Lessons learned from starting a small conference

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I'm prepping up for a big project right now. And it's definitely out of my area of expertise. My heart is excited but my brain tells me I have no business even attempting this. I'd like to tell you (and myself) a story the last time I thought I should "stay in my lane".

I went to a bunch of conferences last year and I had a great time in most of them. Conferences are great for getting inspired from the talks, meeting old friends and making some new ones.

But, here's the thing, I only watch half the talks. Sitting and listening to one talk after another gets boring real fast. You can always watch the rest of the talks later on youtube at 1.5x.

Instead, I like to spend time talking to people that I don't see very often.

talking to people I don't know why we look so sad, it was a happy conversation!

As an introvert, I find it really hard to just walk up to a stranger and introduce myself. But, when I give a talk, it's an invitation for others come talk to me after the talk about a topic I already like, which makes it so much easier 😇

Most conferences have a jam-packed schedule with short coffee breaks after every few talks. This forces you to pick - you can either have a long conversation with someone or cut that short and attend the next talk. I usually end up missing talks that I wanted to attend.

I realised I got the most value out of a conference by having deeper conversations about the topics I really care about and feeling inspired. This could be with a speaker after their talk or with fellow attendees.

This is my biased experience with conferences, I also know folks who like to attend all the talks, absorb everything like a sponge and synthesise them later. Whatever works for you!

I wanted to attend a conference that focused on the parts I like - longer meaningful conversations. An event other folks like me would enjoy.

Couldn't find any. From my experience with helping out with the first ReactFoo, I know organising a conference isn't a small task.

It takes sponsors and ticket sales and speakers and marketing and an auditorium and catering and audio visual setup and so much more. I didn't really think about it for a few months until I attended another conference.

Screw it, I'm gonna do it - Me

I always start all my projects with the website because it forces me to explain the idea clearly in a few words.

I knew the kind of conference I wanted to host.

This conference is designed to involve everyone in the discourse with short talks and plenty of time for discussions and follow-up conversations.

It's really difficult to create an involving 400 people. Small group, meaningful conversations seems more like the experience I'd enjoy.

I was really creating a conference for myself and hoping I can find a few other people who would enjoy the same experience.

Need speakers for a conference, right? Something that can serve as jumping off points for the conversations.

I wrote down "8 speakers, 25 attendees". Called it tinyconf.

You don't need an auditorium for 25 people, got in touch with my friends at Geeky Ants for their office venue, they have a meetup space which can fit everyone. (shoutout to Maheshwari for all the help!)

To create a space where you can have meaningful conversations, we removed Q&A after the talk. The Q&A are always too rushed to get a wholesome answer.

Instead we put a 30 minute break after every 2 talks (which were a crisp 20 mins) and an hour long lunch.

Talking of lunch, you don't need catering to feed a small of group, we just ordered lunch using one of the food delivery apps.

Next step, convince 8 people to come and give a talk. If I'm creating the perfect conference experience, I'd love to have a diverse set of speakers. I got in touch with a few friends for help.

We didn't have international speakers* but we had a gender balanced lineup with a mix of first time speakers and experienced speakers.

*well, we kind of did. Pavithra was already in town from Australia.

I added speakers to the website and announced the conference on twitter a day before opening up sales to build up some hype. The next day, early bird tickets were sold out in 20 minutes! This was validation that there were others like me that really wanted a similar experience.

Because it was a really small event event, the tickets didn't have to priced high. We didn't even need to find sponsors! Hashnode offered to sponsor anyways and we were able to add some diversity tickets.

I was still feeling really under confident. This wasn't as fancy as the other conferences people are used to. They will be disappointed and call me out for scamming them! The format was too different, people will be bored between talks, etc.

But, It was too late to get cold feet now, people had already bought tickets!

I was surprised how well things turned out.

We had talks about State management, React Native, Animation, GraphQL and even a talk about stealing ideas from Vue.js 😋. There were plenty of things to talk about! The breaks didn't feel long at all, everyone was excited and nerding out over the details, it was great.

swag

We did't have any conference swag, I brought a few stickers from my stickers side project and Nash (one of the speakers) brought t-shirts 🙌

swag

The food was alright, we only had vegetarian because I forgot to ask for preferences in advance. 🤷

food

Overall, it felt like everyone had a good time.

I talked to a few folks for feedback and they weren't too sad. Twitter confirmed this feeling.

swag

What's the lesson here?

In our heads, we sometimes create a picture that is so perfect that it seems unattainable. But if you push the fear aside for 5 minutes, you can break it down to see what are the parts that you really need and what parts exist to satisfy your fear.

I just came back from React Amsterdam which had over 1200 attendees! To throw an event that big and sell as many tickets, you do need international speakers and sponsors to fly them there and a really big venue. It's a great conference, but that's not the only way. There's plenty of room for tinyconfs as well.

In my case, I didn't need an auditorium or sponsors to host a good conference, I needed a date and a handful of excited people. Everything else is gravy. The hardest part is to start, after that, everything else falls into place.

Next time you feel you can't, watch this video.

Hope that was helpful on your journey

Sid


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