Beachhead - A Small Conference

It takes creative thinking, focus, and most of all, plenty of lead time to create a successful free software event.

“What are you working on?”, I asked Dennis, a young friend of mine from Florianopolis. “I am working on the design of a T-shirt for the conference we are developing, but I do not have any good ideas for the design”, he said. “What is the purpose of the conference?”, I asked. “Who is the target market?” “What do you mean?”, he asked suspiciously, probably thinking that this was going to turn into a lecture on marketing. He was right.

Many Linux User Groups (LUGs) have tried to put on small, local events to introduce people to Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS). Some have been successful, and some have failed. Some have even been “too successful”, over time burning out the volunteer staff that put the conference together. But, the successful ones always have tended to follow a similar pattern—that of thorough planning.

“Defining your purpose and who you are going to be reaching is very important”, I said, and continued:

For example, do you want the conference to be technically oriented, to satisfy programmers or systems administrators, or do you want it to be more business-oriented, to convince business people that they should be using free software? Is your aim to show people how they can create jobs or make money with free software? You can do all of this with one event, but it would be a larger event and much more difficult to do than to concentrate on just one audience.

Dennis thought about this for a while, and said, “I want it to be technical, but invite a few business people.” “And when do you want to have this conference?”, I asked. “In two months”, he said.

One of the biggest mistakes a group makes in planning an event is trying to have it too soon. Often I get an invitation to speak at an event three months away. I tell the people that I would have been willing to attend, but that the date has been booked for six months. Many venues big enough to hold even a small conference are often booked six to nine months in advance. To have the most leeway, you probably should start planning a year in advance. It will not be constant planning during that year, but the bigger items (venue, keynote speakers and so forth) should take precedence early in the planning process.

“What is the theme of your event?”, I asked. “Free Software” came the reply.

In the past, “Free Software” meant “Linux” or “BSD” or some of the GNU tools, but today, “Free Software” means audio/video tools, customer relationship management software, Voice over IP, content management systems, TV capture and playback, development tools, many types of database programs, clustering software and much, much more. Trying to cover such a wide range of interests is difficult in a small conference.

“Why not focus on just 'audio/video'”, I suggested. “You could even invite Gilberto Gil [Brazil's most famous rock star, and the Minister of Culture under President Lula] to speak.” This went over well with the rest of the planning committee, who was now beginning to gather around the T-shirt table.

Dennis had taken steps to avoid the second big mistake that a lot of groups make—a planning committee that is too small. “Many hands lessens the load”, and in a lot of ways make planning the event much more fun. By enlisting a set of enthusiastic friends, Dennis had committees for each of the major functions that they needed. A quick status recount found that any suitable venue was only available nine months in the future. The “two-month wonder conference” would have to be rescheduled for later, which was greeted with a sigh of relief from the program committee of Chico, Douglas and Felipe.

“We have been having trouble finding speakers”, they wailed. “Even with the new dates, we do not know who to ask.” I suggested that with the new dates and the new theme of “audio/video” that they might approach the developers of some of the projects to see if they would be willing to come. If, however, their target audience is users rather than developers, they would be better off getting local people to learn the projects, and then do a presentation on how they work and how to use them rather than how to develop them. Other good topics, particularly for those new to Free Software, are the general topics of how Free Software works, the different software licensing models and how to turn in a good bug report. Using local people to do a lot of the presentations keeps down the costs of hotel rooms, airline fares and translators (if speakers do not speak your language), and it also gives local people a chance to develop speaking skills—useful the next time you put on a conference.

“But without big-name speakers, how do we attract sponsors? We do not want to charge any money for our event”, said Rodolfo, the treasurer.

“Although I appreciate that you want everyone to come to the event 'for free', there are times when you need to charge a little bit to cover costs”, I said, and added:

Why not ask for R$5 (five Reals) as a donation? You may be surprised how much money you get if people have a good time and learn a lot. Sponsorships also can come in the form of Internet connectivity, equipment loans, advertising and other trades, which are easier to get than money. Also, local events can attract donations and vendor sales from local vendors. A local bookstore, for instance, can stock up on Free Software books if they are given enough warning and a list of books people might want to buy. And remember, that although many people think of large companies when they think of sponsorships, small companies also can contribute smaller sums of money that can go a long way toward paying the costs of a great conference.

“I went to a conference that was free, but they sold a T-shirt and a CD-ROM of the conference proceedings for a 'donation' of R$10”, said André “It could not have cost them more than R$5 to make both, so each person contributed R$5 to the conference.”

“And, raffles of donated products as prizes is also a way to make money. I remember a conference that made 3,000 Australian dollars off raffled prizes that were donated by vendors”, I said, and continued:

The main thing, however, is to try to keep the costs down. Because most conferences are educational, a lot of times you can get the local college or university to donate the space, with the cost of custodial and security personnel as the only charge. These days, a lot of such institutions are happy to help you plan a Free Software event. They see it as good for their students and faculty and also for their image with potential students if done well.

“What about food?”, asked Henry. “You need food for people to eat.” “A picnic basket or a brown-bag lunch is fine”, I said, adding:

A cooler of sodas and bottled water sold at a reasonable price, and you will have a lot of happy people. Make sure you have trash cans around for the wrappings, and recycle the cans and bottles. One of the best conferences I have attended sold a simple loaf of French bread with a little spread on it for one Euro, and a bottle of drink for another Euro. It was enough for lunch, and fast to eat. And, of course, you'll need coffee.

“Hotel rooms”, said André “we will need them. How do we handle the hotel rooms?” I answered:

For a one-day event, with local attendees, not too many hotel rooms will be needed. Most people can make their own reservations simply by having a list of reasonably priced hotels local to the event. For guest speakers, you may want to make the hotel reservations for them to help keep costs under control, but many guest speakers in the Free Software world are happy to stay in a host's house, or a university dorm room, or some other such place that is clean and quiet with high-speed Internet available.

André smiled, because I had just described his home where I had stayed during a Software Livre conference.

“What about the business people?”, asked Dennis. I agreed that the business people needed a slightly different approach, but that we should talk about that tomorrow, as it was getting late, and the T-shirt design was still not finished. “What about a Tux riding a surfboard?”, I asked, “or maybe in a beach chair with a chimarrao in its flipper?” The rest of the conference committee crowded around while we sketched examples.

Aside: one of my favorite times of the year is “OpenBeach”. This is a small get-together that is usually created for a group of Free Software people to discuss things that are happening, but also to enjoy each other's company and meet the families (spouses, children and so on) of the people they may deal with only by e-mail and chat on a day-to-day basis. It is an event by the seaside, with wireless Internet abounding. This year, it is preceded by an event at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina on December 6th, 7th and 8th, with a natural follow-over to OpenBeach. The combination of the conference and the relaxing weekend following it will be fun—and when putting together an event, fun is one of the most important things.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International (www.li.org), a nonprofit association of end users who wish to support and promote the Linux operating system. During his career in commercial computing, which started in 1969, Mr Hall has been a programmer, systems designer, systems administrator, product manager, technical marketing manager and educator. He has worked for such companies as Western Electric Corporation, Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He is now an independent consultant in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Business and Technical issues.

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