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J.C. Hiatt
J.C. Hiatt

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Planning a JavaScript conference in only 10 weeks

I love going to conferences. The energy is always high, I always learn something (usually multiple things), and I always leave motivated to go Crush It™️.

Conferences I've been to are usually pretty big — there's lots of great speakers, huge sponsor booths, great food, awesome after parties (looking at you, Connect.Tech!!), and of course, awesome swag 😎.

There's usually a nice venue, with hundreds of people, listening to lots of speakers from all over the world, sponsored by [usually] some pretty big companies. That's a lot of things to coordinate! How long do you think it takes to plan one of those conferences?

I'm genuinely asking.

I'm asking because earlier this year I was approached by the Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi (my homeland) to plan a developer conference. And not just any conference — Mississippi's first-ever developer conference. See, he's throwing a large general tech conference called Tech JXN April 16 and 17 because he wants to help promote Jackson as a place ripe for technological innovation — he wants to put us on the map. And he wanted a developer conference the next day, April 18th.

About 12 weeks away.

And I said yes.

Why?

Mississippi lags behind in tech. A lot. And this is for a whole host of reasons, a few of which include lack of technologically innovative companies, lack of access to capital, lack of access to a large population with early adopter traits, and lack of talent.

Yes, there are developers here. But most don't stay (and here's a great talk by my friend Tim Mask on this problem — something he refers to as "Brain Drain").

I actually organize the only developer meetup in central Mississippi (and one of less than 5-ish in the state). The need for developers here is real, y'all.

It's simply a different world here than a lot of the tech hubs out there. While the Internet has created an even playing field for information, most of the opportunity has been centralized to large cities.

And that's fine. I'm not complaining. That's honestly to be expected in this early stage of the digital age we are still in. But what it does mean is that somebody (people like Tim and I) has to work really hard to bring innovation here.

How?

Okay, so back to the mayor. He knows that we need companies, capital, and talent to push us forward. Kudos to him for seeing that!

His office offered me the Jackson Convention Center as well as a small seed fund and help with logistics and printing. I need to take a pause here to say THANK YOU to the City of Jackson for giving me the initial momentum here and helping in such big ways!

By the time I said yes and was able to work out a few upfront hurdles I perceived, we were 10 weeks out. You may think I'm crazy for saying yes. How will I get speakers and sponsors so quickly? Will sponsors even be able to cut a check before the event? How will I get the word out?

Before I go into the specifics of what I've been doing, let me say upfront: I have never done this before. I've attended conferences, but never planned them.

Okay, so the first thing I did was recruit some help. I knew assembling a committee and divvying up tasks could take a while and burn through precious time, so I opted to hire one friend (an event planner with no tech background) to handle the logistics, and I would handle everything else.

But obviously I still needed others' advice and opinions. After all, I have little to no idea about what I'm doing here.

So I took to Twitter, where all great conversations happen™️. I decided to "plan in public," (inspired by the brilliant essay series by @swyx and the community really showed up!

Here's the original thread.

I've gotten a lot of great support from the dev community so far. People have DM'd me about sponsoring, volunteering, and speaking, and many have helped me spread the word! A special shoutout to Gant Laborde and Shawni Danner of Infinite Red for hopping on a call and giving me a ton of advice from their experience planning ChainReactConf. Oh, and they hooked me up with a couple of tickets to giveaway to ChainReact in order to promote my conference! I'm incredibly grateful!

So far, I've had the community help decide what to call it, what the topic(s) should be, who should speak, and more! I was able to fork a great repo from JavaScript & Friends Conference to spin up a website within a few hours. A logo was created by a coworker of mine, Ryan Stephen. I've confirmed 3 Main Stage speakers (and a few others are pending!). I've decided on a theme for the conference ("how coding can change your life"). I've launched the CFP. I've raised $8,000 of our $40,000 goal. I got a local entrepreneur to give us a bridge loan of up to $10,000 (if needed) in order to front costs while we wait for certain sponsor checks to come in (many larger companies we are approaching cannot cut checks for 60-90 days and I definitely don't have the money myself to pay for everything upfront).

Oh, and all of this happened in the past 8 days. It's AMAZING what can happen when the community comes together.

MagnoliaJS Logo

What's Next?

Our CFP is open until March 22 (go here if you want to speak!). After that, we'll announce all the speakers on the website. We are prioritizing first-time speakers (though anyone can submit!) — it's my first time to plan a conference. Let it be your first time to speak.

Right now we need sponsors very badly, so I'm solely focused this week on raising more funds. We have sponsorship levels starting at $100, so if you are feeling generous, please consider sponsoring or asking your boss if your company could sponsor! All sponsorship details are available on our website.

I'm also working on getting things ready to go live with Early Bird sales this Friday, the 15th.

I just had a call with Natalie Thomas, a local designer who has volunteered to help out with t-shirts, signage, etc.

There's a ton more to do — that's just what we're working on this coming week. I'm expecting there may be another follow-up post to this one soon. 🤓

This conference means so much to me. It will be the first of many conferences in Mississippi. It will be a positive Mississippi experience to visitors who join us from other places. It will be a shining beacon for what can be achieved when the community comes together. It will be the beginning of greater things for tech in mS

We are just under 6 weeks out. Can a respectable conference be planned in such a short amount of time? Well, I don't know. We'll find out together soon enough.

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