Part 1: Thoughts from a first-time conference organizer

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This is the first part of many. I started writing this back in May, right after Web Afternoon Augusta. I’ve been to a number of conferences as an attendee, volunteer/staff and once as a co-organizer of sorts… but this was the first time I really tried to pull a conference together as a lead organizer. (It’s not exhaustive, by any means, but it captures most of what I learned.)

Before I get into the what it took to pull together a conference, I think it’s important to discuss what led me towards thinking it was a good idea to begin with. Prior to Twitter, the web was a smaller, more fragmented place. You learned about things through personal sites and forums. And it was through those sites I first learned about events like An Event Apart and Webmaster Jam Session.

If I hadn’t attended An Event Apart Atlanta in 2006, I wouldn’t have learned about Webmaster Jam Session later that year. I wouldn’t have attended WJS in 2007 and I wouldn’t have met J Cornelius. If I hadn’t met J, I probably wouldn’t have attended any AWDG or any of the conferences I have since then. And I certainly would’ve never entertained the notion of trying to organize something in my own backyard. As I sit here thinking about all of the conferences I’ve been to in the past decade, I’m able to clearly see how they got me to where I am today.

It was because of these events that I met other people in the region and started attending?—?and later got involved in?—?events like ConvergeSC, ConvergeSE, AWDG, WordCamp Atlanta and Web Afternoon.

Lesson 1: Conferences taught me the value of community and the value of learning directly from peers.

It was because of these events and the people I met there that I was inspired to start RefreshAugusta in 2008. I worked daily alongside a very capable group of people, but we stayed to ourselves. I knew there was a tremendous community online, and I was certain there were others in Augusta looking to branch out as well. We held meetings every month from mid-2008 through 2010. We started meeting again last summer and have met almost every month since then.

After Web Afternoon Charlotte in 2012, I approachedJ Cornelius about bringing the event to Augusta. I knew he was interested in seeing the event grow beyond Atlanta, and seeing the Charlotte event succeed was the ammunition I needed to try to make it happen in Augusta. By the end of October 2012, I was emailing key friends about bringing Web Afternoon here and they all loved the idea. I knew I had to make it happen.

Lesson 2: If you care about your community enough, you’ll create opportunities to help it grow.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

If you’re thinking of starting your own conference, awesome! Just know this: Rome wasn’t built in a day; your conference won’t be either. Give yourself plenty of time to get things ready. Depending on your event, and the people organizing it, you can probably pull things together in a short amount of time, but it’ll add way more stress than most can (or want to) handle.

Lesson 3: Six to eight months of lead time should give you more than enough time to get things ready.

Planning for Web Afternoon Augusta started in October 2012. The event didn’t happen until May 2013. The first few months involved contacting speakers, finding a venue, and reaching out to potential sponsors. As the event drew closer, it involved more time and more effort to pull things together.

Strangers Walk Alone

It takes a special type of person to pull off an event on their own. Maybe you’re that person. I wasn’t, even though I had somehow convinced myself early on I was.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to lean on others for advice or assistance.

If, at any point, you start feeling completely overwhelmed by your event, you need to have a good support system you can rely on. At the very least, you’re going to need someone to handle administrative tasks, sponsorships, marketing,finances and volunteer coordination. Do you really want to be the one wearing all of those hats?

Get others involved that share your passion for bringing this event to fruition. If they don’t care about what you’re trying to put together, do you think they’re going to care when you really need their help the most? Passionate people give a shit.

Conferences Cost Money

Conferences cost money, you need to be prepared to handle dealing with it. Consider creating a separate bank account to handle money that comes in. (At first glance, PayPal might seem convenient, but I’ve heard more than a few horror stories about frozen accounts from other organizers.) Running it through personal accounts is certainly easier, but it could create tax implications for you or whoever handles the money.

Lesson 5: Before you collect a dime, have a plan for how you’ll handle it.

Keep track of all income and expenses. Keeping an accurate accounting of everything that’s come in and gone out is one of the metrics you should use post-event to measure whether another event is viable or not.

While it’s not required, having a line of credit will help expedite your ability to make things happen. Having to wait on ticket sales or sponsorship money will delay your ability to pay for things like your venue, food & drinks, etc.