With the success of The Phat Startup’s Tech808 conference, many people have been emailing me to learn how to host a tech conference for themselves. I don’t blame them, nobody gave me and my team the answers we were looking for when we decided to finally host one.
The first Tech808 did so well we did 3 more in major markets such as Washington D.C., Oakland, and New York City. We have received praise from large publications such as USA Today, and our speakers are so great, they get press as well. We created a platform that major brands were proud to sponsor.
The purpose of this post is to give away as much information as possible. You should be able to take the information from this post and go on to host your own show. But, I feel you should still do research and seek advice at all times. Just because something worked for us, doesn’t mean it will work out exactly the same for you. The way we did things are probably worlds different from the way other tech conferences do them. So use this just as a starting point.
Mindstate? Yes. Putting together any kind of conference requires great mental strength. Things can go wrong at almost any stage of the process. There were times we had to re-arrange the whole schedule because a few speakers were late. There were times the audio gave out 10 minutes before the start time. I can go on forever, but you get the point. This is important because you can’t panic. The whole day relies on you and your team. I panicked once. Good thing I had a great team to make sure they checked me on that.
If you are the leader, you really don’t have the convenience of losing your shit. That’s for everyone else to do. The show must go on. Stay focused.
Our platform was “The Phat Startup” brand. We spent a few years interviewing entrepreneurs and hosting smaller meetups in NYC. We also used an online blog to interview successful entrepreneurs using Skype and Google Hangout. People got used to us being the guys who can bring great guests to learn from. This isn’t a requirement, but it could help tremendously.
There are plenty of successful conferences, even seven-figure ones that were started by people who didn’t previously have a platform. With that being said, here are the benefits of you creating one:
- Potential attendees know who you are already because of brand familiarity
- Potential speakers know who you are already
- Sponsors see you have a record of success
- Sponsors see you have traction and/or web traffic
OK, so how do you build a platform?
That’s an entirely new blog post. But in a nutshell, your online platform consists of:
- Picking a niche or specialty you love
- Creating massive amounts of high-quality content around it. Could be on one or a combination of these mediums (Youtube, blog posts, Twitter, Snapchat, etc)
For offline (this is what we did):
- Created a Meetup group
- Held an event every single month
- Tried our best to get big name speakers, but crafted the events around “how to” like content
Note: Even if you aren’t actively blogging you should still have a website serve as a home base. You can get a cheap basic web host like BlueHost and install WordPress or jump on something like Squarespace.
Most people get discouraged by this step because it’s not overnight. Building a platform for your brand is a very time-consuming grind. I wish I could promote shortcuts, but the honest truth is you have to create your own luck in this situation.
What is your conference about? What is your niche? What problem are you trying to solve? Do you have a mission statement? Why is this conference important for anyone to attend? This is the very reason for your conference existing. This part is key for all reasons: marketing, speaker outreach, sponsor outreach.
You should write out a mission statement. It will be your go-to source of inspiration when you are emailing or speaking to anyone about your conference. When first writing this we had no clue what we were doing. So don’t stress. Ours was simple:
If you want to follow our lead on crafting a simple statement like this just:
- Write what the conference is and who it’s for
- Write about what makes this event different
- Write the purpose and goal
You can always model yourself after greatness as well. From TED:
Nothing will get a conference off the ground better than a great team. Since we were already a team before we started doing larger conferences, we just filled out some of the key roles ourselves. This isn’t always the best move and actually proved to be a mistake we had to fix later. You want to make sure you put people where they will best perform. Just like any employer would do.
This part has so many different layers, so I will break down crucial positions and what their responsibilities are. You can pay someone to fill these roles, or do them yourself. I think payment is the way to go for the heavy lifting positions.
Event director/producer/organizer – The event director is someone who has their hands in every part of the conference from volunteers to sponsorships. They make sure the speakers needs are handled, and usually is the point of contact. They are responsible for the entire team being organized. They help to manage the budget. This person is the most important piece.
Assistant to director – Helps director in all tasks.
Sponsorship – Having someone whose job is to just handle sponsorships is the key to success. It’s a full-time job chasing resources and money.
Speaker outreach – You most likely have a list of people you want to contact to be part of the event. If this conference is your baby, then I suggest you take this role yourself. No one will be able to convince someone to speak more than you. More on this later.
Marketing – Everyone on the team is a marketer. But, having someone who leads all efforts is key. Especially dealing with PR.
A/V – Someone to deal with all audio and visual technical needs for the conference. They are the ones making sure the presentations are in the right spec. They deal with the video team you may hire to record the event as well. Some venues provide an A/V person to help for the day of the conference. So it’s cool to have your guy and theirs.
Volunteers – Volunteers help greet and sign-in attendees. Volunteers help guide speakers to the stage and/or green room. Volunteers help the speakers keep time, from the audience. Volunteers help you fill in any day-of activities you may need. Why would anyone volunteer? Volunteers are usually people who want to attend your conference, but can’t afford too. They see value in helping because they want to get value and believe in your mission.
Every conference has different needs. So you will most likely have a few more roles that aren’t listed here. For the most part, these are the key people you need to run a great show. Feel free to add other roles you think are crucial in the comments.
Weekly meetings are key. Constant updates via email and/or task management system will be a priority. The event director usually leads the meetings going over updates from each “department.” I think this is an obvious part of throwing a conference, but I want to emphasize how important communication is. Lack of communication can have your conference dead on arrival.
So you want to know how to get great speakers? The best way to get great speakers is to build relationships with them before you need them. Most of our speakers were people we interacted with in the community for years, so a simple email or phone call worked. But, for the cases where we don’t really know them well, there are few things you have to keep in mind.
- Not all speakers speak for free. Plan to budget for travel and their fee. Some speakers may waive the fee if its local.
- For those that do speak for free, find cool ways to compensate them. Buy copies of their book to giveaway.
- Sometimes you won’t be dealing with the speakers directly, but the management.
Here is a standard email template that is based off what I used. I was never 100% successful with this email, but it worked to get us some pretty cool people. Use this as a starting point. The key is to be direct, not too wordy, and demonstrate the value:
Subject: Invitation: [Speaker name] x [Name of the conference]
Body: My name is Anthony Frasier, co-founder of The Phat Startup. We created a tech conference in partnership with NYU called Tech808.
Tech808 is a one-day tech conference for minority and millennial entrepreneurs. Tech808’s mashup of Hip Hop culture, tech, and entrepreneurship brings together a diverse range of leaders, speakers, and panelists to educate and inspire future CEOs. Tech808’s mission is to bring awareness of the possibilities of tech entrepreneurship within the urban culture. (Link to a recipe f previous event[s])
November 9th we host the 4th Tech808 and would love to have you as a speaker that day. We feel your experience [… list why they would be valuable to the conference]
Looking forward to speaking more!
Congrats, you landed a great speaker. You have to be sure to get as much information to them as possible without being overwhelming. You want to make sure not to have 100’s of emails with different pieces of important notes about the conference. Try your best to have a majority of the information in a 1 page/1 email format. Check in periodically for updates on getting slides in.
Shit happens. A speaker will probably back out, hopefully, it isn’t last minute. If it’s early in the process, do what you can to fill the gap with someone who may be local in the area of the conference. I personally filled in for one of our speakers before, I had luckily spoke before on the same subject, and already had a powerpoint presentation ready to go.
If they back out at the last minute, try your best to adjust the schedule. Unfortunately, unless you or someone on your team has expertise in the same area, you have to bite that bullet. Your main concern at that point should be the value of the conference for the attendees, so come up with some cool things that will enhance the conference. For example, We would have 90-second pitch battles to fill in a gap in time. Those usually became the highlights of the day!
Your budget will be a detailed list of how much everything connected with throwing this conference will cost. Everything. Step & repeat banners, photographers, speakers, video teams, etc. Some of these costs can be downsized when you develop partnerships and in-kind sponsorships. But, it’s safe to still budget for everything you feel you will need. The budget isn’t static, it will continue to move up and down and updated frequently.
Keep it real. This is the only part of the post you were interested in. How do I get my event sponsored? How did you get sponsors for your event? If I had a nickel for every time I heard this question, I wouldn’t need the Powerball Jackpot. What’s funny is, If I had a nickel for every time I asked this question myself, I’d still be rich. Here is everything I know.
Personal relationships – This plays a HUGE part in a deal happening. I used to never want to hear this because I hardly knew anyone to connect with (or people to do intros). This is where having that platform came in handy. As we started to build a good reputation, more potential sponsors would approach us. If you need to brush up on those networking skills, then this book will save your life.
You can always hire someone like Daren McKelvey, Event Strategist, and connector who actually makes these intros happen for a living. Tell him Anthony sent you!
Knowing who to talk to – When contacting potential sponsors, it’s good to know who at the company you want to talk to. After much research, I figured brand managers and marketing executives are usually the people to connect with. I used LinkedIn to search for most of the contacts. Sometimes when I can’t find an executive in those departments, I’ll aim at emailing the CEO. Why not?
How did you find their email? I read this post by Rob Ousbey on how to find almost anyone’s email address. For the most part, it worked.
What did you email? My first email is usually 50% successful in getting a response. Probably could have been higher with a little fine tuning. But here is a template based on what I would email:
Subject: [company name] x [conference name]
Body: Hello Mr. Jackson,
My name is Anthony Frasier co-founder of The Phat Startup. The Phat Startup is an integrated media company that hosts premium events and provides resources for aspiring entrepreneurs. We use Hip Hop culture as our main inspiration and have done events with Ben Horowitz, Alexis Ohanian, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jason Calacanis, and many more. [ <– make yourself sound like someone worth talking to]
On November 21st, 20xx we host our annual #Tech808 conference in partnership with [sometimes I’ll list the venue, makes it sound like a bigger deal]. With the landscape changing so fast in tech, many aspiring entrepreneurs are feeling left out or intimidated. Many of these entrepreneurs come from underrepresented groups in tech. Our goal is to make #Tech808 a dynamic atmosphere for these entrepreneurs and more to learn, network, and gain confidence.
[a sentence on why you decided to reach out to them. Usually a note about their past work etc.]. We ask that you will consider a sponsorship at our “Platinum” level. As a sponsor you will receive:
– Exclusive in your category
– Exclusive messaging and branding in conference app
– Conference title branding (Ex: Powered by, Sponsored by)
– Large logo on all conference signage and banners
– Large logo listed on conference website as a Platinum sponsor
– Acknowledgment in the opening address
– Acknowledgment in social media and all related communications
– Branding at the event (rolling power-point presentation during breaks)
– Full page ad in final program
– Company information (leaflets etc.) to be included in conference grab bag
– 4 complimentary guest passes
– Opportunity to give remarks at the conference during a break (5 minutes)
– Acknowledgment in all session and recap videos released after conference
We hope that you will consider supporting our conference and our mission. I look forward to discussing how we feel [company] would be a great fit for #Tech808. If you have any questions or concerns in the meantime, please feel free to contact me at the number below.
Attached is a deck with some more details and levels. Thanks in advance for your consideration!
If you need to get ahold of someone via Twitter, try some variation of this line:
Don’t leave out the bolded part. Major key.
Frequency – If you don’t get an answer from someone, follow up every two weeks. One week depending on how you sense the mood is in the emails. Don’t be afraid to follow up. Most people fail because they don’t follow up. The goal is to get to the NO fast as possible.
In-kind Sponsorships – This where you can cut down your budget costs. You contact companies who can provide resources in exchange for promotion as a sponsor. This could be food, banners, stickers, etc. Almost any service/good can be set up as an in-kind. Don’t go ham working these deals out, you need money to run a conference.
Scholarships – You can get some sponsors to buy tickets to your conference instead. We’d love to see more young people at our conference, so we contacted sponsors to pay for tickets from non-profits that focused on children. Scholarships can work in multiple scenarios.
What goes on a sponsor deck?
What are packages? Packages are what you are going to give to the sponsor in exchange for their money. If you go to the example email I put up earlier you can see what I was willing to give for a platinum package. The higher the package, the more benefits. It’s important to make it look like sponsors are getting a bang for their buck at every level.
The location is key for any conference. You want to pick a place that is highly accessible. You should also pick a location that can fit the number of people you want to attend. Another hack is getting a venue to become a partner or sponsor. When that happens you can get an extreme discount or have the fee waived altogether.
When choosing a location/venue make sure you keep your goals in mind. If you are trying to reach a bunch of students, hosting it at a college or close to one makes sense right? Treat it like you are scouting for business locations.
If you are aiming for a smaller sized conference making partnerships with companies in your destination city may work. Some corporate offices have space that can fit up to 100 people. You can always go for coworking spaces as well. We threw events with close to 200 people at Alley NYC consistently.
Just like dealing with sponsors make sure there is value for the venue hosting your event.
10. Selling Tickets
Price – Who is your audience? Is it mainly for company executives? Then you can charge a high price. Is it for struggling, bootstrapping entrepreneurs? It may have to be lower. Price accordingly.
Promotion – The best promotion is your platform. Simply tweeting, sending out emails, and reminders to your already established platform can help get the word out. But here are a few other things to keep in mind.
- Have great + attractive images to share with event details on them. Those make it easy to spread on social media. Create one for each speaker.
- Email to guest post on other sites. Writing useful content for media platforms is a slick way of promoting your show plus giving out value at the same time.
- Most social media platforms have timelines. So just because you promoted your conference at 8 am doesn’t mean you’re good for the day. Keep it going at least ever 2 hours.
- Paid ads – Utilize platforms like Facebook and Twitter to advertise directly to your audience.
- Prewrite everything. Create ready made scripts, blurbs, and tweets for people to use. The easier you make it for someone to help you. the better. We went hard on Click to tweet.
You can always do a typical pitch for the press, which works occasionally. I put together a special media folder with press releases, premade tweets, photos, links, and more. You can share that folder with interested media partners.
Media partners – These are usually websites and blogs that you offer free tickets in exchange for covering your event. Most of the press from media partners can come from them live tweeting the event or writing recaps.
As hard as it is to believe, this post is just scratching the surface. There’s so much more to cover, and so much I had to leave out because of the length. My hope is that you take something from this post, and create a great event. I have been approached about creating a course or more detailed guide. If that’s something you’d want just sign up below to be notified when it’s released.