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Conferences vs unConferences

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Most people I know have attended or are familiar with entrepreneurship and startup related conferences. Conferences gather people, seat them, and then lecture to them on a certain subject. The quality of the conference predominantly depends on the speakers’ ability to inspire the audience.

However, nowadays you can hear some of the best talks on TED and YouTube, and the value of sitting in a room with tons of people isn’t as high as it used to be.

Conferences aren’t the only model for gatherings. My favorite alternative is the ‘Unconference‘ model. Lucky for you i’ve been to both and i’m here to tell you all about it.

SXSW V2V

I recently attended the SXSW Vegas conference to mingle with the local startup community and learn what entrepreneurs are interested in. Plus, #SXSW is one of the more popular events held in the US.

Having previously attended more unConferences than conferences, I was intrigued to see how SXSW holds up against unconferences.
Fun tidbit first: The conference was held in the hotel I was staying in, the Cosmopolitan. I entered the hotel and was greeted with sexually nuanced video-pillars. Initial thought: ‘Ah, Vegas’.

 

Setting up for work

If you’ve had difficulties getting away from the office to attend similar events, here’s how I managed: The best part about working with a team that rocks, is our ability to work together efficiently even when remoting in. I checked into the hotel, settled in my room, and started deploying the work surface.

Free Wifi? VPN access? Ready to go.

My personal interest in conferences isn’t the content, but rather the attendees. Every conference people who are focused on the similar and interconnected goals. Successful conferences, in my mind, correlate well with their ability in creating serendipitous encounters, or as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh calls them ‘serendipitous collisions’.

Tony, Zappos and many others profoundly believe in the notion of creating opportunities through human collisions. They’ve designed their offices with bottlenecks in mind so people would have to bump into one another more often; satisfying more prerequisites for creative collisions.

Tony Hsieh
Tony Hsieh

While unusual at first, I started recalling the numerous talks I’ve had with folks in the office just by running into them all over. In the cafeterias, kitchen areas, hallways and just passing by their open offices. These conversations lead to some of the most profound ideas that we’ve pushed forward.

With that in mind, I looked for positive mega-collision opportunities with lots of people. Where? After every keynote of course.

I was quickly disillusioned about how beneficial the #SXSW experience was.

#SXSW: Uber Conference

I started talking to folks at the conference, trying to figure out what they’re passionate about, and their reasons for attending SXSW, you know, small talks. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that too many conversations had an undertone of minimal interest, and often it drained to a 5 minute transactional template of a conversation. The highlight of the conversation is their realization that I can’t really contribute immediate benefit to the conversing entrepreneur. Which was followed by:

‘Hey [looks at badge] Ala, do you have a business card?’, and we’d part ways.

One of the creative highlights: Shannon Newton
One of the creative highlights: Shannon Newton

According to the organizers of the conference, SXSW Vegas attracted 1500 attendants, which is ~1/10th of SXSW Austin. If the former felt impersonal, how would the latter fare?

I couldn’t help but think: “Maybe it’s just me”. I started jotting down reasons as to why someone would attend a conference. I came up with the following:

    • Finding like-minded people to connect and potentially cooperate with.
    • Learn more about entrepreneurs’ future endeavours.
    • Raising money by interacting with important benefactors like VCs and angels.

Then I tried understanding why these points weren’t working out at SXSW:

  • Finding like-minded people to connect and potentially cooperate with.

While this is possible, the last thing you’re interested in is a partner you can’t work with. While first impressions can give you a very early indicator on chemistry, a deeper understanding of the person is hard to establish when 80% of the time is spent in listening to panels and keynotes, and the last 20% everyone is rushing to ‘speed-date’ hoping to find ‘the one’.

Also, by relying on conferences for meeting people, you’re relinquishing control of who you should be meeting, either to chance, or to the organizers at best.

One needs to figure out key aspects:

    • Who do you need and why?
    • Where do you find them?
    • Why should they dedicate time to you?

Answering these questions helps the search. Many entrepreneurs, angels and VCs are surprisingly approachable, it’s getting their interest that requires that extra mile from you.

  • Learn more about entrepreneur’s future endeavours.

Use techcrunch.com, angel.co and the likes. If you can’t reach them, you probably shouldn’t yet.

  • Raising money by interacting with important benefactors like VCs and angels.

Getting referenced by someone a VC or angel trusts is more likely to be beneficial. Build relationships with those circles and prove your worth to them. If you’re not succeeding in reaching out to that circle of people, spend time figuring out why, improve, and persist.

The Bright Side

All was not lost, though. I started running into some amazing folks who actually listened, asked questions, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Hours passed, and we’d find ourselves gravitating back and forth with more and more people joining the ‘Bonding’ clique. That’s the group I’m staying in touch with. Yay!

(un>)Conferences

“A loosely structured conference emphasizing the informal exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally structured program of events.”
The Tel-Aviv startup scene rubbed off on me. Events with 300-500 attendees are considered large, and the ‘cozy’ events are around 60-100 people. The more successful events are casual gatherings: entrepreneurs meeting over a beer, hackthons, geekcons and startup-weekends.

These types of encounters serve as safe hubs for creative and positive collisions that produce meaningful relationships, serendipity on steroids.

What unconferences are all about

You! In unConferences the attendees becomes an active integrated part of the process. Talented, passionate people contribute to fruitful discussions and a much more engaging event.

Kinnernet

Speaking of successful unConferences, I would like to talk about Yossi Vardi’s Kinnerent event, which I was lucky enough to take part in. To sum it up in a few words: a 3 day entrepreneurs fun camp – by geeks and for geeks.

Yossi’s fundamental Kinnernet rule – No business cards! This creates an atmosphere where people focus on the personal stories of what they do and care about. While business does come up, the ‘frowned upon’ topic gravitates the majority of conversations towards honest, fun, insightful interactions.

Working groups start preparing months ahead. Putting together fun contraptions, robots, art projects, cool tech demos, air shows, gadget shows, costume parties, game rooms and a ton of other activities.

Kinnernet Overview
Kinnernet Overview

Participants also prepare several of the munchies, building several inpromptu outdoor food stands. They bring the food, prepare it, cook it, and serve it to an army of hungry geeks.

100% Crap
100% Crap

Now, to the intellectually stimulating part. The first day you arrive, you’re confronted with two whiteboards, with times and rooms.

If you want to share your knowledge with others, or get others to discuss a topic you’re interested in, simply add it to the board. You create the creative space and participants fill it out.

Attending Kinnernet was the first trigger that accelerated my personal growth. Being around positive, humble, helpful and caring entrepreneurs gets you to perceive things differently. Being with other ‘misfits’ who are crazy passionate about what they do got me closer to better understanding how I imagine my future professional life.

The most amazing thing about unconferences is building relationships that last. I’m grateful to call a bunch of folks that I bonded with in unConferences, friends. I love you guys! <3

Moreover, Yossi always made sure he invited some of the most amazing people in the international industry. Imagine 3 days of hanging out over beers with Tim O’reilly, Craig (sList), Jeff Pulver, Debbie Berebichez, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Daniel Dubno and Ludwig Siegele.

Discussion

After experiencing both models, here are some personal anecdotes:

  1. Connecting with people is easier in unConferences and smaller sized conferences
  2. Connect between interesting people you meet, the compounded serendipitous effect quickly adds up.
  3. Never decline an invitation for meeting after the official program, only good can come out of it.
  4. I miss my Tel-Aviv friends.

Let me know if you participated in an unConference and enjoyed it. Comments are your friends.

3 Comments

  1. This is an interesting perspective on conferences. Makes me a little sad that the medical community doesn’t promote this kind of interaction because most are too “busy”

  2. I’d love to be part of the unconference experience! Are they ever geared towards non-entrepreneurs?

  3. Hey @Lizzy, absolutely – unconferences are just a format. Search for ‘Singularity unconference’ or ‘art unconference’ or ‘[your topic] unconference’ and you’ll find examples of unconferences.

    If there isn’t one close by, the best way to participate in one, is to make one. Team up with a few friends and organize a small-scale one.

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