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.

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