We've come so far that it's important to remember where we came from.
Business conferences have existed for a long time and in most industries the formula hasn’t changed in over a decade. The same people turn out in larger and larger numbers each year to see the same content and eat terrible food. As technology grew as an industry that formula was copied and used for our conferences.
The first conference I ever attended was O’Reilly OSCON. Back then, it was the destination conference of the open source world. If you were an active open source developer itching to meet your peers in real life, it’s where you went.
I remember that conference very fondly. I followed Ted Leung around and met all the people I had always dreamed of meeting. There was lots of talk about the “Hallway Track” and how it’s what we really came for, and about how the talks (which I enjoyed) weren’t as good as they should have been (they never are).
The “Hallway Track” became the conference. Organizers pushed for fewer talks of higher quality that could encourage deeper discussion during the breaks and parties. The size of the conferences condensed and the number of conferences per year increased to accommodate demand, but not fast enough.
I remember when conferences were only run by companies. The idea that a single motivated person, or that I myself, might run a conference was like saying “why don’t I just be Tim O’Reilly for a few weeks.” But eventually that changed too.
CouchCamp was a conference at a summer camp in the Marin headlands called Walker Creek Ranch and was the first event I ever put together. I didn’t have to worry about money, I used my corporate credit card at CouchOne to pay the expenses and we were happy to make any of the money back in ticket sales. I wasn’t alone, I had help from Claire at CouchOne, we contracted my friend Megan Wilgenbush to help with event planning, and of course Jan Lehnardt (co-curator of JSConf.eu) was in the background making sure I didn’t do anything stupid. CouchCamp was unlike anything people had seen before, a mix of speaking and unconference sessions with all the attendees lodging together in a camp for kids, and they loved it.
After CouchCamp I wanted to do a new conference for node.js. I didn’t know anything about balancing a budget or organizing speaker travel or really anything about how to run a ”real” conference. Chris Williams, curator of JSConf, stepped up. Chris offered his help, and by help I mean he pretty much taught me how to do everything the right way and picked up the slack himself whenever I fucked up.
NodeConf was a huge success, in most part because of Chris. A few months later I returned to Walker Creek Ranch for NodeConf SummerCamp to do another “unconference” for node.js on my own and this year I’ll probably run twice as many events: I’m already planning NodeConf 2012, NodeConf SummerCamp 2012 and the first ever TacoConf!
Somehow, I got sucked into this. It’s exciting! I enjoy bringing people together and building community. It’s what attracted me to open source all those years ago, it’s what made me want to attend OSCON back in the day. I do it because I care and because I’m gonna be here for a while. These are my people.
Chris taught me the business side of conferences. Before NodeConf, I didn’t really know how to do fancy spreadsheets, and by fancy I mean use SUM. Chris taught me how to not lose money. Most importantly, he taught me how to sum up the cost of the conference and keep it above the ticket price, so that every attendee gets even more than they paid for.
You realize pretty fast that, if you do things a certain way, there is a lot of money to be made on events like this. It’s honestly not that hard to run huge profits. When you have this kind of demand, where tickets to the first NodeConf sold out in 10 minutes and tickets to JSConf sold out in one second, it’s hard not to make money. This is hard work and there's nothing wrong with making money.
But, here’s the rub. I don’t want to go to the conference that is being run to make someone money. I don’t want to be a product. I want to attend, or speak, at a conference to build community. That’s what I get off on. I’ve got money, I make a good living, so I don’t need to run conferences that I wouldn’t like to attend myself.
When a conference’s main purpose is to make money, you can tell. You can feel it in your bones as you walk around. This is a community after all, we all feed off of each others motivations and energy and when those motivations are purely about profit it gives off a very different vibe.
This year, mainly for tax purposes, I created an LLC to run NodeConf, TacoConf, and possibly other conferences. I’m also investing in equipment (mostly for video) but I have no doubt that this new company will turn a profit. The purpose of the company is to let me run conferences, and the conferences are there to build community and have a good time. The money I make will be fed back into better video, obscenely nice t-shirts, and free beers for everyone at meetups. The purpose of the conferences will never be to make a profit, it’ll be to build community and to make sure we don’t lose money.
There are several companies running conferences for profit. That’s fine, that’s what they do, it’s a business. O’Reilly tends to be a target but they are not the worst offender, I can name several media companies that are purely opportunists and profiteers without a single technical person among them.
I’m bringing this up because I remember when I attended those big conferences and really enjoyed them. Those conferences didn’t change but my expectations changed immensely. I started to see a new world forming, smaller events created for and by the community, and I wanted to be a part of it. All of the community conferences are better year over year because we keep experimenting and sharing that experience of success and failure with each other.
If you’ve read this far you are probably a good candidate to do the same. There are never enough community events, maybe you should be the person who runs the next one. I’m willing to pass on what Chris taught me and Chris is teaching more and more people every year. I wasn’t a special case, Chris helps anyone that asks who shares his values and isn’t just being opportunistic. If you feel like starting something to enrich your community give us a call :)