Interview: Oliver Lindberg of Pixel Pioneers

ConfConf 2017 is just over a month a way now and we are pleased to interview our final speaker who will be joining us on the day, Oliver Lindberg! Be sure to grab your ticket now to not miss out on what is going to be an amazing day.

Hi Oliver! Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed by us here at ConfConf! Why not kick things off with a bit of background on yourself and your history in the world of event organisation? What got you into event management in the first place?

I kind of fell into it! When I edited net magazine, I attended a lot of events and always wanted to run my own. Then Future, the company behind net, hired Carsonified’s former event manager, Jo Brakes, who had organised the Future of Web Design and Future of Web Apps conferences (RIP!), and the rest is, as they say, history. In 2013, we launched Generate, a conference for web designers, which now runs annually in London, New York and San Francisco, and attracts a few hundred delegates per event.

I was mostly responsible for the event curation and speaker liaison, but also still had a full-time job with net magazine. I fancied a change and a little more freedom, so late last year left Future to fend for myself. I still curate Generate on a freelance basis but I’ve also just launched my own conference, Pixel Pioneers, which gives me the opportunity to do slightly different things. So this year I’m involved in five conferences!

Having accrued a vast experience in event organisation now, what one piece of advice would you give someone starting out?

Believe in yourself and don’t give up! As Shaun said, it can be quite stressful running an event, especially if you do it on your own or just with a small group of helpers (which you absolutely should have!). You will encounter setbacks but don’t take them personally. What I found is that there are a ton of people out there who want to help — whether that’s speakers, sponsors, friends you’ve made a long the way or, last but not least, attendees who are so excited about your event that they help you spread the word about it. That’s what makes it worthwhile.

What would you say is your greatest achievement to date when organising an event or conference? What has made you proudest?

I’ve made the jump to go freelance and launched my own event! It was a really hard decision to quit my job but I’m glad I did it. The first Pixel Pioneers conference will be on 22 June in Bristol, and the feedback and support so far have been amazing.

As for what has made me the proudest, to be able to organise an event in the US is just a dream come true. The first time I was in New York was the first time we ran Generate there. I had no idea what to expect, to be honest, but suddenly I was standing on stage in front of 300 people! Most satisfying, however, are the little moments, when attendees come up to you and say how much they are enjoying the event. You can’t beat that.

Similarly, what is your fondest memory of an event you ran? I am sure there are quite a few funny stories you could share!

Oh man, I made Dan Cederholm bring his banjo all the way from Massachusetts to London. He used it for a CSS analogy during an on-stage interview. I think we got away with it…

Another fond memory, and I guess that’s another proud moment, was when Sara Soueidan, a front-end developer based in the Lebanon, got her visa approved to speak at our London conference. She previously had an application for the UK turned down, and we then did everything we could to help her. We got in touch with an immigration lawyer, wrote a formal letter of invitation, etc. It paid off, and our conference was the first one in the UK that she ever spoke at. She’s scheduled to open Generate New York at the end of this month, if they let her in, but that’s another story…

Looking back, given the choice is there anything you would choose to do differently at an event you have organised?

We electrocuted a gherkin on stage at the first Generate London conference. I always liked the idea of conferences having house bands or doing something a bit different, so we hired a group of nerdy science comedians to close the day. They put on a great show but it just wasn’t the right fit for the audience.

It’s always good to try out new things, though, like a new media partnership, for example. If it doesn’t work, you’ll learn and try a different direction next time.

Kicking off a new event or conference can sometimes be daunting. What is the first thing you like to do when beginning to organise an event?

Research. Because of my background as an editor my approach to conference organising is very editorial, too. I spend a lot of time browsing through industry and event sites. Right at the beginning you might want to go back to some speakers who weren’t available last time round, maybe because of a date clash. The bigger the name, the earlier you should ask. Chances are you can book some very good speakers early on, which is a great position to be in.

And don’t just focus on the topics and speakers. You should also research the location and see if there’s a gap and demand for an event like yours. Don’t just choose a city because you fancy a trip there!

In your toolkit as an event organiser, what do you find more invaluable and what makes it so?

I have a big spreadsheet of names that I would be screwed without. As I organise multiple events per year, it’s difficult to keep track. So I note down all the speaker names for each event: confirmed speakers, speakers I have yet to hear back from, ideas for possible speakers, speakers who’ve sent me proposals, speakers who have declined and the reasons they have given etc. You always come across new speakers, too, and if you jot down their name in a central place, you can refer back to them later when you need to.

I also keep a directory of competitor and related events that I browse through from time to time to find out what topics are covered elsewhere and who the speakers are.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge event organisers are faced with today in your opinion? And do you have any thoughts on what we could be doing to tackle this?

I feel it’s getting the word out in a crowded and fragmented marketplace. All the channels are full of noise and it’s not as easy to promote your event as it may have been a few years ago. You need to try and use as many routes as possible, and be a bit inventive. Don’t rely on social media but also use newsletters (which have made a resurgence), appear on podcasts, run competitions with partners, and reach out to the community directly.

Pixel Pioneers, for example, is completely new and hasn’t got a company behind it, like Generate. As my first event is close to where I live, I’ve got in touch with local meet-up groups and organisations and had face-to-face meetings to help get it off the ground, which makes a big difference. Find people who are well-connected, who can put you in touch with other people, who are well-connected, who… you know where I’m going with this.

Finally, we are very excited to have you speak at ConfConf 2017. What made you want to speak about ’The trials and tribulations of speaker liaison’?

We’ve heard a lot about what speakers want and need, but I thought there’s another side of the story that needs to be told as well. I deal with a lot of people in my work as an editor, content consultant and conference organiser, and sometimes it can be very challenging. As I said above, you shouldn’t take it personally. I want to share some stories of what can happen and some tips on how to rise to the occasion and create a better event as a result of it.

I’m also really looking forward to hearing what other conference organisers have experienced and how they’ve dealt with it. Thanks for having me this year!