How We Planned Our First Tech Conference

A few months ago, we decided to host a conference about APIs. It was a lot more work than we anticipated, and a lot harder to do something unique than we expected. However, in the end it all came together!

The Name

The first hurdle to overcome was the name. We scoured Lanyrd for names we liked, and made a list of existing API conferences. Our initial brainstorming results were pretty generic: API Camp, API Inc, APIme, apiUX, apiland. None of them seemed very memorable.

There was one that stuck out: APIs & IPAs. It was catchy, and easy to theme. However, we felt like it wasn't a very inclusive name. Even though the alcohol wouldn't be broken out until the end, we didn't want to align ourselves with drinking and exclude people.

Finally, we came up with API Mixtape. It was unique and easy to brand, and evokes APIs without being too on-the-nose. Much like how you combine APIs to create a website, those 90s-style mixtapes are a collection of pieces from different places that come together to create something bigger than their parts!

Why Bother?

There are a lot of API conferences out there, and we didn't want to just repeat what's already been done. The biggest problem we had with existing API conferences was that we thought there was too much involvement from the people who make API tools, rather than people who actually build APIs. There's nothing wrong with people who make API tools (hey, that's what we do!), however we wanted to hear how people actually build successful APIs.

We also wanted to do some fun stuff most conferences don't normally do. Nothing too crazy, but:

  • We had a comedian close out the night, and re-energize people for the networking at the end
  • All our speakers sent us their talks early, and we had comic-book-style illustrations of their talks made to pass out right at the conference
  • Recorded some music for the conference... it was called API Mixtape, after all!

The Speakers

The hardest part was curating a list of speakers. We only wanted one day with one track, so it was important to plan out who we wanted to speak. We started by making a list of all the companies we wanted to hear speak and topics we wanted to cover. Then, we tried to fit them into a cohesive narrative that didn't overlap or repeat.

Early on, we decided to make the day follow the lifecycle of building an API: designing, building and marketing. As the day progressed, so did the topics. We cut our list down to people who would fit the given topics, and started reaching out.

Almost all of the speakers we asked were through introductions, so we were lucky that almost everyone said yes.

In order to make sure everything was polished (and to get artwork done ahead of time!), we asked our speakers to do a dry-run a couple of weeks ahead of time. That way, we made sure we got all the glitches out of the way early.

The Website

We hired a firm to design the website. This cost us $5,000 for the initial designs. We ended up having a different vision than the designs we received. We kept the illustrations and some of the page elements, but mostly redesigned it in-house.

We wanted the list of speakers to feel like the track listing for a mixtape (hence the Side A and Side B), so we opted for a hand-drawn feel. The illustrations of the speakers were from Fiverr, and cost $5 each.

The Venue

Much like a wedding, as soon as venues hear the word "conference," prices go up. Every venue knew how to squeeze out every extra bit of money: mandatory food/alcohol minimums, per-person wifi, seating costing extra, etc.

We made a list of every conference venue we could find, and started calling. We had a spreadsheet where we tracked the following (and average price range):

  • Deposit ($0-$2,000)
  • Base rental fee ($7,000-$14,000)
  • Cleaning ($100-$1,000)
  • Insurance ($0 - $500)
  • AV ($3,000 - $6,000)
  • Wifi ($0 - $1,500)
  • Furniture rental ($0 - $1,300)
  • Lunch catering (~$15/person)
  • Bar service (~$25/person)
  • Coffee/Snacks ($1,000 - $1,500)

On average, we'd be paying between $19,000 and $25,000 total for everything listed above.

We picked a venue we loved, and were set to launch. Then... they called us, and told us they were moving and had to cancel. Next, we found a space donated by a large company, which would have saved us a lot of money. However, there were some issues with NDAs that we couldn't get past.

Finally, we found the Folsom St Foundry. We had been to a few events there, and loved the vibe. It's a really cool venue in a good location, and the events manager was extremely helpful throughout the whole process.

Our price range for the items above was accurate--we ended up spending just under $24,000 on these venue-related costs. However, there were additional costs on top of that: sketch books, LED lights, comedian, the website. With everything, our total came out to $34,968.

When looking at the total cost, we also have to keep in mind the hidden cost of salaries for the countless hours that everyone on our team put into making the conference happen. We didn't calculate an exact number for that, but it is an asterisk after the "total" cost as hundreds of hours of work were put into the planning and execution of the conference. This is definitely something to remember when considering the real cost of an event.

Number of Attendees / Pricing Tickets

Deciding on the number of attendees and the price of tickets was tough. We picked 250 attendees, since it was our first conference and we didn't know how things would go. Once you hit 150, venues are a bit harder to find. However, we felt that 250 was a good (albeit completely arbitrary) number.

For pricing, we wanted to charge but make sure it was affordable. We didn't want to have to rely on sponsors, yet still wanted to find a price point that anyone could afford. Most API conferences are $500-$2,000, so we went with $99 early bird and $125 regular (and added in a $149 late bird later on). We also worked with anyone who reached out and let us know they couldn’t afford it.

In a best-case scenario calculation, selling out with an even mix of early bird and regular bird tickets, we would have made about $28,000 in ticket sales. However, with giving out discounts, free tickets to speakers, refunds, etc., our ticket sales ending up coming to $24,203.

Practice

Since this was our first big event, we wanted to get a bit of practice ahead of time. So, we revived our meetup API Discovery and revamped it by giving it the name that stood out to us but but didn’t quite fit the conference, APIs & IPAs. It was great starting small, meeting new people, and getting the hang of running an event. (If you’re in San Francisco and like APIs, you should join us for an upcoming meetup--we’d love to see you there!)

Marketing

"If you build it, he will come" applies more to baseball fields than API conferences. Our initial tweet drew a bunch of signups, however reaching a bigger audience took a bit more time.

Here are some things we did to promote the conference:

  • Gave discount codes to speakers
  • Did profiles on each of our speakers
  • Posted a banner on our website
  • Emailed our customers
  • Created a Facebook event
  • Sent out discount codes through newsletters
  • Twitter, FB and LinkedIn ads

In our ticket order form, we asked how people had heard about the conference and 52 people responded. This was the breakdown:

  • 50% - Word of mouth (friend, colleague)
  • 18% - Social media (Twitter, Facebook)
  • 17% - Discount codes we advertised
  • 11% - Google
  • 4% - ReadMe

So, this doesn't tell us everything, but it gave us a little bit of insight into what marketing channels worked and which ones weren't so successful.

Post-Conference

Since we’re now a month out from the conference, we’ve been able to take a collective deep breath and ask ourselves: Was it worth it?

Well, was it?

We ended up selling and giving away 297 tickets (236 paid tickets, 61 free tickets). In the days leading up to the conference, mildly worried that we may have sold too many tickets, we did a bit of Google research, which indicated that we could expect a 10% no-show rate for paid tickets and a 50% no-show rate for free tickets. This ended up being pretty accurate! We had a full, but not too full, house with 261 people in attendance the day of the conference. We were really happy with the turnout.

Numbers-wise, it was definitely a success. But attendance numbers obviously don’t tell the whole story. We got people to show up, which was great! But did the people that took a Wednesday out of their busy lives to talk APIs with us in a big renovated warehouse in SOMA walk away better off than when they walked in?

Well, did they?

We decided to ask. We thanked our attendees profusely for joining us and asked them to let us know what they thought (anonymously). Overall, the feedback we received was positive. Most people said they would come back if we do it again. Many said they loved the technical talks and would like to see even more talks go in depth. A theme we heard repeated a lot in the feedback was that people would really like to hear more about difficult issues that companies/speakers had faced, and how these challenges were surmounted. Some asked, are you going to do it again next year?

Well, are we?

There’s a pretty good chance there will be an API Mixtape 2018, we’ll keep you posted!

Did you miss API Mixtape 2017? You can still get in on the action - the talks and sketchnotes are up on the conference website now!

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