Dec 3 2010

Our Startup Story – No plan is foolproof

John

If you looked at 360|Conferences now, and compared us to the early days after 360|Flex San Jose ’07, you’d see a lot of differences.

As 2011 approaches, and we’re working on our last event of 2010, it’s clear (as much as these things can be) that 2011 will be a big year for us.

Things that Tom and I started that were, according to us, at the fiber of our beings, are changing. 360|Flex, at least for 2011 will only happen one time. Ditto for 360|iDev. Going to 1 event a year, was something were were firmly against, but the realities of business and the community can’t be argued with indefinitely.

Having an event 2x a year, obviously means our expenses are doubled. Sure something can be bought in bulk for both to save, but mostly, things like hotel rooms, venues, food, AV, etc are just doubled. However having an event every six months makes it very easy for folks to “skip this one, I’ll come to your next one” because really they only have to wait 5-6 months. That’s all well and good, but for the business to work, we need folks coming to both. I mean it’s not like 1 is a repeat, both events are unique and offer a ton of stuff, but I can’t count how often we heard, “I’ll see you at the next one”

So as we wrapped up 360|Flex DC (Failure BTW) and 360|iDev Austin, Nicole and I decided that 1 a year, a bit larger in size to make up for the second one going away, made the most sense for us and the community. Looking at the other events in the space, most are annual conferences. Those that aren’t (from the outside) seem to be struggling to put butts in seats as well.

So yeah reflecting back on the start of this business, it’s clear, you can have one vision, but when you look back a few years later (assuming you’ve made it that far) you’ll see that the initial vision was a bit blurry and out of focus.

Here’s to 2011 being the year that 360|Conferences makes stable money, can grow, and do even more cool things for the communities we serve!


Jul 29 2010

10 Mistakes made in starting up.

John

I saw this post on quicksprout, and the first one pinged right off the bat. It’s a great post of 10 common mistakes.

When I saw that #1 was “Speed” i knew I had to post something there. Tom and I argued… ok fought about speed a lot. I’m a very now now now, let’s do it now vs. wait around and do it later person. Tom is the opposite.  So is Nicole for that matter, but she’s at least open to letting me convince her I’m right :)

#3 is a good one. Hard to make work, but a good one. It’s really hard to remove emotion from the equation. A sponsor being lame, or backing out, or people abusing press passes, it hurts. It’s an affront to you, and feels like a slap in the face, and it’s hard to not do the first thing that comes to mind. But I agree it’s often (I don’t know if I’d say always) best to let logic win out.

#7 Is interesting. 360|Conferences wouldn’t exist without Tom and I. Neither of us is likely to have done it on their own. I know it wasn’t on my mind, and pretty sure it wasn’t on Tom’s. But the two of us together bootstrapped the company into 4 anchor events a year, plus a few one-off trial events etc. And not to be all horn tooty, pretty sure we’re why several others have created events. A business partner is a huge asset, but as Tom and I learned, you need to be more than just friends. You need to be on the same page. Turns out Tom and I were rarely on the same page, and only sometimes reading the same book.

The rest of the list is great, and I agree with each item. I take vacations, sometimes a weekend off, etc. I plan for just enough of tomorrow to know what I want to do the next day, but if you were to ask me what 2012 or even 2011 looked like for us, the best I’d be able to say is 4 events, a possible location. That’s it.It’s grand to plan out to 2015, but it’s the stuff in between that’s FAR more important.


Jul 27 2010

10 Tips for Bootstrapping Your Marketing

John

i saw this and thought it was it an interesting list. With very little budget, beyond what I spend on Google adwords (Not a huge pay off, but does get a few registrations) and some moo cards from time to time, the marketing budget for 360|Conferences is very much bootstrapped.

The twitter rule is a big one. I manage about 7 twitter accounts. tweeting discount codes, RT’ing things I think the communities those accounts care about would be interested in, etc. It’s damn near a fulltime job on it’s own. but it does pay off over time. It’s not huge, or fast, but when looked at cumulatively, it’s a steady building wave. The more I tweet, the more people RT, the more widespread the message gets. For events, it’s especially important to leverage the network effect. the 360flex account has about 1500 followers, each of those has their own number, etc. so each person who helps spread the word, has near infinite reach.

#5 is something I need to do better at. I’ve got awesome friends, who introduce me to new people when we’re out. They do a great job of talking up the particular conference they’re tied to, but then it’s my turn and I nod, agree with their statements, and maybe add something boring. I’m working on that aspect. Not quite an elevator pitch, but a short burst of “Why you should be attending as well”

#6 is timely. We started video taping sessions this past spring. They’re very successful, each is $3.50 there’s currently a buy 5 get 1 free deal, and they’re selling pretty well. Not paying my phone bill, but covering hosting, etc and giving me lunch and beer money. Which is great since even if I’m at an even keel, that’s better than spending what little I have. We’re already planning to increase the video quality for the fall events, by buying some HD flip cams. Not everything this time will be HD, but we’re phasing out SD.

We’re also going to get more testimonial, man on the floor type video this fall, to produce some fun/cool videos to show people why they should be at 360|events.

#7 I think we came close to pioneering :) We reach out to our speakers to help get the word out. We don’t demand it, but we ask each one to help make noise, help raise awareness, etc. After all people pay more attention to the speakers, they’re big names in the communities, well connected, etc. When they speak people listen. It works really well. Leveraging their names, and fame to help increase attention on the event, is a big boost.

#10 is a tough one for me. As a developer and person who’s on lots of lists, every email campaign I create I have a mental block to get past of “is this too much?” For the most part, and this was awesome advice from Liz.. Go just past your comfort zone on sending emails. If you think you’re getting close to annoying, you can probly send one more email. Our own filters are naturally strong, so it’s tough to reach past them. But it’s true. My mailing lists for the most part grow weekly/monthly as I send out more and more interesting things.

What works for you? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.


May 21 2010

Shady business practices – Not required

John

I’m always amazed (sadly) when companies do things that are just plain shady. Not dishonest, but boarderline, more just icky, things most people would feel guilty about.

Case in point (I’m not naming names… at least not right now)

At the most recent 360|iDev conference I met 2 guys who run a small software developer newsletter/newspaper. They also do events. One of them paid for a regular attendee ticket, they other asked for and received a press pass.

They came and said hello when I was at the desk, and nicely let me know they were planning their own iPhone conference.

More the merrier, sure I’d love to be the only show, but I’ll settle for being the best. They expressed their desire to not overlap, or in any way interfere with 360|iDev, and presumable receive the same from me. Cool.

One thing that stuck with me was that they flat out said in the course of our conversation, “we like to think we’re the good guys in conferences”

I didn’t see them much the rest of the conference, turns out the “press” only came for 1 day and posted a nice post on his personal blog about the conference.

The other guy spent (to the best of my knowledge) the rest of the conference poaching speakers (and possibly/most likely sponsors)

Now, don’t get me wrong, poaching speakers and sponsors is par for the course. Recruiting speakers to your events, involves seeing them at other events. However I find it completely slimy that I basically helped finance the poaching by giving a press pass.

Sure passes are largely a soft cost, but there’s an expected quid pro quo in giving someone from the press a pass. IF they even come (a lot will ask for a pass, but then never show. I don’t get it, but whatever) they write about it. Heck even a “X event was nice” something to show that you appreciated the pass, and the courtesy extended for the press.

I finally wrote one of the offenders, expressing my feelings of being taken advantage of, and got back

“There wasn’t any hard news  (ie, product announcements) that were picked up but Alan did blog about the conference:”

No explanation or denial that I had indeed helped fund their fishing trip, no apology for an act that didn’t come across as the actions of a “Good guy”. Just the above and “If you want to come to our event, let me know” Not even a “here’s a discount code”

Off the top of my head there was the merger of two indie iphone dev companies, Fastmac had all kinds of cool new products they were announcing/showing, we had a round table discussion about Apple’s SDK agreement clause 3.3.1, we had a 12 year old who had several apps in the app store, and was working on iPad games in attendance, we had a 12 hour game jam going on over night,  and more. Other press had no trouble finding plenty to write about (see here)

It’s sad that there are businesses who find this type of behavior ok.

It’s sadder still that as a result, the “no longer allowed press credentials” list has an entry on it.


May 4 2010

When the formula works you’ll know it.

John

360|Flex San Jose made over 110k…. We of course were in huge debt coming out of 2009, so we cleared no where near that. but that’s the most a 360|Event has ever made.

Clearly we’re doing better at this than before :)

Not super terrific awesome, but better.

I think we’ve found pricing that works ($499 first 100, $599 the rest), and stays true to our “Not breaking the Indie bank” ethos. We’ve also found a rhythm in selling sponsorships. Turns out I’m actually pretty good at it. These two things combined, with really aggressive selling to the community, seem to be paying off.

Our sponsorship package has gotten more wide ranging, and I think truly offers our sponsors a great value. For 360|iDev, I actaully had to turn people away, we simply didn’t have anything left to make into a sponsorship, and I refuse to simply take people’s money without giving them the absolute more value for their spend.

As the transition from 2 man team to 1 man team (Actually my wife is a major part of the company now) finishes it’s 6 month progression, I find myself even more excited about 360|Conferences. There’s lots to do, and plenty of uncertainty, but that’s exciting. I’m working hard to get 360|Mobile locked in. I’ve already begun looking at locations for 360|Flex and 360|iDev Fall. I’ve even started the ball rolling for 360|iDev Spring 2011, if you can believe that!

Oh and Europe. We might actually make it to Europe in 2010. Still TBD.


Nov 20 2009

8 Secrets of Success

John

Some dude I’ve never heard of, has 8 words that are the secret of success. They’re below with my thoughts on them. I found them over on Small Biz Bee.

1. Passion – Duh. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, why are you doing it. I’ve found (although i never would have guessed it) that I’m passionate about bringing people together, helping people meet, creating an atmosphere were great things are born.

2. Work – Yeah it’s work. Doing what you love feels less like work, but it’s still work, it’s still hard. Possibly harder than a “job” since failure is on you, you don’t just punch a clock go home, and not care.


3. Focus – This is hard. Tom and I have struggled with this. We’ve been lured to Europe earlier than we probably should have (though we learned good lessons there). We’ve tried to expand into things without looking, etc. Focus is important it’s something I’m trying to get a better grasp on.


4. Persist – I can’t agree more. It’s hard, at least weekly I wonder if I should fold up. Do our last two events and try to find a job. It’s hard, we’re not making much right now, though I feel that’s on the verge of changing, i know it is, but i’m in the now financially, which is tough. I know though, if I persist and work hard and as Gary Vee would say, “Crush It” I’ll succeed.


5. Ideas - This is the fun part. I’m usually not short on ideas. Ditching paper surveys, USB Drives instead of CDs, an AIR app for surveys, etc. It’s fun to think of ways to 1. be a better company, and 2. innovate the completely whacked out, old school conference business. Some ideas are awesome, some, not so much. Tom and I are at our absolute best when we’re throwing ideas at each other, sharing the “Ah snap! That’s awesome!” moments.


6. Good – This is important. Tom is a bible thumper :) I’m not, but I do believe in Karma, and we both agreed, even before we had money to give that we’d make sure we gave 20% of each event’s profit to charity. Whether it’s a check, or service, or something else. We agreed, and as Tom moves on I intend to continue the tradition, that 10% goes to the community out event serves, and 10% will be to a charity making the world a better place. I firmly believe that any business not doing good for the world around it, isn’t doing enough. We haven’t always been in a position to write a check, and it makes us sad, but when we are, it’s the best feeling on Earth.


7. Push – This is tough. My wife pushes me. She pushes me because she wants to see me succeed, and she pushes me because she wants the company to make money so we can pay the bills. Both are incredibly important. I also push myself, for both of those reasons, but also I push myself (And I push Tom for a few more months) because I think we’re doing a good thing, and I want to continue to do that good thing.


8. Serve – Easy. Tom and I have never lost sight of who we serve. We serve two masters; sponsors, and attendees. Sponsors pay us to get in front of our attendees, to meet them, to introduce them to their product or service. Sometimes they sponsor just to help the community. But we owe it to them to make the event the best it can be, have the most attendees we can, etc. The attendees on the other hand, pay us to see and hear the speakers, to meet the rest of the community, and to learn. We owe it to them to make sure the event delivers all that and more. It’s not always easy, but we’ve never lost sight of why we do events. We do them to serve the community with something we believe it lacked. We’ll continue to serve them, until they tell us otherwise :)

I’m not sure these were necessarily secrets, but they’re truths for sure. At least in my opinion. What do you think? Are there more? Are there other ‘secrets’ you think valuable?

Watch the video it’s a good use of 3 minutes. My take away. Success is charging people $4000 to attend an event, that they they have to be invited to… ok it’s not, but damn talk about reinforcing “A fool and his money…”


Jul 6 2009

How do you compare to free?

John

This topic applies to many spaces, and it’s one that has come up for 360|Conferences a few times. Our events are  often compared to barcamp style events, which are more often than not, free, because we’re usually far less expensive than most events, that charge.

I suppose on one hand it’s a compliment, since often those events are 100% community and usually entertaining and fun, if not informative. On the other hand though, it’s not a very fair comparison.

  • Barcamps aren’t usually 3-4 days long
  • They rarely include meals and/or parties
  • They don’t often have SWAG (of varying importance for sure)
  • They don’t cover any speaker expense

We recently had someone complain that we should still be charging $100 dollars for 360|Flex, our Flex Developer conference, because that was what we charged the first time.

That’s all well and good, except we lost money. $100 for 3 days, without it being completely a marketing event, with fun parties, good content, etc, is as we’ve found, unrealistic.

Barcamps are great, but they’re not a business. Barcamp style events are typically organized by local community members who want to do an event. The barcamp style event is very easy to get setup and has very few, if any requirements on the organizer. Barcamps rely on sponsors to provide things, like lunch, badges, parties etc. and if that doesn’t happen, that’s just too bad. “You didn’t pay to come, or you paid very little, what do you expect?” is often heard.

The organizer is most likely employed, and not relying on the conference to pay his phone bill let alone mortgage. His goal was to bring people together, which is awesome and applause worthy, but not a business.

Barcamps (like MashupCamp, startupCamp, etc.) don’t have defined speakers, and rely on people coming prepared to speak/present, and finding enough people to do so, the day of.

It’s hard to stack up against a free event, when the free event isn’t intended to be a business. Tom and I would love to do free events, but unless everyone wants to be schilled at 100% of the time by the sponsors we’d need to subsidize the event, it’s unrealistic.

I think comparing one event to another (regardless of whether they’re similar or not) is a bad practice to get into (and I often do it myself, I admit), when the real comparison is the value and ROI to the attendee.  Compare what attendees take away, compare what they get from the event. After all that’s the important thing. It’s not a ‘who gives more SWAG, or has the best parties’ contest, it’s who gives their attendees the most bang for their buck, that’s what counts.

It’s tough sometimes to keep that in mind, I admit.


Jan 15 2009

Getting guerilla at Macworld – 360Conferences marketing

John

Tom and I have almost no marketing budget. For each event we spend, maybe on the upside, $4,000. That’s it, and that’s the upper boundary of our spend. That’s not counting shirts and stuff, I’m only thinking pre event stuff; stickers, fliers, etc.

Typically our marketing money goes towards fliers. Fliers that we send to Adobe Flex User Group Managers to hand out, when they raffle off a free pass to 360|Flex. For 360|iDev, there aren’t as many User Groups, and really there’s no official groups, just meet ups.

So we did a little guerrilla marketing, we went to Macworld.

Other than actual event days, the day spent at Macworld was the first day Tom and I have spent doing physical, 360Conferences, work. It was quite exhilarating.

We went to every booth that looked like it was iPhone software related, spoke to the folks at each, invited them to speak/sponsor.

We dropped fliers on tables, every table we saw actually, LOL.

It was pretty sweet! Once we’re full time, i can imagine a lot more guerilla warefare taking place.

It’s pretty nice to be doing something like that and knowing it can have an impact on your business.