What We Learned Making Unbox

Last week Boston Product threw its first conference — Unbox. You can read all about it. We’d cut our teeth doing smaller and shorter events, and based on some validating feedback from our community, decided the time was right for a full-day event. It was a great success: we sold out the event, 100% of the people who responded to our survey said they’d come back again next year, and we got high marks on the quality of our speakers, accommodations for attendees, value of sessions, and level of enjoyment.

We approached it — surprise! — like a bunch of product managers. That is, we treated many decisions like hypotheses to be tested, prioritized our efforts, and asked ourselves about what would be minimally viable and surprisingly delightful. Here are a few of our major takeaways.

Product Market Fit is More Than the Right Feature Set

One of the first things that I and the other organizers did was make two lists: things we’d experienced at other conferences that we wanted to avoid, and things we wanted to replicate. We ended up with a strong list of conference features. From the first day we were committed to having a diverse speaker lineup. We delivered on that:

We took extra care to make Unbox as introvert-friendly as possible, since several of the organizers have used Hunter Walk’s survival tips in the past. We did well here:

We wanted no possibility of anyone becoming thirsty or hungry at any point (my mother would be so proud). Thousands of dollars in Flour Bakery and Whole Foods orders and a trunkload of snacks later…mission accomplished. We ended up with way too much food, and a few dozen Northeastern students were more than happy to help “disappear” the leftovers.

While our feature set was aligned with our target audience, where we weren’t good enough was communicating these features. The five of us planning Unbox knew for months that it was going to be great, but we were really asking people to take our word for it until about a week beforehand when we started sending attendee emails. We sold a high percentage of our tickets based solely on our speaker lineup and our brand.

The lesson: Great experiences can’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t just have the right product for people, you have to tell them why your product is right for them in a way that resonates. Next year, we’ve got to prioritize product marketing more.

There are Always Multiple Stakeholders

We were primarily concerned with the attendees of the event. They were paying money and spending a day away from work to come to Unbox, so we wanted to make sure it was worth their while. I can say with great confidence that we did right by them.

Here’s the thing: our supporters also paid money (more than any attendee). And our speakers spent time away from work to make Unbox. We could have been better here. We could have done more to prepare them, and we could have done a better job setting them up for success by telling attendees more about each session in advance.

We could have done a better job for our supporters. Expectations weren’t as crystal clear as they should’ve been—especially when money is involved. To be sure, we delivered what was promised. But we put so much effort into surprising and delighting our attendees, we never thought about doing anything other than what was necessary for our supporters.

The lesson: Your attention is zero-sum. When you give a lot of it to one person or group, it comes at the cost of another. Don’t over-index on any one stakeholder group. Next year, we’ll make sure each group has an “owner” on the organizing team, with dedicated resources to be successful.

Make Time for Differentiation

We made the call very early on that we wouldn’t give t-shirts away to attendees. No one really wants to wear a shirt that’s just someone else’s logo, and you’ve got to account for different sizes. (Also—if you didn’t know this, women can’t just wear an equivalent size in a men’s. They actually cut the shirts differently, because shapes!) We figured that people already had enough grey v-necks sitting in their dressers, why add one more? That’s how we landed on the idea of the swag donation bin.

For our gift, we wanted something with high visibility and practical value that could be given to any attendee. We ended up going with dot-grid notebooks and portable jolt chargers. In the days before the event, we put a Boston Product sticker on the front and a hand-written note on the inside of every single notebook. It took some time, but it was worth it.

In the days before the event, we realized we’d overlooked nametags. One of my organizers, Jenny, suggested we get those blank “Hello my name is” tags and let people write their own names. I asked if it was an acceptable user experience, and after some deliberation, we ended up making time to custom print badges that had the event branding and useful info back. We were under the gun, but the extra effort meant every attendee had quick access to three simple CTAs that made for a more worthwhile day.

The lesson: There’s room to go beyond minimum and viable, even in V1. Look for opportunities to add surprise and delight that fit with your budget (of both time and money).

Mapping the Customer Journey

We made a minute-by-minute plan for the day of Unbox based on when various deliveries and people would arrive, who would be in which room, and what would need to happen. We wanted to avoid any embarrassments like having people show up but no one at registration to check them in. Or having a speaker arrive and not know where she needed to be. It was thorough.

How one organizer mapped out her Unbox day-of responsibilties

There was just one problem—we didn’t pay enough attention to how people would make it to the registration table in the first place. In an email to attendees the day before Unbox, we gave them a map showing them how to find our venue at the Curry Student Center in Northeastern University’s campus. What we didn’t do well enough was get them from the outside of the building to the ballroom, where most of our event was happening. Curry has lots of different entrances, and it’s not a small building. We put up a few signs to point people towards Unbox, but it wasn’t enough.

The lesson: You need to care about every step of the journey, every stage in the funnel. It doesn’t matter if you have a great experience waiting for people if they’re wandering the hallways looking for you. Next year we’ll look to close any unaccounted gaps in the experience.

Chips in the Game

This is where shit gets real. In true lean style, we announced Unbox before we had a single speaker, or a venue, or any semblance of an agenda.

We started selling tickets after we got a few speakers on board—even though the topics and agenda were still undecided.

When someone bought their first ticket, that was validating. But when we made our first big order for signs and banners, that’s when Unbox became real. Now we had skin in the game, and there was no turning back. Before that we could have just issued refunds to everyone and hung our heads in shame. That order (about $1,000) meant we were really doing this. And after that, everything accelerated. There was less hemming and hawing, more decisiveness.

We spent responsibly, having many versions of the “build vs. buy” conversation. We did the designs ourselves, but paid to have them printed professionally. We crowdsourced the photography (I would pay for an actual photographer next year). We didn’t skimp on food (quality or quantity). We relied heavily on the kindness and generosity of others.

The lesson: Things get real when you start spending money, especially other people’s money. You can make good progress without spending a dime, but—and I say this as someone who’s naturally risk averse—if you’re trying to spur some action, drop a little cash.

The Unbox organizer team with their first of several well-deserved beers the evening after Unbox

Next Year Will Be Even Better

Unbox v1.0 was a success by any measure. We validated our hypothesis (“Boston Product can put on a valuable and enjoyable full day event for local PMs.”) and we made a splash with our message that Boston is a place where great people build all kinds of great products.

We learned a lot, and we’ll put it all to good use next year. If you want to hear more about Unbox 2018, sign up here.