Thursday, October 6, 2011

JSConf EU – The How-To Guide

Last weekend was the third JSConf EU. Again it was both an extremely challenging and rewarding experience as an organizer. We are honored to welcome such amazing attendees and speakers to create the ultimate nerd-heaven weekend. Thanks for coming from Jan, Holger and me.

People seem to like our little conference. These are a couple paragraphs about how we put it on. The world still needs more JSConfs. Come to one of ours and then talk to us how to do one at your place of the world.

Done for love, not profit
We spend every dime that we take it on the conference and don’t aim for profit. Often sponsors are signed at the last minute when all vendors are already paid for so it is actually hard to spend more money. In this case we’ll just increase the party and food budget.
Not going for profit makes a whole different conference experience possible. While conferences usually optimize for creating the best possible value for the companies that pay for attendees’ tickets or the sponsors, we can make seemingly irrational decisions like having the best espresso maker in town at our venue that make a big difference for our attendees.

We always do 3 parties: One before the conference, a big one after the first day (because everyone will have time and be in town) and another one after the conference.
As we are in Berlin we try to bring the original Berlin party experience to our attendees. That means torn down venues in abandoned homes and lots of Techno.
Drinks are always free for all which certainly helps in making the parties great.
We also invite the local Berlin developer scene and friends to the parties. We want to show the people that travelled here how awesome this community is and we want to give the community a chance to meet all the great people who come. This usually works out great.

Speakers dinner and other amenities
Can’t have one because there is a big party for everyone :)
10-20% of our overall attendees are actually speakers. Another large percentage of attendees have spoken at previous installations of the conference. This is another reason why e.g. having a special area on the venue that is exclusive for speakers does not make sense. In conjunction with the No Stage rule below, the ensures that speakers and attendees freely mix and speakers don't camp out hiding. And attendees don't get to feel inferior.

We do not have a stage. We feel that part of what makes our conference special is that speakers and attendees are on one level and not having a stage to speak on emphasizes this point.

Speaker travel and hotel
We pay for our speaker’s travel. On the other hand, we are happy if the speaker’s employer offers to pay for travel. As we are not-for-profit, we immediately turn around and use the budget to make something else more awesome. We also pay for their hotel, we add two nights around the conference at least (for all, not just international speakers) and we make it a fancy hotel, take care of the wifi and do everything else to make sure speakers are treated like rock stars. We don't quite pick them up from the airport individually, but we are thinking about it. If you treat speakers nicely, they are more likely to bring their A-game talks.

Technical depths of talks
We encourage our speakers to aim their talks at an audience that is made up of experts in their particular field. Thus there won't likely be any “Introduction to X” talks. If one does not happen to be an expert in a given field, it is very likely that one will reach a point in a talk where one does not understand everything. At this point, if you are not a fan of mind blowing brain massages, JSConf is not for you. On the other hand, this does actually enable the conference to push attendees into new levels of understanding and interest. One can always read up on details after the conference and maybe eventually become an expert.

Talk length
Most of our talks are 30 minutes long. The reason is that we want to invite the people who actually created. Not all of them are necessarily experienced public speakers. Doing a 30 minute talk is significantly easier than longer formats which helps keep the quality very high. And if you can't convey your awesome topic in 30 minutes, the attendees are likely to get bored.

We do the conference on the weekend. While this might not be ideal for families, we make this tradeoff because we are looking for attendees, which are willing to sacrifice a weekend to come. This is also the reason why we start our ticket sales on Sundays.

We did 350 people this year. My personal experience was that this was already a little too big, as such a number of people requires executing everything with great precision which is super unlikely for amateurs like us (Professionals can’t do this either, but they don’t care because lots of attendees means lots of money).
250 people seems like a great number for a conference, smaller doesn’t hurt.

Round Tables
Round tables at a conference make it look more like a wedding and they don't force everyone facing the same direction. Also they encourage conversations, which is our ultimate goal. See also: Building Serendipity

Power under every table
We are geeks and we love our laptops so we make sure we can charge them whenever we want. Next year we should also have power in the lounges as well.

When a caterer says they can provide you with great food, we assume they are lying. Collecting references and testing the food is a must. It is important to have multiple food lines to make sure everybody gets their lunch quick - even if not everyone undstands this within milliseconds. In Berlin, make sure they stock up on Club Mate, and beer.

The first year we did JSConf EU we got lucky by finding a venue that was perfect for our size, yet very much provided a unique Berlin experience that you can’t easily find anywhere else in the world. Ever since we are looking for raw, industrial venues that don’t even need electricity, let alone an internet connection and then bring in everything to create a truly unique experience. Compare that with a doing a conference in a business hotel that makes you bored even before the first talk has started.
We learned that it is key to have great light artists who can turn every shithole into something very special.

Impeccable Wifi is a must. Venues usually don't know/care or even lie about their capabilities. 16Mbit DSL over two routers is not enough for 200 people. Heck, it isn't enough for 20 people. See my article about this topic for suggestions. Do not trust venues unless you tried their wifi with a crowd as big as yours.

We always hire professional sound engineers for every track. They do things such as turning down the volume when a speaker sneezes which is a small thing but quite valuable when you sit in the audience. Make sure you have headset microphones as they work much better for inexperienced speakers and that you have a monitor box for the speaker.

We rent the most expensive and awesome professional projectors money can buy (even if we then have to save budget elsewhere).
We’ll use DVI next year. Using VGA was a mistake (although not a bad one). Make sure you have VGA-to-DVI-I equipment and a pack of all possible converters on the speaker desk (You’ll also want a Apple power adapter there as usually 95% of speakers use Apple hardware).

Selling tickets
Conferences only sell tickets when they are sold out. This is a fact of life. Should you ever consider to run a conference, count your friends who will definitely buy a ticket. This will be the number of tickets you sell in early bird round one. Make sure your friends buy their tickets in the second sales open and then tweet about it immediately. The rest of the tickets will sell like a charm.
Fortunately we don’t have to pull tricks like this anymore, as we usually sell out all tickets in seconds.
We have three ticket categories: 1. a special rate for attendees of the previous US conference (if you come to both you are truly bad ass) 2. an early bird with a fixed percentage of total tickets, say 20-40% and 3. Regular tickets. There are no student discounts, no press tickets, no community tickets. Here is why: Since all money goes into making the conference, we can make the tickets as cheap as possible. And we feel it is fairer for everybody to pay a low price rather than having some pay more so few can pay less. This means some won't have the funds to attend, but that's how it is. We usually have a number of sponsors running contests around tickets which gives you a chance in.

Sponsors appreciate sponsoring great conferences. Great conferences do not let their sponsors influence their decision-making. The way we make sure this happens, we generally follow this procedure while budgeting: the amount of money taken in from the attendees covers all base costs, venue, speakers, food, everything, but it might mean that we have 3-star food, and only a limited amount of free drinks at the parties. A sponsor then come in and upgrade the food and create a larger drink tab, or pay for another DJ set or something. But they can never interfere with the base conference setup. That said, we do not feel it is bad to have sponsors speak, in fact, we love it. But it is important to be very explicit about the fact, that product advertisements are not acceptable. If in doubt, we check the slides in advance and work with sponsors to make sure they don't miss a chance to totally delight the finest people in our industry.

The unexpected
We always try to do something noone in the audience expects. This might be a musical performance or a talk about nuclear physics. opening song - JavaScript Will Listen from Alexander Lang on Vimeo.

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