Conference21 has grown into something more unique, more special, more powerful than I ever hoped for. As an event, it has a mission, and that mission has created a community.
When I first came up with the concept, it was born of a simple motivation. I enjoy speaking and teaching, and it seemed that the best way to find a stage to speak from was to build one.
I have been involved in running events, mostly in the fandom space, since 1996, so the basic logistics came naturally.
Because it was so simple, I assumed that my conference would be one of many such conferences. I was quite mistaken.
The Genesis of Conference21
The initial goal was to have 21 speakers at an event with a $21 ticket on the 20th and 21st of February 2021. See the theme? Simple but effective.
I made a few posts and mentioned it to a few friends.
Twenty-eight speakers applied in the first week. Not just 28 speakers. 28 great speakers, followed by half a dozen more over the next couple weeks.
Professional speakers. TedX speakers. Highly qualified expert speakers.
Then something even more incredible happened. These speakers started getting really excited about what we were doing. These incredible professionals were inspired to be part of my event.
What was going on here?
Without realizing it, I had created something quite unique. (I know it is unique because I later went looking for similar events that I could speak at myself, and I could not find any.)
What makes Conference21 unique is its authenticity. Authenticity is a basically a ten cent word that means having a deeper motivation than profit and sales. Much to the chagrin of my accountant, profit often ends up being an afterthought in many of my business plans, so this comes naturally to me.
Running Community Events
For two and a half decades, I have run science fiction, fandom, and geek events. These events are not, for the most part, big money makers. They are run by the love of the community. People step up to run them to create spaces to come together with their tribe.
I’ve always been very big on creating spaces for community. My first business after college was Phoenix Games: part store, part community space. From then on, I always sought places to bring people together around common interests for common good.
Whether it is a nightclub, a conference, or a fundraising dinner, I am always looking for places to connect with people. I’m the guy who they have to shoo out of the lobby back into the hall when the speakers are starting because I’m so busy talking to people.
The Most Important Part of A Conference
As I have transitioned online, I have found myself disappointed by the lack of opportunity to connect peer to peer. Most virtual conferences and summits that I have attended online have been more like TV shows than conferences. I am to sit and listen as they talk at me.
It’s almost like the organizers think that the most important thing that happens at a conference is the speakers speaking and the audience audiencing.
Some of the summits that I see really give off a vibe of being all about the speakers. As if the purpose of the audience is nothing more than a vehicle to demonstrate the prestige of the speakers on the stage. Or, worse, they are nothing more than potential customers for whatever the speakers are hawking.
So, naturally, any event I organize is going to have an opportunity for peer to peer connections because that’s what I go to an event looking for.
At an in-person event, some of the most important business is transacted in the hallway and over drinks in the evening. The initial Conference21 plan called for a Zoom room called The Hallway in which people could shmooze openly and request breakout rooms. (Fortunately, we found Slingshow, so the Hallway between talks is a bit more refined now.)
Having seen the commercial focus of so many other events, I assumed that speakers would need to be highly incentivized to participate. I did create some great incentives for them, but what surprised me was that most of the Conference21 speakers didn’t even ask about it.
They aren’t asking me about how they can monetize this experience. They aren’t asking me about how they can sell their products and services. They aren’t asking me what’s in it for them.
What they are asking is what the audience will want to learn, how long they’ll have to teach them, what resources they can use to help the audience.
Starting with Why
I have been reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, and it is helping me to understand how such an incredible event came together.
It wasn’t luck that attracted 30+ great people to teach the Conference21 community. I started with why without even realizing it. My initial posts about Conference21 said things like “teach”, “bring together”, “networking.” While I wouldn’t formally think of the idea of an ongoing Conference21 Community until some time later, the seeds of that community concept were there from the start.
Speakers who were all about the dollar were not attracted by my message. Those who got into the business to help people however were attracted. By authentically sharing why I was running a conference, I attracted some of the best people imaginable to be part of it.
Through the course of planning, I have discovered some amazing technological resources. I am seeing the need for opportunities to connect and collaborate and learn in spaces that are more than one sales pitch after another. I am realizing that Conference21 can be more than just a one off virtual conference until we get back to in person.
The Beginning of a Global Community
Conference21 can be the beginning of a global community of business, entrepreneurship, and leadership. It can be a new way for people to come together. It can create a bigger tent than ever before.
Not everyone can afford to spend thousands of dollars on hotel rooms, plane travel, food, and event tickets. Even when you do spend all that money, the experience is usually one and done. The logistics are prohibitive for getting people together regularly.
Taking full advantage of technology, we are able to expand “Conference21 the event” into “Conference21 the community!” When you can attend the event from your home office, there’s no reason you can’t attend a meet and greet with the community a few weeks later from your home office.
Since we don’t have to feed you or rent a hall or pay the rest of the overhead, the cost can be a fraction of in person events (the average Chamber mixer is $10-$25 while Conferece21 is $21 including the conference and all the networking events around it).
While I had started Conference21 to create a stage to stand on myself, it rapidly grew into something much more exciting. (So much so that I haven’t actually gotten around to putting my own talk on the program page.)
So, what’s next with Conference21?
In January, we’re running two virtual networking events on the amazing Slingshow platform. January 6th at 7 PM EST and January 29th at noon EST. In February is the big event itself on the 20th and 21st preceded by a networking event on Friday the 19th (which happens to be my birthday) at 6 PM.
That’s only the beginning. Going forward, we’ll run two virtual networking events every month, one midday and one in the evening to accommodate all schedules. The conference will be quarterly, running in February, May, August, and November (or maybe October).
We will add additional tracks through partnerships with other business community leaders creating conferences within a conference, drawing a more diverse audience, and adding to the richness of the Conference21 community.
Looking to the future, I have a hazy vision of creating hybrid virtual/in-person events that still allow low cost, remote attendance for people from around the world, but also create concurrent in-person events where people can gather together and watch live speakers and also stream the live remote speakers. Many small events linked together with technology to create a nationwide or even worldwide Conference21 community event.
The first step is to make our February event a success. If you have not done so, please purchase your membership at www.conference21.com for only $21. Join us for the networking events. Join us for the conference. Join in the beginning of a community of entrepreneurs and leaders that will change the world.
If you have questions or would like to be more involved in the Conference21 Community, email me at Michael@guywhoknowsaguy.com.