Saturday 19 October 2019

Startup Diary: How to run a mini-conference: Part 2


In front: If you’re running a technology conference, you have to make sure you have a diverse speaker line-up. Stock Image
In front: If you’re running a technology conference, you have to make sure you have a diverse speaker line-up. Stock Image

Richard Rodger - Voxgig founder

Last week we reviewed Voxgig's event planning. As a startup company that builds event-management software, it's an important part of our product development process to use our own system for our own events - we see all the bugs before you do.

We have been running meetups for a while, but now it's time to run an actual conference.

We're calling it 'EventProfs Connect', and it will run in November. We're aiming for 200 attendees at a one day mini-conference.

This is just hard enough to stretch us, but not too big to overwhelm the company (we have lots of other stuff to do). If you've been following this startup diary you'll know that I made the classic mistake of setting impossible goals for the team early in 2018 (number of newsletter subscribers), and probably reduced overall output as a result. There's no use writing down your decisions (this diary) if you don't learn from them.

So this time we chose a goal that is sized properly (I guess they teach you this stuff when you do an MBA - of course you have to pay for that. Then again, you pay [with lost wages] to do a startup too.).

To run a mini-conference you need to worry about five things: audience, budget, speakers, planning, and logistics. Last week we spoke about getting people to buy tickets and turn up (audience), and working out how to pay for the event without losing your shirt (budget). This week let's look at the work that goes into making an event happen.

The greatest pain point for conference organisers is often the speakers. Finding speakers, preparing speakers, looking after speakers, paying speakers (even if only expenses), rejecting speakers, and on and on. There is a great deal of manual work involved in getting those speaker lists up on a conference website.

And speakers cancel or get sick, or have travel snafus. And then when they get up on stage they give low-quality talks, just present boring product pitches, or say something socially insensitive.

And if you're running a technology conference, you'll also have to make sure you have a diverse speaker line-up. The days of all-male tech 'bro' conference agendas are long gone and Twitter will not be kind if your conference has a 1950s theme.

Given that most conferences actually have great speakers that give interesting talks, you can see how much trouble organisers have to go to make this happen.

You need to start working out your speaker process today, if not yesterday. It's going to take a lot of work. None of it is rocket science, but my key point here is that you should not underestimate the workload.

While most of speaker management is common sense, there are some 'gotchas'. Be careful when paying expenses. It's very easy for misunderstandings to come up. Some conferences even use speaker contracts these days.

I've been in situations where international speakers expected me to cover business-class travel - oops.

At tech conferences it's the norm for speakers to bring their own laptops to present (this is not so common in other sectors). Make sure you have all the video connectors, even the obscure ones.

Be wary of making too many promises to speakers. I once committed to providing a limo airport collection for a VIP speaker-and forgot to organise the limo. When they phoned from the airport it was… awkward.

Collecting information from speakers will be painful. By definition, a speaker is someone worth listening to. That means that have senior roles and stressful jobs. They're busy. Add travel on top of that, and dealing with other conferences, and you'll often end up using Google to put together a speaker bio. Try to prepare the bio first, and then send it for approval. This triggers 'edits' from the speaker, and you can use up-to-date information.

Let's talk about planning.

All the old cliches are true. If you work in software you're used to plans being late and over budget (at least half of all software projects end up like this). For an event, the deadline is a very hard deadline. If you get it wrong, you'll have 200 very unhappy people literally standing in front of you. So you must plan, and plan in detail.

The most important thing to realise is that the plan starts at least six months before your event, and if you'll really on top of your game, 18 months ahead.

You need this lead to find and book a venue, and get sponsors and exhibitors on board. Only 50pc of your revenue from the event will come from tickets (that's pretty much the industry benchmark for small tech conferences). You need sponsors and exhibitors to cover the rest.

The other awkward thing about event planning is that you can't do certain things until close to the event (this is why that other great event, a wedding, is so stressful). Sometimes the venue is in constant use and you have to set up overnight. As in, you finish at 4am, and do the opening talk at 9:30am on the same day. In other cases, like catering, you can't take delivery weeks in advance. It all has to come together on the day.

Even small events can go sideways. At one of our tech meetups the pizza delivery guy (20 large pizzas) turned up early, found no one to take the order, and left. Fifty hungry attendees who still had to commute home for dinner were not amused.

The best advice here is to have a monthly and weekly task list, and identify critical dates that need action to have taken place. Review what's coming up every week. If you're used to a less intense version of project management, get intense. There is very little slack in event planning.

Finally, you have to get your logistics right. Lots of things have to happen to make an event work. To start, get your financial control right. Don't mix in event spending with other spending if you can help it. Try to have a separate account.

Make sure to get insurance. That's so important I'll say it again. Make sure to get insurance. People get injured at events, and property gets damaged. Stuff happens, no matter how careful you are. Have first-add kits. Know where the defibrillator is. Set up an 'Ask for Angela' safe space (This is the Garda code-word that you can use to alert staff to harassment or an otherwise dangerous situation). Make sure you have set a clear code of conduct and expectations of behaviour.

Great conferences are often let down by bad technology. You have to really put the pressure on your venue and service providers to get the audio-visual setup correct, have decent wifi and internet, diverse menu choices (health-related, religious observance, and lifestyle choice - you've got to cover it all - or you'll find out how you messed up on Twitter).

Unfortunately, this task is one that requires a certain brutal mentality to get right - it's one of those underestimated event-management skills. Just shouting at service providers rarely works. They really hold all the cards as they'll only have one unhappy customer, you'll have 200. Somehow you have call them on nonsense and bad delivery, but also get them to deliver. Still want to run an event?

Despite all these challenges and pitfalls, events are awesome! Pulling off a great event can really make you as a company. You can bring people together in a shared experience that is hard to do in an other way - it's very primal when it works. That's why events are such a big industry, and there's a new set of fools every year launching new events, and we're happy to join that club.


Search engine statistics: 2,267 technology conferences, with 6,197 speakers, 4,968 exhibitors, and 1,004 venues. As noteed last week we'll see slow numbers here for a few weeks as we do some technical work to streamline our data-entry process.


Marketing update: speakers newsletter - 6,199 subscribers, open rate 8pc. EventProfs newsletter: 673 subscribers, open rate of 31.5pc. The podcast is at 57 downloads (we've run our backlog down due to travel so we need to build up our pipeline of interviews again).


Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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