Six years grinding: How to manage your events and community
Captain's log, stardate d643.y38/AB
We have been hosting at least one event per month since we started the company in early 2014. After over 70 consecutive months of hosting events, we have compiled how we do it so others can profit from our experience.
A bit of context
We created MarsBased in March 2014, at the same time that we started hosting Startup Grind in Barcelona. Startup Grind is the largest community for entrepreneurs worldwide, with over 600 chapters in 135 different countries. When we started, there were a few dozens of chapters only.
Way before we created the company, about a year earlier or more, we started hosting a couple of events per month with like-minded founders of companies we called the Startup Circle. In fact, in our early blog posts, we talk about the Startup Circle events and the community of founders we gathered in over two years, was eventually merged with Startup Grind Barcelona somewhere in 2015 to keep things simpler. In 2017, our Startup Grind chapter was awarded Chapter of the Year out of more than 300 chapters.
So all in all, we've been for well over six years hosting at least one event per month. You can see the whole list of Startup Grind Barcelona events, although we've also hosted some events with other brands.
All in all, we must have hosted more or less all these events in six years:
- 72 monthly editions of Startup Grind Barcelona
- 3 annual conferences of Startup Grind Tech
- About twenty Startup Circle events
- Four Martian Tech Talks
- Ten online events with different brands
I'll focus on the Startup Grind events to make things simpler for the reader! Let's begin!
Consistency is key
If there is one thing that rings true after all these years is that hosting one event every month creates community. In other words, events that happen sporadically are just events, fairs, meetups or conferences, but regular events will generate a crowd around you.
Since March 2014, we have hosted at least one event per month. Month in, month out, there's always a way to find people.
In fact, since 2017, we turned our monthly event of August into a party. You'd think that no one goes to events in August, but it's the other way around: because there are no events, hosting the only one makes you stand out, and everyone will join. We've had about 300 people in our August parties!
Being consistent has helped to never lose momentum. If you get your crowd into the dynamic of showing up once per month, they know that if they miss one event, they can catch up in the next one. All in all, you're seeing your friends in the community every month, so that creates more and more interactions with faces that will become familiar after a while.
The more conversations happening at your events, the more likely it is that they'll turn into transactions. If you can generate business for your attendees, they will keep coming to your events.
Being consistent has also helped us to improve. The events are sufficiently close together to remember the mistakes of the previous one. Also, if practice makes the master, the more events you host, the better they will be.
In our case, we're hosting events for founders of startups. Therefore, we applied the lean startup methodology and we created an event for a certain date when we had nothing at all prepared. This created the pressure of public accountability.
We worked around the clock, and for our first event, we ended up having a catering sponsor, free beer, a nice venue, a promotional video and a full house! A lot of things went wrong in that event, but we fixed them for our second event, barely 15 days later. The attendees noticed the improvements and thanked us for them.
Month after month, we've been collecting feedback in the networking part of our events, and sometimes over email. We take each request very seriously, and I'm proud to say that we've got the best event for startups in the city. No one works so hard in polishing details to have an extremely professional event.
One question I always ask our attendees is what was the worst part of the event?. It works a thousand better than the lazy did you like the event?. The latter will most likely elicit a yes and that's it. The former requires more elaboration and will give you stuff to work on.
Most of the professional events get a bad reputation because they're extremely sales-y. Recruitment companies doing events about recruiting or consultancies doing conferences about the products they integrate.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with those approaches. Just tell the truth when asked why do you host events.
A lot of companies talk about giving back to the community, but they're just looking for leads. That's fine, but tell the audience, or on the website, that this is part of your sales scheme.
In our case, since I started Startup Grind as a different initiative, it has never been part of our sales machine. Most of all, because entrepreneurs and early-stage companies aren't our target customers. We sell to bigger companies and to enterprise. We even get attendees to ask me about why I don't talk about MarsBased at the Startup Grind events!
Our goal with Startup Grind in Barcelona is to create the event we would like to attend every month and to create a community of people helping each other, with strong ethics and business for everyone. I had attended similar events in the US, and loved the friendly, casual, outgoing yet open to business events they've got over there.
Invest in your team
Another thing that has remained consistent over the course of these years is that we've always had the best team we could have.
You need to be perfectly clear and upfront with what is expected of each team member and what are they given in exchange for their support. Some events will have paid collaborations, some will be entirely pro-bono and some will have a mix of the two.
If your event is not for profit, or free, and relies solely on volunteering effort, there's not much elbow space here. At least, you should define what dedication is expected of each role and what are their benefits.
In our case, our event is for profit, although we run it as a non-profit internally because it's a side project and we're just making a few thousand per year. What we do, is to be entirely transparent with the team and to reinvest everything we have in the project.
Three years ago, the event was growing, we were doing an annual conference for 800-1000 people and we were managing too many things, so we decided to incorporate one person part-time to work on it.
Our Office Manager earns a salary but is expected to work a couple of days per week on Startup Grind, while the rest of the team are volunteers. They volunteer and therefore aren't asked anything. They contribute with whatever they want, but usually what they do is to help at the event on-site and then help with very specific things that can help them to grow professionally.
You will never invest enough in your team. They are your best asset.
Give it values
We were lucky to start working with Startup Grind and therefore this part was given to us. By using the power of an existing international brand, you're also adhering to their values. In fact, we chose Startup Grind because what we were doing at Startup Circle was exactly the same project with the same values, so it made sense to replace our weak brand with a stronger one with an international presence.
Embody your values as much as you can because most events are not communities, and therefore don't have values. Define a company culture, too, as you progress, around your vision and your team.
This might be easier if you own the brand. If not, it might create conflict with the global organisation, but you can always claim that this is the culture at local level.
Charge for your events
Even if it sounds ridiculous at first "who will pay for that?", it'll help you in the mid- and long-run.
Charging people does not mean you will do this for a profit. Events generate very small money, especially in the first years, so it's not like you're going to pocket it all and retire in Bali.
Charging for events will bring many benefits. First of all, you will filter the attendees and elevate the level of your audience. Filling a room with curious passers-by and people who come for the free pizza and beers isn't going to help your event to take off. It's better to have fewer attendees but of higher quality.
Secondly, it'll help you to cover the expenses. All events have expenses: buying material, designs, a gift for the speaker, the catering and beverages, renting the venue, your team's expenses, and so on. You can start lifting off some of these financial burdens by charging for tickets.
Thirdly, it will prove the value of your event. When approaching speakers, partners and sponsors, tell them your attendee numbers. If they aren't surprised, tell them this is a paid event, and all of a sudden they'll raise an eyebrow like "oh, that's a different story". If your attendance numbers are already good, like in our case (we've got 150 people every month, sold out), adding that it is a paid event will definitely prove your worth and expertise as an event organiser.
Lastly, it will also allow you to re-invest in your event/community to improve it month over month. You'll start by upgrading your venue, or your designs, or to order better catering, or to give away gifts for attendees, or even to fly in speakers from abroad, for instance. There are many things you can do to improve your events for a few bucks!
In the case of larger events, like our annual conference, volunteers will make or break the attendee experience.
Work on the Attendee Experience (AX)
In the software world, we use the term User Experience (UX) to analyse, define and fine-tune the way a user will feel when interacting with your software.
In attendees, we have coined the term Attendee Experience (AX). We analyse the entire value chain from the moment they find out about our event until the moment they leave the venue. That's right, it starts before they set foot into the venue.
If the information on the website isn't clear, they will not buy a ticket. If the payments platform breaks or looks dodgy, they will not buy a ticket. If they don't get email reminders about the event, they might forget and not come. And so forth.
You need to make sure their experience is pleasant from the signup to ensure you get a good review.
Periodically, we review all the elements in this list (not exhaustive):
- Frequency and content of our newsletter.
- Content on our event listing page.
- Content on the event detail page.
- Check-in process at the event.
- The quality and quantity of catering.
- The values of our partners and sponsors.
- The music being played at our event.
- The way our attendees are treated by our venue's personnel.
- The pace of our event.
- Our timings and how well we adhere to the event agenda.
- The attitude and behaviour of our speakers.
- Our team's attitude towards attendees.
- Lightning and temperature of the room.
All of the aforementioned elements are part of what we define as Attendee Experience, but the entire list would be too long to publish.
We try to work in one or two of these items every month to make sure we don't spread too thin.
- No matter which team you end up having, ours will remain the best team in the whole universe 😎
- Invest in an own brand or leverage the power of an existing one? Both have pros and cons, but it can be simplified to: working with an existing brand will have value from day one but you'll be tied to their principles, culture and changes of direction. If you want to stay independent, create your own, but understand that it'll take longer to take off and will need more effort from your side.
- Try to get the best speaker you can get for every edition.
- It's not that big speakers sell more tickets than lesser-known speakers, it's that the latter do not sell tickets.
- Choose the speakers and the partners based on who is your audience, not the other way around.
- A conveniently-located venue will increase the likelihood of everyone going to your event.
- Define a code of conduct and your policies on your website.
- Try to stick always to the same day of the month and the same venue. Attendees love predictability.
- Announce monthly events with at least 15 days of notice. Conferences with half a year at least.
- In conferences, try to limit the sponsored content (ie: talks) to a maximum of one per day. If possible, on a secondary track.