Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Want to run a tech conference? Learn from Mark Evans and Toronto’s mesh [Part 1 of 2]

Last updated on September 8th, 2015 at 04:33 pm

It was never my plan to start a conference.

I was a technology reporter for the National Post, who wrote about telecom, venture capital and start-ups. I covered conferences; they were not things that I organized.

But sometimes things happen through serendipity or luck.

The impetus to create the mesh conference – an annual digital media conference in Toronto – happened when Mathew Ingram, Rob Hyndman, Michael McDerment, Stuart MacDonald and I gathered on a cold winter evening in early 2006 to talk about blogging and the rise of Web 2.0.

Over the course of the evening, someone mentioned the emergence of conferences happening in Europe and the U.S. about the exciting developments on the Web. Then, someone asked why there wasn’t a similar conference in Toronto.

For whatever reason, the five of us decided to create mesh, even though we had absolutely no experience in running a conference. And we were to organize the conference in only nine weeks, which demonstrated our naiveté!

Mark Evans (centre) with his other mesh organizers Stuart MacDonald, Mathew Ingram, Rob Hyndman and Mike McDerment
Mark Evans (centre) with his other mesh organizers Stuart MacDonald, Mathew Ingram, Rob Hyndman and Mike McDerment

With two weeks to go before the mesh happened, we caught a lucky break: we met event planner, Sheri Moore, who swooped in to take care of all the behind the scenes details.

The community’s reaction to mesh was overwhelming. We sold more than 400 tickets and attracted high-profile speakers such as Om Malik, who would go on to launch GigaOm, Matt Mullenweg (WordPress), Jason Fried (37Signals) and Steve Rubel and Chris Messina (who invented the #hashtag).

Timing is everything

mesh was the beneficiary of perfect timing. The technology industry was just starting to bounce back from the dot-com bust, but there were not that many conferences capitalizing on the growing interest in Web 2.0.

mesh attendees were excited about what was happening on the Web (you need to keep in mind that blogging and podcasting were new concepts). mesh became the place where they could gather to share their enthusiasm and ideas.

Perhaps my biggest contribution to the launch of mesh was my network within the high-tech world. Between Mathew Ingram and myself, there were many experts that we could invite as potential speakers.

A good example was Malik, a well-known Silicon Valley-based journalist, who I met (digitally) after he published a book about the telecom industry. When he graciously agreed to be the keynote speaker, it became much easier to attract other high-profile speakers, as well as attendees.

In many respects, mesh was our contribution to Toronto’s emerging technology and start-up community. We were excited about the Web’s growing role in how we lived, worked and played, and passionate about being part of the action.

Another big reward was how mesh gave us “permission” to approach people that we admired, followed and read. It was even better when many of these people agreed to speak at mesh.

One of the realities about running a conference is how much work happens behind the scenes. While attendees see conferences as a blend of speakers, food, networking and Wi-Fi (you can’t underestimate the importance of good Wi-Fi!), many months of planning goes into making sure everything comes together.

Six months before subsequent conferences happened, we started to hold weekly meetings to discuss potential speakers. In the early years, we enjoyed good success in getting the people that we wanted. But as other conferences popped up, it took more work and creativity to fill all the speaking slots.

And then there was the work to market and sell tickets. This was the most time-consuming and frustrating process. We put a lot of work into organizing the event but getting people to attend was always a challenge.

Some people thought mesh was too expensive, some people did not like how it was focused on multiple topics (media, technology, society and business), and some people weren’t crazy about the idea of a two-day event.

One of the major financial realities about a conference is you need to invest money upfront, and then hope you attract enough sponsors and attendees to cover your costs. It was particularly harrowing because many people waited until the last couple of weeks before they bought a ticket. Needless to say, this caused a lot of stress as we anxiously waited for people to make a commitment.

If anything, mesh was an educational experience. The biggest lesson was that being an entrepreneur involves risk and hard decisions but it can be terribly rewarding.

At best, mesh was slightly profitable over the eight years in which the five of us were involved. But the “compensation” came in other ways: I made some good friends, had a lot of fun with my co-organizers, and met some interesting people along the way. mesh played a key role in turning me into an entrepreneur after I had spent my career as a newspaper reporter with the Globe & Mail, National Post and Bloomberg News.

At the end of the day, I learned that entrepreneurship involves a series of journeys. mesh was an important step along the way for me.

It may have not been financially successful but gave me the confidence and experience to jump into other opportunities, including the decision to launch my consulting business in 2008.

Note: I’m no longer involved with mesh. After investing eight years organizing mesh and a flanker conference, meshmarketing, I decided it was time to focus on growing my consulting business and other entrepreneurial activities.

Coming next week: In Part 2, Mark will provide some insight and tips on how to attract speakers, develop programming and selling tickets. Stay tuned!


Photo of Mark Evans [right] interviewing Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster at mesh courtesy Mark Evans


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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