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.

15 thoughts on “The Future of Gnomedex”

  1. I liked to think about all you accomplished with Gnomedex instead of consider how much people will miss your conference. I could only attend one year (2006) but it was well worth my time and money. I was introduced to Twitter, met a lot of great people, and had a lot of fun over those three days. Going out on top. Many former sports stars could learning something from you. Take care, Chris.

  2. Chris,
    We had a brief chance to meet two years ago when you were in town for MacWorld 2009 during a tweet up the night before. Happy to say that you were as personable as can be, even with the loud crowd and cramped space.

    This article is prompting my first comment here on your site.

    I wanted to let you know that your vision of a perfect event is quite incredible and exactly the reason I let plans to host a large event out here in the Silicon Valley fizzle out for the time being. I don’t want it to be a “me too” event. Renting a room and inviting a bunch of self important speakers with well known names is not my idea of an event that adds value to the folks I would like to attend.

    I do hope you can get closer to your vision and host another Gnomedex sometime in the near future. Primarily because I have not had the chance to attend yet.

    Thanks for laying it all out there and dedicating a decade of your time and energy to try and shape something unique and worthwhile.

  3. Chris – When I did Podcast Hotel, Gnomedex stood as my model for how to do an event. You got the vibe down just right. More than anything, Gnomedex connected people. I’ve missed the people more than anything in the years I could not attend Gnomedex. Giving attendees a real experience is what it is all about. I’ll remember that more than anything about Gnomedex.

    Thanks, Chris. I’ll miss Gnomedex but I have some great memories of being part of one of the great geek events of our time.

  4. Chris,

    You did just about everything right with Gnomedex. You should be very proud. You set the bar very high and I don’t think any professional event company will have a very hard time touching it.

    I’ve only the last two Gnomedexes, but they have both been transforming experiences for me. As they say, inspiration is perishable — but attending Gnomedex is like a brand new shipment of inspiration.

    I also very much appreciate the way you treat everyone with respect and interest. You are one of the few people who recognize that anyone can be tomorrow’s influencer, and I think you even make it happen sometimes without realizing it.

    Thanks so much for everything!

  5. Chris my friend,

    This is one of the best “leaving on a high note” posts I’ve ever read. You CLEARLY laid out your argument, and because you’ve produced/managed such high quality events, no one can complain about this post (except perhaps Mike Arrington; oh well). :)

    Do what’s best for YOU; your true community will support you no matter what. We all know you’re not done; you’ll do something else in another capacity. Whether it’s continuing your blog, YouTUbe, etc; we’ll be here for you.

    Thank you for Gnomedex; it LITERALLY changed my life.

  6. Having been a volunteer for the last three, I can say that pulling off such a conference is a royal PITA. But paying an extortion fee to have someone manage an event like this would add so much to the ticket price it would put it out of reach of most people.

    That’s not what Gnomedex is about.

    The present format is awesome and flexible, with great speakers added in the final days and even hours. Chris treats everyone to a first-class experience that I have never seen at any other event.

  7. It’s funny how people won’t take “no” for an answer.

    You mentioned you weren’t going to do another Gnomedex at the beginning of Gnomedex.

    You mentioned you weren’t going to do another Gnomedex at the end of Gnomedex.

    You write a giant blog post explaining why you can’t do another one.

    I hope they get the hint this year.

    Chris, you’re not defined by Gnomedex, but it help build up you and many others that attended over the years. I was fortunate enough to have at least attended one of the events.

    Great job. Wish I could have been at more, but as always, I’ll be watching the future of Chris Pirillo.

    For those of you who haven’t read my summary of this year’s Gnomedex, here it is: “The cool and not-so-cool from Gnomedex” (spoiler: Chris announcing this is the last Gnomedex made the “not-so-cool” list).

    And a funny video of attendees explaining why they’re a true geek.

    Dice, my client, is having a contest to see if YOU’RE a true geek. Watch the video for more.

  8. Chris: I’ve been coming to about half of the shows, traveling first from Atlanta, and then later from Lexington, KY – home of Lexmark. Yes, the old school printer company pushing forward into the new frontier… As any corporate hack that just wants to learn from all of these great thinkers/speakers (not every speaker is applicable, but still worth learning from)… it has been a great ride. I do hope you find your sponsorship and Gnomedex continues….if not, are you going to recommend maybe some other shows that ‘attempt’ to live up to your show?

  9. Conference production is an art from and a lot of work.

    The integration of the right mix between content, networking and sponsorship integration in this economy is hard to do… On one hand in-face events are totally valuable and well worth the ticket price – every Gnomedex, I walk with 5 key contacts or more. On the other hand, there are the same issues that happen

    A) Everyone signs up last minute

    B) Sponsor demand new things like media production and social media syndication tied to analytics. At the end of the day this all costs money to do right so for a few grand the profit is blown on doing it right.

    C) Internet access is typically sketchy at venues and they charge an arm and a leg for it to be beefed up. Gnomedex had it working right.

    D) Food and drinks = expensive. But bad food and drinks make people mad. Gnomedex = good eats.

    At the end of the day small conference producers put their head on the platter and often get a “bill” at the end of the day.

    The big change will be when sponsors and producers can understand the “fuzzy value” of sponsoring events and creating value via the new form of social + media sponsorship package, plus reaching the off-site crowd via live streaming / collaboration.

    Until then in this economy, it is almost a gift of charity to do it all right. As a volunteer it would be cheaper to just buy a ticket than to work the event, process media, etc. But that is boring.

    Look back and be proud. Now move on and take the weight off of your and your team’s shoulders. The challenge now is for others to fill in the Geek Week + Gnomedex void..

    In the end perhaps if we had some stimulus package to underwrite creative entrepreneurial events (like Canada), more jobs would be created and it would be a bit more palatable to run your body through the “conference production cheese grater” ..

    Thank you, Chris & Team. Applause. Aloha, Tim

  10. Chris, thanks for creating a great community. This was my first Gnomedex. As someone who has been involved in many conventions and events like this from behind the scenes, I was extremely impressed in what you did with Gnomedex. Regardless of how you feel about it now, hold your head high, you’ve held great events and should be proud. I for one, look forward to whatever you cook up next, if you so choose.

  11. Chris, you rock. You truly do!

    I was lucky enough to attend Gnomedex for the past four years and I ALWAYS had a great time. You really know how to throw an incredible conference.

    Not only have I come away each year excited about what the future holds for technology and community, but I’ve come away with new friends. For this I thank you!

    I’m sad Gnomedex won’t return, but I understand why. Still, it’s handshakes, hugs and high-fives that truly solidify relationships. That said, it’s the in-person connecting I’ll miss the most.

    If you or any Gnomedexer is planning a trip to Nashville, TN. PLEASE DO get in touch with me.

    Thanks man.

  12. I always wanted to go to Gnomedex, but frankly from the amazing things people said about it somehow got the impression it was crazy expensive, like some of those huge dog and pony shows you’re talking about.

    I wish I’d known the truth, because I would have been there. At least there’s video!

  13. Proud of you, Chris. Thank you for making this a memorable Gnomedex experience and for sharing your world with me. Sitting in your office, in that uncomfortable but significant and famous chair was a highlight I won’t soon forget.

    You’ve found your calling. You’re an internet web community trailblazer and you will continue to make tech history.

    E ya later. :)

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