On 10-12 February 2017 my friend Benedikt and I hosted our first conference – named FemtoConf – in Darmstadt, Germany.
These are my thoughts on the whole experience of co-running a conference.
Why we decided to host our own conference
Purely because we get this question quite a bit: “Femto” is a unit prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of 10 to the power of -15.
Benedikt and I are huge fans and avid attendees of MicroConf Europe, a conference for self-funded software startup founders.
I’ve been the semi-official scribe at microconfeuroperecap.com since inception.
We both <3 MicroConf, Rob, and Mike.
We even got them a celebratory cake for their 10th MicroConf (https://twitter.com/itengelhardt/status/759480902279979009).
That’s why – when it was time to name our conference – we decided to pay tribute to the legend. FemtoConf is designed to be the smaller cousin to MicroConf – just as the name implies.
We had done a meetup for our podcast listeners back in 2014 and had planed to do it again in 2016. For various reasons (work, family, and stuff), that didn’t happen.
Getting the ball rolling
So one day in late 2016 we said “Screw it, we’re doing this in 2017!”. Within 10 minutes we had decided on a date (10-12 February). We wanted to do it on a weekend, mostly because I work a day job and didn’t want to take a vacation.
We told a few of our listeners and friends about the meetup we were hosting. One of them was Jane Portman of Tiny Reminder, who on a whim told us “I’m coming and giving a talk” – color us surprised.
Turning things up a notch
One thing led to another and before long we had a full blown conference on our hands. We decided to kick things up a gear:
We had already decided to host the conference in Darmstadt. Darmstadt is perfect because it’s where Benedikt lives and easy to get to – it’s close to the middle of Germany and Frankfurt Airport is 30 minutes away.
We looked at conference rooms and found a suitable one at the Welcome Hotel Darmstadt costing 52€ per person per day. By chance my wife had stayed at the hotel before and gave it a raving review.
So we decided on a price: 99€ – enough to cover the costs for the conference room and a bit of buffer in case of unforeseen expenditures (this was a good idea poorly executed).
Benedikt signed us up for Tito so we could sell tickets. We thought that we could – at most – sell 8 tickets.
The plan was to have 8 attendees + speakers + Benedikt & I.
Starting up the marketing engine
When we started selling tickets, we did some serious grade A marketing! I kid, here’s what we really did:
- we mentioned it to all our friends on all the Slack chats we hang out in
- we sent an email to our mailing list
- each of us tweeted about the tickets going on sale
Within 24 hours we were sold out. WHAT?! Looks like we hit a nerve there.
We decided to sell five more tickets and get a bigger conference room.
Those five tickets sold out as well. So we were now up to 13 attendees + 2 hosts + 1 speaker. We wanted to have maybe four talks, so we needed three speakers.
Luckily, Jane brought along Mojca Mars, who was going to talk about Social Media Marketing.
Benedikt and I decided to approach two additional speakers: Thomas Smale of FE International and Craig Hewitt of PodcastMotor.
Both agreed to speak at FemtoConf and Thomas even was generous enough to be our liquor fairy – another MicroConf tradition; i.e. he sponsored drinks the first night.
The conference itself
There was a lot of preparation – mostly done by Benedikt – that I will only briefly list here:
- coming up with a schedule
- sending email updates to attendees (schedule, things to do in Darmstadt, pre-conference survey)
- taking a look at the room
- preparing gifts for our speakers (Apfelwein) and attendees (Christstollen)
- collecting presentation slides from the speakers
- making plans on how to record audio & video
Fast forward to February 10: I’m heading out from home shortly before 07.00 and take the train to Darmstadt. It’s a four and a half hour journey. I arrive at 11.30 and head straight to the AirBNB I’m going to share with my friends Andrew Culver, Daniel Bader, Daniel Alm and Victor Purolnik.
The next fixed event is the kick-off dinner at Braustüb’l. Benedikt and I spent the meantime talking to the first couple of attendees over lunch and coffee and buying a presenter, because obviously I forgot mine at home. We also set up the audio recording hardware.
Dinner is fantastic, filled with lots of great conversations, and everyone seems to have a blast. The conference is already off to a good start.
The proper conference day
The next morning I wake up around 07.00 and walk over to the hotel to set up the camera and prepare my blog for some notetaking.
When I get there I realize that I brought my camera and my tripod – but that the connector is still on my DSLR, back home in Munich. I text Benedikt, who’s already on the way and he heads back home to fetch his tripod. Disaster averted!
I also realize that there is no cabling in place to supply attendees with power. I get a hold of an hotel employee and she fixes this in 15 minutes – they were on top of their game!
Shortly after 09.30 Benedikt & I kick off the conference with some general information and then we start a round of introductions. After introductions Jane Portman takes the stage and gives a fantastic talk on product strategy.
After that we have a long 50 minute coffee break, before Thomas talks about building a sellable business.
During the 2-hour lunch break we have lunch (surprise!) and we also go for a nice walk the close by Herrngarten. It was a nice change of speed, definitely not something we had planned for.
After lunch we had some more Q&A with Thomas. Than it is up to Mojca to teach us all about Facebook Ads and finally Craig tells us about his adventures in productized services.
Dinner that night was at Sitte – another great restaurant. I leave around 12.30 at night with the few remaining attendees and my head is buzzing with thoughts and ideas.
Sunday morning we have breakfast in the AirBNB and then check out. We all meet in front of the hotel and go for a short tour of the city, thanks to our guide Benedikt. Afterwards to storm into a coffee shop and sit together for a few more hours. Benedikt & I also take the time to record two episodes for our podcast.
My personal thoughts on FemtoConf
First of all, FemtoConf gave me exactly what I hoped for: a weekend with friends and a ton of motivation!
Every time after MicroConf I would feel energized and ready to deep-dive into building a business. The problem is that MicroConf Europe is only once a year.
FemtoConf was – as Andrew called it – a much needed shot in the arm.
I think that Benedikt and I did a lot of things right with FemtoConf:
- the small size of ~20 founders allowed everyone to talk to everyone
- lots of time between talks plus two walks throughout the city gave amble time to have deep and meaningful conversations
- having four talks was just the right amount to get everyone excited about a few(!) ideas they could try in their business AND stuff to talk about with other founders
- Darmstadt was the right city, especially considering how close it is to Frankfurt Airport (we had attendees fly in from Los Angeles and Crimea – among other places)
Benedikt and I were deliberate in keeping FemtoConf small and focusing on the hallway track. In my opinion those were great decisions. Our attendees share that opinion:
— Jane Portman (@uibreakfast) 12. Februar 2017
— Andrew Culver (@andrewculver) 12. Februar 2017
— Michael Koper (@michaelkoper) 11. Februar 2017
— Jaana Kulmala (@JaanaKulmala) 12. Februar 2017
Things that didn’t go well
Aside from me forgetting both the presenter AND the tripod connector the biggest letdown for our attendees was that we wanted to play laser tag on Sunday morning and we couldn’t.
Based on our pre-conf survey I had reserved 7 spots for players, but when I asked around again on Saturday there were 14 willing players. That didn’t work out with the laser tag facility and we had to scrub it.
We all went on a sightseeing tour of Darmstadt instead, which was still great.
Lesson learned: Plan laser tag for all attendees + better halves
From the feedback we got it’s clear that we should give Sunday a bit more structure – maybe with one or two talks plus fun activities. That sounds great, but having additional talks would double our expenses, so we’ll have to see.
Not breaking even
Benedikt and I did improvise (and imitate) a lot for FemtoConf. We followed a solid “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach when it came to pricing. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
This meant that we were a few hundred dollars short in the end.
That’s not a big deal: We host the pre-conf dinner for MicroConf Europe each year and that has sometimes cost us more than $1,200 bucks (which we are cool with).
Nevertheless, we’d like to break even next year. The biggest contributor to our net loss was that we paid the conference room for 20 people, but only charged 13 people for attending.
Additionally, there were a few extra costs like beverages during lunch, attendee & speaker gifts, and we swallowed a few of the drinks on friday (We had agreed to cap Thomas’ expenses at a certain amount).
I don’t want to charge speakers for attending as other conferences do, so there is only one option: Charge. More. (Hi there, Patrick!)
We’ll probably increase prices quite a bit, but we’ll also add to the FemtoConf experience. People already told us they’d be willing to pay way more, so we’ll see.
Overall, this was a fantastic conference experience. It was great to meet old friends and make new ones. The motivation and energy I feel after FemtoConf is just what I needed to get working on improving my book (SaaS Email Marketing Handbook).
Looking forward to next year!