I remember when we had just organized the very first edition of The Next Web Conference. It was slightly successful, meaning that people loved the event and we didn’t lose too much money. We were already working on the next edition and thinking about how to improve on the formula.
We met with a ‘professional‘ who did events for a living to asked from some feedback. He started off by saying:
“You’ve got it all wrong.
You clearly have no idea how to organize conferences.
This is not the way we work in this industry!”
He proceeded to explain us how conferences are generally organized: first you find a subject that is hot, then you find sponsors who want to be associated with this hot topic. To sell the sponsorships you promise to have 1000+ attendees. Then you sell some tickets, but not too many because the sponsors demand to be on stage for an hour and who wants to pay for that. So you end up filling up the room with 50% paid attendees and 50% students and other people you use to fill up the room. In the end, nobody is really happy: the sponsors get what they paid for but the quality if the audience isn’t up to par. The speakers get a room full of people who aren’t too motivated to listen and the attendees are surrounded by people who didn’t pay for their tickets and spend half their time listening to sponsors.
Of course, that is how I interpreted his words. The fact is, that is how most conferences are organized.
We were mere amateurs and just thought it would be cool to hear some inspiring people talk about the future of the web. So two months before the first Next Web Conference we called some speakers, came up with a name and then started selling tickets. Two weeks before the conference we figured it might be nice to also have a few sponsors so we called some companies and offered them sponsorships. They asked to be on stage and we told them that wasn’t possible because we thought that would be boring and we already had a great line-up.
So yeah, we did everything wrong, by the professional standards. But it also meant we had a great conference, with amazing and inspiring speakers. Every attendee had bought his ticket so whoever you talked to was interesting and motived.
We still stick to the same formula: get high quality speakers first, then sell tickets based on that and top it off with sponsors.
These days, when someone says “You are doing it all wrong”, “That is not how it works” or “You can’t do that”, I immediately start paying attention. Not because I think they might be right but because more often than not it just means you are challenging the status quo and are becoming a threat to those running things.
Generally I try to avoid pissing people off and making enemies, but for a start-up it isn’t such a bad idea to find out who exactly you are threatening with your ideas and confronting them. Find out at how they think the world works, how they assume things work and what unwritten rules there are. Then go home and break every rule you know of and do the opposite of whatever is considered ‘normal’.
Now go out and pick a fight or do something silly.
More about The Next Web Conference 2011 on our conference website.