Having had a week to recover from our first Products Are Hard conference, here are a few lessons learned. Not all of these lessons are generalizable, but giving a flavor for the behind-the-scenes is true to the spirit of the event. In no particular order:
- Cash flow can be tricky.
When using Eventbrite you don’t actually get the money from ticket sales until 5 business days AFTER your event is over, but, of course, you need money up front to secure the venue, food, A/V, etc. If you don’t have a giant pool of cash hanging around this can create a sticky situation. We were able to cover the financing, but in talking to others we find people can be surprised by this issue when planning their first event. There are alternative registration systems that will let you get at the money before the event is over, but that generally requires setting up your own merchant account to process credit cards.
The cost of putting on an event can vary quite a bit. Food is typically the biggest variable cost as x feeding people a meal is much less than $25 a head (and often considerably more). The venue, in general, is the largest fixed cost. Once you get above 100 people there are only so many venues that can work at all, and above 200 people puts you (at least in San Francisco) into another pricing tier. Most of the venues that the tech community uses in San Francisco that hold ~150-300 people run $4K-$8K (some even more) for a day. A/V rental varies depending on the level of production value you’re going for. We rented A/V equipment and staffed it with our own people, so it was a minor part of the overall cost, but if you want highly professional A/V that is run by professional staff you could be looking at $10K just for that.
- The Venue
We really love the room at the Hotel Whitcomb and find the hotel to be charming. That said, some people felt the neighborhood was sketchy and are more used to shinier digs for professional events. You can’t please everyone. The other nice thing about the Whitcomb is they require a very small deposit up front and don’t charge extra for tables and linens, though you do have to use their catering for all food and drink, so you have limited flexibility on that front (but their prices are fairly reasonable). We had a great experience working with the Whitcomb staff. They were accommodating to our last-minute changes and didn’t nickel and dime us.
- Details, Details, Details…
As with any product the details make all the difference in a conference. There are so many little things that come together to make the entire day coherent and as first-timers we missed some and had to scramble with others. Thankfully we had a great muse to help us out who had been there, done that. Just a couple of the many little details were printing the schedule on the back of the name badges and putting the Twitter hash tag on as many slides/surfaces as possible.
Our pricing was $299 for early bird and $399 for regular admission. We were told repeatedly that our pricing was “very reasonable” which we took to mean we could probably charge $100 more next time and still not be considered “expensive.” From what we heard, almost nobody chose to not come due to price, which for a first-time event is great. Of course, there are classic supply and demand dynamics at play here. If the event becomes so popular that it sells out in a matter of days our pricing likely won’t be so “very reasonable” next time.
We tried a lot of different ways to get the word out about our event. We spent $1K on LinkedIn ads that targeted only people with a specific set of job titles that are in San Francisco. We spent a few hundred dollars on Facebook ads targeted similarly. We spent a couple days filling out all the various forms on event calendar sites. We paid a couple bloggers for ad space. We reached out to many more bloggers to write about us (some did). In the end, we can attribute only a small percentage of our ticket sales to any of those approaches. What did work? Twitter. We asked all of our speakers to tweet about speaking at the event (and gave each of them a custom discount code). We used Buffer to queue tweets that mentioned our speakers (some of them RT’d us when we did that). We mentioned people we think are just interesting product thinkers in our tweets. We gave lots of our friends custom discount codes and asked them to tweet about it. We did similar things on Facebook, but from what we can tell Twitter dwarfed Facebook in terms of influencing actual purchases of tickets. We also sold many of the seats through direct invitations sent to our friends and former colleagues (all of whom received a custom discount code that, in some cases, brought whole teams from their companies). Not shockingly, it took many tries to get some folks to actually register for a ticket, and in most cases we were thanked for the reminders. If you’re not a natural marketer it can feel uncomfortable to be “spamming” your friends and colleagues, but our mantra was that if you don’t feel like you’re being annoying you are doing it wrong. We found the old adages are true that people need to be exposed many times before they buy, so when in doubt you just need to pummel every avenue you can think of to get the word out. Our hope is that next year we’ll be able to start with the attendees from this year, which should get us a critical mass of tickets sold.
- Speakers and Panels
We received a lot of very positive feedback about the speakers at the event. The keynote addresses both got rave reviews. People were less crazy about the format of the panels, though, interestingly, we had some people love some of them and others hate those same ones (and vice versa). Next year we will likely scrap the panel format and either do all individual speakers or set up a more engaging multi-party encounter. We’re toying with the notion of setting up a debate-style format where two people are cast on opposite sides of an issue up front. Overall, we felt like the pacing of the day was good. Some speakers could have happily used a bit more time, but as they say, “leave ‘em wanting more.” We have also talked a bit about mixing up the day more to have some kind of hands-on workshops or other breakout sessions alongside the speakers, but that creates a much more complicated set of logistics and is in many ways harder to make good.
- Just Do It
We had talked about doing an event like Products Are Hard for over a year before pulling the trigger. It took an enormous amount of time and emotional energy. We didn’t lose money, but we also didn’t really make enough to “pay for our time” (though we chose very consciously not to think of it in those terms). Putting on the event was very satisfying, and once we decided to do it we pulled it together very quickly (8 weeks elapsed between our first emails to people to feel out the idea and people taking their seats at the conference). The first time you do an event is always the hardest (or so they tell us), so if you have a great idea for one don’t keep putting it off.
If you want to hear about our 2013 conference the best way is to follow @productsarehard on Twitter.