Anatomy of an Unconference
An incredibly in-depth, behind-the-scenes look into how we run the Lean Startup Circle Unconference event each month in San Francisco.
By Javid Jamae
On the third Wednesday of every month in San Francisco, a cadre of volunteers assembles an hour before 50–100 attendees show up for the monthly Lean Startup Circle Unconference.
Armed with markers, signs, tape, paper, and an arsenal of other office supplies, they transform the sponsoring venue in preparation for ordered chaos.
Tables are turned in to check-in and intake stations, a wall is taken over and plastered with a grid, and chairs are arranged in circle formations throughout the venue to accommodate break-out discussion.
Volunteers are eager for the event to start because not only are they helping to arrange the event, but like everybody else, they will be participants who will be teaching and learning from others.
Attendees range from aspiring startup founders with an idea and a glimmer of hope, all the way to up to program managers at corporations that are overseeing several multi-million dollar products.
Product managers, software developers, UI/UX designers, sales and marketing folks, consultants and trainers, students, government employees, and many others turn up each month to teach and learn from others.
The unconference draws a truly diverse and talented group of San Francisco’s finest Lean thinkers.
History of the San Francisco Lean Startup Circle
In 2008, Eric Ries started an simple blog on Blogger (call it a Minimum Viable Product, if you will) to write about technology, Agile, customer development, continuous development, and other practices they were using at his company IMVU.
Eric’s writing turned in to talks and workshops and ultimately became a movement he called The Lean Startup.
In 2009, as the Lean Startup movement was starting to take shape and Rich Collins started a meetup group in San Francisco called the Lean Startup Circle. The group went dormant in 2011, but in 2012 Tristan Kromer took the group over and led the effort to create a community of volunteer organizers that have collectively turned the group into the huge success it is today.
As the group in San Francisco became popular and the concepts of the Lean Startup started to take shape, groups started to pop up in cities all around the world.
Today there are Lean Startup meetup groups in over 80 countries, and probably 100’s of cities around the world.
I personally got involved in the Lean Startup movement in 2011 when I started the Lean Startup Circle in Houston, TX. I subsequently became a volunteer organizer for the group in San Francisco when I moved to the Bay Area in 2013.
Why we use the unconference format
For several years, the San Francisco group brought in speakers to talk about a single topic each month. This format worked well, and based on the speaker and the popularity of the topic could pull in a rather large audience.
In the fall of 2013, the day before the Lean Startup conference that year (not formally associated with the grass roots Lean Startup Circle meetup groups), we decided to run an unconference and invite all the people who were in town for the conference.
The event was extremely well received, so in 2014 we decided to experiment and see if we could continue running the event with a slightly modified unconference format.
For several months, we ran the event each month in three parts: 2 unconference sessions, and then a speaker. We compared our analytics to those from when we run the event with just a speaker and saw that our metrics had improved. We measure attendee satisfaction using Net Promoter Score (NPS). With the new format, our NPS went from the 30s to the 60s, which is a significant improvement.
Finally, we decided to try an event where we had no speaker, but ran the entire event as an unconference. The hypothesis was that the ticket sales would decrease, but, in fact, they held steady and our analytics showed that the attendee satisfaction had increased slightly again.
Because we didn’t need to line up speakers to run the event using the unconference format, organizing the event became much easier. With our NPS now in the 70–80 range and the event easier to organize, we decided to switch to just running the event as a monthly unconference.
How an unconference works
An unconference is a conference that has a predefined structure, but no predefined topics. The topics are decided upon by the attendees after they arrive.
People propose topics by writing them down on a sheet of paper and adding them to the Session Wall. The Session Wall has many pseudonyms, including the Unconference Board, Topic Wall, Topic Board, and the Session Schedule.
People propose topics by writing them down on a sheet of paper and adding them to the Session Wall.
Most session proposals are for round-table discussions, but occasionally people do presentations, workshops, panels, fishbowls, or other interesting formats.
The event usually consists of two or three different sessions with several concurrent talks during each session. Before each session, all the participants look at the board and decide which talk they want to attend.
Each talk takes place in a different rooms or breakout area within the venue. Each of the three sessions lasts for 45–60 minutes.
Our events typically run on the third Wednesday of every month with the following schedule:
- 5:00 pm — Setup. Volunteers usually arrive about an hour before the event begins to set up.
- 6:00 pm — Doors open for food, beer & networking
- 6:30 pm — Go around and make sure everybody has put topics up and has done dot voting.
- 6:45 pm — Emcee does the kickoff talk
- 7:00 pm — Unconference session #1
- 7:40 pm — Unconference session #2
- 8:20 pm — Unconference session #3
Aside from our regular monthly unconference that runs once a month in the evening, we have run a few full-day unconferences where we run 5 sessions. These special events have typically been in conjunction with a larger event like the annual Lean Startup conference.
The check-in area is where we collect tickets or sign people in. It’s also the area where people create name tags for themselves during check-in.
We typically run our events in the evenings. Several of the venues we use lock their entrance doors after business hours. This often requires us to have someone in the lobby of the building letting people in and using a badge to let them into the elevator.
Because of this, we’ll often just set up a check-in table in the lobby of the building. A few volunteers will check people in while another person opens the doors and lets people up the elevator.
If we’re at a smaller venue, the check-in table and the on-boarding table (described below) might be consolidated.
Before the event, we set up the check-in table with name tags and Sharpie markers. We use three different color name tags for three different roles:
- Business person (i.e. anything besides developer or designer)
We label samples of each name tag color so people know which color is for which role. Some people get creative and put together multiple badge colors, and others could care less which badge color they grab.
The different color name tags arguably offer a few benefits. First, they allow for an ice-breaker such as, “So, it looks like you’re a developer…”. Second, we can measure the number of each type of name tag that was used in order to see what mix of skill set we have in attendance (though this data could be captured during event registration as well). And third, it helps when people are looking for collaborators or cofounders of a particular type.
We tape a Lean Startup Circle sign to the front of the table and another to the front door of the venue so people know they’re in the right place when they walk in. Assuming the door is glass, we tape it up on the inside of the door because signs can easily get torn down by people in downtown San Francisco.
We also make sure to provide one of the volunteer’s mobile number on the sign on the front door so that people who arrive late can call to have someone let them in the building.
We use Eventbrite for ticket sales, so before the event it is necessary to ensure that all of the check-in volunteers have the Eventbrite Organizer app with access to check people in to the current month’s event.
Check-in volunteers may not have easy access to the food, so the other organizers always try to remember to set aside or take food to the check-in crew.
At larger venues, people may have to navigate through a few halls to get to the room where the event is. In this case, it’s very handy to post signs with arrow on them to help point people in the right direction.
If you don’t have signs ready, you can always create arrows using painter’s tape. Painter’s tape is your friend!
As people arrive
As people arrive, we try to set a friendly and professional tone. Our check-in volunteers will:
- introduce themselves by name
- offer a handshake
The attendee will then respond with their name, at which time the volunteer can pull open the app and look for the attendee’s name to check them in.
After we check the attendee in, we ask them to grab a Sharpie marker and make a name tag for themselves, then we direct them to the onboarding area.
There is typically a peak time when people arrive, so we try to always have two people running check-in so attendees don’t have to wait too long.
Once the kickoff starts, the check-in volunteers usually head in to the main area to join the event. Cleanup consists of picking the table, nametags, and Sharpie markers.
The sign on the front door remains up and we just grab it as we’re walking out at the end of the event.
When people walk in to the main event space, we greet them and immediately get them thinking about what topics they’d like to propose. We call this process onboarding, intake, or topic proposal.
The onboarding area is typically placed near the entrance of the room or floor where we run the event. When we have a smaller venue, we often just use a single table for both check-in and for onboarding.
To set up the onboarding area, we make sure to put out:
- Sharpie markers — Used to fill out topic proposal sheets
- Topic proposal sheets — Attendees fill these out to propose a topic
- Unconference explainer flyers — We hand these out to newbies to explain how the event works
- Stickers Dots — Used for dot voting on the Session Wall
- Name Tags—Whether or not we have a separate check-in area, it’s useful to keep some name tags at the onboarding table incase people forget to make one.
As people arrive
When people arrive at the onboarding table, our job is to explain how the unconference works and compel them to propose a topic to put on the Session Wall.
In this video, Chris Guest, one of our dedicated volunteers explains how the unconference topic proposal works.
When attendees arrive, the first thing we typically do is greet them by name (as it’s on their name tag), introduce ourselves, and ask if they’ve ever been to an unconference.
If they have been to an unconference, then we hand them a topic proposal sheet and voting dots and tell them to ask us if they have any questions.
If they haven’t been to an unconference then the conversation typically goes something like this:
An unconference is a conference with a set structure, but no predefined topics. The topics for the conference are proposed and decided upon by you and the other attendees.
At that point, we hold up one of the topic proposal sheets and explain how it works.
I want you to think about the most challenging problem you’re facing in your business right now and write it down right here. You don’t have to present on that topic. Most of our talks are round-table discussions. If you propose a topic, there will likely be at least 4–5 other people here (and sometimes many more) who are either facing the same problem or have relevant experience that can help you.
Then we hand them the sheet, a marker, and three voting dots (though for larger events we’ll give people six).
If you think you need a facilitator to help you run the session, just indicate so on the sheet. After you’ve written down your proposed topic, you’ll walk it over to the Session Wall and the team there will help you place it. You can then use these dots to vote on any topic that you find interesting and think you might attend. And yes, you can even vote on your own topic. Put all the dots on one topic, or spread them around, it’s up to you.
First time unconference attendees typically fall into one of three categories when it comes to proposing topics:
- They are extremely eager to propose a topic
- After nudging them a few times and reminding them that there is no pressure to present anything, they’ll propose something
- There is no way in hell that they will write anything down on a piece of paper because they’ve decided that it’s their first time and they’re “just going observe” and there is nothing you can do to change their mind.
We often remind people that are hesitant to propose a topic that there are no observers at an unconference. The whole point of the event is that everybody is a participant, and without their input the event will be less interesting and valuable to them and others.
We often remind people that are hesitant to propose a topic that there are no observers at an unconference.
As kickoff time nears
The onboarding volunteers keep an eye on the clock and the Session Wall to see if we have enough proposed topics before the kickoff. If not, then the crew walks around the venue and goes into what we call wrangling mode.
Wrangling consists of interrupting people as they’re networking and eating and asking if they’ve proposed a topic. If they haven’t proposed a topic, then we pester them to do it. We often try to help them come up with a topic proposal by asking them questions:
- What is the most challenging problem you’re facing in your business right now?
- If you could magically have anything happen in your business, what would it be?
- What keeps you up at night?
- Is there anything that you’ve been experimenting with, but can’t seem to get anywhere with?
- What is one thing specific thing you really want to learn more about?
Wrangling consists of interrupting people as they’re networking and eating and asking if they’ve proposed a topic.
When we’re really shy on topic proposals, some of the volunteers will ask people a question and then just write down a proposal for them as they’re giving their response. This is aggressive, but sometimes necessary.
As the volunteers go around they also make sure that people have done their dot voting.
Cleaning up the onboarding area just involves picking up the table and all the supplies. We usually clean up the onboarding area during the last session or right after the event.
The Session Wall
The Session Wall is where the topic proposals go so that everybody can see what the agenda for the unconference is.
Here is a video from one of our recent events where Jane Bulnes-Fowles, one of our awesome volunteers explains how the Session Wall works. (This event took place on Halloween day, hence why Jane is wearing the awesome costume!)
The wall can be created in on of several ways. Below is an example of a Session Wall we created with painter’s tape, paper, and sharpies.
We started with five concurrent talks for each session, but as we got more proposals for talks, we had to expand the board (as seen in the next picture). We always try to leave room to expand the Session Wall.
But, we’re not always so fancy. For smaller unconferences (or if we’re feeling lazy) we just tape the topics up on a wall or a window without much preparation as shown in the next picture.
Another option is to use a whiteboard or a window to create the grid. This just requires a big enough whiteboard and a dry-erase marker.
In general, it’s nice if you label the rooms and list out the session times, allowing people to quickly understand the schedule and structure for the event.
Before the kickoff
Not all session are the same size, and with most venues, neither are the breakout rooms. To help figure out which talks will be the most popular, and thus require the most room, we let the attendees “dot vote” on the talks that they’re most likely to attend.
At the onboarding area, we give each participant three sticker dots that they can use to vote on the topics that they are most interested in. As seen in the pictures of the Session Walls above, attendees stick the dots on the topics that they’re interested in. This makes it easy to see which talks are more popular and will likely require a larger room.
At the onboarding area, we give each participant three sticker dots that they can use to vote on the topics that they are most interested in.
As the dots are placed, the volunteers managing the Session Wall rearrange the talks to ensure that the bigger talks are in the rooms with the most capacity.
Sometimes one person will suggest two or three different talks. This is fine, and we actually encourage it. The volunteers overseeing the Session Wall just have to make sure that they don’t put multiple proposals made by the same person into the same session row (i.e. they can’t do two talks at once).
The volunteers often put one or two topics on the board before any of the attendees provide their own. For example, we always offer a Lean Startup 101 topic and encourage people who don’t know much about Lean Startup to attend that session.
As we’re arranging the session proposals, we’re also looking to see which ones require a facilitator. We usually look to the volunteers to be facilitators, but many of our trusted, regular attendees are quite good at facilitation and will make themselves available to help when called upon.
Obviously, the Session Wall is the heart of the entire evening, so it will stay up until the end of the event.
We usually snap a picture of the entire board once the room assignments have been finalized. This is useful if you want to look back and compare how popular a session was up front with how well it was rated on the session analytics (we use Y-Charts, which I explain later).
At the end of the event, we take down all the topic proposals. We also erase the dry erase board or remove the painters tape if we used any.
On the topic proposal sheets, we ask topic proposers to provide their email addresses. The email address allows us to follow up with them and to add them to our mailing list.
We don’t always follow up with them, but if the organizing team decides to run any experiments or interviews, we can always go back and access the data. Therefore, it’s good to take a clear picture of every proposal sheet, or to keep the physical sheets in a folder to access at a later time.
The kickoff talk is where we recap how the event works and set a tone of collaboration and learning for the evening.
The kickoff can be performed by a single person, or it can be done by multiple volunteers.
We usually have a main emcee who kicks off each unconference, another volunteer that recaps how the unconference sessions work, and another volunteer that explains how and why we collect analytics.
When we select the area where we’re going to do the kickoff talk, we make sure that our Session Wall is nearby so we can reference it while we’re doing the kickoff.
We also make sure to post the wifi password, event hash tags, and any other relevant information nearby so when the emcee starts going through the details, she (or he) can just point to the information.
We don’t always set up chairs for the kickoff, because it only lasts for about 10–15 minutes, but with some venues it makes more sense because of the layout. When selecting the venue, we always make sure to find out how many chairs they have available for the main kickoff area and the breakaway areas.
If we don’t set up chairs and people are standing, then we try to make sure that the emcee is on a platform of some sort so that everybody can see her.
We rotate volunteer positions frequently, and sometimes the emcee isn’t a loud talker. In this case we make sure the venue has a microphone and speakers set up.
We always test the audio equipment before the event to make sure we know that it works and so we know how to adjust the volume.
The kickoff talk
The following list describes the topics that the emcee generally covers during the kickoff:
- Welcome — Thank everybody for coming and introduce yourself
- About the group — How did it start, what’s the mission, it’s part of a global movement with chapters all over the world
- Venue details — Emergency exits, restrooms, venue rules
- Wifi — Read off and the wifi password to the venue and show them the sign where it’s written down
- Hashtags — We tell people about our Twitter hashtag (#lscsf) and our Twitter handle (@LeanCircle)
- Sponsors — Introduce venue, food, and/or other sponsors and give them a minute to talk about their services
- Volunteers — We tell the group that the event would not be possible without the volunteers and ask all the previous and current volunteers to stand up for recognition. We also ask people to get in touch with us if they want to volunteer and offer them a free ticket for the event at which they volunteer.
- LSC Slack Community — The Lean Startup Circle has a Slack group and and a newsgroup on Google Groups. We take a moment to tell people about these groups in case they want to join.
- Why are we here — We tell the participants that they’re here to learn and to teach. If they have a problem, there is likely another person at the event who can help them.
- Explain the Unconference — We explain the Session Wall, the timing of the sessions, where the rooms are, and how facilitation will work. I will discuss the details around how we run sessions in the next section.
- Leave if you’re not learning anything — After explaining the unconference and how the sessions work, we remind people that in an unconference, it’s ok to get up and leave a session if you feel like you’re not getting value out of it. Nobody will or should judge you if you leave.
- Lean Startup 101 — We let everybody know that we will have a Lean Startup 101 talk during the first session. This talk is usually run by one or the organizers or a skilled Lean Startup practitioner. They cover all the fundamentals of Lean Startup in this talk. We let the audience know that if they’re new to Lean Startup, they should consider attending that session first.
- Explain Analytics —We describe how the Y-Charts and exit surveys work. I will discuss the details around analytics later in this post.
- Read off first session topics — After all of the kickoff discussion is complete, we read out all the topic titles for the first session and tell people to go to their first session.
Sessions and facilitation
After the kickoff, the fun begins. Depending on the schedule of the event, sessions will typically last between 40 and 60 minutes.
During setup, we ensure that each breakout area has enough chairs and that they are arranged in a circle to accommodate round-table discussions.
We tape up a sign with a different letter of the alphabet to the door of each room or near each breakout area. This letter corresponds with the letter on the top row of the Session Wall so attendees know which room each talk is in.
In each breakout area, we also tape up a Y-Chart and dots so that people who attended the session can vote on the session as they leave.
Most of the sessions at our events are round-table discussions. These sessions can range anywhere from 3–20 people. Most of the time, however, these sessions have about 5–10 people in attendance.
Though 90% of the events are round-table discussions, we do occasionally get people who propose a different format. For example, sometimes someone has a topic or a case study that they want to present. Presentations can be done on laptops, flip-charts, or white boards.
Some people bring post-it notes and worksheets and have people run through a mini-workshop. We often carry extra post-it notes, markers, flip-charts, dots, and other supplies so that people can use them to run workshops.
Sometimes nobody shows up for a session, not even the person who proposed it. Other times only one or two people turn up. Our volunteers usually walk around to make sure each session is kicking off properly, and if they see one with low turnout, they’ll tell them that they’re free to continue the session or to go find another session to join.
Sometimes nobody shows up for a session, not even the person who proposed it.
There are entire books, workshops, and certification programs on facilitation, so I can’t possibly do the topic justice in a few short sentences. I’ll just make a few key points about facilitation based on what we’ve learned over the last several years.
At the beginning of each session, our volunteers go around and make sure that each talk has a facilitator if one was requested.
The facilitators job is to get the group engaged in discussing the topic at hand. Some key things that facilitators do:
- Make sure the seats are set up in such a way that everybody can see each other and has equal visibility in the circle of chairs or in the room.
- Notice when someone is quiet, call them out by name, and ask if they have something they’d like to contribute.
- Ask everybody to quickly (10–20 seconds) introduce themselves if there are fewer than 8 people. And likewise, not waste time having everybody introduce themselves if there are 8 or more people.
- Summarize key points whenever someone finishes speaking and write them on a dry-erase board or flip chart if one is available.
- When a few people are talking most of the time, ask “Does anybody we haven’t heard from have something to contribute?”
- Ask leading questions. For example, “I like that you mentioned qualitative customer research. Does anybody have examples of good ways that someone can do qualitative research to understand customers better?”
Time keeping / Ending the session
One volunteer is responsible for keeping time. She will go around to each room five minutes before the end of each session and notify the attendees that the session is about to end and that they should start wrapping up the conversation.
The time keeper will go around again when time is up and let each team know and remind them to use their dots to vote on the Y-Chart.
There is usually a short break between sessions so that people can go back over to the Session Wall and figure out what session they want to go to next.
The time keeper will also let people know when the break is over and it’s time to start the next session.
Volunteers definitely come and go over the course of several events, but some (like myself) stick around. Our volunteers are typically either startup folks or Lean/Agile consultants. There are a few corporate people in the mix as well.
We have had anywhere from 5–20 volunteers at our events. It is theoretically possible to run an event with just 2–3 volunteers, but it might be a bit tiring, especially if it’s a bigger event.
We give free tickets to our volunteers. If someone volunteers on and off, we typically still give them a free ticket even when they’re not volunteering.
Before the event
We keep a volunteer email list that we leverage to find volunteers for each event. We send out an email several weeks before the event to see who can commit.
We also send out an email to previous event attendees asking if they want to join the volunteer crew. Those who respond get added to the volunteer email list.
Once the volunteer list is formed, we decide on team leads and assign all the other volunteers to a given team.
Each team lead is responsible to communicating the operating procedure to their team. Since we have operating procedure documents for each of our main areas of volunteering, this usually entails just sending everybody the appropriate operating procedure document.
The following is a list of all the roles that volunteers can take on. At most of our events, volunteers end up wearing multiple hats and fulfill two or more of these roles.
- Lead organizer — Each event has one or two lead organizers that go through all the checklists and make sure everything is getting done before, during, and after the event
- Volunteer coordinator — Sends out volunteer emails and makes sure there are volunteers for each key team
- Emcee —Runs the kickoff meeting
- Analytics — In charge of preparing, posting, collecting, and analyzing Y-Charts and exit surveys
- Session wall / planning — Sets up the Session Wall and manages the room and facilitator assignments for each proposed session
- Venue setup — Sets up chairs and signs around the venue
- Food — Orders and sets up food and drinks
- Venue / sponsorship — Lines up sponsors before the event, greets them and the event, thanks them after the event
- Marketing — Send out email, social media updates, and sets up ticketing
- Facilitators — Any volunteer or attendee who wants to help facilitate sessions
- Time keeper — Makes sure the event and each session starts and ends on time
After the event
It’s always nice to show appreciation for the volunteers. After the event, we send out an email to the volunteers to thank them.
Part of the money we bring in from ticket sales also goes towards rewarding volunteers. For example, those who volunteer more than 3 times get a Lean Startup Circle t-shirt.
We hold monthly volunteer dinners which are used to plan subsequent event. We also hold volunteer appreciation parties where we invite all current and previous volunteers to attend and socialize.
Just like companies need to track analytics to measure success, so does our group. The primary analytics we look at are:
- Ticket sales (revenue)
- Returning attendees (retention)
- Session quality (satisfaction)
- Overall event Net Promoter Score (satisfaction)
The ticketing information is pulled from Eventbrite and analyzed. We don’t do a great job of reporting on this every month, but we do go back and analyze the data if we have a question or hypothesis around ways that we can improve the event.
The quality of each talk is measured using a Y-Chart. This chart has three axes: Would Recommend, Learned Something, and Useful.
Each session attendee gets three dots and can place one on each axis. Placing the dot closer to the middle signifies a negative response and placing it further away signifies a positive response.
There are some limitations to the Y-Charts as a method of collecting data. The voting is not anonymous, so people may vote differently based on who is watching them. The first few voters can cause anchoring of subsequent voters. People also have a tendency to not want to overlap dots or place them off the axis, so they go higher or lower than they otherwise would have.
The Y-Charts aren’t perfect, but they gives us a decent sense of how the session went.
The other bit of data we collect is through the exit survey.
You can Google how NPS scores are calculated, but suffice it to say we calculate a score after each unconference and analyze changes based on the experiments we’re running around the event itself.
For example, when we experimented with running the event using the unconference format, the NPS score improved and ticket sales were generally not impacted.
Before the event
We make sure to have exit surveys printed and cut out. We also make sure that we have flip-charts to use for our Y-Charts.
Before the kickoff, we draw Y-Charts for collecting data around each talk. If there are five concurrent talks and three sessions, then we prepare 15 Y-Charts.
We draw the Y-Charts on flip-chart paper and post them up at each room or breakout area.
After each session
At the end of each session, the time keeper walks around and reminds people to vote on the Y-Chart for the talk before they leave to go find their next talk.
As the next session starts, someone walks around and collects all the Y-Charts and takes a picture of each one for posterity.
If the dots are running low in any given breakout area, we make sure to replenish them.
At the end of the event
As the last session is ending, the timekeeper will remind people not only to vote on the Y-Chart but also to fill out an exit survey. Sometimes we just hand out exit surveys to people as the last session is ending so that they don’t forget.
One or two volunteers usually stand by the exit and collect exit surveys from people. We are pretty adamant about getting everybody to fill out the exit survey. It only takes them five seconds to circle a number between one and ten, so they really have no excuse to try and weasel out of it.
We are pretty adamant about getting everybody to fill out the exit survey.
The day after the event
We’re not alway great about doing this, but the lead volunteer for the analytics team is responsible for compiling all the data, aggregating it, and sending it out in a report to all the other volunteers for posterity and transparency.
Food / Drink
We usually order the food and drinks for our events and have them delivered. The easiest thing is to order pizza, but attendee satisfaction is much higher when you order higher quality food. San Francisco has a number of food and grocery delivery services, so we usually order from one of those.
We usually order food on the day of the event because we often get last-minute ticket sales which can increase our attendee count.
Despite the fact that we charge for our events, we tend to get anywhere from 50–85% attendance. The lower end of that range may occur when there is inclement weather or a conflicting event that people forgot about (e.g. once we overlapped with one of the presidential debates and had low turnout). We usually order food based on an estimate of 85% attendance.
We serve food before the event begins, so setup involves being at the venue early enough to receive the food delivery and unpacking anything that needs to be set out.
We also make sure to put out cups, napkins, paper towels, and cutlery.
Aside from soft drinks, we usually provide beer and wine. We remind people to make sure to empty out their drinks in the sink before throwing them away to make sure the cleaning crew doesn’t get a nasty, wet surprise when they go to take out the trash.
When we’re in a venue in a larger place of business, we’ll often have issues with non-attendees stopping by and taking food. In this case, we usually have a volunteer stand guard over the food and we also put up a sign that says, “Food for event ticket holders only”.
One final thing we do during setup is make sure that we have enough trashcans with extra trash bags on standby in case we fill them up with our trash.
Sponsorships / Venue
We generally only take on venue sponsorships because our ticket sales cover the cost of everything else. That being said, we are in San Francisco and can charge people $25-$50 for a startup event and still get 100 people to buy tickets. This may not be as easy in other cities.
Some companies will offer to sponsor food and drink costs. Others may offer other in-kind donations like books that we can hand out.
Before the event
Before each event, we have someone schedule and confirm with the venue to make sure that we’re on their calendar and that we know who our point of contact will be on the day of the event.
We also make sure that any event-related copy (emails, Meetup/Eventbrite descriptions, etc.) clearly names and thanks the sponsors for supporting the group.
During the event
During the kickoff we make sure to show appreciation for the sponsors. We give them each a minute or so to talk about their product or service, or to let people know about the jobs they may be hiring for.
After the event
After each event, we do a final walk through and make sure every is cleaned up and arranged the way it was before we did our setup.
The day after the event we send a thank you email to each sponsor to show our appreciation.
Picking a Venue
Unfortunately, picking a venue is a bit trickier than just selecting one with a single event space that will fit the number of attendees that we have.
An unconference has several concurrent talks, and the talks that have more participants tend to be louder than the smaller ones. This means that the venue has to be able to either have multiple rooms or break-out areas to support the talks, or has to have a large enough open space where the noise from one group won’t bother another.
The venue also needs to have at least one or two larger areas or rooms that will accommodate the larger talks.
Marketing / Ticket sales
Most of our ticket sales come from our email list. Building and maintaining an email list is essential. We use Mailchimp to manage our email list, which is free up until several thousand members.
Sites like Meetup will give you some good visibility and help grow the group membership, but they don’t give you access and ownership of your mailing list. We use Meetup to announce the events, but we do all of our ticket sales through Eventbrite.
We use Meetup to announce the events, but we do all of our ticket sales through Eventbrite.
Eventbrite gives us access to all of our attendee’s emails and it also providers an Organizer app that we use at the event to check people in.
We promote the event using the following channels:
- Influencers (Lean Startup consultants, writers, thought leaders who have attended our events previously)
- Our Twitter account
- Our Facebook page
- Our email list
- Our Meetup group
Planning for subsequent events
As I mentioned in the volunteer section above, we have volunteer dinners to plan the next meeting. If we can’t get enough people to attend the dinner, we’ll fall back to just doing a conference call.
In the planning meetings we’ll do a retrospective to see what we liked, disliked, and learned from the last event. We’ll also talk about any experiments that we want to run in order to improve our core metrics.
Here is a high-level overview of the checklists that we use for planning. We currently manage our event checklist using Trello.
2–3 months before the event
- Reach out to potential sponsors
- Post event to mailing lists
- Set up event pages (Eventbrite & Meetup)
4 weeks before the event
- Announce the event on Meetup
- Send event details to newsletters to include in their calendars (e.g. Startup Digest)
- Send event details to influencers / partners to share with their audiences
- Share event details on our social media accounts
- Start running ad campaigns (optional)
- Email past session leaders
- Schedule session facilitator training
- Finalize agreement with sponsors
- Email volunteer email list to begin recruiting volunteers
- Confirm venue booking
2 weeks before the event
- Confirm that you’ve sold the minimum threshold of tickets needed to move forward with the event (for us that’s 20, at this stage)
- Email previous attendees, influencers, volunteers
1 week before the event
- Secure Lean Startup 101 presenter
- Confirm that you’ve sold the minimum threshold of tickets needed to move forward with the event (for us that’s 30, at this stage)
- Confirm logistics with sponsors
- Assign volunteer team leaders
- Assign volunteer teams and brief them
- Email previous attendees, influencers, volunteers
- Social media promotion
- Email the Emcee Runbook to the person who is emceeing
- Decide on food and confirm with provider / caterer if necessary
We’ll also make sure that we’ve accounted for and stocked up on supplies:
- Flip charts
- Painters tape
- Unconference “first-timer” sheets
- Operating Procedure docs
- Exit surveys
The day before the event
- Social media promotion
The day of the event
I’ve covered all the things we do to setup at the venue throughout this post, but the other thing we do is continued promotion on social media just to encourage last-minute ticket purchases.
The day after the event
- Send thank-you emails
- Update mailing lists (presenters, facilitators, volunteers)
- Send out discount code for next event to this event’s participants
- Send speakers feedback from their sessions
- Calculate and report on event analytics
The San Francisco Lean Startup Circle wouldn’t be what it is today without the help of these amazing people who I’ve gotten to know since my involvement as an organizer (in no particular order):
Tristan Kromer—Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Jane Bulnes-Fowles—Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Ajesh Shah — Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Sunday Shields — Twitter, LinkedIn
Chris Guest — Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Dan Stiefel — Twitter, LinkedIn
Nick Noreña — Twitter, LinkedIn
Zac Halbert — Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Malcolm Anderson — LinkedIn
Jay Badenhope — Twitter, LinkedIn
Ken Decanio — Twitter, LinkedIn
Eric Bell — Twitter, LinkedIn
Jeana Alayaay — Twitter, LinkedIn
Sam McAfee — Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Maureen Nonnenmann — Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
Daniil Brodovich — Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn
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Aside from volunteering once a month at the Lean Startup Circle, I coach and run workshops for startups, accelerators, and corporations. My focus areas are Lean Startup, Customer Development, and growth marketing / engineering. If you think you need my assistance, please email me at my full name at gmail.
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