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.

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.

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.

Tom and I Getting Things Done

Tom and I are both endeavoring to make the most out of our time, by looking into Getting Things Done. We’ve already been using OmniFocus, and I’ve been using the idea of an Inbox folder where things go to be sorted, but in reading the book, I’m seeing how much we’re not doing.

It’s actually highly enlightening to see how much more we can do towards making the most of our time and having fewer things slip through the cracks.

It was (as David said it would be) to go through my @Inbox folder, as well as my downloads folder, and completely clear it out. Things got sorted, deleted, etc, and at the end both folders were empty.

I’m almost halfway through the book, and hoping to get the rest read before Tom and I get together in Indianapolis, so we can truly and powerfully brainstorm.

If you’re looking for a personal productivity tool, I highly recommend checking GTD out, the book, ain’t too big (which is always a damn good thing!), and the concepts are easy to implement whether it’s with pen, paper, and wireframe document holders, or using something like OmniFocus, or Things.

Hopefully this journey of productivity will bring really great things to 360|Flex events, and the phrase, “That didn’t get done?” won’t be common when Tom and I are talking anymore.

Do what you’re great at

This blog post, from someone who looks just like Che, was aimed at Yahoo! and their plethora of problems. But in reading it, it spoke to me and 360Conferences.

What is 360Conferences, Inc. great at? That answer is easy: Community building.  What does that mean? Why are we great at it?  Below are four points in bold and their explanations.  Hopefully, they answers those questions.

1. It’s bringing people together.

What does “bringing people together” really mean? Well, to us it means this: our events don’t have the small fish in a big pond feel. No one is allowed to be a wall flower, no one sits alone. Tom and I shake hands with each person as they pick up their badge. We stay on the floor talking to people and mingling all day.

2. It’s making it affordable so EVERYONE can be a part of the community.

“Affordable” is easy. We easily captured the market and shook up the conference industry by being not only sub $1,000, but by being one of the least expensive events in the world. In most cases, low cost equates to low quality, and that’s where we have set ourselves apart. We compete with much more expensive events and often times beat them. $480 for a three day conference with meals, SWAG, free training the day before, etc. That’s what we do, and everyone can be there.

3. It’s being part of the community, not treating the community as a “source of income”.

Our attendees aren’t just a “source of income”. We don’t charge very much for them to attend because we see them as our colleagues and friends: people we talk to online, on email, even on the phone and work with. During lunch at the events, Tom and I walk around and say hi to people. At the evenings events, we walk around and talk to those brave enough to party with us. We say, ‘hello’ to each person when they show up to grab their badge. We hang with them, we eat with them, we party with them, we drink with them at the parties. Well I do, Tom doesn’t drink. What I mean to say is that we don’t take attendee’s money then go off to some ivory tower or VIP room. We’re on the floor experiencing our event with our attendees.

4. It’s about not chasing a buck at the expense of the community.

What do I mean by “chasing a buck”? Isn’t everyone? Sure, and Tom and I certainly plan to make 360Conferences a viable and profitable business. To a degree we’re there already. Atlanta made a profit, but Europe ate it up. We learned though, so next time Europe won’t eat our profits. That’s huge! That means that conferences that don’t cost an arm and a leg are a viable business. So why is everyone else charging so much? Good question.

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.

Treating the community right

The great thing about our company is that it is community involved and community driven. Our 360|Flex show was developed through the support of the community. We give some of our money back to the community in a variety of ways: sponsor contests, help pay for shirts, etc.

Recently, I was able to attend the Adobe Community Summit (group shot at the top of the post, click it for higher res). It’s this once a year event where Adobe brings together all of its User Group Managers as well as Adobe Community Experts. It’s loads of fun and a great idea by Adobe. Hats off to Jonathan Wall and his crew for always putting on a great summit.

Adobe brings in their best and brightest to talk about their products. They also cover the cost of the hotel, food during the summit and a few evening activities (i.e. parties). Every company should look to that and do the same for their own community.

For whatever reason though, Wednesday night had nothing going on. After a quick chat with John and a business friend (Denver Dave), we made the announcement that 360|Conferences and RealEyes would be taking everyone out Amici’s for pizza and drinks (picture at the bottom. I’m horrible at estimating things: distances, time to drive, etc. Therefore, there’s no shocker I underestimated the size of the group coming. I said 20 and we had way more. LOL We were like 5 people away from shutting the place down and catering only to us.

We realeyes’d (bad pun, I’m sorry!) the awesome opportunity we had to give a little back to these great community leaders. While they seemed grateful for the food, it was our two companies who felt luckier helping all this great dialogue take place and letting those folks from all around the world hang out together.

When a company can help a community grow, it’s doing the right thing. After all, marketplaces were once just as much social centers as they were business centers. It’s time we try to bring back a bit of that back.

A new partner joins the club! Welcome, EventVue.

Tom and I are really happy to announce that 360Conferences, inc. has a new partner. Joining the ranks of Eventbrite, and CFDynamics is EventVue!!

EventVue is a local area company to me (Denver/Boulder). Usually, we hunt down our partners. This time though, our partner found us. From the moment I saw the demo I was pretty sure we’d want to partner.

What does EventVue do? Their website has plenty of details. For us, they help offer a much great experience to our attendees. People come to our events to network, learn, find work, find workers. EventVue helps with that, by making it easy for attendees to connect pre-event, arrange to meet, hang out, even work together. They also help attendees stay in contact, or even connect, post event.

We’re very excited to be partnering with EventVue, and can’t wait to see what comes of this new dynamic to 360|Conferences.

The new standard of conferences…we started it last year.

Yeah, that title is a bold statement. However, the great thing is that we’re not the one making the statement. Seth Godin is. We just happen to be the ones already executing what he thinks the new standard of conferences is going to be.

Brooks Andrus seems like a smart guy, but I think he’s got Seth’s post incorrect. Brooks says Seth’s post “smells of Singularity ” (an online conference). While it may “smell” of a future conference, I can honestly say we’ve been executing the new standard for over a year now. Four shows done with a fifth in the works. (Seth and Brooks, complimentary tickets on us if you want to experience the show first hand in August. Just email and we’ll hook you up.)

We’ll give Brooks a break as our conference business has only touched the Flex community (so far). We do want to offer our thoughts and attendee/speaker/sponsor quotes as evidence that we execute this new standard.

One thing Seth and Brooks don’t cover is price. While many shows hover around $1000 USD or higher, ours is $480 USD for 3 days (of 30+ sessions). We believe the lower price point enables independent developers to come and participate when it would otherwise cost too much. We think an overpriced show is bad, but an overpriced show that’s living the “old standard” should just die.

Now, we’d like to take on a few of Seth’s points directly to prove our case.

Seth says:

If you think a great conference is one where the presenters read a script while showing the audience bullet points, you’re wrong.

I specifically tell speakers, “If you had no powerpoint slides and just showed code and examples, I’d love you. Anyone can read a slide deck at home.” Our speakers also know that they can depend on conversation with the audience, so real time interaction is almost standard.

Here’s some quotes from attendees:

“Although I give huge props to the two [speakers], I really enjoyed the input from the crowd. I think this is where 360|Flex shines.” – Ryan Campbell

“At 360Flex, speakers are just ‘attendees with a little more responsibility.’ This is just one of those things that makes smaller conferences more special.” – Jeff Houser

Seth also says:

Or if you leave little time for attendees to engage with others, or worse, if you don’t provide the levers to make it more likely that others will engage with each other, you’re wrong as well.

When we started this business, we did it as two wallflowers. What we wanted was a show where the wallflowers were going to be converted to social butterflies.

I even call it out publicly and during the shows, I pull the flowers off the wall and teach them to fly socially. Strangely enough, they seem to be thankful instead of mad.

We try to have parties all 3 nights of the show (money permitting) and serve at least lunch (if not more). This way, attendees spend more time just hanging and chatting as a whole versus leaving to head offsite in little groups.

Here’s some quotes from attendees:

“As always the best part of a conference is what happens outside the sessions.” – Dan Florio

” I really appreciated there being lunch. Without it so much time would have been lost, as well as a lot of connectivity [to other attendees]. ” – Jason Epperson

One last quote from Seth:

And here’s what a conference organizer owes the attendees: surprise, juxtaposition, drama, engagement, souvenirs and just possibly, excitement.

We’ll just let the attendees comments speak for this one.

“As the Atlanta conference was ending, I was already getting excited hearing about when/where the next conference will happen.” – Ryan Campbell

“Now I’m no stranger to conferences…360|Flex was a totally different feel.” – Andy Powell

“360|Flex was a blast and it seems to get better at each conference.” – Juan Sanchez

“360|Flex is an absolute blast, it’s great company, full of intelligent people, and I couldn’t ask for more of a conference to go to.” – Axel Jensen

Regardless, I am ecstatic that I was able to attend and start to meet many of the friendly yet a bit eccentric members of the Flex community.” – Jim Boone

“Last week I had an exciting opportunity to attend the 360|Flex Atlanta conference…Exciting. Inspiring. Aspiring. Can you tell how I felt leaving the sessions?” – Bill Christian

“The conference was incredible.” – Blake Eaton

“I don’t know if they have a long term plan for world domination, or are just doing things right by instinct, but they’re doing just what I’d do if I had a five or ten year strategy to totally own the ‘small high-value technical conference’ brand.” – Dave Coletta

Are we perfect? No. Do we make mistakes? Yes. I hope it’s obvious though, that we’re executing that new standard now. There’s no need to wait for the future, it’s here.