World-Class Conference in 90 Days, Part 1 – Speakers
Samuel Hapák Oct 02, 2016
When we started organizing the first year of ReactiveConf, we had no guide to stick to. Today, we’re finishing the works on its second year which takes place from October 26th to 28th in Bratislava, Slovakia, and I feel excited – and somehow relieved – that many people come asking me how we were able to set up such an outstanding event in such short amount of time.
The idea of ReactiveConf didn't come from me, though, it originated from Matej Ftacnik, my business partner, with whom we’d attended ReactEurope in Paris last year. Right after we landed back home, Matej said: “We have to bring this to Bratislava and make it the best React thing in Central and Eastern Europe!”
Nobody told him it’s impossible to make a world-class app development conference in ninety days without any previous experience. So we just did it! And I hope the following lines will help you, inspire you, and make you avoid needless mistakes on your journey to be the founder of the next best conference in the world!
Building up a conference is a complicated matter, so I decided to split the article into several parts. In this one, I'll try to outline all the intricacies of getting the speakers come to your event.
Right People, Right Place
Let’s make it clear right away: there’s no great conference without great speakers. I’d rather hear an inspiring speech in an old garage than an average talk in a conference hall of a five-star hotel. So find yourself a passionate team, a resonant name, and set up a website with basic information. Speaker hunting is the biggest challenge you’re going to face – and not only the first time but every year.
A good place to begin is other conferences all around the world. In our case, those were ReactEurope, React Rally, and the official React.js Conf from which we invited several speakers. Look for people who are exceptional, match your focus, and who are followed by the influencers in your field.
Don’t be shy to check their Twitter accounts. Last year, I went through the Follow lists of Dan Abramov, David Nolen, or Christopher Chedeau – all real React visionaries. That helped me to find and eventually get fantastic speakers on board, primarily the niche ones.
The Cool Factor
Although it may not seem so, “niche” is an important word when it comes to your conference lineup. Such people are usually unknown to the mainstream audience, quite often they work on something too new or obscure, but they will freshen up your schedule and attract many influencers.
Speakers like Nikita Prokopov, André Staltz, or Victor Grishchenko were pretty exotic names in our agenda, but it was them who sparked the first interest in ReactiveConf from the community. After all, I found them all thanks to “My React List” on Abramov's Twitter account. It’s a paradox, but these “unusual celebrities” eventually convinced many of the hottest names in React to join us.
Also, once you make your way into the influencers’ consciousness, ask for the personal favorites. Last year, the ReactJS mastermind and one of our headliners Brent Vatne suggested Daniel Woelfel and Krzysztof Magiera, both experts in their respective fields, so we invited them to appear this year. They’re both coming – along with Vatne!
Many speakers, mainly the most popular among the audience, receive tons of requests and invitations every month. Naturally, your task is to persuade them to come to your convention. But how to achieve this? Well, you’ll have to come with a compelling story – ours was pretty solid!
ReactJS was the shiny new thing, and we were doing the second biggest React conference in the world. In 2015, everybody was saying that we were one big community, that Ember, Clojure, Elm, and other front end folks should learn from each other.
This message was repeatedly voiced, but we were the only conference to actually invite a significant number of people from various environments to meet and speak. Finally, such act was widely praised – I always take pride in the fact that even Christopher Chedeau tweeted that we had the best speaker lineup.
Never Give Up
Inviting speakers is still one of the toughest items on your list, especially when you’ve just started. So whoever you are getting connected to, approach them with an email explaining who you are, what you do (and have done), why you want them, what you want to achieve with your conference, and why you want them.
Be persistent, and don’t give up. Have they not replied yet? Try it again! Go to Twitter, Facebook, or Github, and address them. And be willing to meet any special conditions and requests the speakers might have.
Don’t be surprised if they say “No” to your offer, however. For every speaker, each conference is a huge commitment – they spend a long time traveling and getting ready for their talk. Also, their boss may not be thrilled by losing a productive team member for a series of days.
In our case, the argument which convinced most of the speakers’ superiors was that Slovakia is a great country for talent hiring. Yes, companies such as Facebook and Google know it, and they've recruited here many talented and creative programmers in the recent years, but we're still a relatively new and mostly undiscovered area.
Each country is different, of course, so come up with something original and fitting to your situation.
Get Yourself Introduced
Wherever you are setting up your conference, nonetheless, you must never forget to use your network. Last year, I called Evan Czaplicki, a developer of Elm language, but he couldn’t come, so he recommended Richard Feldman, his colleague at NoRedInk and a fellow Elm and React enthusiast. Needless to say, he's coming to ReactiveConf again this year!
Ask your friends to introduce you. If there's a person who can recommend you to the speaker you're eager to lead the lineup, get in touch with them right away. And when the speaker declines? Ask them to propose your project to their friends and connections; they'll usually be happy to do that.
Also, bear in mind that we are one interconnected community so many speakers may be hesitant at first, but even the best speakers can be convinced when you start adding (even relatively unknown) speakers to your website. A page full of names, talks, and synopses - in two words: great content - is a must if you're serious about your thing and want to get anyone with renomé.
Build Your Credibility
But don't let the fact that this is the first year of the conference play against you. Sure, first-class speakers want to come to first-class events, so what can you do to get them when you're starting and have no history?
The number of people and the length of the conference are crucial. It's much more simple getting the speakers you want for a three-day long project for five hundred attendees than a single day event for a hundred people. And go international, don't be local.
You may not have thought about this, but the ticket price also plays a huge role. Don't sell yourself for fifty euros a piece – you've put a lot of energy into bringing the crème de la crème to your conference, and you're about to launch the next best tech event out there, so make the world know your worth. After all, you're probably trying to convince cool people to come to a cool place and hang out with other cool people.
Fun Comes First – But Problems Too
You must always remind yourself, however, that it doesn’t matter if a complete newcomer or Mark Zuckerberg is coming to your conference. All speakers are your guests, friends, and the superstars of your conference, and you have to treat them with equal respect and kindness.
Make it all fun for them. Tell them to bring their partners and families, arrange and pay their travels and stay, assign them a personal assistant to fulfill all their wishes. Send a cab to transfer them from and to the airport. And not just that: we organize special trips and throw speakers-only dinners. Last year we did a banquet at the Bratislava castle, the most exclusive place in the whole city. Treating your guests as VIPs costs money, time, and effort, so you’d better count with all that beforehand.
As hard as you may try, though, there's always a risk some speakers may cancel, and that you'll have to find appropriate substitutions. In such case, ask the speaker to spread the word about your conference to their network, and let them try to find the alternative. Just don’t be a bitter betty about the whole situation – your bad attitude won’t help anyone. Stay as positive and flexible as you can.
Make Your Own Stars
Getting to know new people, listening to new ideas, and being excited from new concepts is why we do ReactiveConf in the first place. It’s also the reason why we started doing Lightning Talks, a sort of competition, where we give an opportunity to great new minds to share their innovative thoughts to the audience.
Anyone can apply for their five minutes of fame at ReactiveConf – they just have to send us an enlightening pitch! We gather all the entries, and later we let the attendees pick the ideas they want to hear most about via Twitter and other social media before the conference.
This way, we discovered Ossi Hanhinen last year, an Elm and Elixir expert, who then started co-organising his own Elm meet ups in Helsinki and published his article in the prestigious Hacker Bits magazine.
I can’t even express how proud I am that our conference is not only a blossoming business and an exciting event but also a platform where the community can meet, share and grow.
ReactiveConf is a web and mobile app development conference, of which Samuel Hapak is a co-organizer.
ReactiveConf is taking place from October 26th to 28th 2016 in Bratislava, Slovakia.
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