Friday, August 24, 2012

Hosting A Conference: Big Boulder 2012

If you've considered putting on a conference at your company, you might glean something from our experience. My company, Gnip (a social media company), held its first conference this summer (Big Boulder). You can also read about it on the Gnip blog. It worked. Here's why.

tag cloud of the event (#bigboulder) produced by one of our customers; Netbase

We Waited

For years we wanted to pull some sort of industry conference together. Early on we'd held technically natured meetups with some regularity. We sponsor, and speak at, a bunch of stuff. But, we'd never actually hosted something that tried to define the overall marketplace (something we tirelessly work on internally day-to-day). Until this summer, the timing just wasn't right. Our ideas weren't solidified enough. The threads that connected the various contributors in the ecosystem weren't strung through strongly enough. We waited, not until everything was perfect by any means, but until enough of the macro picture was clear that we could hang a consistent and clear message on the wall. We needed that message to be concise, and we needed the relevant players to understand it (and organically believe in it); the only way for the broader public social data ecosystem to reach its potential, is to ensure the social Publisher's motives are aligned with the commercial consumers of the activities they disseminate.

We also needed the right people to craft the message, and the event itself. Over the past year or so we'd added folks to the team who inherently understood how to do this. While I knew they'd nail it on paper (the plan, the message, the aesthetic), execution was a huge question mark (at least in my mind); no-one had taken something like this all the way across the finish line before. We were brining in (invite only) hundreds of participants; from speakers to attendees. Logistics weren't going to be easy. We didn't vend anything out (except venue, food, and a/v). We pulled it all together ourselves. I'm still in awe at how smoothly everything went. A testament to everyone's passion, skill, and commitment to what we're doing here at Gnip!

We planned

The conference was done "panel style." Moderators engaged in Q & A conversations with the panelists/speakers. Getting the list of speakers right was a challenge. A few people we wanted to talk couldn't/wouldn't (you'll never know which it was in some cases) talk. That sucked, but we managed it by having a broad set of folks we wanted the audience to hear from, and accepted that churn was just part of it.

The sessions themselves were planned weeks, and in some cases months, in advance by vetting topics with the speakers and getting the right conversation sketched before we sat down live in front of everyone. I didn't get the value of this at the time, but it is clear to me now that it was a huge contributor to the conference working. We had two full days of material to cover. If it wasn't coordinated effectively, we'd have a disjoint mess on our hands.

We Kept It Simple

No presentations! There were one or two exceptions, but as a rule, we didn't put slides up. This helped ensure the audience didn't suffer slide fatigue and just drift off into the conference oblivion we all know and hate. It kept everyone engaged; everyone.

We Mixed It Up

We brought in an MC that wasn't directly related to our space. Some of the topics can be intricate and heavily policy related. Lindsay Campbell brought a fun, light, comedic, yet professional, educated, and authoritative air to the room. She's awesome and can crush an enterprise event as well as she can a more consumer oriented production.

We sprinkled in various activities. Yoga, hiking, and biking to keep things active. I thought these would be too corny, but participation levels were high and people really enjoyed everyone one of the activities we planned.

We did the event in Boulder, CO. This geographically challenged location from a travel logistics standpoint actually helped, instead of hurt us. Boulder has a great locale reputation, and many of the audience members hadn't been here before. The event was geographically unique as opposed to the same old venues many folks are accustomed to visiting.

We're in the throws of deciding whether or not to do the event again.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Startup Communities" by Brad Feld

A "publisher's draft" of Brad's latest book (release date in coming weeks) called "Startup Communities" appeared on my desk the other day. I just finished reading it.

What an awesome book! Brad put to words what I've been grasping to codify in my mind for a decade or so now. Specifically, what makes Boulder (and as the name implies, other communities outside Boulder) what it is from a startup/tech standpoint!?! Part of the challenge was time; time needed to pass in order to come up with much of the framework (scenarios needed to play out, relationships needed to evolve, etc). The bigger challenge, however, in putting structure around something unwieldy is being able to see all the angles, define them, construct a vocabulary, establish thesis, and connect the dots. He did it.

I've been blogging about Boulder and software for years, but have never been able to get my headspace into a cohesive network of thought around what we've done as a community here. Starting with a clear illustration of "leaders" and "feeders" (words I'd first heard him use at my company's (Gnip - a social media company) recent Big Boulder conference) he outlines constructs necessary to have a successful, flourishing, Startup Community. Turns out you need both in order to succeed, and being a "feeder" isn't a bad thing.

The broader conversation around what makes for a great startup community has been going on for a long time now. We've all been trying to put our fingers on the key components, and "Startup Communities" does an awesome job outlining them. When you cross check the frameworks and concepts against the realities of Boulder, Boston, the Bay Area (and others), they stick. I'm a believer in that entrepreneurship is indeed what's going to get the world through the disaster it's currently in from a political/economic standpoint. If you subscribe to even a fraction of that notion, the book's a good read to understand what components a community needs in order to move us all forward.

Stuff I loved in/about the book:
  • "Give before you get."
  • Tribute (though slight) to Naropa University, which has been a significant part of Boulder's identity and fabric for a very long time. It also embodies many of the openness related qualities Brad sets up in the book. I don't think this particular thread is considered enough when we try to tease apart what makes Boulder, Boulder.
  • A startup community has got nothing sans entrepreneurs. This is the broadest arc outlined in the book; it all starts and ends here.
  • Patriarchy won't work. The picture's bigger than that.
  • Trouble ensues when "feeders" try to lead. In my experience this is what trips up communities trying to "start up" most often. Someone in a "feeder" role declares "we're going to be an awesome startup community dammit!" That just doesn't work. You need the entrepreneurs.
  • Deep exploration of the role Universities play in a startup community. This is hard to get your head around considering the blend of "government" (funding) and entrepreneurial spirit that embody Universities. They're confusing actors.
  • "Bottom up, not top-down."
  • "Network over hierarchy."
  • Authenticity. The guy practices what he preaches.
  • "It's my belief that Boulder is unique because the entrepreneurs and other participants in Boulder's startup ecosystem have a greater sense of community than anywhere else in the country." - Mark Salon
  • "Go for a walk." Walking/bike riding meetings are just better. I'll never forget a walking meeting we had a few months ago when we found ourselves way the hell out in East Boulder before realizing we needed to get back to our offices. Just fun.
  • "Do or do not. There is no try." - Yoda's proverbial perspective.