The Death of Modern Conferences, Review of Boulder Startup Week

Last week we tried a little experiment out.  We planned a conference that was 100% distributed, 100% volunteer, 98% free and open (one event had tickets that went to charity).  We called it Boulder Startup Week.

The result?  We had coffees, coworking, hikes, bikes, Ignite Boulder, demo nights, and a whole lot of one on one amazing interaction.  55 events in 5 days, and it was a smashing success.  One so big I would be very, very, very scared if I was a conference venue or professional organizer.  I see the death of the modern conference.

You can no longer sell the wall.

Three years ago when I was bootstrapping my first real company I really wanted to go to a conference.  I wanted to go really, really badly.  I was roughing it, barely making rent, and asked for a comp ticket.  I could provide energy or volunteer, not eat the food and not be in the way.  I wanted to be part of the community.

I was told no, to fuck off.  You don’t have the cash, you are not invited to the party.

The organizer was selling the wall.  If I paid $600, a door would appear, to others that paid $600.  They did nothing to connect me to others, they just had a room that they could sell.  I hung out in the lobby one day and pissed the organizer off, ‘how dare I mooch off of the event they put on.’  I saw person after person leave early, question their buying a ticket and wonder why they didn’t see the results they were sold.

The thing that makes my blood boil is that many of the conferences of the past never give back unless they are getting paid.  Most of the speakers wouldn’t attend if they were not speaking, to a conference that wouldn’t exist if it were not getting paid.  They put together a conference, with cash from sponsors and tickets, and nothing to the bootstrappers and up and commers.   They thrive off an active community and do nothing to spark new leaders, companies or ideas outside of what benefits them.

I may hang in the lobby, but I give a hell of a lot back.

Death of  Venues

The organizers will evolve, but conference centers are about to be turned into hotels like RV parks.  If your current model is charging $5 for a soda, you are going to die.  Conference organizers often cite the venue expense as the chief driver of costs.  Having run several events away from standard venues, I see that as the future.  Conference organizers: we hate hotels, they scam you and in turn us.

What Is The Problem

Step way back.  Why do conferences exist?  We have a need to meet face to face.  It is inspirational.  It is healthy.  We love to see new things, to see experts.  The problem is that the community isn’t evolved.  That is the problem.  Perhaps the problem isn’t access, it is focus.  Conferences are great because we focus on learning, promoting or engaging.   They are not great because there is a demo pit or a big out of touch company suddenly feels part of the gang.

In healthy startup ecosystems, and I see this true for many parallels, you have your bootstrappers, your hot companies, your flat companies, and your huge companies.  The conference of the future (lean conference?):

  • The bootstrappers drive excitement.  They sit on the edge of their seats at every panel.  They blog and love your event.  They say thank you.
  • The hot companies speak on what is working, what they are excited about and where they are going.
  • The flat companies are there to learn, to pivot, to listen.  They buy tickets.
  • The huge companies are your sponsors, help you find speakers and in many ways your promoters (or they give you standing).  You don’t need them, and they don’t need you.

The model of the last few years has been: sell sponsorships (high price) and sell tickets (high price).   There were so many people making money because the connections they made were so valuable.  I don’t see this being true these days.  It seems now the most powerful are that way because they are amazingly accessible.  They are out there listening, challenging and evolving.  There is no wall in their normal life and coming to a conference shouldn’t put one up.

I see the future as sponsors or tickets, pick one.  If I pay, don’t show me ads or have paid keynotes.  If you raise the money, let the bootstrapper mentality run wild.

It Will Evolve

We blog in many ways because WordPress is so good (ten years ago the only outlet I had was letters to the editor).  The tools out there, such as PlanCast and EventBrite, make it so damn easy to plan something amazing, that putting on an amazing event no longer takes a team of 10.  It takes a few part time.  A few that care.  In the battle of care, I win.  In the battle of care, the community organizer wins.  People all over the country are playing the role of community curator, and they are onto something big.

Fantastic events take a central leader, clear purpose and dedicated time.

The Model

What did we see just kick ass for Boulder Startup Week?

  1. Intensive discussions at coffeeshops around technical issues.  Dive it deep to personal quesitons, get to work right away.
  2. Big community parties.  Larger companies hosted bars.  The energy was out there, people were meeting and having great conversations.
  3. Be open and honest.
  4. Use local restaurants as venues.  Lots of small tables, not big rooms or 20 person tables.
  5. Open RSVP system.  We used plancast.  Would highly recommend it.
  6. A few sponsors. We had four cash sponsors, Pivotal Labs, Return Path, Sticker Giant and TechStars.   Several companies, like SurveyGizmo and Get Satisfaction, offered to pick up the tabs for events.

Our entire event, 3700 beers, 3300 people, 450 meals and 55 events was paid for with less than one lower level sponsorship ‘opportunity’ of another conference.

Who Is Kicking Ass

Look at the uprising of local community events.  Big Omaha, TribeCon Gnomedex and boco are doing really, really well.  We all bow down to the model that SXSW has set.  I see an extension to these conferences, an extension like Startup Week, that will involve the bootstrappers and general community.

In Closing

I got into the Colorado tech community because of BarCamp.  Free, open and driven by the community.  That is my roots.  They are great, but as a whole, not fantastic.   What we are finding is that with just a little extra, community events can outperform any major conference.  I realize this isn’t out of the box, that communities are growing and supporting these events have to be built with years and years of work, but hot damn, we are onto something.

If you want to sell the wall, you better have built the arena.

  • So true. I'd rather attend Startup Week than any other traditional conference any day. And Startup Week was a smashing success!

  • kitzellg

    Andrew, well said my friend. Your passion will help spread the fire on such great topics as these. People need to stand up for issues they believe in. I am so happy to witness such a great event and have Atlas be a part of it!

    Rock on!

  • Andrew, very interesting post. Glad BSW was a success, sounded like a lot of fun!

  • Cheers to you on a job (and a post) well done! I attended many of the Startup Week events and they were all awesome. In fact, my company, Quick Left, sponsored an afternoon of co-working. We were pleasantly surprised at the wonderful turnout and high quality of all the attendees.

    I've never been prouder to be part of the Boulder startup scene than I was after last week.

    Thanks for everything.

  • migdesigner

    Fantastic review dude. I am so happy you and team had such success on BSW. Cheers.

  • iamkendal

    as always, well said and spot on. May more catch onto the new reality

  • Panda

    I think the point that is important to get, but easy to miss, is that EXTREMES SUCK. Even when the extreme is free/community. Then you only energize and excite the hardcore, missing a lot of the toe-dippers and cross-community tweeners. It might be hard to see that within a self-selecting community like startup-itchees, but it's there all the same.

    What we need is a sliding scale conference – built around what you can bring to the party… And if ALL you can bring is money, then that should be welcomed as well. It's easy to forget that sometimes people need to watch a sport from the sidelines to “get” why they'd want to play in the next game.

  • kipp

    I agree – in almost every way (with the exception of the Plancast/Ignite mix-up for some of the newbies) ;), Boulder Startup Week was an amazing success. I attended a number of events, and the sense of community was palpable.

    Even moreso, dare I say it, than it usually is in Boulder.

    Which brings up a good question, however – as the folks at RWW/RWS (& @suzanbond) suggested, Boulder is a biggish small town (or vice-versa). It begs the question – was this event a success because it was an open event? Or was the success owing to something about the overall zeitgeist of the town called Boulder?

    Would this event have worked in Austin? Or SanFran? Or NYC? (Having lived in Los Angeles, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't there). Not detracting from the event by any means – just wondering if the true reason for BSW's success is that lack of a wall, or if it has something more to do with it being born in Boulder, which arguably has one of the best startup communities in the country.

    Regardless, thanks for putting BSW together, and congrats on it being an incredible success. I was glad to be there, and I'm already looking forward to the next one.

  • Tekee

    Very insightful points here, well done!

  • Things that made this work for me:
    1) Boulder is a walkable community – everything was simple to walk to with other people, not have to worry about cabs/cars/etc
    2) Plancast rocked
    3) There was a good flow of events without too much overlap to cause distress
    4) There were ample places (thank you Dojo4 and Quickleft) that let people hang out and work in a work environment when they needed to do so.

    also when you're talking about communities…. <cough> Gangplank </cough>

    I enjoyed the hell out of the week and appreciate the opportunity to meet and talk to some awesome folks.

  • Doug Davis

    Great for Boulder, I love visiting, but Boulder is not like the rest of the world.

  • Couple of things:

    The future of conferences being sponsorship OR tickets “pick one” seems really out of whack to me. The truth is, without sponsorships, a conference like FOWA would be $2,000. Not only that, but getting over the hump of getting enough sponsorships to make a conference free would be incredibly difficult. The truth is, the big, and valuable conferences cost a *lot* of money to run. And no, it's not just about getting lavish venues, but simply being able to pay the speakers to fly out, put them up as well as cover speaking costs (not all speakers are willing to do stuff for free, plenty of these guys make their living from this).

    Beyond that, it's not reasonable to assume that we can have enough companies, venues, and people “donating” their time, money, etc. to be able to make ends meet. Sure, it might work in the microcosm of Boulder, CO but it certainly won't work in the world as a whole, especially if they're trying to attract national attention to something.

    The other big discrepancy I have here is that in every example of “who is kicking ass”, they all use sponsors and ticket sales as a way of reaching their goals. The poster child, SXSW is probably most ridiculous at this. Minimum cost of entry to SXSW is $600, and they have companies that are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ticket sales. Would you like to pay $3,000 to go to SXSW? Most likely, without sponsors, it would AT LEAST be that.

    While I agree that there does need to be some flexibility here, and possibly even a new and improved model, I definitely don't think it can happen in a black or white situation. Bravo for putting on an event like Boulder Startup Week. I am, however, less inclined to believe that it could work many other places.

  • I came up from Phoenix just for this #bsw event. Was solid all the way around. I really enjoyed that everything was within walking distance. Also that I could pop in just about anywhere and find wifi and a corner to get some work done was sweet. I take issue with the trophy I was awarded at Ignite..

    I saw it as a working vacation to reconnect with friends and peers and meet some new ones, yet still find a few hours a day to manage my biz. Thanks again Andrew.

    There will always be a place for the drones for a traditional conference, but the #bsw format was much better suited to me. Work, Network, Play, Work, Sleep… Repeat

  • Andrew, I've been doing small events like this for eighteen years. Just wrote a book about it. I agree with everything you say and commend your success in scaling up, which is not a trivial thing to do.

  • jrmoreau

    From the time when I was a freelancing copywriter to the times I was a full-time employee, I've had barriers of networking with like-minded people in conferences due to price points. I've never seen anything as welcoming and interesting as Boulder Startup Week… ever. I was hesitant to come join because I heard about how heavily developers were recruited in Boulder were and being someone with a marketing and branding background, I thought blending in might be cumbersome and awkward. I was totally wrong in that assumption though. The topics were so varied and open (there was even a Community Managers meetup! Huzzah!) that talking business ideas with coders, designers and entrepreneurs was as easy as I wanted to make it. All you had to do was show up and put yourself out there at #BSW and you'd meet someone interested in what you were doing there. I feel confident about my choice to pack up my apartment and Madison and get out to Boulder that the community will represent what I saw last week.

    Kudos to breaking down the wall rather than trying to sell it. I'm a fan. Thanks for everything Andrew!

  • Andrew –

    Great post, I really think you are right, along side everything else where the hackers and bootstrappers are finding ways to create the value by harnessing the community and forgoing the traditional route, you are leading the charge in doing it with conferences.

    We just hosted our second successful “startup conference” called Launch Fest http://launchfest.net/

    It was 100% free and open to the public, and we attracted investors, great speakers, and passionate entrepreneurs who are simply doing it.

    Breaking down that wall is key, our goal is not to keep people out, but to bring people into the tent! Give much more value than you receive and you'll win.

    Great job with everything you are doing, look forward to seeing you soon.

  • One more comment, Andrew, we took the same path. The BarCamp movement is always what I point to as the beginning of the tech community in NOLA. I went to my first one in Houston.

    I think the ethos of the BarCamp movement is infecting these bootstrapped conferences, and will be one of the longest lasting impacts of “Web 2.0”

  • We all know that the value in conferences lie in what happens in the hallways and restaurants and coffee shops. You successfully proved how well it works to take down the $600 door. Boulder Startup Week was awesome and everyone I talked to found great value in participating. It's about the people, conversations and connections.

    We all appreciated the sponsors also and noted them more than we would have at a paid conference where their contributions wouldn't have been as meaningful to our experiences.

    My biggest complaint with most conferences is that the panels rarely offer new insights or information. It was refreshing to primarily be interacting with other attendees rather than sitting in a room watching 1 to 5 people talk at an audience.

  • ericaogrady

    Well said Andrew! One idea that Bill Erickson & Ryan Plesko recommeded a couple years ago was a conference series called Small Talks. Similar to BarCamp, the idea was to create small user generated events where each participant had a portable white board or the like and people would walk around discussing topics of interest. The conference never took off, but I love the idea now just as much as I loved it then.

    Also – take a look at #SLGT (Support Local Grow Together) – http://weslgt.com/

  • There's room in the market for different kinds of conferences. I think the open, free, community-supported conference isn't so much a disruptor of paywall conferences, rather an expansion of choice (for organizers and attendees).

    BSW was a blast and I really enjoyed being part of it – from the informative to the social events. It was fun hosting an event as well and I'll do it again.

  • This is awesome to read; congrats on such a success. It makes sense this thrived in Boulder. I bet there are or will be similar events in places like Phoenix, Charlotte and Chicago.

    What strikes me, is that “We had coffees, coworking, hikes, bikes, Ignite Boulder, demo nights, and a whole lot of one on one amazing interaction. 55 events in 5 days” sounds like a typical week in San Francisco. Particularly given the lack of big circuit speakers. Having not lived in other tech-centric cities, I can't speak to whether anywhere else hosts this frequency of tech related events all the time. I doubt there are too many place that could, which speaks more to the maturity of the tech scene in SF than anything lacking elsewhere.

    I think this makes it less of a conference and more of a jump start (or jump-to-the-next-level) for a startup community. I hope to read about more community sourced events like this in other cities!

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