45 Days — Chapter 5 — Ephemeral. Exclusive. Entertaining.
June 23rd — Jet set again, this time from New York City to San Francisco. I treat every visit to New York City like I’m there for the last time, and somehow home at the same time. I saw men, women & freaks dressed up at Coney Island for the annual Mermaid Parade. I dipped my feet in the whirlpool on the top of the Standard on the High Line, and dipped my feet yet again going kayaking in the Hudson. I saw Brooklyn, Bed Stuy & Williamsburg, Chelsea, Greenwich Village & Harlem, the Upper West Side, the Lower East Side — I still get lost, but it feels like home by the time I leave.
There’s something great about a city that has more to offer than one person can possible consume in a lifetime, let alone a single visit. On Monday, I listened to Colin Quinn’s one-man show, “The New York Story” at the Comedy Cellar, and realized that what makes New York City great is its simultaneous ability to reinvent itself year after year and, at its heart, remain the same throughout centuries. New York City is one of only a handful of cities (among those I’ve visited) where I could see myself living — Portland & London are also on that list. San Francisco, too, but reluctantly.
New York City is unique in its ability to combine three of the things that I find to be the most important qualities in life, which happens to also be the three most important qualities to events.
What made Rude Media work is that we give a shit — you’d be surprised how many people leave “caring more” out of their business plan. I didn’t think that would define our growth — even though it was what I often said in a cheeky tone when asked about what we do — but I quickly realized that most people don’t, and so I only hired people who did. Time & time again, I pushed our team on their ideas — I asked sales teams less questions about revenue goals than I did about why we were asking La Poste to sponsor the connected home. I needed them to care more than other event sales teams did, because that was why La Poste would eventually say “Yes.”
This was more or less how Rude Media had gotten started. I had been writing Rude Baguette for almost a year, and Trista & I were brainstorming things we could theoretically do to monetize our fledgling brand. We went through a combination of everything we could think of and everything that everyone was doing, and then I looked at the infinite list and narrowed it down to things that I knew I wanted to do (what I call “noble” work, but I’ll get to that later).
Fast-forward to mid-May 2015. Once the news had been broken, we had determined that the product team had to go, and I had defined the worst-case scenario, it was time to define the best-case scenario. What was clear was that we needed one event to bolster up the revenue stream quickly, and, of our three fall events (our recruitment fair, a drone festival, and our Founders event), it was clear that Founders had the highest potential for success. For that, we went to the whiteboard.
Back in April, when it still looked like the fundraising round would come in and we’d have the runway to do great things, we had announced that our quarterly Founders Event would be coming to an end — the understanding, of course, was that we would organize an annual version of the event instead. We had been organizing events for entrepreneurs for years, and, with everything we had learned, we had crafted an event format that didn’t suck. It revolved around three basic principals that make events great today: Ephermal. Exclusive. Entertaining.
Ephemeral: In the age of digital, centralization and decentralization are simultaneous effects on society. Information has been decentralized, but global statistics show that the world’s populations are increasingly concentrating themselves in cities. Digital companies can sell from nearly everywhere — even small towns — but, since everyone can sell from anywhere, the best way to distinguish oneself is to have a face-to-face relationship with investors, customers, partners, etc. And thus, every year, hundreds of thousands of people spend thousands of dollars to come together in cities around the world (even cities where they aren’t doing business) to meet their neighbors. In France, one of the ongoing jokes is that all of France goes to Las Vegas for CES each year just to meet with each other — and if you’ve ever been to an event that is well-attended by the French Tech community, you can spot the hoard of French people catching up with each other over coffee.
What makes events great is that, unlike the Internet, they are ephemeral experiences. You were either there or you weren’t. The speakers might as well be in a recording studio, as the stage might be empty, but the YouTube recording (or rather — the highlights clip) will get thousands more views than there were attendees. Meanwhile, the best tech events create a pop-up store effect, where by everyone is working to get the most out of the event, to meet as many people, to build as many long-lasting relationships that will be memorable enough to tie them over until they see each other in 1,2 or 3 years.
Exclusive: The ‘best’ speakers bring out most of the audience; however, the ‘best’ speakers want one of two things: 1) meet the best attendees, 2) meet the best journalists. This means that bringing the best speakers means bringing the best attendees — it goes both ways. If someone is willing to pay $500 to come to your event, but they are completely irrelevant to the impact you want to have on your speakers (so that they will come back, so that they endorse your event, so that they work with you in the future to attract their network), then that irrelevant money may cost your more than you will make down the road.
Great events are exclusive… on a sliding scale. Speaker/Journalist lounges, VIP Parties, invite-only side-events, or even entire extended portions of the event just for VIPs. A smart event will tier access to different parts: if the Tier 1 portion of the event is inaccessible to anyone, then your Tier 2 attendees will hustle like crazy to find a way in. If your Tier 2 attendees are trying to get in, your Tier 3 attendees will want to be Tier 2 so that they, too, can try to get closer to Tier 1. The best events have meticulously designed UX journeys that show how each user profile — founder, investor, corporate, journalist, consultant, startuper, accelerator, CEO, etc. — can optimally spend their time.
Experience: The model of paying/inviting top speakers to come out and to sell that back to a mediocre audience is waining — this is why there are no such things as conference any more. That is, no pure conferences. Anything that scales will have an exhibition hall, networking lounge, startup alley, whatever — a place where companies can pay to meet your audience, where numbers scale. Startup stands are boring, so are corporate stands. The future of events is in Experiences.
The annual TED conference this year featured TheVoid, the most immersive VR experience to date, and saw the world’s top celebrities, influencers & thinkers giving it a try. Even Steven Spielberg can’t turn down the opportunity to shoot some virtual monsters.
Over the past few years, we’ve experimented with building entire homes, food trucks, live music — any time we had a particularly ambitious sponsor who gave us creative freedom, we drove it away from exhibit and towards experience, and the results were always positive. Sometimes we made money doing them, sometimes we lost money, but attendees, press, speakers & sponsors always talked about it afterwards.
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We laid out plans to build the most Ephemeral, most Exclusive, most Experiential conference to date, and set out in May meeting with partners with whom we’d worked with for years, looking at how we could build a hall with no stands, a speaker line-up that was on par with the attendee line-up, and an event that was entirely invite-only, yet free for founders.
We had, of course, already been pitching this idea since October 2015, but we spent May ramping our best case scenario. We were going to build the best damn event we’d ever done, even if it killed us.
To continue reading 45 Days, feel free to click through the Table of Contents below, or subscribe to my posts on Medium — I’ll be adding new chapters regularly.