Is WordCamp Organizing Right For You? An Interview with David Bisset of WordCamp Miami
David is also a founding member of WordCamp Miami, which brings in over 750 people each year, and has organized it every year since helping found it in 2010. He has written extensively about organizing and attending WordCamps.
We spoke with David about his experience organizing five WordCamps, and what it takes to organize a successful WordCamp.
How WordCamps Work
Skills for Organizing a WordCamp
Fred Meyer: What skills are required to be a good WordCamp facilitator, someone who makes a WordCamp happen?
Project management skills are a great place to start in organizing a WordCamp.
David Bisset: I think good organizational skills are an obvious must. If you’ve ever been a project manager, that’s a great place to start because you’re managing a lot of different things and assets; if you’ve never been a project manager before, if you’re not comfortable in that position, then that would not be a good sign to me. At one point in your life if you’ve managed something, whether it’s a family get-together or something along those lines, then just think of that times ten million and it’s close to what a WordCamp would be like.
If you’re already running a WordPress meetup, that’s also a good strength to have. There should be a planning committee, and somebody in that committee already managing or organizing a local WordPress meetup or some other kind of meetup, primarily because WordCamps usually start in the areas where there’s a strong local WordPress community presence already. It doesn’t have to be large, but at least a strong WordPress meetup happening in the area.
The Role of WordPress Meetups
FM: So how do you gauge the strength of a local WordCamp meetup?
I would hope that a local WordPress meetup has been going on for at least a year before somebody starts thinking about a WordCamp.
DB: It’s a relative term. Last year WordCamp Miami brought in 700 or 800 people, and our average WordPress meetup turnout is only 40 or 50 people. Probably “consistent” is a better word to use. There are a lot of factors like how long the meetup’s been taking place—I would hope that a meetup has been going on for at least a year before somebody starts thinking about a WordCamp. How consistent it is, how consistent are the people organizing it, who’s showing up, who can you invite, that sort of thing.
There are meetups where people just get together and hang out and talk WordPress, and there are more formal meetups where there’s an agenda and one or two speakers. I’d rather see a meetup move into the second category before WordCamps start forming. That’s what I’ve experienced, because if you’re organizing a meetup once a month and you’re trying to bring in speakers and think of topics and agendas and that sort of thing, that gives you a glimpse into what doing a WordCamp would be. It’s less of a shock going from something that’s not so organized to a WordCamp, which needs to be organized.
The Organizing Committee
FM: How big should the organizing committee be?
DB: As many people as you need and as many as you can get. It depends on the size. WordCamp Miami had eight organizers officially. We work on a committee, but I do help lead and make sure things are delivered on time. You could think of it as a board of directors; I’m the guy directing the meeting.
Again, it depends on the size of the WordCamp. I would say on the committee, you would need to break it down into at least the following fundamental jobs first and then see what’s involved and who can handle them.
- Venue coordinator: The venue coordinator spearheads and is the point person for finding and securing the venue, with whatever rules and steps that requires, and is the contact person on the committee to the contact person at the venue.
- Speaker coordinator: The speaker coordinator sends out the call for speakers, and may reach out to other people in the ocal area through other technical meetups or other networks to submit an application. The speaker coordinator then goes through those applications with the committee to figure out who the best ones might be, and is in charge of what tracks the event includes, what workshops are available, and who is in charge of the workshops. This pretty much takes one full dedicated person.
- Sponsor coordinator: This can be another full-time position. It’s not as much about finding sponsors, because the WordPress Foundation, especially for new WordCamps, has this great program where they give you the pillar sponsors. For small WordCamps, that covers most of the cost right there. But there’s interaction with those sponsors; making sure they get their information up on the website correctly; making sure that if they’re coming down you meet and greet them properly at the event; if they have a booth, making sure that they’re bringing in the right material for WordCamps, because WordCamp tax laws now are very complicated and if there’s space, you need to be able to market and present yourself—Most regular WordCamp sponsors already know this, but it’s something that a sponsor coordinator has to screen through; making sure there’s booth space, if that does exist, and keeping a list of any sponsors that aren’t pillar sponsors; making sure that you provide the right sponsor packages on the site and making sure that you can follow through with everything that you promised; making sure that everybody’s been paid, through an Excel spreadsheet. For WordCamp Miami we actually have two or three people working on everything I just talked about. I like to say that we’re known for taking care of our sponsors and treating them not just simply as someone who pays money and has a booth and a sign, but that we give them more of a personal touch, and are able to feature them in some special way at the conference.
- Volunteer coordinator: Volunteer coordinator is usually another full-time position, and is pretty vital as well: assigning people roles on the day of the event, maybe handling packing bags, and that sort of thing.
So you have venue, speaker, sponsor, and volunteer coordinators. You would need to reach one person for each one of these goals, so that gives you a minimum of 4 or 5 people right there.
There are lots of other positions as well, some of them not so complex.
Staffing the Committee
FM: Who sits on the WordCamp planning committees you’re familiar with? Is it mostly WordPress consultants?
Eighty or ninety percent of what you do for a WordCamp you would do for most other types of conferences.
DB: Not necessarily. I think it’s good to have someone who organizes your local meetup on the committee, but other than that there’s really nothing WordPress specific. Maybe when it comes to selecting speakers, it would be nice to have someone with that kind of background; anybody who is considering a WordCamp should have some WordPress experts in their group, or at least consult with them. But a lot of it comes down to patience, project management, good organization, good communication, those kinds of skills. Eighty or ninety percent of what you do for a WordCamp you would do for most other types of conferences.
David Hayes: Is the organizing committee usually formed before you get to the point of choosing a venue? Do you have any advice about how you would go about finding those people? Are there specific traits you’d want to be looking for, or is it just like “people who are available are awesome?”
I look for enthusiasm and commitment sometimes more than experience and traits, because that’s really what it takes at the end of the day.
DB: I look for enthusiasm and commitment sometimes more than experience and traits, because that’s really what it takes at the end of the day. And like I said, there are different rules and responsibilities. You would try to assign responsibilities to people with the right experience, background, attitude, or personality. Somebody who can give commands to other people, who’s not shy, could be a great volunteer coordinator. Someone who’s maybe more reserved could maybe be a speaker or sponsorship coordinator, or handle something behind the scenes at the event.
But there should be a group of people who are interested, and who say, “Yeah, if we get a venue, I’m in.” It does start at your local meetup group. I’m not sure where you would start outside of that. If you have good relationships with other people and other meetup groups, that would be another place to turn. If you pick someone random, even if they say yes, what level of commitment is that going to be and can you rely on them down the road? That’s why I think a strong meetup group—consistent and led by committed people—is important.
Timing and Time Commitment
FM: Can you estimate the overall time commitment in hours for someone on a WordCamp planning committee?
Generally speaking, being on a WordCamp organizing committee is a time commitment of hundreds of hours. If that number doesn’t scare you, you know you’re in the right place.
DB: Generally speaking, you’re talking about hundreds. The size of the event matters, and the details that you put in. But I think a small WordCamp would require at least a hundred hours—I’m probably low-balling it, too. I think WordCamp Phoenix was looking for a lead coordinator, and they said 200 or 300 hours or something like that. That sounds about right. If that number doesn’t scare you, you know you’re in the right place.
FM: Presumably those hours are a dispersed a few months out, and then they start to ramp up closer to the event?
DB: Some people’s responsibilities will be way before the event and they get to take it easy during the event itself, and others vice versa. Obviously for people who are doing venues and speakers, their work should be done by the time the event happens. For volunteer coordinators, the closer you get the more hectic it gets.
DH: What’s the thing you found the most difficult about being a WordCamp organizer? Where do you think people go wrong?
I think people underestimate how much time and how soon you should start organizing the WordCamp.
DB: I think people underestimate how much time and how soon you should start organizing the WordCamp. WordCamp Miami is looking to find a venue now, and we started about a month ago.
DH: When is the event next year?
DB: We don’t know yet, but if you’re targeting for something in April you should start no later than October.
As soon as you can lock down the venue, you should. Sometimes you can’t do that very far out—in fact, most of the time you can’t, because a lot of WordCamps have their events at colleges or educational institutions. At a lot of these locations, you can’t firmly book things a year in advance.
As soon as you can positively reserve the venue, that’s when you do it. If that’s eight months out, great, you’ll have a lot of leeway time. Six months out is when you have to really, seriously start finding something. I’ve seen people do it at three months, and that’s just not enough leeway time for speakers and attendees and so forth. You have to get a venue and enough information set up; and remember, you can’t just set it up, you have to go through the WordPress Foundation and make sure the date’s okay and there’s no overlap. From there you want to get your affairs in place as quickly as possible so you can get speakers and sponsors, because these are the people who need to plan travel if they live out of town.
DH: So, the primary thing that determines the date is venue availability, and then you hope your sponsors can make it?
You don’t have an event until you have a venue, so that’s really step one.
DB: You don’t have an event until you have a venue, so that’s really step one. Sometimes your venue dictates your dates, and then you plan from there. The venue is usually the first priority. Second priority is basically getting the word out so people can start planning for the event. This means speakers and sponsors, but also regular attendees as well.
In regular WordCamps, though, there’s a lot of stuff you should do before you even have the date. If you have a meetup group, you should have at least the beginnings of a mailing list for WordPress events in your area, so that when a date is announced you have somebody to announce it to.
You can keep going backwards from these concepts. If you go backwards from the mailing list idea, this is where the strong meetups come in, because that’s the base your mailing list grows from. Knowing the other tech meetups and other groups in your area, and at least being on good terms with them is a great help. Is there a PHP developer group in your area? Is there a Girls Who Code or Girls Who Blog in your area that would be interested in attending or speaking or being involved in the event?
Even if you don’t have a date, just reach out, and explain a little about the event—it’s one or two days, $35, that kind of thing—and try to get as many people who are interested in it on a mailing list as soon as you can, even if it’s a year away. It’s going to make selling tickets so much easier, and selling them is going to make your life a lot easier.
Motivation and Benefits
FM: What have been the benefits of organizing the WordCamps you have organized? What do you think the benefits typically are for WordCamp volunteers?
The two primary motivations for helping organize a WordCamp should be giving back to WordPress, and helping your local community.
DB: The motivations for organizing or volunteering at a WordCamp should be primarily two things. One: you’re giving back to WordPress, so if you work with WordPress I think that’s a good way to give back. Two: you’re helping your local community.
As far as benefits go, there are a lot of different benefits. Some of them may not be apparent at the time—or even when you do your first WordCamp—but there is great working potential in making yourself a part of a group that organized a tech conference. It’s not just networking within the WordPress community as much as expanding your exposure to your local tech community, which I find to have some indirect good results that trickle down to your meetups: general exposure, being well-known as somebody who put in the effort.
I also think it does signal to potential clients that you are dedicated to the community and what you invest in your work. You’re not just a fly-by-night WordPress developer; you’re somebody who’s actively involved in the community. I would definitely consider that a big plus.
Some people like to think that they get some additional business out of it. I wouldn’t put that on the board in terms of benefits. Sometimes it does happen, but you’re organizing a conference—you’re not really building a website. None of this is supposed to be promoting yourself; you’re supposed to be promoting your community, WordPress, and individuals. If there’s as a side benefit to what you’re doing, that’s great.
LoopConf and other Conferences
FM: Just out of curiosity, we’ve watched the news for LoopConf happen. What do you think about the private WordPress conferences taking place outside the WordCamp framework?
DB: It’s fantastic. I like that we’re experimenting with this approach, and so far the experiments are great. I think long-term, it’s kind of like with podcasts: let’s see how long this goes, see what catches on and what doesn’t catch on. Pressnomics was one of the first big ones that did this and they’re still going strong. Overall I think it’s fantastic. There seems to be some great involvement in the WordPress community with people actually attending these things.
As long as the prices for non-WordCamp WordPress conferences are reasonable and they don’t detract or have a negative impact on the WordCamps, I think it’s great.
For me personally, as long as the prices for these conferences are reasonable and they don’t detract or have a negative impact on the WordCamps, I think it’s great. It’s a little too early to tell you on either of those. A conference priced like Pressnomics seems pretty reasonable. I like the fact that a live stream is available, even if you can’t be physically there. These one-off conference are going to attract more of the regular WordCamp travelers; it’s not really a local conference as much as it’s attracting a specific kind of WordPress person who is used to traveling and can afford to go to that conference anyway.
LoopConf is something I’m interested in as far as its focus on developers. I’m not sure how many other conferences are going to open up. You have Pressnomics covering business, Loop is covering developers—there aren’t too many other things you can do besides that. There are only so many conferences you can go to in a year, and there are only so many conferences that can overlap as well. But overall I think it’s great; it allows us to experiment with formats that aren’t under the WordPress Foundation’s system. Obviously without the WordPress Foundation you take on additional responsibilities and risks, for lack of a better word. But again, I think it’s probably good for the community overall to see how these turn out.
Sources of Support
The WordPress Foundation
FM: I’ve heard both that the WordPress Foundation’s guidelines for organizing a WordCamp are fairly restrictive, and that they’re a really good support. Could you talk about how helpful you’ve found them, and whether you’ve found them restrictive?
I’ve been doing WordCamp Miami for five years, and if I’d found anything about the WordPress Foundation too restrictive I wouldn’t do it.
DB: Well, I’ve been doing WordCamp Miami for five years, and I think if I’d found any of that to be too restrictive I wouldn’t do it. It’s been a very enjoyable experience for what the WordPress Foundation absorbs in terms of pillar sponsors, liability concerns, funds and that sort of things. I think it’s well worth it for most people to take that. That’s not to say I don’t have any disagreements with any of the suggestions that go on with that, but they’re things that I can pretty much live with at the moment.
I know other people have had other disagreements, or haven’t liked certain things. I can’t go into that much, but I can understand both sides of the fence. There is a level of protection and control that the WordPress Foundation does want to exhibit, and they’re looking for everybody’s best interest. At the same time I know that as a conference organizer you may want to do certain things that won’t work with them for whatever reason, and that can feel restrictive. I wouldn’t be involved with it if it was something that I couldn’t live with.
DH: Is it the Foundation that you’re coordinating with when you’re doing a WordCamp, or Automattic?
DB: You’ll coordinate primarily with someone from the WordPress Foundation.
DH: So I’ve heard that they provide financial support. Is that in the form of effectively giving you the pillar sponsors? How does the budgeting work?
DB: Yeah, you do share a budget with them. They provide you with an initial template for the budget, and they’re there; if you’re starting out, they’re probably going to be more in hand-holding mode. There are suggested ranges of what you should be spending. Your suggested budget should fall within a certain parameter that’s determined per person at the event. If you’re spending $50 or $100 per person per day, than something’s wrong. They give you a general budget outline that you start with, you fill it in and add the sponsorship.
For me, your first WordCamp is just there so you can get the hang of it so you can do your second WordCamp.
For me, your first WordCamp is just there so you can get the hang of it so you can do your second WordCamp. There are going to be problems and difficulties, and you shouldn’t try to dazzle anyone or fiddle with your finances to make that happen. You just want to get through it with the fewest possible problems. For The WordCamp Tampa organizers, that just happened a month or two ago, that’s probably still fresh in their mind—how you get to the end of a successful two day conference.
The Foundation also does provide you with some support and guidance. Sometimes they provide you with mentors who provide additional support for your questions, since the Foundation is so busy.
DH: So the mentors are people who have run a successful WordCamp before?
DB: Yes. They provide some support, they can check in regularly with the organizers to make sure that everything’s on track, if there are any questions, if there are problems, that sort of thing. And if anything can’t be solved on that level, the WordPress Foundation can help then. I was a mentor for WordCamp Omaha; I wasn’t able to make it, but I was doing remote check-ins, and I know there are other mentors who are doing other WordCamps as well.
Additional Advice on Organizing a WordCamp
FM: Is there anything we didn’t touch on that you’d like to tell people who are thinking about becoming WordCamp organizers?
The first thing to do if you see a WordCamp in your future is build out your social network.
DB: From A-Z, the first thing to do if you see a WordCamp in your future is build out your social network. Start online, start strengthening your meetup groups. If you’ve never been to a WordCamp, I think that’s definitely something that you’d need to do before you organize one.
Also, I want to stress reading out the plan on WordCamp Central. I think somebody should read that cover to cover. Once you get rolling, I think mentors are definitely a good idea. For speaker coordinators, assuming that they don’t have a lot of experience, they should check out WordPress.tv to see what talks are actually like. Some people aren’t even very familiar with that.
Building Local Interest
Determining local interest is important. Even if people are not directly related to WordPress, you can connect with other local meetups and people in your community.
Determining local interest is also a big thing, even if people are not directly related to WordPress, you can phrase things in a way that’s more about “front-end development, design, CSS”—see if you can get that in front of some of your other local meetups and people in your community. Say, “Hey, we’re not going to spam you, if you’re interested in a conference like this, sign up for the mailing list.” You can see what these people are interested in, and if some of them are really interested they could maybe be volunteers.
You do submit an application to the WordPress Foundation, and they will ask you about your meetups and your local network in addition to dates and venues. It’s good to get something started like that before you submit that application. In terms of speakers, it’s a local event so you would want to get as many quality local speakers as possible. Sometimes that’s a factor in determining how big your WordCamp actually is. WordCamps should not try to do as many tracks as possible if they don’t have enough quality speakers to fill in those slots. Sometimes it’s better to have one or two tracks a day and just have good, solid, local speakers.
When I say local, you may have to expand what you deem local to other decently close geographical areas. We still think of “local” for WordCamp Miami as anywhere up to Orlando, even though it’s a couple hours drive down.
Setting a Schedule
Determining your schedule for a WordCamp, it’s usually a good idea to look at the interest, the number of people, the potential you have for speakers. For first-time WordCamps, a single day is enough. If you have enough for a lighter second day, go for it, especially if it’s beginner stuff. Our beginner workshop for Miami always draws a crowd and sells out, so it’s a good way to attract people.
The other things you need to consider are well covered in some of the blog posts I’ve written. Everything from happiness bars to communicating to your attendees about the food and wi-fi, how to get things videotaped, setting aside a location for a speaker dinner (which does not have to be grandiose), and getting a designer who might be able to get you logos for the website and t-shirts.
Something always goes wrong, but if the attendees walk away from your event gaining more relationships, learning something, then you’ve done a good job.
Finally, the important thing to realize as an organizer is that bad things are going to happen. Something always goes wrong. At WordCamp San Francisco they had a fire drill and everybody had to leave for at least a half hour, so they had to adjust the schedule on the fly. So that was awkward. You may make mistakes on some things in your control, and other things are completely out of your control.
Some errors might be noticeable to you, but might not be as noticeable to attendees. Don’t be discouraged, especially if it’s your first one. That’s why you shouldn’t try to make it too large or grandiose the first time around. When something is brought to your attention, maybe in your post-event surveys, just be calm and try to focus on what’s really important. The real goal here is really to benefit your local community, strengthen that and give back to WordPress at the same time. If the attendees walk away from your event gaining more relationships, learning something, then you’ve done a good job.
Image credit: Blanca Stella Mejia