The Future of Gnomedex

Most events suck – symposia, conventions, expos, summits, et al. Still, I keep going to them to support various causes and organizations. When originally faced with the opportunity to create my own experience, I was bright-eyed and hellbent to raise people’s expectations. Our first “Gnomedex” was originally planned in Des Moines, Iowa for the ill-fated weekend of September 13th, 2001.

Despite eventually having an amazing event at a later point, our team realized that none of us were event planners or producers. Perhaps that’s what made the first one, and subsequent nine, so notable? No matter, we didn’t plan a second Gnomedex until Microsoft stepped up and offered budget for a sequel. Even then, we tried to convince them of other opportunities – but they wanted another spectacularly-hosted conference. The statement “I can’t do another Gnomedex” has been trickling from my lips going back almost a full decade – and I reversed that position every single time.

Before I continue, allow me to assert a truthful statistic: Mashable drove 0% of all attendance and attention to Gnomedex 2010; Gnomedex evangelists drove 100%. It pains me to have this fact in hand – an asset ALL conference producers covet – and yet…

I can’t do another Gnomedex.

Gnomedex 10 - Keep Gnomedex alive

The community wants it to continue – but I am faced with a barrage of nightmare-inducing responsibilities related to EVERYTHING a proper Gnomedex would require to meet or exceed my vision for it. People have generally attended a Gnomedex because they wanted to come – not because they were told they had to be there. And even if the latter were true, those people often walk away with the same spirit of community Gnomedex engenders. Still, that’s not enough to make another Gnomedex happen.

  • Without a dedicated team of rock star organizers and directors, tasks slip through the cracks – and you often won’t realize this until the event happens. When someone’s attention is diverted to other projects, yours will not receive the attention it requires.
  • Without editorial control, vendors and sponsors will demand to be placed on stage (often, to bore the shit out of people with relatively-pointless garbage). You wind up facing a cavalcade of panels spilling over with self-important windbags who drone on and on over how their company does it. YOU, AS A PAYING CONFERENCE ATTENDEE, SHOULD NEVER TOLERATE THIS.
  • Without the ability to drive massive amounts of eyeballs, partners are lukewarm to supporting your endeavor. They don’t always understand how influence works – and that bigger is not always better in this space. IF YOU, AS A PAYING CONFERENCE ATTENDEE, ARE NOT TREATED LIKE A VIP, START DEMANDING IT.
  • Without a modest ticket price, every other bozo will walk through the door and dilute the experience. AND IF YOU THINK A FREE EVENT IS ALWAYS JUST AS GOOD AS ONE THAT REQUIRES A CASH OUTLAY, I DON’T VALUE YOUR JUDGEMENT OR BUSINESS ETHIC.
  • Without a well-executed communications strategy, the Web site and online marketing efforts will falter. You need someone constantly connecting dots for you – everywhere. Volunteers are wonderful, but they often have other responsibilities. Don’t put the future of your endeavor into the hands of people who don’t treat it as though their life depended on it.

Oh, but this short list is but the tip of the “requirements” iceberg.

I have big dreams for what Gnomedex could be in the right hands. There’s no reason a TED experience couldn’t be made more accessible. I’ve been trying to pull it off for years! And before another person suggests it, TEDx is absolutely the wrong model for me (and it’s already being done). If I hear one more person falling over themselves for what they’re doing, I’ll cry. Seriously. When you have a near-unlimited budget, you can do near-unlimited things.

We’ve offered Gnomedex to various event production companies, but none of them are interested (for whatever reason). They have their own brands to manage, and my brand doesn’t treat people like cattle. Or, they want a six-figure outlay from you – just to get started. Get the picture? Yeah. No.

This has been an uphill battle, and I decided to go out on top.

It’s not just getting colossal sponsorship, its finding and managing it. It’s not just locating a workable venue, it’s ensuring we’re not getting screwed on the contract. It’s not just marketing the experience, it’s finding strong partnerships to truly extend the reach. It’s not just finding good content, it’s making sure they match the audience’s expectations.

There are too many balls to juggle – and I’ve dropped more than my fair share in the pursuit of a perfect event.

  • I believe in a single-track experience. I don’t wanna pack the speakers in and split the audience’s attention. This is key to giving rise to the power of community, to eschew the loneliness of typical event
  • I believe every piece of swag should be conversation-worthy. I’ve always wanted to give people goodie bags like the celebrities get. Sadly, this never happens; we are very lucky (and grateful) to get stickers, and blown away when we get something of absolute value.
  • I believe the complimentary conference apparel should not turn you into a NASCAR vehicle, and be very comfortable to boot.
  • I believe the expo floor should be filled with interactive booths operated by people who understand the product or service they are representing. I also believe this could be managed in conjunction with the conference (to allow others to traipse through at a lower admission price).
  • I believe there should be a free, live video feed that is produced better than some television shows are. This isn’t easy to manage, but it’s essential for what I’m trying to do – and that’s producing a conference people should be fighting to get into.
  • I believe in adding a personal touch. I really want to meet every single paying person there. I remember impressing Mike Arrington before TechCrunch even launched – and now he treats me worse than the gum on the bottom of his shoe. Still, I treat EVERYBODY as though they were someone perceivably influential.
  • I believe in giving every attendee free WiFi and a power outlet, too. My GOD, there are actually conferences that force their communities to go without? Uncivilized.
  • I do not believe in press passes. Assigned reporters seldom “get” it, publish thoughts long after the event could use it most, and… armed with “social media” tools, I believe everybody has the potential to be more powerful than traditional press. There have been very rare exceptions.
  • I dislike comping tickets to anybody other than sponsors. The value of a free ticket is… nothing. I’ve ruined friendships because I didn’t offer a free pass to one person or another. Look: you are ALL my friends.
  • I believe all parties should be all-access, filled with drinks and food. I also believe you should not have to struggle to maintain a conversation with someone two inches from you. No (loud) music! I also believe in venues which are conversation starters, themselves.
  • I don’t believe in price-gouging the attendee – especially if you haven’t already set the stage for absolute value.
  • I believe presenters should have their travel expenses covered. In all ten years of Gnomedex, I did not once pay for a speaker. Not because they weren’t worth it, but because my budgetary constraints would not allow me the privilege. Some years, we couldn’t even afford to cover travel. I love finding the “unknowns,” though. Big names in tech don’t drive as much awareness as you’d think.
  • I believe that name badges should show a person’s first name in BIG, BOLD LETTERS – and if you’re going to hang a badge on a lanyard, make sure the name is visible on either side. This is a small detail most organizers forget, but it makes all the difference in the world when you’re meeting someone for the first time, or when you know someone’s face but can’t place the name or awkwardly flip their badge over.
  • I believe that industry announcements can drive attention, but product pitches have enormous potential to plunge a gigantic wedge between the presenter and the audience. Sponsors and partners should know their place and stop elbowing their way onto the mic unless specifically invited to do so.

Maybe I’ve been too picky?

Gnomedex 10
(cc) Kenneth Yeung –

I do believe, however, that a Gnomedex-style model could be applied to any industry, any topic – not just relegated to surfacing general trends in technology. I’d loved to have produced a Gnomedex focused on YouTube, one related to the world of gaming, one specifically for fellow Apple enthusiasts, one for Microsoft Windows fanatics, one for fellow gadget freaks, another for “how to make money online,” and… the list would go on-and-on.

In a few days, weeks, months, years… everyone will forget. That is, until they attend another event and realize just how far we went to spoil them silly.