How We Created An International Conference In Nine Months
Nine months. That’s the ironic and absurd amount of time it took a bunch of good friends to put together a trendsetting developer conference in Tel Aviv called “You Gotta Love Frontend”. Throughout, we’ve had it all: the big dream, exaggerated expectations, reality hit, loss of spirit, a glimpse of faith, a ton of courage and the never-ending marketing and social efforts.
On June 8th, 2015, Douglas Crockford, the first speaker of the first international frontend conference in Israel, stepped onto our stage to carry his speech in front of 600 attendees, leading the way to 17 top-notch speakers from around the world, hopefully sculpting a one of a kind experience.
In this piece, I’ll try to tell the story of how we created an international frontend conference for 600 people in 9 months.
Our first meeting was held in September 2014. Six leading frontend engineers with full-time jobs and different professional paths along the frontend stack, connected by chance, all with the same dream — get the amazing frontend community in Israel the recognition it so rightfully deserves. The dream was so authentic, it was clear to all of us that Tel Aviv’s frontend scene was craving for a unique, world-class conference.
Each of us had taken part in multiple conferences around the world, either as an attendee or as a speaker. A conference offers a great experience as it gathers people from many different places who share a similar passion. A conference enlightens people by exposing them to new outlooks and different ways of thinking of fellow beings who share similar work routines. It peels developers away from their everyday routine, and sets their minds free. Even though a conference only lasts a day or two — it makes such a difference. Often, gems curated in the conference, are used long after the conference itself is just a distant memory.
We sat down to write our vision on an old-fashioned digital piece of paper. Our first goal was to list interesting topics that we’d love to learn more about. We had thought that breaking our vision down would be difficult, but it turned out to be much easier than we’d expected. Not that we were lacking ideas — interests and cravings are brewing in our minds all the time — we had thought that extracting them would be hard. However we found that when you brainstorm with a team it gets a lot easier — every idea thrown in the air gets immediate feedback.
Next we needed to define the kind of conference we wanted. We did so by analyzing Israel’s meetup scene: there are a ton of amazing meetup groups, and generally speaking not a week goes by without some meetup taking place somewhere. Meetups are great because they’re free and easy going. However, the meetups we had attended often presented recycle topics, which meant that the talks were rarely high-end or enlightening. Moreover, the level of the talks wasn’t up to the high standard we’d envisioned for our conference.
Another drawback in meetups is the mixed audience. In addition to the varying level of attendees’ expertise, there were also differences in the goals they’d set for their attendance: while some of them came mainly to learn new things, others came just to meet friends after work.This caused us to never felt right in these meetups.
Thus, we decided to create a conference that would differentiate itself from elementary meetups in both aspects: first, it would have high-end, cutting-edge topics, given by top-notch speakers. This would lead to the second difference — it would cater to a homogenic audience. It would be an expert conference.
We knew that organizing a conference by the experts, for the experts meant setting the bar high, but it felt good and it helped us prune the list of topics from the ones that could be found at any developer gathering. We then courageously imagined a two-day, two-track conference (a.k.a. 2x2). We believe that two days are necessary for an immersive experience, the kind that gives attendees an opportunity to immerse themselves in frontend topics, and also gives them time to get to know people. Two tracks are necessary for choice. Letting people choose makes them feel better.
After such a productive first meeting, we decided to cut it there and set a follow-up meeting for the week after.
Talk the talks
Our second meeting was all about speakers. You know, the ones who stand on stage and talk. Our very first debate was whether or not we should open a call for speakers (a.k.a. CFS). We were torn between the pros and cons: while a CFS could help us a lot with finding awesome speakers, it also meant we would have to read each proposal and reply to it, which takes time. Also, we weren’t even sure that people would actually reply to our offers to speak at the conference because at the time we were basically an unknown group with just a dream.
Our second debate dealt with the presentations themselves. We had a gut feeling about the standards we wanted our talks to meet. When we tried to explain this unexplainable feeling to each other, all we could say is “talks should just be — wow!”.
We were the only ones who understood what this ‘wow’ notion means, but that’s fine as we were also the ones needed to pick the talks. So we went ahead and defined that ‘WOW Factor’ as the leading standard for the kind of talks we’d want to see at our conference. And then we actually used it when we chose our agenda.
In addition to deciding on the ‘WOW Factor’ we also wanted to see our speakers present their presentations before the conference. We felt a deep commitment to ourselves and to our potential attendees, so we just had to make sure everything would be perfect.
All we had left to do is get those speakers. Let me remind you that a 2x2 conference means presenting around 30 talks so we needed 30 speakers, and that means around 900 minutes of presentations that we wanted to see and approve before they even go on stage.
We went ahead, pretty confident that we could get our own speakers and define the standards and cherry-pick only the best. We wish-listed the speakers we wanted to see and tried to pair our selected topics with potential speakers. We allowed ourselves to dream big and wrote down the biggest names we could think of in the frontend industry, nationally and internationally. Eventually we had 71 speakers on that wishlist.
We pretty much felt that we nailed the whole thing. Looking back, I now understand how premature these feeling were.
Creative people tend to fly away with their thoughts and after that first meetings, we all felt on top of the world. We already envisioned the coming conference and started imagining the hall and the crowd and the speakers and everything.
Something in the act of dreaming big, especially if you’re in a group that encourages that, makes you believe that if you want something, you can get it. It’s crazy how fast your brain can put together an (imaginary) full blown conference; everything was perfect in our heads.
In our heads it was like:
- Build a website.
- Ask speakers to come.
- Bring the crowd.
Happy and optimistic we met for the third time. The agenda: plan the steps above. We started with the website, how we will build it and how awesome it’s going to look. It sure did come out awesome, but it just blows my mind thinking how much time we wasted talking about a website as if that were the only reason for us to meet. I guess it’s because, as frontend developers, building websites comes to us much more naturally than any other task.
And so, that third meeting, and a few more after that, were a complete waste of time. We met every other week and got ourselves into this circular road that leads nowhere. Like most failing entrepreneurs, we focused on the non-important details, instead of dealing with the essence of the plan.
During the time when some of us started working on the scaffolds of the site, others started shooting emails to our wishlist speakers. As we met over and over again with no real progress on either of these tasks we realized we found the culprit of our dawdling — we didn’t set a date.
Like educated developers, we decided that we needed a deadline in order to achieve something. By then, it was already around the end of November 2014, and we still believed that by the end of March, we’d be on stage, rocking.
Future us now know that it would have never worked! There was no chance we could make a conference happen in just four months without the knowledge that we lacked back then.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
That’s Albert Einstein. How could we have prevented ourselves from falling into this one? If I needed to list every little task we did since that point until today it would spread over endless pages. I could sum up the coordination around these tasks and say that it took roughly hundreds of email conversations, more than 10,000 Slack messages, dozens of private Facebook threads, a dozen-sheet spreadsheet document, 40 hours of face-to-face meetings, hundreds of separate phone and Skype calls and over 300 commits to our GitHub repository.
With time passing by, we slowly started to grasp the extent of the commitment we had undertaken. Not only did it demand our full attention every day, we also learned each day that things are not as easy as they first seem: the website needs a design, one that would stand out, which means that we need a great designer to join the team; and once we have a design, we need content. That means we need a copyrighter and a marketing person on-board as well.
On top of it all, we needed time. To manage the team, to get people on-board, to make sure we’re headed in the right direction. We all work full-time jobs and all coordinations happened before or after work hours.
Also, the things we expected to just happen without our sweat, like getting the speakers, were anything but easy. We contacted dozens of speakers around the world first, and then also locally. Some didn’t even respond or responded with crazy delays, and some were already booked for the dates we had planned. Only a few left an open door for a chance in the future.
And again, we got reminded over and over of how we’re just a bunch of unknown people who say they’re going to establish a world-class conference. But, infecting others with our made up belief — was hard!
The previous disappointments brought us down, mentally, and for a couple of weeks, we didn’t even make contact with one another. It was already late February 2015 and we had nothing. No website, no speakers, no crowd.
The one thing we did have was that initial dream and vision. It kept our fire burning, barely. We needed to decide if we’re letting it go or lifting it back up again and making it happen. So we set up to meet again. We called that meeting the “to be or not to be” talk.
I believe that, because we made it official that this next meeting would be crucial, everyone took the time to think of a solution or a plan for how to make our dream come true. This time, we were also considering the hard times we had had up to that point.
Well, you probably know what was decided at that meeting because the conference (this is, the dream) actually came true. I wanted to extract the main decisions that helped us the most in making it happen eventually.
We contacted the awesome Michael P. Pfeiffer, the organizer of CSSConf.eu, a yearly successful conference in Berlin. We asked Michael for some tips and not only did he agree to help, he also insisted we should have a Skype call t0 get into the details so he could really understand and help us out.
On March 1st 2015 Michael and I talked for an hour. He was so nice; he listened to me whine about how hard it is to put together a conference. He was also so experienced that it didn’t surprise him at all.
The main goal with talking to Michael was understanding the minimal amount of time we needed to start marketing the conference to get the hall full of people. We concluded that a three month period is the minimal amount of time we need, and even that can only happen if the website is already live and the agenda is published. I took away a few other conclusions from that important talk:
- Go one track. Two tracks mean double the headache — double the number of speakers, two stages, two event managers, two camera and sound and light crews and more difficult coffee and lunch break coordination. We understood that two tracks might be a nice dream for the second year, but this time, it could mean us blowing it, so we ditched the idea and went on a single track plan.
- Hire an event manager. I can’t explain the importance of this one enough. We hired a producer and he is literally the one that made the whole conference happen and not only because he’s in charge of the logistics and venue; but mainly because he took a lot of the burden off our shoulders and we could get to actually completing our own tasks.
- First find a location, then find an available date, then build the website. This was a smart one because the website has no meaning if we don’t put a date on it, and we can’t put a date on it if we don’t have the venue first. This was the producer’s first and most important task.
- Get some money. We needed money to achieve the other goals and we planned to bring it back with ticket sales. We were lucky enough and got backed by Wix (http://www.wix.com), the awesome and super successful site building web app. They agreed to be our main sponsor for the event and it helped us a lot with financing our first steps.
There, at that moment, when all the stars aligned and the sun smiled at us, winking, we knew that the conference is going to be.
An Unexplainable Courage
On March 17th 2015 we met again, but this meeting was so different from all the meetings we had had before. First, our event manager and producer was sitting there with us. He took under his arms anything that wasn’t directly related to the content of the talks. That was amazing.
We decided on a new date for the conference — June 8th. This new date was possible but still only two and a half months away, so we knew we had to rush things to make it.
We started following up with the speakers that did reply to us before and even gave them an approximate date for the conference. This time, we were more serious, more professional and more accurate, and accordingly, this time they showed interest.
By then our team had grown to ten people: us the six organizers, two designers, one producer and one project manager responsible for making sure we’re on track.
Each of us took one leg of the big beast and started running — two of us started working on the website in coordination with the two designers, one worked on content and copyrighting, another two started listing speakers’ responses, who’s with us and who’s not and another organizer coordinated everyday with our producer to find a venue.
Splitting the team into groups of two was the best thing we could do at that point. It helped us a lot in getting things done. Because everything is new for all of us, working with a partner helped us jump over obstacles along the way and also, because we were super busy with our daytime jobs, we could shift the little tasks between us easily.
That run was a game changer for our conference. When we got the approval of the first big name speakers from abroad we knew that there was no going back. It was then that we booked one of Israel’s most prestigious theater halls for the conference with great acoustics. We had a date. This time for real.
According to the plan, we put up the website (http://yglf.co) and started on the thrilling ride to sell 600 tickets in two and a half months.
If You Build It, They Will Come
No. They won’t. They’ll question you, they’ll hesitate, they’ll put you down. That was our first experience. The first days were a major letdown and a huge anti-climax. Sales were totally underwhelming.
We thought people would buy into the deal without thinking twice because never before was there anything even close in Tel Aviv in the frontend field. People who know us personally went ahead and bought a ticket, so the early bird batch ended pretty fast, but that’s it. That’s not surprising if you remember again that people need to trust you in order to give you their money. Friends trusted us, but outer circles just didn’t see the big deal here.
Why would they? When we first launched the website it was pretty bare. Only three speakers had been revealed, no agenda, no schedule. It didn’t matter how many times we said to people: “Hey! We’re creating an amazing conference here”. They needed to see the content, to see what they’re paying for. It’s so reasonable in retrospect.
Over and over again we questioned ourselves about the ticket price and compared it to similar events, but we always felt good about our price. Not only does it not cover our own expenses, it’s not even higher than similar events.
We implemented the same tactics as before — we split into pairs. Each pair took part of the marketing efforts: daily Facebook and Twitter postings, approaching more sponsors, approaching big meetup groups to spread the word about the conference to as many people as we can, asking the speakers to help us emphasize how awesome our conference is going to be.
In addition, in order to build up the conference’s integrity we approached influential websites and asked them to promote us. I have to say that we were amazed and flattered by the great feedback we received from these companies that personally know the efforts required to put together an event of such scale.
Another technique that seemed to succeed is affiliation. Along the way we got approached by people from the community that were interested in the conference and wanted to help. We offered them to promote the conference with their own unique affiliation links and get some compensation from doing so.
We also created a unique challenge in which attendees that already purchased a ticket could submit their own creative implementation of our logo using frontend technologies. The prizes we offered were truly, objectively awesome!
Looking back, I can say confidently that initial sales had been poor mainly because it took time for the word on the conference to reach enough people, and not because the conference seemed to be unworthy. The engagement and commitment we saw from people as sales advanced was just astounding.
As time progressed, the total number of ticket sales went up, but we were especially proud that our daily ticket sales increased. That was truly heart warming.
Sales were rising and our task list slowly shrank. Soon we got to the point where we needed to let go and enjoy the products of the nine months of nurturing. We only had one more major issue to tackle and that was perfecting our speakers’ talks.
Along the way, since approval till conference day, we were in contact with our speakers. There are a lot of things that need to be coordinated with them to make sure each talk hits that ‘WOW’ bell. Every speaker has his or her own content, logistical and technical requirements.
We added them to our Slack team, allowing them to ping us and get answers fast or just start mingling with the other speakers before the conference. We also sent them an email asking them to select a time slot to dry run their talk for us (over Skype or in person).
Most of the speakers were happy to cooperate with us and recognized that this was first and foremost in their favor. A good performance on stage is as much a win for them as it is a win for us and a win for our attendees.
Dry running their talks with us took around 45 minutes each and some even had another round with us. It was pure fun and unquestionably sharpened their performances. We even offered them to come for a final run at the venue itself, so they could get a sense for the hall as it will be on the day of the conference.
In parallel to sharpening the talks, we sharpened our whole experience by printing branded t-shirts and name tags. We also went every week to the venue to coordinate with them about the food and how everything will happen from morning till dawn.
Tickets have been sold, speakers are practicing their sexy voices and our flag is now going up at the venue for all to see. There are no words to describe how excited we are.
A conference, like any other initiative, is fueled by belief. Our strong belief in the dream, our consistent confidence in the decisions we took and the remarkable cooperation within our team is what made this dream a reality.
Not only did we believe that our dream is worth this effort, we also believed our dream would be interesting and worthwhile to many others: the speakers and the freelancer developers and companies that understand the importance of sending their employees to such an event.
That confidence helped us keep our standards high and helped us not lose the one thing that we had from day one — our vision.
As we got closer to the date, the conference felt more exclusive. If on the first day of sales, I had to approach people to make them see how awesome our conference is going to be, on the last day of sales people called me on the phone and said:
“How did I not hear about this before?! I gotta be there too!”
That moment, when people finally saw our agenda, and tickets started selling without our constant intervention, was the moment when I finally understood we got ourselves a conference. That was also the moment I had time to start writing this piece.
Whatever happens tomorrow, the phase of creating this conference is behind us now. We’re switching mode to enjoy the conference with the 600 amazing friends that believed in us.
We feel more than flattered to hand such a special event on such a beautiful stage to so many people. We settled for nothing but the best for everybody. That’s our dream, that’s our belief.
I want to credit the awesome gang who I worked with so hard for such a long time to make this dream come true: Oren Shtang, Sergey Bolshchikov, Adir Amsalem, Igal Steklov, Eitan Rousso, Danielle Kanish, Tom Raviv, Ran Tavory, Noam Kfir, Dafna Tamir, Orly Kiryati and Tom (a.k.a “The Producer”).
See you all at the big dream hall☺