Conference as a Business Model

There is an interesting rant over on Coding Context on how Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood are brilliant assholes because they are organizing Stackoverflow Dev Days. It may be true that Joel and Jeff are self obsessed ass wipes, but I am note sure it is because they are trying to cash in from the inadequacies and inferiority complex of other developers.

Micah, the guy behind Coding context, brought up the point that the guys behind the Stackoverflow Dev Days conference are exploiting their developer community to build their personal brand. According to Micah’s calculation, the series of six conferences can net nearly $200,000 and as of yet they don’t even have the presentations or speakers lined up!

Personally, I am put off by their floating point error size ego, dismissive attitude, and general writing style while a loyal following finds them eloquent. That said, Micah is totally right, they are building their brand! There two respective blogs attracts a large portion of developer eyeballs. Their joint venture, a question and answer site for developers, gets millions of hits monthly. In addition to this, Joel Spolsky runs a job board which he claims has made him over a million dollars. But is this all bad? Is this devexplotation?

In regards to their tech days, they are not the first to realize that there is good money in running a conference, look at Future of Web Apps, No Fluff/Just Stuff, and all the Web 2.0 O’Reilly conferences. A few years ago, I was part of the executive committee that put on a one day conference for a non-profit. With just corporate sponsorship alone, in a good year, we would net $35,000-$50,000 cold hard cash without even trying!!! And remember, in addition to money for ad space, conference organizers are able to get companies pay for printing material, goodie bags, giveaways, and even lunch. To a good organizer, everything including the Wi-Fi identification and mailing lists, can be had for the right sponsorship level.

From a conference like this, I would be concerned by the quality of speakers. What I feel happens, specially when there is corporate sponsorship, is that the sponsors will use the presentations to pitch their tools and try to up sell the audience to their proprietary tools and services. No matter what they say, Conferences like this are used as promotional tool, and they will sell out to sponsors to use their allotted time and space to pitch to a captive audience. Similar remarks have been said of JavaOne. One complain that I have heard of is that JavaOne is to Sun centric, even though they are the ones that put it together. There is a fine balance between corporate sponsorship and speakers so that the conference does not seem like one long infomercial. It always helps if there are different tracks!

In Slashdot style, here is the formula for a business model for running a conference!

  • Schedule a conference
  • Ask for volunteers in exchange for badges and shirts
  • Sellout presentations to sponsors
  • Give out sponsors’ marketing material in goodie bags
  • Have sponsors buy lunch and provide wi-fi
  • Charge per seat
  • Sell books, shirts, and anything else
  • ?????
  • Profit!!!

This is not all to different from the open source business model which includes building a community, charging for training, selling books, licensing technology, providing certification, and putting on a conference …. and profit!!!

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