Lessons learned from TILE^Portland

Despite being known as the place of rain, coffee, and food carts, Portland carries a more important moniker: the birthplace of TILE. Before we had expanded to more than 100 chapters in over 20 countries, TILE was a single student-run speaker series operating out of the basement of a local theater company. Like any original endeavor, it was filled with obstacles and setbacks, that challenged our problem solving abilities, yet we quickly learned all are manageable. Done right, starting a TILE chapter can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have, and this article aims to help you successfully launch your chapter by helping others avoid the mistakes we made with TILE^Portland in its infancy.

1. Communication is key

At a TILE^Portland event, one of our speakers offered to host the event at her company’s headquarters. As the team hurried to change promotional materials and alert attendees to the venue change, the Executive Director — me — forgot to notify an important party: our regular venue. While we were enjoying a successful TILE talk, our other venue had a room of 150 chairs sitting empty waiting for any type of notification from the TILE^Portland team. I — justifiably — received a strongly worded email the next day ending the professional relationship between us and the venue, leaving me with less than a month to find a new venue to host our next talk.

Obviously, if I had taken five minutes to send an email with a heads up, we would still be having TILE events at that venue. Yet, in the midst of excitement from the venue change, fatigue, or general forgetfulness, I did a fantastic job of ensuring future strife and panic for the TILE^Portland team. I learned many lessons that day, but chief among those is the value of communication.

While many think such an aphorism goes without saying, it doesn’t. When communication is great, you don’t notice it, yet the adverse effects of miscommunication or none at all are obvious. You should always be in constant contact with your team, your speakers, and your venue to ensure all parties are up to date on every detail.

2. Marketing. Marketing. Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.

The only thing worse than nobody showing up is 6 people coming only to see how few people actually attend. In the early stages of TILE^Portland, I was intimate with the anxiety that accompanies an event starting and 50+ chairs sitting empty. We thought we had advertised enough, we thought we portrayed the event as something students would enjoy, but time and time again students simply wouldn’t come to our events.

After trial and error, we learned who our target audience actually was, and how to connect with them. We found out adults wanted to attend TILE events as well, so we added them to our email list and started encouraging parents to come with their children. We started to increase the production quality of our emails, and when we found out nobody came as a result of the posters we worked so hard designing and distributing, we scrapped them. Soon, attendance skyrocketed and TILE^Portland events became community gathering places for students and adults.

Knowing who your target audience is and how to market to them can ensure months of increasing attendance while building important skills for a potential future in business.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask

Remember when I had less than a month to find a new venue? I solved this problem by making cold calls — lots of them. I called wedding venues, theater companies, and event spaces, asking all of them if TILE^Portland could host an event there for free. TILE had a budget of exactly $50.18, so paying full price for a decent venue wasn’t an option. After many calls, emails, and late nights researching event spaces, we secured an $1,100 space for TILE^Portland absolutely free. The only catch was that chairs were not included, so we asked a local party rental business to donate them and they obliged, saving us another $80 in the process.

Calling so many people, I experienced a lot of rejection and dead ends, but a few amazing people who were willing to help. While not everyone can give you exactly what you’re looking for, they can refer you to others or can, or perhaps even supply something vital for your event in the future. I’ve learned that if you’re polite in your requests and specific about what you want, local businesses are more than happy to help you put on an amazing event for your community.

The best and worst part about launching a TILE chapter is that you have a limited budget. You can’t the rent the fanciest venues and have caviar and lobster catered for every event, but you can get creative in finding solutions to problems others would deem insurmountable simply because they can’t buy their way out of them. People are always willing to help; it’s just a matter of asking.

Learning from our mistakes, TILE^Portland has grown to host our latest season of successful talks. I share our missteps with you to help your chapter thrive, but it’s necessary to remember that failure is part of the process. The TILE team is always here to help, but the inevitable miscalculations and stumbles you will have will teach you problem solving skills that will prove invaluable for the rest of your life.