On Saturday 28th May we saw the return of DDD Sydney after a 4 year absence. This was also the first year that I took a lead role in organising the event, previously I'd really only done 'on the day' volunteering. DDD Sydney was a team effort, but I want to talk about what I personally learnt running this event for the next person silly enough to try and organise a conference!
2 months is not a lot of time
Around the end of March this year we made the decision to go ahead and organise DDD Sydney, but we had a couple of goals:
- Didn't want to clash with the timing of DDD Melbourne
- Wanted to happen before NDC Sydney
The NDC crew had already reached out to us and wanted to be our platinum sponsor, and with that we wanted to help them promote DDD Sydney. This meant we had a particular set of deadlines to hit, and with that in mind we settled on the 28th May as our event date.
This was approximately 2 months from when we'd had our first chat about it happening, well it happening in earnest, we'd done some preliminary work but not really got to the point of picking a date.
Well, we managed to achieve it, but it was a real scramble to get everything done, here's some highlights from it being a really short timeline:
- We ordered the speaker/volunteer shirts the Sunday before the event, picking them up the Friday evening after many frantic calls to the printer
- 3 weeks out from the event we had no money in the account and suppliers needing to be paid (I'll talk about finances in more detail below)
- 2 weeks out I found out that internet banking wasn't setup and I couldn't log into the bank account (so we couldn't pay suppliers)
At the event I said to the rest of the committed that I was looking forward to Sunday because that meant 6 months until we need to start planning the next one, yep we'll aim for around 6 months lead time for 2017!
So who's coming?
Given there'd been 4 years since the last event we didn't really know how "popular" the brand still was. One of the drivers behind doing the event again was that I'd had a few people ask me "when's DDD Sydney coming back?", generally around the time DDD Melbourne is on. Cool, so we know some people are interested but just how many are there? 10? 50? 100? 500?
We also didn't know what to expect in terms of session submissions. The rest of the organisers did receive a bit of a panicked email from me a week or so out from the close of the CFP saying "So we have about 10 sessions submitted and 15 slots to fill, what do we do if we don't get enough?!". Knowning the teams behind DDD Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, having talked to them about submissions I know I shouldn't have been worried as you always get a rush at the end, but still it was nail-biting for a few days. In the end we didn't have cause for concern, we had 52 submissions from 28 speakers!
Given our really short timeframe it also meant that I was concerned about whether we'd sell enough tickets. This is part of why we did the early bird sale, try and get people to buy earlier and (hopefully) we could sell out. But what constitutes selling out? How many people should we plan for? Well we based our target off the other events, but ultimately came up short (ie, we didn't sell out), but when it was 2 weeks out with less than 100 tickets there was another panicky email from myself. But as to be expected there was a rush at the end, resulting in us having a good number of people attending.
It's all about the money
Conferences aren't free to run, but I don't think anyone expected that.An event like DDD doesn't work without the support of our sponsors, and that involves making sure that we receive money from those who are supporting us financially.
Most companies that sponsor work on a 30 or 60 day invoice cycle, so when you issue an invoice for them to sponsor there's a lag in that being paid, and here's the kicker, you're doing a 2 month turn around, most sponsors won't settle an invoice for at least 30 days, and you've probably spent a few weeks getting it all sorted? Well you're in a sticky situation financially aren't you!
Sponsors aren't the only way money comes in though, there's also ticket sales. We used EventBrite which works really nicely, except for one kicker, they don't forward the money until after the event (a week-ish after), so regardless of how cashflow positive you are from your ticket sales you still won't see it until after the fact. I did speak to some other event organisers on the day who were surprised we'd used EventBrite, as they'd hit this problem in the past. It's a hard one to solve, if you cut out the middleman and take the money directly you need to do something to support refunds/cancellations too.
And then there's your outgoing expenses, things like venue hire, catering, etc, need to be paid before the event, bit of a problem if you're not getting ticket money until after and sponsors won't complete the invoice in time!
Next year I want to make sure that we plan our cashflow better so we're not scrabbling at the last minute. It'll help that we already have a number of sponsor contacts now, we can engage a lot earlier which will help there.
This is something I really didn't think about in the lead up to the event, how many volunteers would we need for it? Well we've got a few of us on the organising committee and we'll rope a few in on the day. Right?
Well, that's not really the right way to approach the problem, in hindsight we should have planned more around the number of people we'd have to help out, this would've helped direct people to the venue location and we could've had a dedicated volunteer per room to direct people.
We pulled it off. It was a lot of hard work but more importantly it was very much a learning experience.
Running a business is hard work, and that's ultimately what this is, a not for profit business but a business none the less. Cashflow, supplier management, vendor management, these are all the behind the scenes tasks we take on to make a day like DDD happen.