How to run a tech conference
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Since the dawn of time, or at least the '80s, conferences have been a mainstay of the computer industry. From week-long events that attract thousands of people, to single-day local conferences with a few dozen attendees, organizing and holding your own conference can be a daunting task. Between worrying about money, selling enough tickets, finding enough speakers and getting sponsors, it can be enough to give you ulcers. But being part of something special, something that you know will benefit the lives of many people, and seeing a community brought together in pursuit of a common goal of knowledge, is such a great reward that any gripes about the sleepless nights and unpaid labor are easily forgotten. After being an organizer of two regional conferences, and the upcoming international ng-conf, I have some hard earned wisdom to share with anyone who is thinking of putting together a conference. This wisdom is a collection of lessons learned not just by myself, but by other organizers that I have networked with while attending and organizing conferences. I present them to you in list format, in no particular order, in the hopes that you will make less mistakes than I, and that maybe you’ll put together something awesome, and that I might even be there to see it.
Don't do it for the money. I wish I could say that putting on conferences is lucrative, but sadly, no matter how it may appear on the outside, conferences are just not a profitable venture. In most cases, what is left over is barely enough to cover expenses. But even if you watch your expenses very carefully, choose wisely about how you spend money and find the best deals on everything, you’re still better off picking up extra hours at the local fast food restaurant instead of running a conference for profit, and with much less risk. Conferences are a way to give back to the community, and be part of something special. They’re not a great way to bolster your income. The one exception here is that organizing a conference can make you more marketable as an employee, and in increase your demand, making it easier to negotiate with a prospective employer. Like all things on a resume, the things that make you stand out can make all the difference in the world.
Create a corporation. The first lesson is something that should be pretty obvious in this day and age. There are risks in any business venture, so mitigate those risks through a corporation. Protect your personal assets. Creating a corporation can be done for as little as a few hundred dollars, and it’s an absolute necessity to protect yourself from financial ruin.
Don’t create a non-profit corporation. Creating a non-profit corporation involves many times more hours and up front cost than a for-profit corporation. Also, since your first year your numbers will show going from zero to potentially a lot of gross income, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be audited. For various reasons, the IRS loves to audit non-profit corporations. And even though you may think that the benefit of not having to pay taxes on profit sounds great, the truth is that you’ll have few profits, so you won’t have much in the way of taxes. It may also seem that it will be easier to find sponsors, but the truth is that whether you are a non-profit or not, for your sponsors, any money spent on your conference is still a write off as a business expense. So do yourself a favor and avoid this trap.
Create a good organizational structure. If you and your buddies decide to run a conference, it may sound like rainbows and unicorns, but when it comes down to deciding on a direction to go, all chiefs and no Indians makes for a bad way to get things done. All organizations have an organization for a reason, and a lack of organization is not an organization. A conference is just like any other business, and it should be treated as such. Just as important as creating a corporation to protect your personal assets, it’s important to organize your efforts. This organization is best created by an operating agreement. Create one up front, and hire an expert to help create it. This will not only make things run smoother, but it will save you if ever any big disagreements occur.
Work with great people. Related to the previous item, be sure to choose carefully who you will go into business with. Make sure that you are comfortable working with them in a far more intimate manner than you may think. You’ll celebrate together, you’ll work shoulder to shoulder, you’ll fight, and you need to know that you can get through it all without someone deciding to become a detriment to the work.
Watch your finances. Just like in your personal life, the closer you watch your finances, the better off you will be. The one thing you don’t want to do is end up bringing in less than you spend. So if you aren’t the type of person who loves to keep track of those long lists of figures, find someone who does, and get them to keep close track of all your finances. Spend lots of time estimating costs and refining those estimates.
Work hard to get sponsors. In most cases, the difference between profit and debt is the sponsors. But sponsors take time. First it takes time to decide how to organize your sponsor packages, and figure out what value you can offer your sponsors in exchange for their money. Then it takes time to find them. One of the best ways is your attendees. Be sure to frequently mention sponsorship opportunities to your attendees. Another great way to find sponsors is to go to other conferences, talk to the sponsors there, get business cards and send them your sponsorship prospectus. Spend time talking to them face-to-face about your conference, and treat them with respect if they’re not interested.
Make the conference your own. It’s impossible to create a conference for everyone. You need to realize this up front. The best way to create a great conference is to create a conference that you yourself would love to go to. You are your first and best customer. Use your own preferences to determine a clear direction for your efforts. Don’t try to please everyone, just try to do something that you are proud of. Watering the experience down will only ensure that nobody will like it.
Ignore the internet hate machine. If more than three people hear about your conference, then chances are that someone is going to criticize you on the Internet. Some of those criticisms will be constructive, some will be well-meant but poorly executed, and some will just be spewed vitriol. It’s much better to ignore it all as much as possible, and ask attendees themselves for feedback after the event, than it is to hear one person say how much they hate your idea for a jousting contest during breaks and decide that you have to reverse direction on all your decisions. Some of the most amazing conference experiences will be polarizing. They’ll be ideas that at least some people will hate. There will always be those who feel that it is their prerogative to try to drag down everything done by others. Ignore them. The worst thing you can possibly do is give them legitimacy by engaging them in a public forum like the interwebs. If you can take their criticisms stoically and separate out the constructive feedback from the hate, then great, but if you can’t, then it's best to ignore it and find a better way to get input on ideas for improvement.
Do everything way in advance. Give yourself a deadline of 30 to 90 days early for everything that you need to get done. Everything takes longer than you think, so do it all early. Sell your tickets earlier than you think you need to. Find a venue earlier than you think you need to. Start getting sponsors earlier than you think you need to. No matter what you do, the last four weeks will be nuts, so plan to have everything finished by then.
Your website is critical. Having a great website is one of the most critical things you can do. Don’t just rely on services like Lanyrd or Eventbrite. Create your own website, and make it easy for people to get the information about your conference and share it.
Be careful about how you sell tickets. It seems straightforward enough. Register on a conference ticket site and start selling tickets, collect money, bask in the glory of your wisdom. Sadly, there are some nuances that may not be apparent. Third-party ticket sale sites may likely have rules about when they give you your money, and it’s often AFTER your event. For some reason they don’t seem to understand that all your costs will be due BEFORE your event. One of the great ticketing services out there is Tito. They use Stripe to handle payments, so your money will be deposited about a week after you sell the ticket.
The venue determines everything. Your choice of venue will be the biggest determination of what you can do with your event. The venue will affect everything: When you can have your event, how many people can come and how much it will cost. Nothing affects the event more than the choice of venue, so be sure to do a great job choosing it. Spend lots of time on your selection. Look for a local civic agency — something like a convention and visitor’s bureau — to help you identify venues. Drive around. Look at other events, not just conferences, and see where they’re held, then go talk to those places. Some venues will dictate your choices for food, others will dictate your hours. Hotels with conference centers are by far the most expensive way to go. They are convenient, but surprisingly expensive. It’s typical that they will put you under contract for a certain minimum food and beverage cost, and a certain number of room nights, but then they will give you the conference space for free if not almost free. That seems like a great thing, but in the end you have tied yourself to someone who gets to dictate so many choices like A/V, catering, and so on. So always choose your venue carefully.
Over-communicate. My last piece of advice is to over-communicate everything you’re doing. There is no such thing as saying something too seldom. Let your attendees know about all the details of the conference, and tell them over and over. Put it on your website. Send it to them three times by email. Put it on signs at the event. Put it in your mobile app. Someone somewhere will forget something you said and it needs to be easy to find the information to make sure that your event goes as smoothly as possible. Organizing a conference can be a nerve-wracking experience, but like all great ventures, the thrill and satisfaction of helping further the industry, and being part of something special, greatly outweighs the drawbacks.