The Build Cycle Podcast #049 – How to (possibly not) run a conference w/ Fireside’s Steven & Dan

I’ll be honest. This conversation didn’t exactly head in the direction I thought it would, but that’s what makes it so darn fun to listen to. It might be my most entertaining episode yet, and in the end, it came out full of value, too. Dan Levine and Steven Pulver started Fireside Conference four years ago with the idea that they’d make a startup conference more like summer camp – informal, fun, and intimate. The kind of event where you make real connections and new friends, far beyond corporate networking. It caught on, and even though they lost a lot of money that first year, Dan and Steve decided to keep doing things the way they want, financial consequences be damned. And there’s lessons in that. But they keep growing, and have found ways to run an insanely cool conference that attracts some incredible talent without having to pay anyone to attend, and that’s led to other revenue opportunities. If you’re thinking of creating a conference or any other event, this is a great episode that covers a wide range of things you’ll absolutely need to consider before putting your plans in place!

DISCUSSION TIMELINE

01:40 – What is the Fireside Conference?
05:53 – How they select the attendees…not everyone is accepted.
11:23 – How do they attract big names and talent to attend?
14:20 – How to they attract and retain attendees
20:30 – How do they market the event?
32:10 – Their economic model versus a normal conference’s model
37:10 – What are the hard costs?
42:00 – How do they figure out food quantity and costs?
49:50 – How much should you charge for your conference attendees?
57:30 – Picking the right location
1:01:28 – Where does the revenue come from? What are the opportunities?
1:06:00 – Avoiding (or living with) FOMO?
1:09:06 – Is swag worth the effort?
1:13:12 – What operational challenges keep them up at night?
1:17:35 – Their advice for other entrepreneurs

POST GAME ANALYSIS

how to run a conference event interview with the co-founders of Fireside Conference

What I love about Steve and Dan’s business is that they’re just having so damn much fun with it. They’re fortunate to have day jobs, Dan’s an attorney, and both are partners with others on a legal services app, which allows them to run Fireside as the type of conference they’d want to attend. And that’s the premise for so many startups. When you can’t find a solution you like, create your own, then find others willing to pay for it. It’s because of their passion for creating the best possible experience that it’s grown and they can charge a little more each year. More than that, though, they’ve so impressed past attendees that some of those people now hire Dan and Steve to run corporate retreats and other events, which are highly profitable.

While they don’t have to deal with a lot of the same costs as traditional conferences and events, we do talk about them. If you’re thinking of putting on an event or just curious how conferences are run, this conversation will be extremely enlightening. Or at least entertaining. I think both. We do talk a lot about food costs and management, but stick with it, there are plenty of (non-chicken) nuggets of wisdom tucked in there. The part about coffee stations around 45:40 is the type of detail that’s required to make things run smoothly.

They have an interesting take on pricing. Sure, they’re leaving money on the table by not charging more, but they’ve found that sweet spot of making enough to put on a killer event that provides an awesome experience, but is affordable enough to attract a more diverse crowd. When pricing your event tickets, think about the type of people you want to attend and how your pricing will affect that.

My thoughts on running an event

Truth be told, you can make quite a bit of money from an event and still make it amazing. Make a list of your hard costs, make it extensive and include things like lodging and meals (including what’s needed for your staff and volunteers), venue and other rental equipment, signage, marketing, etc. Then figure out how many attendees you want and how much profit you want to make. From there, it’s simple math that’s almost assuredly going to be way off of reality, so pad all of your expenses by 20%. Sponsorships and, to my surprise, charging speakers to present, are ways of boosting revenue further. Just be sure to cultivate and budget for a great experience so people feel like they’re getting MORE than their money’s worth and will want to come back.

As for running a smooth event, in my experience, it comes down to thinking through the process – every process – from the time someone signs up to the moment they leave, and make a list of each action required to make each process happen smoothly. Have a registration table? Think about how people will find it, how they’ll line up, how they’ll be greeted, who will work the table, what forms, pens, badges and other items they’ll need, how people will flow through. Then repeat that for every single thing that’ll happen. This helps you think through any problems ahead of time and come up with contingency plans. Sure, you’re going to miss something, but if you think through each process and how you’d like it to be handled, then you minimized opportunities for things to go wrong.

tips for running your first conference with advice from the founders of fireside conference

Parting Advice

“If you focus on creating an incredible product and a great community, you will find success in the long run.”

This hits the nail on the head when it comes to creating a strong brand able to grow and succeed. The challenge these days is to get people to care about your brand enough to both stay loyal and tell their friends. Steve and Dan do a lot to foster their community and build relationships with them, and that keeps people coming back year after year. They’re absolutely right in that they could probably double their fees and still sell out.

LINKS & RESOURCES

  • FiresideConf.com
  • Find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
  • The Fireside Conference podcast
  • They use Drift chatbot to start the conversation on their website.
  • They use Followup for email marketing automation.
  • Gmail tools help them keep email organized
  • They use x.ai to help automate meeting and call schedules, which did make for some weird emails between us.
  • Todoist and AirTable are how they keep on top of what needs to be done.
  • They also use Apple Notes, which is part of iCloud. Personally, I’ve lost notes on a couple of occasions using that app, so I switched to Evernote which has been 100% reliable and works across multiple platforms.
  • They use Slack to keep participants talking to each other before and after the event.
  • Join me at Fireside (and get $150 off !) using this link.

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