This is what we learned from organizing ChatbotConf 2016, Europe’s first international chatbot conference
First of all you might ask, why we did it. A small startup organizing a big conference?
One evening in June we had this crazy idea of organizing an international conference about mobile messaging and chatbots. We wanted to have all international tech companies in Vienna, a city that doesn’t exist on the international tech landscape. We wanted to have Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Viber, LINE, Telegram, WeChat and all the other major companies in this space to gave a talk and we wanted to make it happen in October, only four months from now — with Summer ahead.
We were actually really blunt.
Of course we knew that this was an insane idea, especially since we are only a small team of four, already working on our actual product oratio. But we also knew that if we want to move fast and build a brand, we had to stand out and find new ways to market our product and position ourselves as a brand. We thought a conference would be a great way of doing that. Vienna is definitely not Silicon Valley which makes it a magnitude harder to build international relationships in the tech space.
However, at oratio we think that product and experiences speak for themselves independent of where you live and where your company is based in. That’s why we decided to just f*cking do it. Not only was ChatbotConf 2016 an important milestone for our company and team as a whole, we also released our very first product based on chatbots for eCommcerce businesses, oratio Shop Assistant.
These are our 7 key learnings from a startup’s perspective on bringing Europe’s first international conference on mobile messaging and chatbots to life.
1. It’s a sh*t load of work
We talked to a lot of people who had experience in organizing larger events and conferences before. Some of us actually had experiences from working on smaller events (~100 people) like meetups and hackathons in the past, but an international conference is definitely a whole different story. If you plan to organize something like that, you will underestimate the work — definitely. That’s 100% certain.
First you start off working on the bigger tasks such as creating a concept, finding the right venue, talking to sponsors and so on. Getting all these infos together definitely requires constant work, but what really kills you are the details and especially changes on short notice.
There are many things to consider. Like, what’s the best schedule if you have two stages, finding out who will speak at what time to have the best flow, organizing food and drinks for 400 people, handling trash, getting all permissions you need, setting up ticketing service correctly to collect all the information you need from the attendees and finding out what kind of merchandise you are going to give away.
The closer you get to the conference, the more details you have to think of and it really, really drives you insane, but at the end of the day it’s the details that make the difference between a good event and a conference people like so much they’ll hug you (yes, that really happened several times)
2. The international chatbot space is thriving
When we first announced ChatbotConf we instantly received positive feedback on the idea. People were really excited to see who is attending the conference and what talks and topics we will cover.
Although it’s the early days of chatbots on messengers in the Western world, a smart and interesting community quickly emerged and it’s only a matter of time when we will see big companies in this space. For us it was really important to bring international experts and speakers from the messaging networks to Vienna making it possible for the local community to connect with them. Even though Vienna is not really on the startup or tech landscape, it actually had a big chatbot scene from the very beginning on. Our goal with this conference was to strengthen the ecosystem and building Europe’s largest community in this space.
3. Organizing a conference is a distraction from your core business (but it pushes your brand unlike anything else)
This was one of our major concerns. How much does a conference distract us from our core business? The answer is, quite a lot.
However, we were really lucky to hire an incredible event manager which made a tremendous difference. While the rest of the team was working on oratio, she was the one who had the full overview of the whole event organization. If she needed something from someone in our team, she simply asked for it. The closer the conference was, the more distracting it was too.
Bringing a conference to life is a team effort and yes, it is definitely a distraction. But we still decided to go for it because we know that if you want to stand out among all the other companies in this space, you have to discover new paths to push your brand and experience with new strategies beyond traditional marketing campaigns, content marketing and the “usual” growth hacks. Furthermore we knew it will be a great chance for business development and strengthening our business contacts. We can tell that in our case it was a distraction worth doing. We really loved to welcome friends we found over time, finally welcoming them in our home city!
4. Work with professionals
We already mentioned this point before but we can’t stress this enough. The more professional the people are you work with the less work you have to do yourself.
Hire great moderators, work with really good photographers and film teams, pick the caterer that actually serves good food rather than okay food. They will be more expensive but it eventually pays off. Try to keep the distraction low.
5. Build relationships with companies you want to invite early on
One of the reasons why we decided to make the conference in the first place was because of the existing relations we already built over time. When we started to work on oratio, the whole messaging and chatbot space was way smaller than it is today. Hence we were already in touch with some of the tech companies who either first reached out to us in or the other way round. This also applies to sponsors, not only speakers.
Taking it from there makes it easier although it is still a hard task to convince companies to support a conference that didn’t exist before. You have to have a concept and like oratio, we had to pitch it regularly.
6. You will piss off some people
Unfortunately this is true and naturally this does not only apply to organizing events. Whenever you make decisions on whether you work together with one party but not with the other, you will end up with people being mad at you. Our aim with ChatbotConf 2016 was to bring our attendees in touch with high quality content and speakers and to achieve that we had to say “No” to people, some of them we know well.
Another example is pricing. When we decided on the prices for the conference tickets we aimed for a fair price policy. This means setting a price our attendees can afford by — at the same time — us being able to cover our costs. Since ChatbotConf is not our main revenue stream, we were not aiming to make as much profit as possible. Actually quite far from that, our only goal was to not lose money and luckily we achieved that. However we were only able to reach that goal by being strict on neither giving tickets away for free nor giving high discounts as we were not able to attract many sponsors, because most of them need to plan budget at least 6 months in advance.
7. Work early on gender diversity
This is a topic we definitely didn’t do well and we were criticized for it. In the very beginning we aimed to have a balanced mix of male and female speakers at the conference by not preferring any gender over the other especially when talking to tech companies about sending a speaker. We also didn’t have any gender preferences when we opened our Call for Speakers — we even choose all talks from the Master Class anonymously. But it turned out we would have had to spend more time on actually attracting female speakers.
The truth however is that not only did we have a low rate of female submissions for our Call for Speakers (8% were female of which we accepted 50%), we also didn’t specifically reach out to women. We didn’t realize that beforehand and we were also missing a Code of Conduct which would have outlined how we deal with diversity. Lessons learned.
Nevertheless, at ChatbotConf 2016 we had about 25% female attendees what we are proud of but it also tells us that there is much more work ahead in order to achieve a balanced gender diversity which will be one of the top priorities for the next event, hopefully with some support from the local community.
There is actually many more things we learned from organizing ChatbotConf 2016, but these are definitely the most important take-aways from our very first international conference. We are somehow happy that it’s over, but we are also thrilled to see what the next year will bring.
Yes — there will be ChatbotConf 2017 and we already started working on the concept for a bigger conference.
– Team oratio