Lessons Learned while Running a First-Year Conference. Part 2: Setting Boundaries
In the first part of Lessons Learned while Running a First-Year Conference, I talked about how to strip down your conference to an MVP. In this post, I’ll address how to make all of those items a reality. Not all of them will be simple, but if they’re truly essential to accomplish the vision and goal(s) of your conference, you’ll need to treat them as non-negotiable, which means no accepting excuses. It’s time to make it work.
I’ll forever be grateful to Chris Neugebauer, event organizer extraordinaire, who encouraged me to build up sponsorships around these non-negotiable items, as well as the “would really like” list (more about that in a moment).
Here’s the basic idea...
Sell Sell Sell!
You’ve made your MVP list. Now sit down to figure out how to monetize each of these items. Find a sponsor for the morning and afternoon snack breaks as well as the coffee set-up to offset your catering costs. Find another sponsor for the evening event. See if anyone’s interested in sponsoring the travel stipend for your speakers or if a company is willing to offset the cost of your attendee swag in exchange for their logo being on the notebook, tote bag, or mug. Or perhaps a company is interested in supplying your speaker gifts. Whatever it is… if it can be segmented off into a monetary sponsorship, do so!
After stripping everything down to your non-negotiables, create a short list of “would really likes.” This is a good place to resurface your MVPs that didn’t make the final cut with the rest of the team. Build up sponsorships for these opportunities as well, with the intent that if you can get the money for it, it’ll be included in the conference. But if you don’t succeed in finding a sponsor, it gets cut from the program, because it wasn’t an MVP item.
With this in mind, I set out to sell a sponsorship for our closed captioning service. While I couldn’t justify this as an MVP item, it was something that was really important to me, both from an accessibility standpoint and from the fact that captioning makes it significantly easier to livetweet talks. Microsoft’s Cloud Advocates team came through for us in the final weeks before the conference, making my “would really like” wish a reality.
Some Things Money Can’t Buy
If the main blocker for one of your MVPs is finances, sponsorships are the most obvious solution, as I mentioned above. But not everything can be solved with money. Diversity and inclusion, for example, can only be solved through effort and awareness. This was one item on our MVP list. We left it generic because we knew that we might need to be flexible in figuring out what this meant for our specific audience, but we started with the pieces that we knew.
We strived for a 50/50 male/female gender split among speakers. While it took effort, this wound up being one of the simpler things that we accomplished, which may not be surprising to those of you who have attempted a 50/50 split at past events. We started by inviting both women and men who are authorities in the field to speak at the conference. Then once the CFP closed and our amazing program committee had narrowed down the selection for us through a blind process, we sifted through the top results to make sure that we had a good representation of topics (resilient organizations, teams, and people). By the time our final decisions had been made, we not only had a good amount of talks allocated to tech, organizations, and people, but we also had a 50/50 gender split.
We customized an inclusive and specific Code of Conduct. I firmly believe that one reason we were able to get a large number of women submitting to our CFP was due to our Code of Conduct. We started with the Geek Feminism Wiki and added a few items from the standard DevOps Days Codes of Conduct as well. We added a section about how to report Code of Conduct violations, offering an anonymous option as well as how to identify staff members onsite. We also ensured that our Code of Conduct spoke to behavior during the event as well as online, via social media. And once we thought we were done, we ran it past a variety of people who attend, speak at, and organize conferences on a regular basis. Based on their suggestions, we made revisions, attempting to make it even more inclusive and welcoming, as well as being specific about the consequences if someone did violate the Code of Conduct.
We did what we could to create an inclusive on-site experience. As I mentioned in the first post, we provided pronoun stickers (Thanks to Jason Dixon for the template!) as well as “no photos” stickers (plain red circular stickers) for attendees when they checked in. All of these were available to them upon check in -- no need to go elsewhere to pick up the necessary items. Our volunteers were given instructions on how to walk attendees through the various steps and alert them to the inclusive restroom signage and quiet area for attendees to recoup some energy. The stickers and signage cost less than $300 total, but have the potential to make everyone feel included and like the conference was created for them.
Give Yourself (and your Co-Organizer(s)) Grace
One of the biggest things that I learned over the past year as I tackled many major projects, including REdeploy, is that I need to give myself grace. I hold myself to the “no excuses allowed!” mantra far too often, not allowing for mistakes, miscalculations, or even life circumstances.
There are a few ways that this came into play with REdeploy:
Be clear on your boundaries up front. While you’ve laid our your conference MVP and aren’t accepting no for an answer, there comes a time when saying no is the only right option. This can be a tricky gray area: How much extra time should be spent on one particular item? How far down a rabbit hole should you go to fulfill one of your MVPs? How much of your personal money are you willing to spend (if it’s a volunteer-run conference)?
By setting your boundaries up front, you can more easily tell when a particular item might cross a time/money/energy line. When that happens, it’s time to sit down with your co-organizers to decide whether you need help fulfilling a particular MVP item or if it’s an item that needs to be dropped entirely. The earlier in the process that you can have these conversations, the better!
The concept of setting clear boundaries applies to every conference, but has particular meaning when you’re producing a volunteer-run conference (aka there isn’t a company backing it). Your own money is on the line, as is your professional reputation, but at the end of the day, you need to know how much money you’re willing to lose, as well as how much capital you’re willing or able to put in up front. If your MVP list exceeds the amount of capital (time as well as money) that you and your co-producers are willing to invest, go back to the drawing board.
Extend grace to yourself. One (incredibly ironic) thing that I learned about myself while planning REdeploy -- a conference about resilience -- is that I wasn’t all that resilient. Between finishing my book, curating a weekly newsletter, and finishing an online MBA, the amount of large projects on my plate and the lack of work/life balance since starting Persea Consulting in late 2017, I was close to burnout and desperate for a break.
In addition, Paul and I were pushing ourselves hard, trying to make sure that everything was coming together for the conference, with very little external help until the last few weeks when we finally hired an events manager to bring all of the final details together. Many of the conference talks made me question the way I’d been working in the months leading up to the conference. By the time REdeploy was over, I realized I hadn’t been anywhere close to practicing resilient principles on myself. Which leads to the last item...
Be willing to let things go. There are going to be items on the to-do list that feel like the right thing to do, but wind up being unmanageable. In our case, this unwieldy task was providing feedback to CFP applicants who’d requested it. We had included an option for people to request feedback on their submission, thinking we would wind up with a handful of folks who were interested in improving their abstract. Instead, 96% of our CFP applicants requested feedback, leaving us with dozens of people who were expecting a personalized email.
We were in the throes of website revamps, social media campaigns, venue confirmations, sponsor negotiations, and trying to meet with each of our 14 speakers individually to make sure that their needs were met. We simply didn’t have time to write dozens of personal emails, or even to categorize the submissions and send bulk responses. Despite our best intentions, we had to make the difficult decision to let it go.
I’ll be blunt: remembering to give each other (and ourselves) grace in the moment was difficult. While amazing, producing a conference is a stressful endeavor and it feels like there’s a lot on the line when you’re in the midst of juggling backlogs, prospective sponsors, and attendee questions.
When you hit this point, I’d encourage you to take a deep breath, take a step back from your to-do list, and remind yourself of what truly matters: your health and well-being. Find the line between passion and obsession that works for you in this moment, and make sure you don’t cross the line.
Next up: Part 3, which covers being flexible and willing to iterate, even if it means changing your original plan.