Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Running an Event on the Cheap

I’ve been a part of teams organizing a pretty good number of developer community events here in the Heartland over the last few years. I’ve helped with medium-sized Code Camps / Days of .NET hosting 150 - 200 people across four tracks and I’ve helped with much larger events like CodeMash, where 550 people attend seven tracks plus open spaces.

While those events are really rewarding, they take a significant amount of time and effort to put on. You generally need several people working as a tight team to pull these off. You need a big venue, you need audio visual support, you need food, and you need significant sponsor support to pay for all that. Many times you’re hostage to your venue’s catering services, which means you’ll be paying high costs for mediocre (at best!) food. (Thank God for the Kalahari, where the venue’s food is actually really good.)

Twice in the last year I’ve been part of great events which were a snap to put on: the .NET University last November and the Software Engineering 101 last week. Both these events filled the room (90+ people) and were a great success. Where CodeMash generally has well over $100,000 go through the cash register, metaphorically speaking, both .NET U and SWE101 were put on for less than $500 each.

Here are a few concepts you can use if you’re interested in putting on an event without the tremendous work of a larger event.

  • Leverage your community. First and foremost, you need great contacts in your community to pull these off. Build those contacts, because you’ll be looking to them to help with content, venues, marketing, and finding sponsors.
  • Have a clear vision on the event’s goals. Keep a very narrow focus on what you want to present. One track. Period. Think hard about the audience you’re targeting. We specifically targeted .NET U to folks who were not involved in the community. We blogged and spoke to user groups: “This event isn’t for you – but tell your colleague that’s never been to a community event.”
  • Content is King. Hand pick great speakers to deliver topics lining up with your event’s goals. Make sure they’re on board with the vision and clearly understand what you want them to deliver. Getting their suggestions on what to deliver is fine, but make sure they first understand what the event is trying to do. Remember, one track. You’ll only need four to six speakers.
  • Get a clear schedule early on. Get your schedule nailed down before you press forward. Times, presenters, descriptive titles, short and clear abstracts.
  • Find a free venue. You absolutely can’t do one of these events if you have to pay for a venue. Look to your local Microsoft office, look to community colleges, check with your local business community, check with local training companies. Drive home the idea you’re putting on a free event to improve the skills of your local developer community.
  • Find free AV resources. You need one projector and one screen. If it’s a larger venue you may need two projectors and two screens synched together. Check with community members to see if they have gear they can borrow from their companies. Check with your MS reps. Check with local training companies.
  • Avoid venue catering costs. Many venues with catering services look to make their money not on renting the facility, but by charging you $14 per head for an awful box lunch. Instead…
  • Bring in food and drinks. Line up bagels and coffee from Panera or some place similar. Panera delivers, so that was a big win for me. I paid $300-ish for coffee and bagels for 100 folks. I ran to Target and picked up another $150 of sodas, water, and snacks. (Funyons, FTW!)
  • Skip lunch. Look to a venue with several restaurant/fast food choices near by, then clearly indicate to your audience that they’re on their own for lunch. Leave one hour in your schedule to support folks getting out and back. Attendees of a free event won’t mind running out to get their own food as long as you make it clear from the start.
  • Find a couple sponsors. Reach out to companies that are already involved in your community. You need $500 to support an event for 100 geeks. It’s simple to make a pitch asking for $250 from two companies. Don’t let sponsors come and take over your event, but make sure they get some exposure via logos on slides and frequent mentions during the event.
  • Skip recording. Recording sessions sucks, plain and simple. It’s a hassle, there’s a lot of moving parts, you need special gear, it interferes with presenters, it never turns out as well as you’d hoped, it… The list goes on and on. We’ve tried for years to get recording working at various events, and it’s always been a complete PITA for one reason or another. Skip it.  (Note: If someone with a history of success volunteers to do this, then by all means take them up on it. Just don’t let the recording come anywhere near injecting friction into your speakers’ gigs, or the audience’s ability to get great content.)
  • Find a registration system. Look to something like Microsoft’s community registration system, Microsoft Group Events. Look to Meetup.com. Look to something similar. DO NOT WRITE YOUR OWN SYSTEM.
  • Pimp the event. Get your schedule up on blogs. Get the word out to your own community contacts. If you’re in the .NET world, make sure your Microsoft Developer Evangelists help you spread the word. Reach out to your local business and educational communities. Hit up local media.
  • Expect drop off. Free weekend events have drop off rates of up to 40%. Free weekday events often see over 20% drop off. Accept it. It’s not you. Well, maybe you do need different deodorant.

This list isn’t all that long, is it? It’s all common sense. You can do a great event on the cheap. You can have a whole lot of folks learn some great content and come away all excited and motivated to improve their environments. You can do this without giving yourself an ulcer and losing sleep. Honest.

Go do a neat event. Get people fired up.

Then do more.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Peter said...

Excellent checklist, thanks!

9/29/2009 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hand pick great speakers means pick your friends. Politics as usual in the 'community'.

10/06/2009 9:19 AM  
Blogger Jim Holmes said...

Hey, @Anonymous: It's hard to take you too seriously since you didn't have the guts to put your name on your post, but let me point out a critical point:

"Hand-pick" doesn't mean focus only on your friends. It means pick folks you KNOW can deliver great results. Someone putting on an event targeted to specific goals can't afford to have weak speakers doing poor presentations.

Maybe your bitterness comes from a lack of presentation or solid technical skills? If so, work on those and maybe you'll find yourself getting a nod for presenting more often.

10/06/2009 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please...You know how the 'community' works. Rock the precious boat and you get sandbagged. Me posting @Anonymous doesn't make it not true.

I guess lashing out at me saying I am bitter and a coward is your way of dealing with difficult situations. Attack those who criticize you?

You know people pick their friends and inner circle all the time. Many times their buddies can't speak for crap. Why don't you have the guts to admit it???

I never said I don't speak ALOT, I guess your ASSume a little too much. I'm just pointing out a bogus practice. Sad to hear you are condoning that type of practice, but then again you get that Microsoft MVP for playing ball right?

10/08/2009 10:50 AM  
Blogger Jim Holmes said...

@anonymous Yeah, that's me. You've pegged me spot on. I admit it. I've completely sold out to Microsoft, assorted other shills everywhere, and am the complicit force behind bank failures, too.

Grips, dude.

The community I'm a part of is all about rocking the boat, questioning assumptions, and improving ourselves and our craft.

I take criticism well, as many folks I've worked with and around can attest to. What I don't put up with are anonymous attacks without any specifics.

If you want to have an honest dialog, then use the contact link on my blog's sidebar. I'm always open to reasonable dialog.

10/08/2009 11:13 AM  

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