We’re gonna need a bigger boat: from speaker to sponsor with ag-Grid
So I decided to write my own. I called it ag-Grid.
After presenting it at Angular Connect 2015, I quit my job to work on the project full time. A year on and things have changed beyond all expectations.
Here’s the story how, in under a year, my side project grew into a company that was a major sponsor at Angular Connect 2016 — one of Europe’s largest Angular conferences.
Public speaking is exhausting
Speaking at Angular Connect 2015 scared me. I’d not spoken in public before, never mind to 1,000 people while simultaneously being streamed live on YouTube.
I’d spent weeks preparing my talk and practiced in front of friends, colleagues, my girlfriend… pretty much anyone who was willing to watch. I’d worked on my timing, cut out the bad bits, identified items to focus on, and so on. It was exhausting.
But once I’d done it, coming off the stage, I couldn’t recall what parts of the talk had gone well and what hadn’t. I’d practiced it so many times that all of them blurred together. I was wiped out.
What a difference a year makes
2016 was very different to 2015. Hardly surprising, I suppose, given I’d quit my job and gone solo. We were busy creating ag-Grid Enterprise: the launch was a huge success and resulted in hundreds of customers. And the company moved into Techhub@Campus (Google’s London incubation centre for startups).
I didn’t apply to speak at Angular Connect 2016 as we were too busy growing the company: I didn’t think I had the time to go through all that again.
A week before the conference, I bumped into one of the organisers. When he heard I wasn’t speaking he suggested we sponsor instead. Wow. That hadn’t occurred to me. We’d been so busy bringing the product to market and satisfying our customers that we hadn’t thought about promoting ourselves like this.
People probably thought ag-Grid was still one guy in his bedroom earning some pocket money.
There were different levels of sponsorship on offer. The second highest was Platinum and the only other sponsors at that level were Angular themselves and Progress (the guys who own Telerik and Kendo UI: our main competitor). So I thought, why not match them.
It was now just five working days until the conference opened: if this was happening, we were going to have to turn things around pretty fast.
T-minus five days and counting
The next day we formed the ultimate ag-Grid task force: Sean (our lead Angular 2 tech guy), John (our Head of Customer Experience) and me.
How much conference planning can you do in five days while still running a business? Quite a lot, it turns out.
- We organised printing a large backdrop for our stand.
- We recorded a 20-minute demonstration of ag-Grid to play on repeat throughout the conference.
- We worked up a competition to win an iPad mini.
- We printed 1,500 fliers explaining what ag-Grid does, to drop into the conference welcome bags.
- And we prepared a five-minute lightening talk to be delivered on the main stage on day two.
24 hours before lift-off and things were getting serious.
We went to set up our stand and pulled the new 2m x 2m ag-Grid backdrop out of its packaging, crossing our fingers the logo worked against its new background. Until now everything we’d done had been online, so we hadn’t realised the website logo’s background wasn’t print-compatible (too much blank ink would bleed into the logo).
We connected the 20-minute demo movie to the large TV screen and — for the first time — saw it play on something other than our laptops.
Our final job was to clean the stand table.
Then we stood back.
It looked proper.
Playing with the big boys
When preparing for the conference I had one rule: nothing should look unprofessional. If anything looked cheap it would go.
We were in a prime location: in the main hall where food was served, positioned between the two main conference presentation rooms. This is the spot given to top sponsors — you get attendees moving between conference tracks and those hanging out during breaks.
We left for the day and I mentally prepared myself for hardly anyone coming to our stand. That way I could only be positively surprised if anything better happened.
I’m not sure if preparing for the worst is a good thing to do, it’s the opposite of positive thinking. However sometimes I do it.
We’re gonna need a bigger boat
John and I walked up to the stand at 8:05am armed with takeaway coffees.
There were already people on the conference floor.
I pressed ‘play’ on our 20-minute looping video and as I turned back to the stand someone started talking to me. John was also nabbed within seconds.
Between that first person and the next I had — literally — a 10 second breather and could see Sean had arrived and both he and John were busy talking to more interested delegates. Then I was back in conversation again.
We were busy right from the start up until the main conference track started at 9:30am.
My coffee had gone cold.
Wow. Those 90 minutes had ripped the fear of looking silly right out of me. In the quiet few moments that followed, I looked at John and Sean and said, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
It felt like I’d been taken out of normal life and placed on a big stand of a big company and told to act like I belonged there.
It definitely felt strange, but there were no smoke and mirrors here.
Startup successes and selfies
‘Smoke and mirrors’ is a term used in startups where you pretend you’re bigger than you actually are in order to get business.
ag-Grid needed none of this: the story spoke for itself. The company was completely self-funded by sales, with no investment capital or capital from me (apart from sweat equity). Typically a tech start-up raises funds via investment, creates a product, and aims to become profitable before the funds run out.
ag-Grid hasn’t raised any capital and was turning a profit from the early days.
The product offering is so successful that the company skipped the usual startup financial bootstrapping stage. So the risks associated with dealing with a young startup don’t exist with us, because there’s no leverage within the company.
Everyone working for ag-Grid is on a full salary. The people on the stand weren’t friends and family (a common startup ploy). And the cost of the conference was easily covered by monthly ag-Grid sales.
When I spoke at Angular Connect 2015, ag-Grid had 2,000 downloads per month with no backing company (just me in my spare time). By the time we went to Angular Connect 2016, ag-Grid had 32,000 downloads per month, offices, employees, an enterprise offering, and hundreds of customers. The story speaks for itself.
The rest of the conference continued with the same energy as the first 90 minutes. We used the quiet time during talking tracks to run more involved one-on-one sessions and find out what our users wanted from the product. The rest of the time we were very busy: talking to interested parties, showing demos on our laptops, answering questions and getting valuable feedback.
At one point between tracks a stranger came up and said, “I wanted to say thank you for making my life so much easier”. We chatted for a few minutes, then he asked if he could take a selfie with me!
Now, I am fully aware ag-Grid is used by enterprise with many customers banks and private equity funds — solving the worlds humanitarian problems is not what we do — but this guy’s problem was displaying a large amount of data on a web page and ag-Grid helped him do this. He wanted a selfie. That was cool.
Don’t swear on stage
Part of our sponsorship included giving a five-minute lightening talk on the main track on day two. It was between two particularly popular talks, so we had a lot of people in the room.
Sean and I were going to show how ag-Grid can use Angular 2 internally in the grid for customising the cells — something Sean had been working on in previous weeks.
Before going on stage we stood at the back of the conference hall and I started to prepare myself. Silently, I kept repeating, “This is great. Look confident. Deliver one message well. Put energy on the stage. Get people’s attention. Tell everyone with confidence ag-Grid is the best datagrid in the world.” Positive mental thinking and psyching myself up.
I started bouncing up and down lightly on my heels to get the energy going.
Our main contact at the conference was June: a very professional lady who was now standing beside us wearing a headset and holding a clipboard looking like she was running a security detail for us.
Then, one minute before we went on stage I couldn’t resist it… I got her attention, “June,” I said “I presume I can’t say the word ‘f#ck’ during the talk?”
She released one ear from her headset, “WHAT?”
So I repeated “I presume I can’t say the word ‘f#ck’?”
“Noooooo” she said, pretty loud, with some disbelief.
“What about b#llocks then?”
“Noooooo” she repeated, as the disbelief turned to confusion and possibly panic.
“Then what about feck — surely I can say the work feck?”
“You can’t say any of those words” she said, as worry started creeping onto her face.
“Then what’s the worst word I can say?” By this point Sean and John were doubled over trying to constrain their laughter. ”I’m only joking June — relax — I’m sorry,” I said.
“Please don’t do that.”
Oh dear, the pressure, poor June — I apologise for having to put up with me!
However, as it turns out this is the ideal way for me to feel calm, centred and energised before stepping out in front of a large audience.
A bright future for ag-Grid
Every couple of months something happens in ag-Grid that forces me to step back and say “Wow”.
Things keep happening above and beyond my expectations for the company. Last month I realised how far we’ve come. Six months ago, if you’d told me we were going to be major sponsors of Angular Connect 2016 I wouldn’t have believed you.
If you’d said that, in addition to the sponsorship, we were going to do it comfortably — financially and with the support of an in-house ag-Grid team — I would have laughed in disbelief.
It’s incredible how far things have progressed in just one year. It reinforces how strong the project has become and makes me look forward to its future with anticipation.
In hindsight, sponsoring Angular Connect was 100% the right thing to do. It helped build our brand as an enterprise company. We spoke to hundreds of delegates, a lot of whom will end up either becoming customers or helping spread the word about ag-Grid. We were also a bit wet behind the ears when it came to sponsoring conferences — sometimes the best way to learn is to just do it: this was a crash course for the ag-Grid conference task force.
If you have heard of ag-Grid before, then we hope you’re happy with our progress. If you haven’t, then please check us out.
I have a feeling we’re going to be around for a while.
Three years later and my feeling was right it seems….
The latest update of the grid is out now. Learn more about Version 17 Thomas.