Start with Why. Not how much can I make, Not who will come

Tom sent me this TEDx talk, and it pretty much exactly captures why I do conferences.

This came up in looking at some of the events that compete with my events. There’s several people jumping into the iPhone conference space. It’s hot, it’s new, people see the iPhone community as a bunch of dollar signs. They won’t be around long. People see our events, and; 1. think they can do it (it’s not rocket surgery I admit, but you can’t just create a reg site, and expect success and profit) 2. poach our speakers thinking that speakers alone (don’t get me wrong, we pride ourselves on AWESOME speakers) make an event a success, and simply bringing them along will bring the attendees. 3. Think they can do better, because their SAP event, or their single publishing company line up of speakers can do better.

I’ve heard from several people, who’ve attended 360|iDev, as well as one or more of the new comers. Overwhelmingly, they all said the vibe was much more corporate at the other events. Corporate sponsors, sessions to schill corporate goods/services/ideas. Watching this video resonated to me, why our events attract developers, attract community, attract indie gamers, scratching and clawing to make a living on their software. Because that’s who we are, we are indie. We aren’t a company looking for another profit center event.

I don’t do conferences (or Ignite Denver) to get famous, to get invited to other events to talk, to make my name bigger. I do it because I enjoy doing events that people love coming to, that give the attendees more than what they came in with.

We started (and I’m continuing) 360|Conferences, not because we thought conferences would make us rich, or famous. But because we saw a need in the community for the events that made the most impact to the developer community. We didn’t start asking how much can we make? Can we quit our jobs tomorrow? How can we get famous doing this? What will people pay for our events? What will make us rich?

No, we asked “Why?” Why do events suck so much? Why do they cost so much? Why do attendees get so little in exchange for (in so many cases) their hard earned money.

I was an independent consultant, I paid for Adobe MAX, CFUnited, etc with my own money. Each conference was several days worth of billable time just to get in the door. Several more days in un-billable time in attending. I wasn’t alone in asking those “Why” questions.

Enjoy the video. Think about who organizes the events you attend, are they in it for reasons you agree with? Do their actions (reg price, session depth, sponsors) match what you would like to see?

Great post on “beginners guide to Attending Conferences”

Neil has a really great article on attending conferences, go check it out. This post is just my thoughts on some of his points.

As a conference organizer (our 36 events, and Ignite and some other stuff I want to do) it’s funny how many people don’t follow these guidelines, that to me (even as a conference attendee) are so obvious.

Many of the points are tenets of what we’ve build 360Conferences around even.

I’m not going to include Neils opinions on these items, give his blog some traffic and read them.

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Have business cards – I’m torn here. I HATE business cards. Not the idea, but the execution. I’m trying out DUB (I’m jwilker on DUB BTW), which so far seems like a good option. Poken are an interesting approach too, but they’re a bit large for a keychain fob. Business cards suck, they get washed, you end up with a stack, and unless you’re diligent and make notes on them right away, you often forget the person attached. AND you then have to manually enter them into your address book/CRM. I suggest checking out DUB, or buying a poken, supposedly there’s business poken now, but whatever! I like my Ninja.

Come up with an elevator pitch – Agree. I suck at them, and short of “I plan conferences” I’m always at a loss, but Neil is right, and no one (myself included) wants to stand around for 20 minutes while you explain what you do.

Knowledge is power – It is. We pride ourselves on our events being worthwhile both in the sessions and in the halls. But don’t skip the sessions, we bring our A game in selecting speakers. They’re top notch, awesome people, with crazy knowledge who want to share. It’s worth sitting in and seeing what they’ve got.

Kind of a hedge, but the hallways rock too! You won’t find them empty, ever. Someone is always holding court (usually Sim) helping people with problem code, talking about code, etc. Some one is always working over VPN, etc.

Don’t be a networking whore – If you judge success by the number hands shaken or biz cards collected, you’re doing it wrong. No one will remember you, you won’t remember them, and worst, someone will see what you’re doing, and then no on will want to talk to you. In talking to people it’s all about Quality over quantity. Here’s where I really really agree with Neil. He lists key groups you should try to talk to; speakers of course, your competition, and the organizers of the event.

Talk to the organizers. Not just because we’re lonely, which we sometimes are, but because believe it or not, the good ones know everyone there. I’ve lost count of the times Tom and I have freaked an attendee out, but remembering their name from the last conference they attended, etc. They realize we know them, and smile and say thanks, after the initial shock. We ask how they’ve been, what they’ve been up to etc. We may not remember every name, but we remember every face.

One thing Tom and I do is send an email to attendees, telling them, to come to us if they have a specific goal for the conference, people they really want to meet, groups they’re interested in. Tom and I will either do an email intro, or simply walk that person over to another and introduce them to each other. It means a lot for us to be able to do that.

Don’t eat lunch with your friends – This exact point is why some people don’t speak at our events. We’ve had potential speakers tell us, “Don’t offer food, pay the speakers. We’ll go eat with our friends somewhere” We don’t want that. Maybe it’s the outcast in us, but cliques suck. Sure events allow people to reconnect who might not see each other except at conferences, but don’t be exclusionary, meet new people.  If you just want to be in your private social circle, form a club and have meetings. Conferences are as much about meeting new people as anything else. Plus usually (not always) our food isn’t that bad :)

Walk the floor – We don’t have big expo halls, and hope we never do. 1 we want the sponsors where the attendees are, not in their own room, and 2. We don’t need booth babes, and hawkers, and gimmicks, and don’t think our sponsors do either. A six foot table, monitor and computer seems to work. As an attendee I’ll say I’ve never gone to a booth just because it was pretty or flashy.

But I agree with Neil, not all sponsors are gonna bombard you with salesy crap, the good ones will just chat with you, and if there’s business in there, it’ll work out, but you’ll both be better off for having met, that’s for sure. You never know when you’ll need something someone might have been selling.

Take someone out to dinner – Tom and I don’t do this enough, but we really enjoy it when we do. Lunch or dinner, it’s nice to just enjoy a meal with someone.  Technically we take all attendees out for dinner each night, but dinner is in, and it’s a bit impersonal :)

One of the best times, was the last 360|iDev in March 0’09. After we closed up Wednesday, said goodbye to everyone, etc, those not rushing off to airports or homes got together for dinner. There was about 20 of us, and it was great! We chatted about polar bears, Canada, the UK, ‘talking like an american’, etc it was just a good time, there was no sales or schilling going on it was just fun. I hope we can do more of that.

Attend the after parties – We make this one easy :) They’re right in the main conference area, or a short walk away. As fun as WWDC was, a dozen competing parties a night, where the purpose is nothing more than “have the best party” isn’t fun. We like everyone to be together, talking, drinking, having rootbeer floats, and in general enjoying each other’s company.

Don’t forget to follow up – This is more for the attendees :) We follow up of course to all attendees and sponsors (usually) and keep active in between shows, but I agree, it’s important to reach back out when you get home, solidify the contact. I hate when, 6 months later, I’m like “Ah damn I never followed up with her on X after the conference” and then I have to feel like a tool hoping she remembers me and the topic.

Neil’s blog is a good read for sure and this topic obviously resonates with me and us as a conference company. I’m glad we’re not the only ones that see that values of conferences as more than just show up to see old friends.

Trying new things!

One odd thing about running conferences is that it’s hard to iterate. We’ve treated each event as a learning process, taking the good and bad, learning and then making the next event better. The only problem is the ‘next event’ is 6 months or more away.

Not only is it hard to remember what we need to remember sometimes, but it’s hard for our customers to remember, or worse, they remember the bad more than the good, and have to hope in 6+ months we’ve gotten better.

We also like to try new things, which is also hard for many of the same reasons. If something doesn’t work or needs improvement we’ve got to wait a while before the next iteration. Its not like software where the next version is only so far away as it takes to write it.

That’s probably one of the hardest things for us, we come up with an awesome idea, but it’s either too late to implement, or post event entirely. Some things work, our USB dead drop at WWDC, was awesome, and it led to a registration, which makes it worth it! Some stuff doesn’t work, Flex/Flash camps. Operating within bounds that aren’t conducive to making money is tough, We’ve got nothing against flashcamps, but they’re useless as a money making endeavor, because of Adobe’s rules, for organizing them.

Joint efforts with big companies don’t work either, we learned that the hard way.

So what’s next?

Cruises! Yeah like on a boat. The concept is actually not new at all, the Mac Geek Cruise has been around quite a while and attracts some pretty big names. Our first cruise we’re starting small, see how it works, if we can make some money, even break even really. It’s an adventure, and we don’t know where it will go, but we’ll see.

Join us, we’ve got some awesome (big) names lined up for the cruise, and I mean really it’s a cruise!

It’s a busy Summer!

We realized there wasn’t any single place to point people to our roster of conferences this summer.

These are in order:

  • InsideMobile – july 26-27. San Jose CA.
  • InsideRIA – August 23-24. San Jose CA.
  • 360|iDev – September 27-30. Denver CO.
  • 360|MAX – October 4-7. Los Angeles CA.
  • RIAdventure360 – December 6-13. New Orleans (Departing)

Clearly we’re busy :) It’s a good busy though, we’re trying new things; the first two events are partnerships with O’Reilly Media, we’re going back to Adobe MAX, and we’re even taking to the high seas!

3 Things to make conferences better, according to Harvard Biz Review

I’ve had this article open in a tab since, well it was published. I’ve been wanting to comment on it, since I don’t think it’s 100% right. YOu can read the entire thing at the HBR site, but I’ll paste the main points

1. Conferences and meetings should tell unique stories.

True, sorta. While we definitely don’t fit the writer’s model of how conferences are created, we still make a lot of decisions ourselves. We look at conferences as “what will people take away” not “What will they get”. Sure they’ll get Chotchkies, and whatever else our sponsors want to provide. But they’ll take away, more knowledge than they can even imagine gor the price they paid to get in the door. They’ll take away connections that lead to new work, new hires, new open source projects, new companies, etc. So while you can make your conference tell a story, I think the value is the event, not the story,whatever that is. The people, the connections, that’s where the value is.

2. Conferences should be for, by, and about the attendees.

i agree completely! We often mock events that have “steering committees” because if the organizer knew their audience, their community, they wouldn’t need a committee to help them select content. They wouldn’t have to ask publicly “Who’s the big name in the industry?” They’d know. If they didn’t know they’d know who to ask, and know how to find them. And that’s for speakers, it would be one thing if it was a keynote or special one off type thing, but not even knowing enough about the community to find speakers? Well that’s not us.

Tom and I call our events, for and by developers, because that’s where our roots lie. Tom still writes code for a living, and I write it from time to time when we need something simple done, we manage our own websites, and SQL DBs, etc. There’s no “Team” supporting us. We think this gives us not only an insight into developers needs and wants, but also allows us to relate.

3. Conferences should be about more than just eating and sitting

While eating is definitely high on Tom’s list of priorities, we do agree that sitting in sessions, and sitting at lunch, are not the most important parts of a conference. More often than not, our lunch setups don’t include seating, we’d rather people have to find a seat in the crowd, just sit down somewhere next to other people. Banquet rounds have a countering effect to that usually. Sometimes it can’t be helped, when the venue has a “Lunch area” that you just can’t avoid.

At night we throw a party (sponsor supported), rather than have a half dozen seperate parties, or no parties, we throw one, one that everyone is welcome to attend, one that has food and drinks, Rock Band and conversation. We sometimes have BOF sessions, and sometimes people go off into the break out rooms to plan, write code, and talk quietly. The bottom line though is we’re all together, there’s no need for small cliques to go off on their own (very un-community) for lunch or dinner, when we’d rather everyone hang out and talk. It’s amazing to see people move from group to group having incredibly cool conversations at every stop.

So yeah there’s always room for improvement, and Tom and I endeavor to learn all the time, so each event is a learning experience, but lumping all conferences together, kinda sucks for the Indies in the crowd. I mean, web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, CFUnited, WWDC, Adobe MAX, are not even in the same park as us, and we like it that way.

It’s gonna be a busy summer!

Tom and I first met Steve Weiss at 360|Flex San Jose ’07 (Yeah the very first one) and we hit it off immediately. Steve’s an awesome guy so it wasn’t hard for us to like him.

We talked at length about our thoughts on conferences, our approach, our goals, etc.

The friendship continued through the last few years, Steve coming to the events he could so we could chat in person, otherwise email was our medium. Back before InsideRIA launched Tom and I were actually in talks to run it, which was were pretty excited about. Things didn’t work out (as they do sometimes in business) and we all continued to chat.

Around the time InsideRIA was getting off the ground, the idea of an RIA conference was born. Something that wasn’t Adobe specific like 360|Flex, that brought as many of the competing(?) RIA platforms together to network, share war stories, share approaches to problems etc.

That talk continued on and off for months, until now :)

We’re happy to announce our partnership with our pals at O’Reilly! InsideRIA and InsideMobile are our first (of many?) collaborative efforts. Each will be a 2 day event, in San Jose CA. We’ll bring the same cool “John and Tom” vibe, and O’Reilly will bring their awesome reach and connections in the multiple communities. A match made in heaven. I can’t wait to meet everyone that comes to these events! The Call for papers are open for both events, so fire off an idea.

Tom and I also announced recently that the second 360|iDev was in the works for September. In Denver (my home town)! It’s gonna be a fun time, in a fun city!

The last part of the busy is that Steves boss, Joe was very interested in 360|Whispering, our fledgling eBook publishing service. There might be something there! I’m excited, we’ve got a few authors already signed on, so content should be showing up soon, especially an awesome ‘Tech Novella’ (Tom’s term) on Android development from Faisal Abid.

The 4 W’s

I’m quickly becoming a fan of the small Biz Bee blog. This post was especially worth addressing here, since for many the answers might surprise or at least lead to “Ah, that makes sense”. So here are our 4 W’s.

1. Who are you?

Tom and John, for short. We (maybe more me, than Tom) went through a phase of trying to really make 360|Conferences its own identity, separated from its founders. We thought it made sense for the company itself to have an identity, but in the end, we were wrong. We couldn’t make people recognize the company, and we realized the “Tom and John” brand was firmly established, and strong. So to most people, and businesses, 360|Conferences is something that’s on checks, and letterhead, and the company is “John and Tom”.

[Tom here: The one thing I found interesting during that time was size perception of the company.  When we pushed 360Conferences as an entity/identity, people assumed that meant we had an army (or at least one or two helping hands) back at the office.  Which simply wasn’t true.  It was weird to see that when you push a brand name as a company, people assume that means it’s no longer just the founders.]

That’s only part of ‘who’ though. The rest is that as a company Tom and I strive to break a lot of existing models. We found the conference business to be broken, so we’ve set out to show that an event with high ROI doesn’t have to cost over $1,000 or more. We’re close to proving that not only is it possible to do, but it’s possible to do so and still be profitable enough to do it full time.

Our core values (to me) are building community, getting people together to talk and learn from one another. We love to shake each attendees hand when they pick up their badge, we love to say high and walk the room during lunch, and hold raffles. Our core values are community.

2. What do you do?

This one has confused many of our customers and rightly so I’m afraid. We’ve been confusing on the topic to ourselves, and if we’re not clear how can anyone else be.

We organize conferences. Conferences around communities that we are interested and/or involved in. Communities that are just getting big enough for an event to bring them all together.

More generally we bring people together. 360|Conferences bring them together in real time to meet face to face for a few days at a time. 360|Whisperings is brings them together in delayed time via inexpensive articles that satisfy a specific knowledge.

3. Why does it matter?

Our company and offerings help make a community stronger. We believe the strength of a community directly impacts the strength of the product or services that community exists around. By breaking down the walls that separate community, we increase the throughput on ideas and collaboration. Our events have been the launch pads for books, open source initiatives, jobs and business.

4. What makes you different?

This is a big one, obviously. Any company that can’t answer this well should probably start looking at new ventures. Here’s why we’re different. We care. Conferences aren’t a marketing expense for our company or product. We’re not trying to sell our services disguised as a conference. We don’t have “people”. We don’t hire temps to work registration. We don’t hide until it’s keynote time.  We don’t look at our customers as a necessary evil.

If you come to one of our events, the person handing you a badge is either Tom, his wife Alison, myself, my wife Nicole, or a close friend that volunteered to help us out. We eat our lunch with everyone else. We man the reg desk all day, every day of the event: directing attendees, answering questions, chatting with people and plain just getting to know our customers. If you don’t see us, we’re either putting out a fire or going to the bathroom (Hey nature calls sometimes, you should see the soda I put away at a conference).

Sure we like profit, sure our goal is to make 360|Conferences a paying gig for us, but the company started as a one off $100 event, to bring together the Flex developer community because the other event options all sucked (and still do).

So that’s the “360|Conferences, 4 W’s as interpreted by John Wilker”.

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.

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.