In 2018 we hosted our first-ever user conference. It was a chance for our users to gather, meet our staff, learn a ton of helpful tricks about how to get the most out of Less Annoying CRM, and chat with other like-minded small businesses.
As you may know, we received such positive feedback from the conference last year that we’re already planning other conferences in St. Louis and Europe for 2019. We’re really excited about it, but we’re still new to this whole “planning a big event” thing, and we’ve run into some hiccups with this new conference. Basically, instead of doing it the Less Annoying way, we copied what other conferences do and it was a mistake. As a result, we haven’t sold as many tickets as we’d hoped.
Well, now’s as good a time as any to admit that we screwed up. In this post I’m going to explain how we came up with the original plan for the conference, what we got wrong, and what changes we’re making to get back our mojo from last year.
If you aren’t interested in reading this whole post, here’s the summary:
- Don’t worry, our conferences are still on. We'll still be in St. Louis from October 13-16 and in London September 15-17. We’re still planning all the same presentations, events, etc. If you were already excited about the user conference, nothing has changed on that front.
- We’re reducing the price of a standard ticket. In the US, a regular ticket is going from $495 to $250 (last year’s price), and a VIP ticket is going from $750 to $550. If you already bought a ticket at a higher price, we’ll refund the difference.
- Instead of charging extra to attend Wednesday workshops in the US, we’re including them for free (note: there are still a limited number of spots and they’re given out on a first-come-first-serve basis, so it’s possible all the workshop spots will fill up).
- We’re getting rid of all of the deadlines for buying tickets. The prices won’t go up at any point, and we won’t stop selling them prior to the conference unless we completely sell out. That means prices for our conference in Europe will remain at £125/ €142 for a regular ticket and £205/ €232 for a VIP ticket.
- Instead of trying to significantly grow the number of attendees from last year, we’re going to stick with something similar to what worked the first time around.
So basically, everything is getting cheaper and less annoying, and nothing is getting worse. Hooray!
What went wrong?
As I said above, last year’s user conference was awesome. We had almost 50 attendees from all over the country (and Canada!). It was great getting to meet everyone, and the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive. Even better: since it was our first time hosting a conference, we learned a ton and walked away with ideas for making the next conference even better. From the content of the presentations to the fun events planned during the evenings, this year’s conference is going to be a big step up.
But not all of our ideas were good. Due to a series of mistakes on our part, we’ve been having trouble selling tickets for this year’s conference. Don’t get me wrong, we’re ahead of where we were last year (we hadn’t even announced the conference at this point last time) but we’re not on pace to sell as many as we hoped. Here’s a list of each mistake we made, and how we’re fixing them.
Bigger is not always better
The problem is that we didn’t just try to make this year’s conference better, we also tried to make it bigger. Our goal was to get 125 attendees this time around for our US conference, which is more than twice what we had last year. We knew this would be a challenge, but we figured that because the first conference was a success and we had a lot more time to plan this one, we should be able to attract more people.
First off, I should say that even if we could fill all 125 spots, this was still probably a mistake. We’re a small business. We sell to small businesses. Nothing about what we do is“big” so it probably shouldn’t have been our goal to grow so quickly. Small and sustainable is what we’re about, and we lost sight of that. That was lesson #1.
How we’re fixing it: Simple, we’re just going to expect fewer people. We’ve already reserved an event space in St. Louis that’s large enough to accommodate the 125 people we originally planned for, so we still have that many tickets on sale, but we aren’t planning for that anymore. The group we had last year was perfect, and so we’re shooting for another 50-person conference this time around.
Conferences are freaking expensive
It’s never been our goal to make money from these user conferences. We make plenty of money from the $10/user/month our customers pay us, and it would make no sense to try to squeeze a few hundred extra dollars out of our most passionate customers with this conference. Our goal from day one was for this to just be a chance to meet people and provide a bit of extra value.
But we also didn’t want to lose money on the conference. Last year, we priced the US conference at $250 per ticket, which was just barely enough for us to cover our direct costs without factoring in the time our employees spent on the conference. So, technically we did lose money last year. This year, we hoped to be able break even after factoring in employee salaries, so we needed to raise the prices a bit.
Another cost factor is a little less obvious: last year we were able to get completely free event space in St. Louis because the group was small enough to fit into our old office building (they were nice enough to let us use the space for free) and our current office. But even with only 50 people the spaces last year were completely packed. We definitely couldn’t handle 125 people in the same spaces which means that this year we have to actually pay for event space. If you’ve ever hosted a multi-day event for 100+ people, you know it’s not cheap. Just to break even, we had to raise prices to cover our cost of labor, and raise them again to cover the event space. This meant that if we didn’t want to lose money, we’d need to double the ticket price from last year.
We convinced ourselves this wasn’t a big deal because $500 is still much cheaper than most conferences, but that’s beside the point. Attending a multi-day conference is already a huge commitment due to the travel, lodging, and time off work. Having a more expensive ticket on top of all that was just plain inconsiderate on our part, and now we know better.
How we’re fixing it: There’s only one way to fix this, and that’s to forget about the goal of breaking even. The user conference is an opportunity for us to connect with our most committed users, and that’s worth doing even if we lose money. So we’re lowering the regular ticket price in St. Louis down to the $250 we charged last year since we already know that we can deliver a valuable experience at that price point. VIP tickets in St. Louis now cost $550 -- lower than the original posted price, but higher than the regular conference ticket price because there are significant additional costs for us.
Trying to create urgency with arbitrary deadlines
Because we had raised prices and were aiming to increase our number of attendees, we thought we had to change our pricing schedule, too. Since we'd have more attendees and we were committing to higher costs from vendors, we wanted to know as early as possible who was coming and when.
Since we don’t have much experience running this type of event, we looked at conferences held by other tech companies as a guide. Pretty much every conference we looked at played weird games with dates and deadlines as a way to create a sense of urgency to buy tickets. For example, it’s common to have “early bird” pricing so that people feel pressure to buy their tickets before the prices go up.
At the time, we thought it made sense to use those same tricks so that we would know who was attending the conference sooner rather than later. We had various price increases as we get closer to the event, we had extra paid workshops, and we were going to stop selling tickets a month before the conference.
In retrospect, that was a mistake which I regret. Who cares how other companies run their conferences? This is Less Annoying CRM. We’re supposed to be Less Annoying!
How we’re fixing it: In addition to lowering the price, we’re removing all artificial deadlines for both conferences. Since we’re aiming for a much lower (and arguably more achievable) total headcount, we’re not as worried about getting headcount estimates early on. We’re refunding everyone who already bought tickets, and we’re not increasing those prices at any point leading up to the conference. So no matter when you get (or already got) your ticket, the price for a regular ticket in the US is a simple $250, and the cost for a regular ticket in Europe is £125/ €142. We are also freezing the cost for a VIP ticket in Europe at £205/ €232.
We’re also making the US Wednesday workshops free. There’s no need to force our attendees to decide whether or not it’s worth it to them to attend a workshop. It’s possible all the spots will fill up in which case future ticket buyers won’t be able to get a spot, but we decided this is simpler and fairer than charging extra.
Let’s try this again…
With all those lessons learned and adjustments made, I’m more excited than ever about the 2019 user conferences. If you already have a ticket, I really appreciate your support and I promise we’ll make sure you have a great time.
If you don’t have a ticket yet but you’re interested, I’d be happy to set up a call sometime to talk through what we have planned and answer any questions you may have. You can reach out to me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or if you think you’re ready to commit, you can buy a ticket here.
I hope to see you in October in St. Louis, or in September in London!
-Alex Haimann (Head of Business Development)