Organising front-end meetings or conferences in your own town

Over the past few weeks I’ve had essentially the same conversation with Georgi Petrov from Sofia, Bulgaria; Lea Verou from Athens, Greece; and Marco Cedaro from Bologna, Italy.

All three wanted to do something about front-end in their own town, but all three seemed to think there was some kind of black magic involved in getting well-known speakers to your conference or even getting together a few people to talk about geeky stuff.

So it’s time to talk about organising front-end meetings or conferences and how black magic is not necessary.

I’m especially thinking of the European continent because over here the time for widespread and massive front-end organising seems to have come; but it really goes for anyone anywhere.

The golden rule

The golden rule is: Just Do It. Really; it’s as simple as that.

If you feel it would be cool to meet up with other front-end engineers and discuss geeky stuff, show off your latest design, or just commiserate about IE6 over a few beers, chances are other front-enders will feel exactly the same and will react enthusiastically when you propose to meet up.

I told all this to Lea and Marco, and both agreed in principle but pointed out that it was so hard to get the message out there. They had blogs, but one was fairly unknown and the other mostly read by foreigners. But when I pressed them they admitted to knowing popular bloggers, and on further reflection agreed these bloggers might be willing to spread the word.

Hell, I’ll spread the word if you write a blog post and give me a link, a date, and a city.

A meet-up

So do it. Pick a pub with no loud music, pick a night when it’s relatively quiet, tell people about it, approach well-known bloggers from your part of the woods to spread the word, and sit together, have a few drinks, and talk.

Sure, the first time only ten people might show up. But a good time will be had by all, and when you repeat it one or two months later, twenty people will show up. And the next time even more, or somebody else will organise something similar.

The real revelation comes a bit later, when you find you’ve missed a good meet-up but realise that it does not matter because another meet-up will come. You’ll discover you have a thriving meet-up ecosystem in your very own town that will go on no matter what.

It takes surprisingly little energy to kick-start the process. Keeping it running is a whole lot more work; certainly once the first excitement wears off and it becomes just another volunteer job. But even if you don’t feel up to it, somebody else in your town might. But you first have to get him or her excited by organising that all-important first meeting.

Meetings at companies

Marco asked about getting a local company to host a meeting. Here in the Netherlands we do that all the time, but I advised him not to follow our example.

Fronteers organises roughly one meeting per month with about 40 to 60 people. Usually a meeting runs from 18:00 to 22:00 and is hosted by a local web company that arranges some light refreshments and snacks as well as projectors and such. We have two main speakers who each talk for half an hour to an hour, and afterwards there’s beer and geeky talk.

Usually we are contacted by a front-ender employed by the host company. Central planner Arjan Eising arranges a few details, most importantly avoiding planning clashes with other meetings, and sometimes one or both speakers. The brunt of the organisation generally lies with the person who contacted us. Occasionally we provide modest financial assistance; for instance for student groups.

It’s a fun format; clearly one step above the informal meet-up, but still easy to arrange and short enough to do after working hours. (Incidentally, we’re looking for host companies for our next few meetings.)

Still, I do not advise you to copy this format. The danger exists that the first host company would try to unduly influence the group.

Here at home I avoided that by reaching out to the lead front-end engineers of many of the largest web companies and capture their interest with the Fronteers concept. They convinced their bosses and hosted the first Fronteers meetings.

Thus Fronteers was an equal partner to all host companies from the start, and that is an absolute requirement for this format to succeed.

These initial circumstances depended largely on my personal status in the web world; I could easily unite those people that were interested in a formal organisation, and thus we had a quite powerful group that could discuss stuff on an equal footing with web companies.

Inviting speakers

However, the advantage of being a Great Name primarily lies in this kind of political stuff. It does not help a lot when it comes to organising conference — well, a little bit, but not nearly as much as people seem to think.

As I explained to Georgi, there is no black magic involved in getting Great Names to speak at your conference. You don’t need to be well-known, your conference does not need to be well-known.

Instead, you just shoot them an email. Really, that’s all there is to it.

Some conference organisers are afraid of doing that for reasons I don’t understand. Jeremy Keith won’t laugh at you if you ask him to speak; Andy Clarke won’t hard-boil you. Chris Heilmann will bite you, but only in an affectionate sort of way.

Every speaker worth his or her salt will take your request completely seriously. They like public speaking and conferences; that’s why they do it so often. So considering another request is part of their job.

There are really only three rules for inviting a Great Name to your conference:

  1. You send the invitation at least six and preferably nine months in advance of the conference.
  2. You arrange and pay for their flight and hotel.
  3. You don’t force them to comply with all kinds of bureaucratic rules. They will not submit their presentation a month in advance. They want to be trusted.

If those rules are satisfied your request is serious and will be considered seriously.

That doesn’t mean everybody will say Yes. They might have other commitments around that time, or try to get their traveling time down, or may not consider themselves the best match for your conference. Still, they’ll always reply to say why they can’t make it and be courteous throughout the process.

Vaclav Stoupa invited me to speak at WebExpo, and Damian Wielgosik did the same for Front Trends. I’d never heard of Vaclav or Damian, but that didn’t matter. Their conferences looked good, their invitation came well on time, they were paying my flight and hotel, and I didn’t have any previous commitments around those dates. So I said Yes.

That was back in January. Then I decided to cut down on my conference schedule in 2010, so when several others asked me I said No in the politest way possible. I promised one of them to speak at her conference next year because I really want to go there.

That’s how it works. Person to person. No black magic involved.

Wave of conferences

A wave of web conferences is spreading over Europe. The UK had pride of place with the iconic @media 2005; the next year France followed with Paris Web. As far as I know my own Fronteers 2008 came next (leave a comment if I’m wrong), and nowadays most European countries have their own web conference.

That’s what we need. Web design and development must be taken seriously as a separate technical discipline, in the minds of both outsiders and of web developers themselves. Conferences are an excellent way of doing that.

Most well-known speakers keep an eye on the burgeoning European web conference ecosystem. In fact, Douglas Crockford once told me explicitly he’s looking for conferences in Eastern Europe. So give the man a guided tour next year. He’ll love it. And he’ll speak at your conference.

Let me know

I’m curious. Please tell me where you live, and whether there’s a formal conference or a series of informal meet-ups in your neck of the woods. And if there’s nothing, organise something. Organising a meet-up doesn’t take that much time, and it’s fun. And tell me; I’m willing to spread the word.

If you’re from an English-speaking country or from the Netherlands, please do not reply. I want to know about the situation in other countries.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Pål Degerstrøm on 11 October 2010 | Permalink

At Fronteers '09 I started chatting with @gregersrygg about starting a network like your Fronteers, in Norway. A few months later, we had our first Framsia meetup (http://www.meetup.com/framsia/). We've gone from a slow start, to having meetups with Christian Heilmann, Molly Holzschlag, Paul Irish and Pete LePage. This weekend, we're arranging a HTML5 code camp with Bruce Lawson, Dylan Schiemann og Robert Nyman.

My co-organizers @gregersrygg, @trygve_lie and I have been blown away by the response, and have gotten a lot of positive feedback from our members, businesses and the developer community.

I'd like to thank you for inspiring us to get started, and hope to share more details with you in the future.

Thanks!

Pål

2 Posted by Kristina Schneider on 11 October 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for your post! About a year ago, me and some fellow webdesigners had the same thoughts and started organizing a regular frontend/webdesign related meetup. We meet once a month at a local coworking space and have talks, and of course there’s always beers and informal discussion afterwards.
It has been quite succesful so far, we have between 20 and 40 visitors, suggestions for talks keep dropping in and everybody is quite motivated to maybe organize a bigger event in the next months.

Our next meetup is tomorrow, feel free to spread the word – also, i’d love to know if there are any other Berlin-based meetups.
http://up.front.ug/
http://twitter.com/upfront_ug

3 Posted by Steve Souders on 11 October 2010 | Permalink

Total agreement here - Just Do It! I travel 4-8 times each year and would love to get more bang for the buck and do an extra talk. Often I schedule my trips based on events.

4 Posted by Marco Cedaro on 12 October 2010 | Permalink

The gentleman from Bologna was me. Thanks for the mention (and for the gentleman, btw). I will follow your advices and surely organize something small in a while.

5 Posted by Eric Meyer on 12 October 2010 | Permalink

One addendum: do not be surprised if the Big Name (or really Any Name) asks for a speaking fee in addition to travel expenses. They may do this to limit their speaking engagements; or because they have to justify taking time away from work to prepare, travel to, and actually deliver a talk; or because they use speaking fees as a way to feed and clothe their family.

Not saying every speaker will want or need to be paid (some are paid salaries by employers to speak), just that it may come up and should not come as a surprise.

6 Posted by ppk on 13 October 2010 | Permalink

Thanks, Marco; added your name.

Thanks, too, Eric. You raise an important point.

7 Posted by Trygve Lie on 13 October 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for a very good post on the topic PPK!

These are good tips on getting started and how to get the "big names". But; It's very easy to be blinded by the big names.

What I would love to hear your experience on are how to dig out all those "non big names" doing exiting stuff. There are tons of creative and very skilled people out there which never take the lime light but have exciting stuff to come with. How do we dig out those and how do we get those up there shining on a stage?

For me, the most important about meet-up's, are to get the common developer to meet, talk and inspire each other.

Hope we can discuss the issue over a beer at Front Trends next week :)

Thanks
@trygve_lie

8 Posted by Lea Verou on 14 October 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for the mention. I'm seriously considering organizing something small in Greece after our discussion, probably in spring. :)

9 Posted by Dylan Schiemann on 16 October 2010 | Permalink

Great advice ppk. I've been running the London Ajax User Group for about 6 months ( http://londonajax.com/ ). Some advice that's worked well for us:

* Make sure it's fun and interesting
* Consistent time and venue helps
* Pick interesting topics first, then find the right speakers
* London is really convenient as everyone passes through London
* Find a co-host or two for the occasions when you cannot make it
* Record video for the events and put them online, to help promote future events
* Meetup.com, twitter, and facebook obviously help a lot to get the word out.

Anyway, there's lots of other things to keep in mind, but it's a great format and we're doing something similar in London.

10 Posted by gold coast web design on 24 October 2010 | Permalink

What I would love to hear your experience on are how to dig out all those "non big names" doing exiting stuff. There are tons of creative and very skilled people out there which never take the lime light