Last weekend was the 4th Burlington Ruby Conference. Similar to years past, local and non-local Rubyists spent the weekend enjoying the city, learning, and hanging out. There were 13 speakers who spoke on a variety of topics, from mruby to the different ways people learn. By most accounts, the conference was a success. About 125 people came, the feedback was positive, the weather was beautiful, and there was a general air of excitement.
This year, the conference was different than years past. I was the main organizer, with major support only on the front of logistics from Antonia at Standing O. (Quick aside: if you ever need help organizing an event, Antonia is awesome.) This means that I was responsible for branding, building the website, sending emails, handling attendee support, hosting the event, and keeping the momentum going.
Knowing that there was going to be less folks involved, I did my best to keep things as simple as possible. This ended up manifesting itself in the following ways:
- Only catered breakfast, snacks, and coffee, folks can enjoy meals in Burlington
- The attendee gifts were coffee mugs instead of t-shirts to not have to handle sizing and to switch it up
- I decided that there would be no video recordings of the talks in order to save money and not have to handle the logistics
- The ticket price did not increase as I felt like the price was at a good place last year
- No regular meetings or heavy project management tools as the organizing effort is something I do in my free time and regular meetings make it feel like “work”
- No cold-emailing sponsors as I have spent countless hours doing that in the past years with almost no success
- No Saturday evening event as it is expensive and a lot to manage with catering
This year, I wanted to offer all speakers a hotel room for two nights and up to $500 of travel reimbursement. From my perspective, if I was selected or asked to speak at a conference, I definitely could not afford a hotel room and flight, so why would I assume that others could? There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into a talk, so it is the least I could do.
The CFP process was handled by PaperCall instead of the home-rolled solution that was used last year.
I did not think about “how can I reinvent the event?” but instead thought about “how can I keep it similar yet simpler?” The differences were not drastic, and overall I am happy with the minor adjustments I made.
What Went Well
Overall, I think the simplicity was a good thing. From my perspective, folks seemed to enjoy eating at the various restaurants downtown. People also seemed psyched about the coffee mugs.
The conference venue, Main St. Landing’s Film House, was comfortable and still a great fit. It has been the venue for the past three years. The Friday evening social gathering is a fun way to kick the event off and Juniper was a nice venue.
Being able to offer travel and lodging to the speakers went very well. There was a solid balance of speakers who had support from their employer and those who took up the offer for lodging and travel. The folks who took up the offer really appreciated it. I think all conferences should try to offer travel and lodging to the speakers.
Using PaperCall for the call for proposals was nice. It is a simple and useable platform, and the process for the committee for choosing the speakers works well on PaperCall (thank you Mark & Scott for letting the conference use PaperCall and those who helped w/ speaker selection). Not having to pay for and manage hosting the proposals app from last year was nice.
Sponsors reached out and helped truly make the event possible. It is awesome when someone reaches out and wants to support the event. Thank you sponsors!
What Did Not Go Well
The major thing that did not go well is that the conference did not break even. The net gain for the event was -$420.02. What does that mean? It means that I had to pay that money out of pocket. This is less than ideal, considering that the conference had always at least broken even in the past.
While I did not explicitly track the time I put into organizing the event, I estimate that that I spent at least 200 hours over the course of 8 months to put on the conference.
The conference lost money because I am not good at making budgets, the ticket sales were less than years past, and there was no profits from the past years to put into this year.
Losing money on something that I put a lot of time and energy into does not make me upset or angry because folks coming to Burlington and gathering around something they and myself are passionate about feels priceless. However, investing that much time and money is not something that I can afford to continue to do.
In total, the conference cost a little more $25,000 to put on. To me, that is a large sum of money. However, that gets spent quickly between the venue, food, and all the other things that go into the event. Luckily, I did not have to front that money as early ticket sales helped with the upfront costs.
A minor bump in the road this year was that I changed jobs in July, the month before the conference. This meant that I was interviewing for jobs, traveling, and getting ramped up during the crucial month before the conference. Looking back on it, I know that I dropped the ball on reaching out to organizations and people to increase attendance.
What I Learned
Every year that I have been involved in organizing the conference, I grow and learn more about myself. Here are the things I learned this year:
- I enjoy chipping away at a project week after week. It is a great feeling to put a lot of time and energy into something over a period of many months and have it actually happen.
- Working on a project with a real deadline that ends is refreshing. Working on software projects can feel infinite, in that there is no end in sight and the possibilities are endless. The conference happens, and then it is for the most part over, which is refreshing.
- I am not cut out to do marketing. I feel guilty sending emails to the email list. I truly feel like I am bothering people, as everyone gets enough emails already. I also do not know how to not tweet without emojis and exclamation marks. I have learned that I am not interested in thinking about or handling marketing.
- Creating and sticking to budgets is hard. I had no idea/forgot that hotels and other things that cost money charge taxes and other fees. This pushed the budget over in ways that I had not considered.
What does all of this mean for the future of the conference and what I do with my free time?
To be honest, I am not sure. On one hand, folks gathering for the conference for a weekend in the summer is a blast. It has a feeling of grandeur that meetups do not have. Also, folks enjoy it!
On the other hand, I cannot help but think what else could I do with that time? What could I build? What could I learn? Who could I help?
People always talk about how the most precious thing a person has is time. I think it is time for me to really think about how I spend mine.