving a presentation, you’d be like, “This is whack, I’m outta here.” Same thing with developer events.  There’s nothing wrong with doing both.  Just be clear on your invite: “Presos and Info @ 6, Party @ 8”.  Just like a wedding, “Ceremony at 1, reception at 4”  Aunt Bessie can come to the ceremony and leave before Drunk Cousin Larry shows up.  There’s nothing wrong with presenting as some people prefer it to the parties, but let people know what’s up.

4) Free food and beverages: This one should go without saying, but we’ll throw it in, just in case.  This should go for every event/party you throw, for personal or professional reasons.  If you are inviting people to gather somewhere, have the decency to feed them and quench their thirst.  Developers like beer (and root beer floats as we’re finding out), so beer will likely be a requirement.  However, try to feed them too, especially if your event crosses into meal times (lunch, dinner).  You don’t even have to get fancy, pizza will do.  However, nicer pizza again gives you brownie points!

That’s it from us.  If you think we missed anything, drop a comment and we’ll amend the list if we agree. :)

360Conferences is starting to focus

One thing that we’ve heard often, and with good reason, is that 360|Conferences is confusing.  We’re told we’re a bunch of other stuff too: loads of fun, great value, community driven, etc.  The good stuff is fine and dandy, but it’s the “confusing” one that troubles us.  It’s one thing to be a huge corporation and confusing, but it’s another to be a 2 man shop and confusing.

John and I recently tackled this description.  We weren’t denying we were confusing.  If your customers tell you something, there’s no sense denying it.  You just have to face facts and either ignore them or change.  We’ve never been the ignoring type, so we set about trying to figure out a way to change this perception.  We did some deep searching (which I’ll document this week over on the Our Startup Story site, for those interested in those kinda details).  What we got out of it was a bit of clarity for us.  We saw why we were confusing and are now taking steps to be more clear.

Over the next few weeks/months, we’ll be making announcements that hopefully will bring clarity.  We’ll have to rethink some things, drop a few things and solidfy other offerings.   I think when it’s all said and done, you’ll find 360|Conferences to be more clear in purpose.  It will help you, our customers, to understand what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  It will also provide an opportunity for you to voice your ideas/questions/concerns about different moves.

For a company that’s barely passed it’s 2 yr birthday, John and I have come a long way.  We appreciate all of you that have stuck with us over those two years.  We look forward to serving you for many more years.  Hopefully, this clarity of business will enable us to grow big enough to continue to serve you.  Unlike some businesses that treat their customers like a necessary evil, we realize that you’re the sole reason we exist.  Therefore, you deserve for us to be the best we can be.  Even if that means taking a hard look at ourselves and “trimming the fat” so to speak.  We are honored to have earned your money and trust.  And we look forward to continue earning it time and time again.

360|Conferences…what does it mean to you?

360|Conferences sorta got started by accident.  John and I didn’t walk around as young children saying, “When I grow up, I want to get 400 geeks together and host them for 4 days in a  random city.”  There may be some conference planners out there that did do that and more power to them.  We just weren’t two of them.

Therefore, now that we’re thinking of expanding to something beyond conferences, it’s a different ball game.  360|Conferences back then had no personality, no corporate identity.  It was just a name on a piece of paper with John’s signature and mine.  That’s no longer the case.  While 360|Conferences is still just me and John, 2 years have come and gone.  We’ve served over a few thousand customers with 360|Flex, 360|iDev, FlexCamps and one 360|MAX.  Customers that now have an expectation of our company.  When people hear the name 360|Conferences or the phrase “John and Tom”, something comes to mind.  Something that we should probably try to stay true to.

This is where you come in.  I have my own personal ideas of what I think the brand means to our customers and the world at large.  (The small part of the world that does actually care that is.  LOL)  However, I’d like to hear directly from you.

Why do we care?  Well, if we’re going to expand the business into new areas, we should do so upholding the ideals that people associate with us.  I.e. I think what we’re known for in the conference space can be applied to other businesses.  We just want to make sure we’re on the same page with you. :)

So spread the word, blog about this question, tweet the URL. Leave a comment or email us your thoughts (  We want to hear from as many people as possible (which should be no surprise since we ask questions of our customers all the time :D )

Be honest.

Richard Branson of Virgin on business, specifically our business

Okay, so Mr. Branson didn’t actually talk about our business.  However, on this American Express sponsored site, he spouts on about business. There’s a ton of good stuff there if you take the time to click and view each one.  The one complaint I have is there’s no “Play All”.

Here’s some of my favorite quotes and how I feel they pertain to us:

“You need to pick an area where you can differentiate and stand out.”

This we sorta picked by happenstance.  John and I never really talked about creating a conference company.  A how-to-run-your-business consultancy: yes.  A company to help the hospitality service: yes. Etc., you get the point.  One thing we did do was pick an industry where we could differentiate and stand out.  Hopefully, we’re succeeding.

“You’ve just got to strive to create the kind of product that you personally would want to go on, make sure it’s the best in its field and then I think it should succeed.”

This we nailed hands down.  When I first approached John about the idea for doing a conference, my exact words were, “You know, we need a Flex conference. MAX is good and all, but we need a conference dedicated just to Flex and nothing else.”  From that, John and I built the type of show we would want to attend.  Our only regret: We still don’t get to attend the conference, since we gotta man the reg desk.  Though, if hundreds of others can attend and have a good time, that makes it easier to swallow. :)

“If you run one business well, you can really run any business.”

I think that’s why John and I managed to do well. We’ve dabbled in business before.  John had a consulting company and I did some independent consulting back in the day.  Not to mention that I was a paperboy in my youth (seriously, I learned some good stuff during that job).  I’ve also approached every job as a learning experience for my future businesses.  Watching and learning from my employers mistakes while taking note of the good things to copy.  John and I are avid readers of business material as well, so we had some idea about how we wanted to run a business before starting the biz.  We don’t agree on everything, but I think we both know how to put the company first and work off our strenghts and push the other to do better.

Our goal is to now build on the 360|Flex momentum and turn this into a great company.

“The best way of protecting [an idea] is to create something that is better than your rivals.”

I have to agree whole heartedly here.  If we can put on a conference with no experience, then surely others with no experience could too.  Not to mention, professional conference planners could enter our space as well.  The thing is that we have to be better than our rivals.  I think we are, but we can’t rest on our laurels.  We have to keep innovating and making sure 360|Flex is the best bang for the conference goers buck.

“The bosses should never go to the back and shut the door…I will make sure that I’m out and about and experiencing…I’ll talk to the [customers] and get their thoughts down…I’ll shake the customers hands…”

Again, John and I agree with this.  We’re always visible at our shows.  We try to shake our customers’ hands as they walk in and again as they leave on the last day.  We take note of every comment (good or bad) that customers give us.  We fight with each other to make sure those comments get acted upon.

We’re here for one purpose and one purpose only: to serve our customers.  With them we’re nothing and we realize that.  It’s sad that other companies treat their customers as a necessary nuisance.

“It’s the little touches that keep people talking. For instance, Ice Cream and Popcorn on Virgin Atlantic flights keeps kids and parents talking and it’s not very expensive.”

I think every show has had something special.  We try to put a little something in each show to make it different.  Sometimes its food.  Sometimes its swag.  Sometimes it’s awards.  There’s always going to be something special for our attendees and I think they know that.

“As long as you can get the right people to run the businesses, you can stretch your brand pretty incredibly.”

This one will be interesting.  We’re a long way off from this since John and I aren’t even full time.  However, John and I would like to get to the level where we can have the right people helping us in our business.  We had Ryan Stewart until Adobe stole him.  We’ve just never been able to recover since his departure, so we’re still on the hiring freeze.  :)

“With a committed team, you’re going to be able to deal with setbacks and then enjoy the good moments together.”

For this, I have to give mad props to the other half of the team: John.  When I was most down about the biz and was on the verge of giving up, John pulled me (and thus the company) back from the brink of a huge setback.  He did his best at a pep talk and then went potty.  This give me a few minutes to digest his words and by the time he came back, I was back on track.  That show later turned out to be our first profitable show.

And it’s been great sharing the good moments with him as well.  Standing with him as we presented Second Harvest with $7K is a moment I’ll never forget.

Well, that’s enough quotes I think.  Watch the series for more Branson goodness.  Also, mad props to American Express for putting on the series.  Sign up for the card if you like the vids.  We have a plum card ourselves.  Even though our spending habits freak out AMEX, they’re still our preferred card to use.

When do you stop caring about your product and customers?

I know this may sound crazy, but I truly believe that many businesses stop caring about their products and/or their customers.  Which leads to the title of this post, “When do you stop caring about your product and customers?”

What do I mean by this?  Two things: Short-Sizing and Cutting Quality

With Short-Sizing, they’re flat out lying to their customers.  Instead of having this conversation with customers: “Hey loyal customers who give us your hard earned cash, we need to talk. To keep our profit margins, we’re gonna need to either cut back the amount we give you OR we’re gonna have to raise prices.  Which do you want?” They simply choose to lie and then go to great lengths to hide it.

With Cutting Quality, they’re saying: “Well, we know the product is good, but we’re going to start making modifications to increase our profits.  Sure, we’ll be making the product at slightly less quality, but hey, we gotta sell more.  Plus, the newer customers won’t know it was ever that good in the past.”

Granted both of those are food related, but let’s face it, we know it goes beyond just food.

Apple has cut giving out free remotes with new Macs and the high end iPods don’t come with all the free tricked out extras that my 60 gig iPod+Photo did.  I received a docking station, A/V cable to hook the iPod to my TV and a nice case to protect the iPod. Now an iPod comes with a USB cable, a small power brick and earbuds. iPhones comes with the same, no dock ($29.00).

How does this relate to conferences and/or the 360Conferences biz?  Simple.  I was thinking the other day that John and I try very hard to make each show better than the previous one.  We’re constantly tweaking, trying to add more value for your money.  We  added more sessions to San Jose to get you more bang for your buck.  In Indy, we’re adding a new track aimed at the business side of Flex to help out in these tough economic times.

Yes, we’ve raised prices and we’ve cut back on some things, but we talked to our customers.  We asked for feedback.  I assume we’re doing good because we keep selling more and more tickets.  Plus, people keep saying that each show is better than the previous ones.

That’s the way it should be. You should delight your customers by giving them more than they expected, not by short changing them in hopes that they don’t notice.  (Yes, we faultered a bit in Europe and underdelivered, but we definitely weren’t trying to pull a fast one there.  We just made some bad mistakes that we can hopefully make up for in the future.) We think it’s time business started overwhelming and impressing customers. Time and again it’s been shown that it works, loyalty increases, additional purchases increase, etc. Few companies can get away with underwhelming, and keeping their customers.

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?

"Why are you picking on CFUnited?" answer, CFU launches Stellr and another nugget on speaker costs.

In a previous post , an anonymous commenter recently asked John this question: “Why is this post specific to CFUnited when there are so many other conferences that charge the same, if not more (i.e. Max)?”

It was actually my post, not John’s. Therefore, I’ll answer the question as to why CFU since John covered the why not MAX part.

If you glance back at the post, you’ll see this as the opener: “Based on some info on this post by Sean Corfield, the ticket sales from the last CFUnited event equals the total cost of all 5 360|Flex shows and all 3 CF.Objective() shows.”

This post was continuing the conversation on a topic chosen by Sean Corfield on his blog. I didn’t “single out” CFUnited (CFU), but rather picked up on a point presented by Sean. If you read the “Final Math” section of Sean’s post, you’ll see that Sean was simply stating that he didn’t see the value of CFU and felt that CF.Objective (CFO) was a better show for the money in 2008. That got me to thinking about how many CFO shows could be produced with roughly the same sales figures from CFU. So I asked Jared for his rough numbers, in chatting with him I gave him our rough numbers (though our numbers are wide open, I didn’t expect Jared to know them off the top of his head). At that point, we realized that all of our shows were covered by roughly the sales figure from the latest CFU. Like John says, we’re in the conference business so we can make a good guess based on numbers, costs, etc. Yes, we believe in transparency and believe everyone else in business should too. (I think not being transparent is sad, scary, and destructive i.e. look at the recent $700B bailout for financial businesses not being transparent and therefore, sadly, not honest.)

I am NOT insinuating that Liz and company are dishonest in any way by not being transparent. Liz sounds like a great person and Michael was a very nice guy last time I hung out with him at MAX. I can only assume their lack of openness is because they feel their numbers are an integral part of their business (a competitive edge) OR they’re afraid of how their customers would react to seeing the numbers without knowing the facts behind them. I’ll assume it’s the former since many businesses do hold that belief and thus I can’t blame them for holding such a belief. John and I don’t agree with that mode of thinking though, because to us the magic in a service oriented business is not in costs as those are primarily fixed. Sure, you might be able to pay $3 for a soda vs $3.25 but really, it’s still expensive as heck. Rather, to us, the secret sauce is customer service and attitudes towards what is important. I.e. Flash on the Beach (FOTB) thinks lunch is unnecessary and spends the money that would’ve gone on food to cover speaker costs. We think lunch is important as a network opp, which prevents us from getting some speakers who only speak if all costs are covered. Is FOTB right and us wrong? Or vice-versa? I can’t say, only customers can. However, because some speakers decline to speak at our show due to us not paying all expenses, that means we have to homegrow speakers and seek out newcomers to the “speaking circuit”. I think everyone benefits from this. The popular speakers travel less and more speakers move into the spotlight. These new speakers then become available to all shows (i.e. look at Doug McCune. I had to convince him to present at 360|Flex Seattle despite his “What would I present on?” attitude and last month he spoke at FOTB. I’m not saying I “made” Doug into the great programmer and speaker he is, but I did help nudge and bring him into the speaking scene.)

There are many topics (and shows) we talk about internally, but didn’t pertain to the topic that Sean brought up. If you read our blog, you’ll see we talk about many shows in their own respective posts. I was merely going to post a comment on Sean’s post, but instead it turned out much too wordy for a comment and thus I wrote the post. (Much like this was going to be a comment to the Anonymous comment, but again I got all wordy.) If you look at Sean’s comments, I’m second to last. The last one being Sean who was very interested in my insider’s perspective on an issue he brought up. An insider’s perspective that Liz could’ve commented on and cleared the air about at that time.

Fast forward to October 10th and you see the announcement from CFU about the formation of Stellr. Fast forward to the 15th and you see Sean being glad CFU listened and CFU being glad that Sean noticed they listened. Now, is the whole Stellr thing due in part to the discussion had by Sean and I? Or was Stellr in the works for years and it just coincidentally launched after a “poor” show in 2008? Is Stellr going to gear CFU to target some of CFOs attendees in an attempt to win back market share? Will Stellr borrow concepts from the lower cost shows in an attempt to win back the hearts of it’s detractors?

I don’t know, but I applaud their efforts. I’m eager to see what Stellr has to offer and, if need be, competing with them for customers. Any time a company begins to listen to it’s customers, only good things can follow. Competition, good competition, makes for a better product for customers. Is that something you agree with Anonymous? (Also, why comment anonymously? Really, do you think we’re gonna track you down and start spamming you with hate email or something? LOL)

Paying for 14,000 meals sure does feel good

Back before we were profitable as a company, we made a promise:

20% of all future profits of our shows will be given back.  10% will be given back to the community which the conference serves and 10% will go towards making the world a better place.

It’s easy to pledge money when you don’t have it.  It’s quite another thing to follow through when you do.  Money has all sorts of effects on people and sadly most of the effects are not good.  We think that a lot of these issues would be solved if some of the profits were given back. It’s hard to be greedy and all about money, when you give back and see the fruits of the generosity.

At our most recent 360|Flex event in San Jose last month, this was the breakdown:

Community 10% –  We gave over $9,000 in tickets to Flex User Groups.  In addition, we’re buying a PlayStation 3 as the prize for the OpenFlux competition.  That’s more than 10%, but who’s counting. :)

World 10% – We gave $7,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank and $1,000 in prizes to those that helped with the Charity Flex Code Jam.  The code jam built a “hot meal locator” application (search for zip code: 95117) for Second Harvest.  Ali Daniali led the effort, we provided the hotel room and conference space.

Second Harvest wrote this in regards to our donations:

Another huge thank you for the most generous gift you presented us with today.  Your gift of $7,000 will help us buy enough food to provide at least 14,000 meals for low income people in need.  That’s a lot of hunger relief!

Your gift will change lives this month and into the fall.  Again, thank you for your partnership.

And thank you for all of the programming and developer hours that went into creating the application for our call center to become available after-hours. That is something we have been dreaming about for years. Many of our food recipients work during the day and can’t easily, or discreetly, call the Food Connection hotline to ask for food assistance between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.  Now there is a solution.

I would love to talk with you more about your company’s philosophy of giving back – I welcome the opportunity to learn about excellent ideas, as it ads to my arsenal of thoughts to share with other like-minded companies.

To be able to provide that was truly an honor for John and myself. We were both surprised by just how good it felt to give back.  To be honest, it felt way better than becoming “profitable” as a company.

We share this info, not to pat ourselves on the back.  Let’s not kid ourselves here, $7K is but a tiny drop in a global sized bucket of needed relief.  We do it instead for two reasons.

First, we want to challenge you and your business to do the same.  You can match our $7K donation to the Second Harvest Food Bank (email if you do).  More importantly though, we’d challenge you to match the ‘10% back to make the world better’ pledge.  You may have your reasons on why that isn’t possible, but to be honest we don’t want to hear ’em.  It’s a challenge because challenges are hard, not easy.  If it was easy, there wouldn’t be much of a challenge now would there?

Second, if you came to 360|Flex, this donation is every bit because of you.  Much like how John and I are merely the messengers for 360|Flex, we’re just the messengers here as well.  The $7K was a portion of all the funds you gave to us, funds that you entrusted us to do the right thing with: Put on a good show and make good on our promises.

Hopefully, as time goes on, we’ll be able to increase our contributions.  John and I will likely not change the world all by ourselves, but every little bit helps.  Plus, if we can inspire others to do the same, we get that much closer.

1 CFUnited could pay for all 5 360|Flex events and 3 CF.Objective() events

Based on some info on this post by Sean Corfield, the ticket sales from the last CFUnited event equals the total cost of all 5 360|Flex shows and all 3 CF.Objective() shows.  If you think 1 CFUnited is worth 8 other great conferences, please raise your hand.  (I’ll even knock it down to 7 since our Euro show was a bit bumpy.)

Now, I’ll start off by saying that I’ve never been to a CFUnited show.  John has though and we’ve talked about them at a conference level. I’ve heard in the past they were bigger and better.  This year had a bunch of rough spots going for them and I get that.  We had a bumpy time with 360|Flex Europe, but that bumpy show didn’t generate enough sales to run 8 other great shows.

Thing about business though is that you really can’t let emotions get involved when doing a cost comparison. There was an estimated 750 attendees at the latest CFUnited event. If we take the early bird price of $900, the grand total of intake just on ticket fees is roughly $675,000.  Yes, I realize there were comped tickets, free passes, etc.  However, that number is at early bird pricing, which I assume not everyone made it in time for.  Therefore, the more expensive tickets should offset the comped/discounted ones. There is also the money made from sponsorships, which for my purposes I will ignore.

Adding up the total costs from the past 4 360|Flex shows, the upcoming 360|Flex San Jose show and (with Jared’s permission and input) all 3 past CF.Objective() shows, you come up with roughly the same amount of $675,000.  To me, something simply does not add up.

I don’t know what Jared’s profit is on CF.Objective() and frankly that’s a topic better left for Jared to discuss.  For 360|Flex, I know that we lost a bit of money on 3 of our shows.  However, the shows themselves (again, with the exception of Europe) were a tremendous value for the attendees.  John and I suffered profits but attendees were always first and foremost in our minds.

I’m sure CFUnited also has their customers in mind too, but they have a legacy of costs to pay for: employees, office space, etc.  Does having legacy costs give them the right to charge more though?  I don’t think so.  John and I could survive on $50,000 profit per show with 4 shows a year.  (We’re not there yet, but stay tuned to find out what steps we’re taking to progress to that goal)  That would give us salaries of $100,000 each. We have no office space, no employees and no legacy costs.  That may change over time, but not after much consideration on cost impact to our customers. An assistant isn’t worth raising the cost of our events.

John and I have tinkered with the cost of 360|Flex in the 1+ years of its existence.  We went from $100 to $360 to $480 for an attendee ticket, with the purpose of trying to reach profitability.  The one thing we did not do however was start at $900 and work our way down.  Why not?  It would’ve been justified as the market supported it.  Why should CFUnited be knocked for merely operating at acceptable market rates?

There’s a saying, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”  We could have modeled 360|Flex after CFUnited.  In fact, I even spoke to Michael about CFUnited at the community dinner at MAX Vegas.  I told him that I was thinking of starting a conference and if he had any pointers.  I wish I could say he gave me some grand revelations that I cherish to this day, but he didn’t.  I’m not trying to insult him as he is a very nice guy.  Instead, I say that to point out that I found more inspiration from Mashup Camp and my own user group, Silvafug.  Both are cheap (if not free) to attend, have strong community feels/ties and turn ordinary attendees/members into “speakers”.  Had we started at the $900 dollar price point, a lot of the things I found inspirational about Mashup and Silvafug probably wouldn’t have made it into the 360|Flex show.  Sure, John and I probably would be retired from our day jobs by now, but the 360|Flex vibe that attendees love would not be there.  Starting lean and working with the community to become profitable is part of the 360|Flex magic.  How lean is 360|Conferences? It’s me and John’s night job after our day job.  Yeah, we ourselves are not even full time 360|Conferences employees.

Granted, our shows are smaller than CFUnited events, but this year’s number of 750 attendees is roughly the size of 2 of the 360Flex events.  Taking 360|Flex Seattle and 360|Flex Atlanta, we helped people save on travel costs (speakers and attendees) by putting a show within driving distance of two US coasts, gave twice as many sessions and 3 times as many networking events.  The biggest difference is that those two shows only cost roughly $270K(combined, not apiece) to produce.  Yes, I realize that we cover Flex and CFUnited covers ColdFusion, but still.  Jared covers ColdFusion and does it at drastically lower costs as well.

To their credit though, CFUnited is changing.  I’ll even be bold enough to say that they are learning from shows like CF.Objective() and 360|Flex.  This is good for the attendees.  While they are mimicking a lot of things from the smaller shows, there’s one area where they are not: price.  It’s all fine and well that they copy a lot of features from the smaller shows, but they need to in turn also lower their price.  If they don’t, then they should not be surprised when speakers and attendees begin to leave in droves.  Like Sean, attendees will ask “Why pay more for show if I don’t have too?”

The sad thing is though, can CFUnited lower their price?  Probably not.  Their costs are too high and their methods too ingrained.  I do not envy their predicament.  There are probably some tough conversations going on internally at the CFUnited camp.  As one business to another, I tip my hat in their direction as they go through this rough time.  My biggest advice for them would be to ask their customers what’s important and take action on what their customers say.