Shipping a Conference – CascadiaJS

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Back in July, someone named Troy Howard sent me a tweet. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew he was involved in the JavaScript community in Portland:

I wanted to talk to Troy about organizing a JavaScript conference that would bring together developers from the Pacific Northwest for two days of amazing talks and fun.  I had lived in Seattle for the past three years and thought it was strange that I kept having to travel to attend a great JS conference. I also felt that while the PacNW was a pretty cohesive region, the developer communities in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver were very separate. This conference would seek to change that.

Almost four months later we kicked-off the inaugural CascadiaJS in Seattle, WA.  I had never organized a conference before, and this was a completely community-driven, not-for-profit exercise staffed by people who were volunteering their time.  I learned quite a few things during this experience and thought I’d share them with you.

#1 – You (and Everyone Else) Need to Believe

How do you land speakers for a conference that doesn’t exist? How do you sell tickets to a conference with no speakers? How do you line-up sponsors when you have no speakers and have sold no tickets? It’s a 3-sided market and is really difficult for most would-be organizers to overcome.

The answer is simple: you have to believe.  You have to hit a point where there’s no doubt in your mind that this event is going to happen. You need to sell that belief to everyone you talk to: customers, speakers, sponsors and vendors.  Once you have a website up and you’ve sold a single ticket, the clock is ticking. You need to deliver the conference because someone has put their faith (and money) in your hands.

There is some good news, though. You will hit an inflection point where all of a sudden people will be hounding you to be involved in your event. Sponsors will come out of the woodwork and people will email you directly despite the big <div> on the website that says “Sold Out”. It’s a truly wild experience.

#2 – Get These Right: Talks, Wi-Fi & Coffee

Photo courtesy of @FotoVerite

Content is king. It’s the primary reason (sometimes the only reason) that people go to a conference.  In the early going, you will be tempted to lower your standards just to get speakers. DO NOT DO THIS. Be patient and make sure you’re spreading the word far and wide in your community. We hosted an open call for speakers on GitHub and eventually got over 40 submissions.

After content, make sure the internet and caffeine situation is bullet-proof. I hired a professional event Wi-Fi company from Portland to install and monitor our wireless set-up during the event.  They were rockstars and kept everything humming nicely, including our live stream.  For coffee, I reached-out to a local coffee shop here in Seattle. Think of the most knowledgable and amazing bartender you’ve ever talked to –  They were like that for coffee and people were raving about it.

#3 – Create an Experience

Once you’ve covered the basics and have an excellent technical conference lined-up, it’s time to start thinking about crafting an awesome experience for people.  This is where you think about how you can facilitate better connections between people and inject some fun into what could otherwise be two days of highly technical talks. It’s also an opportunity to showcase to people from out of town what makes your city special.

For CascadiaJS, we lined-up the following treats:

Talks Are Now Online

So that’s CascadiaJS 2012 from cradle to grave! We understand that there were plenty of people who would have loved to come to CascadiaJS, but could not.  So we worked with an amazing video company to both live stream the event and get all of the talks recorded and posted on-line. Enjoy! You can see the full playlist for CascadiaJS 2012 on YouTube.

                      

If you have any questions at all about CascadiaJS, the JS community in the Pacific Northwest or organizing a conference, feel free to ping me!