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!

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. :)