It begins with orange jumpsuits

On scaling XOXO, why we’re surveying our attendees, and sponsors as patrons.

XOXO was perfect. At least for me, it was perfect. For one weekend in the middle of September, a few square blocks of Southeast Portland were home to hundreds of interesting, hardworking people. They’d all come together to hear stories from other interesting, hardworking people, who were using the internet to do what they love independently. The sun was shining, the beer was flowing, the food carts dishing out sandwiches and ice cream, and everyone was having a great time.

XOXO had a couple other things going for it too. First, because it was about coming together to celebrate independent makers, because it had happened through a transaction of trust on Kickstarter, and because of its incredibly silly name (for which Baio can take the blame), it was entirely devoid of cynicism. This thing was about a fundamental shift in how we create. It was about people using that freedom to do what they love and to be financially independent doing it. It was about possibility, hope, and celebrating success. Cynicism didn’t need to be left at the door, because it didn’t even buy a ticket.

Second, because we were entirely funded through selling out on Kickstarter, because we were new, and because we were deliberately small, we had almost no interest in sponsors, nor did sponsors have any interest in us. This gave us the time to understand what “sponsorship” would eventually mean to XOXO, and what our reaction would be when these people eventually came knocking on our door.

And so, after a weekend of sunshine and beer and food and the lack of cynicism and sponsors, the first XOXO was declared a rousing success. Everyone left Portland feeling euphoric. They tweeted and blogged about their euphoria, and how refreshing and inspirational and life-changing it had all been, then the press wrote articles about everyone’s euphoric tweeting and blogging, and we watched the conversations with a smile, proud for having created something that meant so much to so many.

(As an aside, it’s worth taking a moment again to say that we remain both absolutely blown away and incredibly humbled by this reaction. We worked hard to make sure everyone enjoyed themselves, but the sheer amount of love and appreciation that has poured out of last year, we couldn’t have possibly anticipated. So if you contributed to that, thank you.)

Of course, success isn’t all sunshine and ice cream. While the days and weeks following XOXO brought a lot of kind words and talk of new projects and collaborations, it also led to a lot questions about the future of the event, and how we would manage our newfound popularity, demand, and reputation.

Bigger can be better

What we saw immediately in the conversations that followed was the sheer number of people who would have fit right in at XOXO, but we just didn’t have space for. It was clear to us that if we were doing this thing again, demand was definitely going to exceed 400 people. We wanted to find a way to grow, to have more independent makers and interesting, hardworking people come join us, but without risking the intimacy and serendipity that had played such a significant part in making the first year a success.

Our solution: the XOXO Festival pass. This year, we’re expanding our fringe lineup into a full-blown festival — four days of things to do, watch, play, eat and drink in venues around Portland, and we’re bundling it all into its own separate pass. This allows us to scale our wildly popular social events, add new ideas to the schedule, involve even more independent artists, and, most importantly, give you a great reason to travel to Portland for the weekend, even if you can’t make it to the conference.

Just a few questions

What we also saw in the conversation that followed last year’s XOXO was a lot of frustration. Those frustrated with being caught in the deafening shouting match of competing marketing efforts at other events were excited to hear of a place where that apparently didn’t happen. But in the same instance, those doing the shouting were just as excited, drawn to the promise of somewhere with fewer loud voices to compete with. Marketing agencies and PR firms were emailing us en-masse, asking when tickets would be available, how many they could get, and if it was possible to bulk-buy before they went on general sale.

Our solution: Who are you? What do you do? What have you done lately that you’re proud of?

XOXO is about makers, and makers can answer these questions. We made this thing for people who create, for the kind of people who are working on interesting experimental bold new ideas. Asking these three questions is our attempt at preserving what has made XOXO a success in the past, and what we believe will continue to make it a success in the future.

Our survey is not an “application” in the traditional sense. You don’t have to “prove” you’re more “interesting” than everyone else to “get in”. Just be the kind of person who makes things, and tell us about it. That’s all we’re interested in.

Sponsors as patrons

Another new element that suddenly introduced itself into our inboxes were enquiries from potential sponsors and parties with commercial interests. We were beginning to turn the heads of the energy drinks, light beers, and seasoned corn-based snacks, and we had to figure out what to do about it.

Normally, sponsors are seen as a necessary evil. As an organiser, you excuse their demands because it helps with your bottom line, and it helps you do more. As an attendee, you excuse their behaviour because they probably paid for your lunch, or bought you a beer at the after-party. Personally, I’ve never believed this had to be the case. Sponsors can enrich an event if you work with the right people and you ask for the right things.

Our solution: sponsors as patrons. We’ve invited our sponsors to be protectors of our event, not adversaries. We began by drafting our information pack using language borrowed from museums and galleries rather than other events. It asks for help and support to protect what we’ve created, rather than a bullet point list of what we’re willing to sell off.

This approach means finding companies, projects, and people who genuinely care about what you’re trying to do, who value support over promotion, gifts over giveaways, and creating memorable experiences for attendees over creating opportunities for marketing.

We’ve been very lucky to find that in MailChimp, Squarespace, Etsy, Typekit, Wieden + Kennedy, and Teehan + Lax. Their contributions will enable us to invite a more diverse range of artists and makers to participate in XOXO, and to expand our schedule of events. We’re eternally grateful for their belief in us, and for their belief in XOXO.

It begins with orange jumpsuits

Early on the Saturday afternoon of last year’s XOXO, two guys in bright orange jumpsuits took a walk through our venue, handing out flyers promoting the launch party for their new app. Only a few weeks earlier, these same guys had gone through our entire attendees list, visiting everyone’s website in search of an email address in order to begin a campaign of unsolicited spamming.

By the end of the day, they’d been kicked out of the building almost a dozen times, each return trip bringing with it a new excuse or a change of clothes. Although their chicanery was an isolated incident, it was so jarring against the backdrop of XOXO that it was all anyone could talk about.

We’ve introduced the XOXO Festival pass because we want more people to be able to get involved. We’re asking our survey questions because we want to keep XOXO about makers. We’re inviting our sponsors to be patrons because we want to be able to improve XOXO without auctioning off your trust in us.

What we don’t want is more orange jumpsuits.

XOXO was perfect. At least, for me it was perfect. As an attendee, it was one of the most enjoyable weekends of my life, and as an organiser, it was one of the most creatively fulfilling endevours I’d ever embarked on. I’m proud of what we created, but I’m also looking forward to a time when the success of 2012 is eclipsed by what we achieve together in 2013.

Let’s do this.

(Thanks to Chloe, Andy, and Paulo for helping review and proof-read.)