[00:00] Mike: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to talk about how to plan a conference. This is Startups for the Rest of Us, episode 213.
[00:13] Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers and entrepreneurs get awesome at launching software products, whether you’re developing your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
[00:21] Rob: I’m Rob.
[00:22] Mike: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, Rob?
[00:26] Rob: The word is, startupstoriespodcast.com or go into iTunes and search for the word “launch”, you may need to put “launch documentary”. Two words.But this is that two hour audio documentary that covers nine months of building Drip and then we recorded an epilogue about a year later. So it’s a span of about twenty-one months of recorded audio and it’s broken down into just over two hours. It goes live today; this podcast comes out.
[00:54] Mike: Very cool.
[00:55] Rob: I’m excited about it. I spent a lot of time editing it on the plane versus on my last trip. I feel good about it. I feel like it tells the story pretty well and it’s produced. I put music in…
[01:04] Mike: That’s neat, that will be interesting to listen to.
[01:06] Rob: How about you? What’s going on?
[01:07] Mike: We have an open call for new podcast episode ideas that I put out on Twitter yesterday. So that kind of goes for any of our listeners, if you have questions that you want us to answer or show ideas, shoot us an email. We’d love to take a look at what your thoughts are and what you guys are interested in hearing from us about. After 213 episodes, it does get a little difficult to come up with new episodes every week. So we would really appreciate any ideas and thoughts you guys have and ultimately as part of this podcast is for you guys anyway. Make sure you send in your ideas and we’ll take a look and see what we can bring out of it.
[01:39] Rob: Yes, for the first time in a long time, our question coffer is very low. We just have a handful of questions, so we would like to hear your thoughts. So what are we talking about today?
[01:50] Mike: Today we’re going to be talking about how to plan a conference. I think that part of this has come up primarily because we’ve had a lot of questions about what the dates are for the next MicroConf, and to be honest, we just don’t know yet. I thought it would be interesting to discuss what goes into planning MicroConf. I know there’s a bunch of people who come to MicroConf who also listen to the podcast. I thought it would be interesting to discuss kind of the dirty details of what goes down behind the scenes to plan the conference.
[02:14] Rob: Right, and we’ve received specific questions about that. Certain people either are thinking about throwing an event or wanting to know more about what goes on and they’ve asked us. We kind of have a quick conversation with them but I think that’s the idea here is to kind of document it.
[02:26] Mike: We’re not going to be talking about selling tickets. We’re really just going to be talking about the event logistics. The short of it for selling tickets, we simply use Eventbrite, it’s very easy to use. It makes selling tickets a lot easier, but obviously there’s a whole other side to selling tickets for an event that has to deal with marketing, leveraging an audience, getting people to the event, getting them to buy into it, especially the first time around. I think that’s enough of a conversation that we’re going to leave that out this time and focus solely on all the logistics and things you need to think about when you’re planning a large-scale event.
[03:01] Rob: One of the first things you need to think about is location and dates. What’s funny is, location actually needs to come first because from a location, then you go out on a hotel search. The first thing you need to think about is how long will a conference be, and potentially how many people you’re going to have. You may not know that up front, but you kind of have to name a number. Because if you are going to have a 300 or 400 person conference, there are certain cities and airports that have a really hard time supporting that. They just don’t have the open hotel rooms. So the size of your conference can impact where in the world you can have it.
[03:35] Mike: It’s also worth looking around quite a bit because the cost of the conference itself is just one factor. You also have to take into account the cost for the attendees to fly into that location, because there’s certain cities where it’s monumentally more expensive to go to that city at different times of the year than it is to go to other cities. We chose to have MicroConf in Vegas for a lot of different reasons, but one of the big ones is the cost. It’s not just the cost to us, it’s the cost to the attendees. There’s the cost of the conference itself, the cost of the hotels, the cost of the flights, that adds up. You have to be a little bit conscious of what the total cost of coming to the conference is. It’s not just the $200 or $500 or $1000 that you’re charging, it’s also the cost of the hotel, flight and everything else.
[04:23] Rob: Like you said, we’re really in tune with that. We pay a lot of attention to it and that’s one thing we prioritize highly when we are looking at new hotels. I don’t think either of us loves Vegas that much, but it is so cheap to get to. It’s pretty easy to get to from in the US. The hotels have really good deals. We’ve looked at holding it in eight or ten cities in the US and almost all of them are more expensive or harder to get to and the total cost is more for attendees, which is why we just haven’t done it. I’d love to do it in Boston or San Francisco but the hotels are going to be $300 a night and we would almost have to double ticket prices. We haven’t wanted to do that because we’re trying to get bootstrappers there and we don’t necessarily have a bazillion dollars to throw around.
[05:04] Mike: Once you’ve got the city and hotels narrowed down, you have to start considering which hotel you’re going to go with. Part of that has to do with what dates they have available. Just because you want to have the conference on certain dates of the year doesn’t mean that the hotel is actually going to be available on those dates. If you book far enough in advance, you can probably get those dates, but it also has a lot to do with the number of people that you’re expecting to have there.
[05:29] One thing you definitely have to be careful about is not under booking it. So if you decide that you’re going to try and get 100 people there and you only get 70 or 60 there, you can really be in a lot of trouble in terms of the financial side of it if you’re not able to get that number of people there. They typically have some sort of a food and beverage minimum that you have to come up with in order for them to make certain concessions about the rooms and the catering.
[05:53] Rob: Yes, and they also – you’re on the hook for covering the room cost, a minimum number of rooms in addition to the food and beverage minimum. The first year we had MicroConf, if you recall, Mike, we were on the hook for $10,000-$15,000, might have even been more than that. We had not sold enough tickets to even come close to covering that. I remember kind of having a panic moment that we were going to be paying for a bunch of rooms that weren’t rented out and some other stuff. So throwing a conference, especially if you’re going to get above 100 people and start to get into the 120s to 170s, if you don’t sell enough tickets, it can become a real financial issue. It can cost quite a bit of money. It can be a risky endeavor if you aren’t sure how many tickets you’re going to sell.
[06:34] Mike: So when you start looking at those dates, you have to decide what days of the week you want, as well. Especially when we were looking at hosting the conference in Vegas versus in Europe, we found in Europe it was substantially less expensive to have it on the weekend, whereas in Vegas it was substantially more to have it on the weekend. For several years of MicroConf in Vegas, and I don’t think we’re going to be changing this; we hosted it basically Sunday through Wednesday. Basically, a Sunday night evening event and then Monday and Tuesday. That was primarily driven by cost and then our first year over in Prague, we hosted it on a Saturday and Sunday. I don’t think that, although it was more cost effective, I don’t think it worked out in terms of the type of audience that we attracted. You definitely have to give some consideration to the type of people you’re going to attract by hosting it on certain days of the week.
[07:21] Rob: With MicroConf, we found that people who are self employed and are very serious about launching a business are willing to either take those two days off from their salaried gig if they still have one, or from their product business because they have a flexibility to do it. So we found it has resulted in kind of a higher quality or more serious group of attendees if we actually do it during the week. I don’t know if that would be the case with all conferences, but it’s definitely something to think about.
[07:46] Mike: The next thing you want to take a look at when considering the hotel is what sorts of concessions are they making on the total price and on the services that they’re offering. Are they flexible? For example, one thing we found in Vegas is most of the hotels have some sort of a resort fee. That’s something you have to be conscious of. In some places, they’ll let you waive it. They’ll say, “Okay, if you’re not going to go to the gym and spa area, we’ll waive this for them. But if they use the gym at all, we have to recharge this resort fee.” Then there’s certain hotels where it’s absolutely non-negotiable. They will not waive that fee.
[08:18] I think the one we’re actually looking at now, they have it tied to the WiFi access, the roaming WiFi throughout the hotel. So that’s a consideration for us. We don’t want to ask them to waive it because we want everybody to have that WiFi. But again, they didn’t actually let us have it as an option.
[08:34] Rob: Yes, which is a real bummer. We found that some hotels that are not owned by big corporations, those are the ones that tend to work with us because every year it’s a negotiation. You don’t want to pay rack rate when you go to start talking about this stuff, it’s all negotiable. The ones that are owned by these big corporations are really rigid and they won’t negotiate very much. They won’t give many concessions, meaning suite upgrades for your staff based on number of rooms that are booked, or discounts on audiovisual or food and that kind of stuff. That’s all been pretty negotiable with the hotels we’ve used thus far.
[09:08] Mike: The last thing you need to keep in mind with the hotel itself is, what is the final cost to the attendees of those hotel rooms? As Rob was saying before, if we hosted a conference in Boston, the rooms are going to be $300 a night. What we typically shoot for, for MicroConf in Vegas, is anywhere between $80 and about $120. $120 I think is a little on the high side. Of course, over the course of three or four days, that’s $400 or so. Very same thing, in Boston or San Francisco, $300 a night, you’re immediately going from $400 for the whole thing to $1200. That gets a little bit out of the price range of the type of audience we want to attract for MicroConf. You do have to be mindful of what the total cost is going to be for people, because some people are going to stay a little bit longer.
[09:53] Rob: So when you’re looking at hotels, one thing you have to think about is, what event space do they have? Because we found hotels that say they have event space, what they actually have is meeting space. There’s a difference, right? An event space is something with a high ceiling where you can get a stage in with a podium and a big projector. A meeting space tends to be eight to twelve-foot T-bar ceiling and, yes, you can have a podium and maybe some small screens but it’s very different. So depending on the type of event you want to have – if you’re going to have more than I’d say, seventy-five people, you really want some type of event space. That high ceiling gives your event a different feel.
[10:28] The first MicroConf in Prague, we had it in a smaller room, and it was more meeting space. We hadn’t seen the space before the event. For me, it was definitely not as classy. It just didn’t feel as big of an event as this year’s, where we did have high ceilings, or like we’ve had in Vegas. Think about ceiling height. You definitely want an elevated stage. That’s been another one that’s made a difference. Then you want a podium on that and you want at least one very large projector screen, sometimes two, and those are pretty expensive. The hotels rent the projectors to you at an exorbitant amount. We’re like, “If you pay for two days of it, you could buy the projector?” But that’s just the way it goes. If people can’t see, then it’s a problem, so you might just have to pay for two of those depending on the shape of the room.
[11:12] Mike: That’s a really good point you brought up about the cost of some of the different equipment that you’re renting. It’s like, we could buy a projector for that cost, but at the same time we’d be on the hook for bringing it, setting it up and everything else. In addition to that, what happens if in the middle of the conference, the thing breaks? Or the bulb blows? Then we have to go out and buy another one and we have to scramble, versus if we’re using the – whatever local event company they have, they’re supplying the equipment – they typically have spares right there on hand. So you don’t have to worry about it as much. Basically it just becomes a stress factor that you don’t have to worry about. In many cases, it really is just worth it to pay the money and say, “Okay, you guys deal with it.” You don’t want to be the one who’s on the hook for dealing with all those little technical glitches.
[11:59] Rob: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think most people realize how expensive everything is if you’re going to do this through a hotel. There are other ways to do it; I’ve seen people throw conferences at universities and you can get the space for free or for a low cost, especially if you give tickets to some students there. But then you have to provide everything. You need to figure out the sound, all the meals, there’s a lot that goes into that. That’s why we do it as hotels, as well so that people can all stay in the same place. It makes it convenient, but they’ll charge you for things like projectors or coffees. Don’t they charge us $68 for a gallon of coffee? Something like that, it’s outrageous. The lunches, it’s like a buffet lunch for $50-something per person. They’re giving us the event space for free, so that’s kind of how it winds up. Be prepared, if you’re going to do this, that the budget – there’s a reason conference tickets tend to be expensive. To do it right, it is not a cheap endeavor.
[12:53] Mike: You also have to make sure that you have at least a reasonably good sound system or sound engineers on site. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to deal with the hotel sound system when it’s not something you’re familiar with, if you didn’t set it up. You really need to have some sort of an onsite event staff that’s going to be handling that aspect of it for you, because you want the event to sound nice. You want the speakers to be able to come through loud and clear.
[13:17] At MicroConf, we actually have a sound engineer who’s there all the time, where if something goes wrong, he can fix it right on the spot. There’s been a couple of times where they’ve had sound issues – where either a microphone dies on us because the batteries are dead, or we have to swap one out because it’s not working right. There’s all these different problems that can come up. They’re all little things, but they can really seriously impact that quality level or the perceived quality level of the conference. Having those people there is extremely helpful.
[13:45] Rob: WiFi is the other thing – we spend, I think between $4000 and $5000 on each conference. That’s for two days of WiFi in the venue. It’s always been worth it. We only had one year we had some scattered issues and that was a real bummer, but every other year that cost, while it feels like a lot to pay, has always been worth it when you get 150, 170 attendees and they’re all able to connect to the internet.
[14:11] Mike: Well, even that year that we had problems, they brought in another WiFi access point for us. That was something they just did on the spot. It’s hard enough to deal with a conference, let alone technical glitches. So having them – it’s almost a no brainer if you start putting on a conference of any given size.
[14:26] Rob: I think the last part about the event space itself is to realize that you really don’t want a lot of extra space in that room. You kind of want there to be an energy of that room. I’ve been at conferences where the space is like two sizes too big, right? So you have a bunch of extra space, and the energy kind of just dissipates, either straight up or out the sides. You want people to be packed in just enough so that it feels like there’s a lot of people and like there’s a lot of energy in the space.
[14:53] Mike: So let’s talk about the evening events a little bit. For MicroConf, we run an evening event every night of the conference itself. Then we have, essentially, an evening reception the night before the conference starts. I think it’s important to have something every night; I don’t think you necessarily need to be the one who organizes it, but you do want to make plans for something. You don’t want to just say, “Okay, goodbye!” Especially at the end of the conference you want to have something for them, whether that is, you’re helping people organize into groups so they’re going out to dinner and you provide them with a list of places they can go. Or, you host something for them.
[15:25] I think that it’s just important to make sure that you are providing direction for people, so they know kind of what the expectations are. I think that if you’re just leaving people to the wolves, so to speak, and letting them decide on their own, it almost feels like you’re not taking care of them. You’re not paying attention to what their needs are as part of the conference. You do want the attendees to talk to each other; you do want them to interact. So providing a venue for them to interact at an evening event is extremely helpful in terms of them just getting more out of the conference, but also getting them talking to one another.
[15:55] Rob: Right, realizing that the hallway track is always worth at least as much as the speaking track itself – the first year at MicroConf, we didn’t have an evening event planned for the third, final night. We just figured people would kind of self-organize and as it turns out, that was the year Heaten Shaw spent like $900 in liquor at the hotel gift store and we all just lined up and carried it up to Andrew Warner’s suite. That became kind of the tradition of – we at MicroConf get together every night in some organized fashion, at some prearranged meeting place where everyone to gather is a big deal. Every night, because any time you skip a night, people want to be together. That’s why they’re there, why they’re taking time out of their week and why they’ve paid for the hotel.
[16:35] Being pretty deliberate about getting people together every night of a conference is a big one, including the welcome reception the night before the conference. I think that’s really important, because getting the social energy kick started before the conference itself starts is a big deal. When you get up on stage that first day, if you’re running this conference, you’ll feel the difference. When people are not connected, it’s harder to run the conference. But if people have reconnected and you feel like it’s a cohesive group, it makes a big difference.
[17:03] Mike: One of the things that we’ve discovered with our evening events is that, ours have gotten large enough that we actually want them to be outdoors. The reason for that is that sound travels. If you have it inside and you have enough people in a room, what happens is that the sound will reflect off the ceiling and comes back. It just makes it exponentially louder and by having it outside, that sound travels up and it doesn’t come back, which is really nice. I think we discovered that more by accident than anything else. By far, every single event that was outside has been far better. I know that you really can’t do this outside of Vegas, because Vegas is basically a desert, but it makes it so much easier to be able to do that event outside.
[17:42] Along with the noise factor is having low or no music at all. In Prague, this past year, we’d had one of the evening events at a bar in downtown Prague. It was so incredibly loud that people just didn’t enjoy it. There were people who left early because they wanted to go back to the hotel and hang out at the bar there. They couldn’t hear themselves talk. That’s definitely something to be mindful of. People are there to talk to one another and if you don’t provide them with an environment where they can talk to one another, they are going to leave.
[18:09] Rob: Last couple of things to keep in mind with evening events is to buy at least the first drink for everyone. The other thing is, to serve some kind of appetizers or dessert. Even if it’s a small quantity, everyone’s not going to eat it, but just to have something to munch on lying around helps.
[18:24] Mike: Along with the appetizers, something you also have to be mindful of is that different people have different dietary needs. So there are some people who are vegetarians, vegan, gluten free or have allergies to different types of foods. You have to be sensitive to those types of things and handle them more or less as exceptions. Basically, ask people, “Are there any dietary considerations that you have?” and we follow up with them to make sure that we’re able to meet those. We work with the hotel on those things. So for lunches, for the evening event appetizers and things like that, you want to make sure you’re taking those things into consideration because it may not be important to you, but it is important to your attendees. If you show them that you do care about those types of things, they’re going to be much more willing to come back and to tell other people, “Hey, I went to this event, these guys took care of me.” We’ve actually gotten emails back very recently about the MicroConf we just held in Europe – people who have emailed us and said, “Hey, I really appreciated the fact that you guys took care of me because of this.” It was just nice to see that it was noticed.
[19:23] Rob: So let’s talk about speakers. This can be a big part of your effort is actually recruiting good, solid speakers. I was talking to Dan and Ian at Tropical NBA when I was at DCBKK and one thing Dan had mentioned, which hadn’t necessarily occurred to me before, was just how hard it is to find people who are both practitioners and who can communicate, and communicate well onstage. It really is hard to find good speakers. There are only so many of them. So our way to find those folks is to seek warm introductions. We ask people if they know someone who is a speaker or who has spoken in the past, because once you’re throwing an event that has a lot of people attending it, you can’t necessarily have beginner speakers. That’s when you start doing stuff like attendee talks or having shorter talks with the beginner folks to see who fleshes out and who is able to take the main stage later.
[20:15] Mike: Yes, I definitely think addressing the quality of the speakers and establishing kind of a minimum bar is definitely something that you want to do at a large scale event. The last thing you want to do is put speakers up there who don’t resonate at all or clearly have issues speaking in front of a large group of people, because it just doesn’t come across well. Then you get this very, very wide range of speakers and people come away from the event thinking to themselves, “Oh, well I really liked this speaker and this speaker, but these other four or five, or whatever, I didn’t resonate with them. I didn’t find what they were talking about interesting. They just weren’t good speakers.” I think you want to raise the bar as far as you possibly can, but you want to do what you can to vet them. So that includes watching videos of all the talks that they’ve done, especially if they’re not a speaker that you’ve heard before or been able to see some of their videos.
[21:03] You want to take a look at their slides and see what it is they’re talking about, if it’s something you think is going to resonate with the audience. I’ve been to conferences and spoken at conferences where they want your slide deck up front so they can essentially help you tweak it. There’s other ones where they’re essentially just let you go and you can talk about whatever you want, and they’re not going to review it. I think the best thing to do is something in the middle. You kind of give people a lot of leeway if you’ve seen other talks that they’re done and you have a good sense they’ll do a good job just based on their previous work.
[21:34] Rob: Yes, there are two things a talk needs. It needs delivery and it needs a really good talk, like actual content of the talk. Most of the talks that fail have poor content or it’s not organized well. It’s almost never that the delivery is bad. So you can watch former talks and get ideas of how people speak but if they’re writing a new talk, it’s always hit and miss. As an organizer, keep that in mind. Even if you were to line up nine fantastic speakers and everybody delivers really well, all nine of those talks are not going to be great. Someone is going to tank, at least one, every year. If you have more beginners who haven’t written a lot of talks, you’re going to have more of that happen. It’s just something to keep in mind. You’re never going to bat a thousand with this, you just have to do the best you can and get the best talks up there. Overall the conference will average out.
[22:26] Another thing to keep in mind is to maintain some kind of variety, right? You don’t want all the speakers talking about the same thing. You don’t want all of them telling stories; you don’t want all of them doing tactical; you don’t want all of them doing inspirational. It just gets boring. For MicroConf we found that this means a good mix of founders, who are typically telling their story but pulling tactics out of it. That’s the best format for a talk I’ve seen from a founder. Then we have tactical specialists, and these are people like Sarah Hatter with her tactical specialty of support, Dave Collins who really knows SEO and Joanna Weeb who really knows copyrighting really well. That’s been the mix for us. It’s been a good blend of tactical specialists and founders. If you’re running your own conference you’ll have to think about that as well.
[23:11] Mike: Another consideration is the scheduling of the speakers. You really want to have one of your best speakers go first and another go last. By having one of your best speakers first and last, then the conference starts and ends on a high note. That’s really how you want people to walk away from a conference. You want them to feel like, “Hey, this was an awesome conference.” Because they’re going to remember most things about that first speaker and last speaker.
[23:37] Another thing that we found in the scheduling – the very first year we put on MicroConf, we detailed exactly when everything was going to happen. We told people, “This speaker will be speaking from 9 to 10, this one from 10 to 11,” etc. What we found was, 15 minutes into the conference, we were like half an hour off. So at this point we don’t publish that schedule anymore. We publish the order but not a detailed schedule, because if you get off of that schedule it can be very difficult to get back on to it.
[24:06] Rob: Right, we’ve also found that putting some pretty proven speakers at the end of the first day and the start of the second day – so essentially bookending both days with really strong speakers helps, because when people are heading off to dinner for that first day, they want something interesting to talk about. You don’t want them to say, “Boy, that speaker really tanked.” You want there to be positive association and then you want someone strong the start of the second day because a lot of people want to sleep in and don’t want to come. Frankly, you want to encourage everybody to come and you want to kickoff the day with a lot of energy.
[24:37] One other thing I’ll mention about speakers is, if possible, talk to them in advance and ask them to attend your evening events. Ask them to attend the conference. It’s a big deal, and it’s a big compliment we’ve heard about MicroConf, that people can come up and talk to the speakers, that they don’t fly in and fly out to do this one hour stretch. They’re actually approachable, able to answer questions, able to give feedback and they’re around for the duration of the conference. It’s a pretty big deal.
[25:01] Mike: Another thing on the speakers is that – I think one of the best things you can do for the speakers is have a speakers’ dinner where essentially you’re kind of thanking them for the event. But you’re also setting them up so that they know what to expect at the conference, especially if they’ve never been to the conference. We host our speakers’ dinner on Sunday night before the conference even starts. That helps the speakers who are coming, because then you can set expectations for them, you can let them know what they’re likely to see, what the audience is going to be like. You can let them ask questions, and of course you’re going to want to pick up the tab for them coming to the conference.
[25:33] Rob: Right, and this has actually been a big perk for some of the speakers. We’re not able to pay our speakers, and a lot of them are important and very busy. But being able to hang out with both the MicroConf attendees but also the other power players, to reconnect with folks they may not have seen at the speakers’ dinner is a big perk. We’ve had compliments about doing it.
[25:56] Mike: So let’s talk about sponsorships for a little bit. One of the things we do to help pay for MicroConf is have sponsors at the conference. I think you really need to be very sensitive about hosting a conference where you’re having sponsors. I’ve been to some conferences where you go there and sponsors basically buy their way in to talk onstage for an hour or two at length about their product, what they can do for you and it basically becomes this giant sales pitch. We really wanted to make sure that we didn’t do that for MicroConf.
[26:25] So there’s this delicate balance we’ve kind of struck where we have the sponsors there, we definitely highlight them and talk to people about them, but we don’t shove it in their faces. We do giveaways for the different sponsors so they have the opportunity to put things forward. We’ll do giveaways in between speakers and they’re obviously welcome to come to the conference. In fact, we actually encourage that. One of the things that we do for the sponsors is that, as part of the different sponsorships, they are invited to come to the event and their tickets are included in those sponsorship packages. It’s essentially a way to say, “This is the cost of the event, but for this much more you can become a sponsor.” One of the things that we do with the sponsors is make sure that we try to get those sponsors to the event. They’re going to get a lot more out of it as a sponsor if they attend.
[27:09] Basically, we’ve priced the sponsorship levels above and beyond what it costs to come at the event. You can’t be a sponsor without getting those tickets. We simply avoid giving people the option to sponsor if they’re not also going to get the ticket. There are some sponsors who say, “Look, we just want to support the event but we can’t come so we’re going to do a giveaway. We’ll give away our ticket.” That’s fine; that’s totally cool, but at the same time we want those sponsors to come so that they do get a lot out of it, they are able to interact with people. That’s part of the value proposition that you have to provide to them. You have to have a solid value proposition that says what they’re going to get and how does your audience overlap with theirs.
[27:50] I think the last comment I have on that is making sure that you have a rate card for the sponsors so that it’s very clear cut what they’re getting and what the different packages are so that it’s not more of a negotiation. Because some sponsors will try to negotiate with you and I think it’s a bad idea to negotiate on a sponsorship side, especially in terms of price. If you lay it out in a rate card, people look at that as more of a menu and it becomes much less negotiable.
[28:15] Rob: Something’s always going to go wrong. We’ve had something go wrong every conference, including speakers canceling during the conference or the day before. We’ve had some issues with sound, music too loud at some of the venues that we aren’t able to control… all kinds of stuff is going to go wrong. You just kind of have to give into that and understand that when it goes wrong, you just do your best to fix it. We’ve actually had some of our best innovations come from a speaker canceling, because we then did some website tear-downs. That has become like a pivotal part of MicroConf and something that people look forward to.
[28:53] Mike: Yes, I think it was three or four years before I was actually speaking on the day that I was scheduled to. It’s been a running joke.
[28:59] Rob: You were always scheduled for the second day and then we always had something go wrong with a speaker on the first day. We had a flight delayed, someone who got sick and then something else. We moved you to the first day, so the night before MicroConf you were always scrambling with your slides.
[29:13] The other thing to think about is that all of this always requires compromises. We’ve named a bunch of criteria for the city, the hotel, the venue, the audio and the cost. You’re going to have to compromise on something. Pretty much every year we feel like, “Yeah, all right, we nailed the city and hotel but boy, that one venue we just couldn’t afford to get one better.” Or, the venue is really nice but the evening events at the hotel weren’t as good because they didn’t have an outdoor event. You’re never going to find the perfect package; you just have to be willing to figure out where it is you’re willing to compromise and where you’re not.
[29:48] Mike: I think one thing that’s really helped us is knowing in advance exactly how many people we’re going to be having at the event. Part of that isn’t so much the number of people but knowing exactly what our budget is to work with. If you’re always working with a moving target for the different places you’re having events or meetings or workshops, anything like that – that moving target becomes a very big challenge. But if you know exactly how many people you’re going to be having before you even get there, and you’re able to give them that number well in advance, it makes things so much easier and you know in advance if you can pay for something. You don’t have to think twice about it. You just say, “Is this good for the conference? And can we afford it?” Not having to deal with that moving number is extremely valuable.
[30:34] Rob: When you’re done running this event, you’re going to be exhausted. You need to do a couple things. One is take a couple days off and decompress and think about the conference. The other is find someone to talk about it with. Hopefully if you have a co host you’re putting it on with, you can sit down for an hour or two and basically do a debriefing or post-mortem. Figure out what you did right, what you did wrong, what you’re going to change for next year, how things went in general – I find that time to be invaluable. You have so much in your head and it’s so intense when you’re running this event that taking those hours and getting it all out on the table is very helpful for trying to return back to normal life, frankly, and normal work. I find that I pretty much won’t get any work done for two or three days after MicroConf because I’m so burned out. Because it’s kind of like the volume turns up to 11 for a few days and it’s really hard to just come back into a normal life after that.
[31:30] Mike: Yes, so you and I usually record a podcast – essentially right after the conference is over. We just kind of sit down and talk about what went on, what went right, what went wrong and I think that having two of us there helps in a lot of ways. But being able to talk about the different things that we saw and being able to get different perspectives on them. Different people are going to have different perspectives even if they see the exact same thing. If there’s more than one person running the conference with you, then it makes it easier to get those different perspectives from somebody who was deeply involved in the entire process. So I would probably recommend that you actually have somebody who was working with you on it in a major capacity. I think you and I both kind of go on vacation afterwards as well. I think last year I went out and camped out in the desert of Utah after MicroConf.
[32:14] Rob: Yes, I typically just come back home and take a couple days to decompress and maybe check email a few times. But I don’t do much work on purpose after that.
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