Lessons from the trenches of running a tech conference [Part 2]

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In part one, Mark Evans explained what motivated him and his team to produce mesh, a popular digital media conference in Toronto. In this column, he reveals how mesh evolved, the team’s biggest mistakes, and why he no longer runs conferences

When the mesh conference debuted in 2006, it was an immediate hit.

Its success was a combination of timing, growing interest in how the Web was emerging as a mainstream tool, and a lineup of solid speakers. More than 400 tickets were sold, sponsors were happy, and mesh had established itself as Toronto’s leading Web conference.

The big question we (the five co-founders) had to address was “What’s next?” Should we keep the same format? Should we make mesh bigger, expand mesh into other cities across Canada, or create spin-offs?

For the next couple of years, we kept the same structure. It was working and we were enjoying the experience of running a high-profile conference. In many respects, we probably should have kept on doing what we were doing.

But as entrepreneurs, we were also cognizant of the opportunities to evolve mesh into something bigger, different and better. We had a strong brand so it was a no-brainer to explore new avenues for growth.

People were asking us to take mesh to other cities such as Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. At the same time, we were getting approached to create mesh-like events focused on areas such as marketing and social media.

Armed with a lot of enthusiasm, we decided to create meshmarketing, a two-day event, in 2009. In 2011, we launched meshwest, a series of one-day events in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

In hindsight, the biggest mistake we made was trying to expand without having the right structure to support growth. You have to remember the five founders (myself, Stuart MacDonald, Mathew Ingram, Rob Hyndman and Mike McDerment) were running mesh as a sideline/hobby. We had full-time jobs. mesh was something we did for fun; it was not a business.

Attendees mingling at the meshmarketing event in 2011. Photo via Flickr user LexGner
Attendees mingling at the meshmarketing event in 2011. Photo via Flickr user LexGner

As I talked about in part one of this series, conferences are complex and multi-faceted beasts. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to run them efficiently and properly.

As much as we may have thought that mesh could turn into a business, I don’t think any of us were ready or willing to throw ourselves into it full-time. As well, mesh was not profitable enough for us to hire staff to operate it.

As a group, we invested a lot of time and energy into running mesh. We became good friends, we met a lot of great people, and got a lot of satisfaction from creating an event from scratch that made an impact on many lives.

At the end of the day, enthusiasm is simply not enough to keep a conference going. It did not help that we struggled to establish meshmarketing as a leading digital event, while meshmarketing did not attract as much interest as we had anticipated.

In time, I think mesh became work rather than fun. Meanwhile, the five of us were busy with other things. Mike McDerment was focused on growing Freshbooks, Stuart MacDonald launched a start-up, and I started a consulting business.

We weren’t surprised when the core mesh decided to step away from having an active role in the conference. I quit after meshmarketing in 2013 because I needed to focus on my business and some other entrepreneur projects.

While mesh may have not been financially successful, it was definitely a key part of my entrepreneurial journey.

When mesh started, I was a newspaper reporter with little experience running a business. Being involved with mesh was a crash-course in management. As well, it was instrumental in building my personal brand and a network.

For people thinking about starting a conference, my advice is to be clear on what you want to create and, as important, be realistic and pragmatic about how or if you want it to grow.

Our month of conference series continues with next week’s live-tweeting and sessions recap coverage of Dreamforce!

Main photo via Flickr user sambouchard418

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Mark Evans

Mark Evans

Mark Evans help startups and fast-growing companies tell better stories (aka marketing). His strength is delivering “foundational” strategic and tactical services, specifically core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation. Find him via his blog