A Reflection on Organizing the Burlington Ruby Conference

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"Why are you organizing a conference?" - Someone asked me this question when we were just starting to plan for this year's Burlington Ruby Conference. I don't remember my exact response, but it was probably a long the lines of "Uhhhh I don't know, it's just something I want to do". I remember thinking "why wouldn't you want to do it?". I was really excited about it and it felt like one of those things I was supposed to do.

It turns out that doing it well takes a lot of hard work. I'm estimating that I spent over 200 hours on this year's event, not including the nights I dreamt about it. I'm not sure where that stands compared to other web developers who moonlight as conference organizers, but I'm guessing it's on the higher end of the spectrum. I can't picture many developers devoting that much time to something software-related that isn't coding. For me though, the payoff has been huge. While I haven't benefited financially, I've learned a lot about planning and budgeting, made some awesome friends, and had what I would consider one of the best experiences of my life.

It has been almost two weeks since the conference ended, so I wanted to jot down a few of my thoughts on it before they faded.

Goals for this year

This was the 2nd year for the Burlington Ruby Conference. I was not very involved last year, other than helping with a last minute scramble to try and find attendees. This year I wanted to be more involved. When we started planning back in January, we knew there were a few things that needed to change in order to make it an event we could continue to do. To understand what I mean, let's take a look at last year's conference by the numbers:

Last year:

A conference with only 75 attendees and almost no sponsors is simply not sustainable. Including sponsors, our budget for last year's event was just over $12K. We did not plan on having a conference this small, but as most first-year organizers know all too well, things rarely go as planned. We had to cut back on a lot of things at the last minute, such as the venue size, and it was stressful for everyone involved. In order to make the conference sustainable, we knew we needed to increase our budget and attendance. We set a few goals for this year that we knew were ambitious, but would allow us to run the conference without having to forgo the things we felt were essential.

Our Goals for this year:

We knew that increasing our attendance and budget by 2x was an ambitious goal. How were we going to get 150 people to come to Vermont for a software conference? How were we going to raise enough money to double our budget and be able to afford some of the nice to haves such as video recordings? How could we increase diversity?

It took a lot of hard work and creativity to reach these goals, and here are a few of the things we did to achieve them.

MOAR Speakers

Last year's conference did not have an official call for proposals. All of the speakers were personally invited. When we started thinking about getting speakers at this year's conference, we were sort of naive and wanted to avoid a formal CFP and just do invite-only again. We compiled a list of people that we wanted to speak at the conference and began reaching out to them. We had a couple 'Yes's, but most of them either said they were busy or just didn't reply. We were a little discouraged, so I tweeted at @devchix asking for help getting the word out. 15 minutes later, Ashe Dryden replied saying that she wanted to help us make the process more friendly to diverse groups. Ashe had written a blog post on how to increase diversity at your conference that I would consider the bible on this subject. She encouraged us to publish a diversity statement and code of conduct, organize a blind speaker selection process, as well as helped us organize a few Google hangouts to meet potential speakers.

The Google hangouts proved to be invaluable for finding great speakers. Two of my favorite speakers this year both happened to be in those hangouts. They seemed very excited about the conference, and since they made it through the blind proposal selection and into the final round, we decided to pick both of them. We ended up with 52 submissions and increased the total number of speakers from 10 to 12, though it didn't make the selection process any easier. For those who submitted and were not selected, I spent a few hours sending personalized emails delivering the bad news. A few people replied asking how they could improve their proposals, but unfortunately with 52 submissions and only 9 slots, it was really not about quality. This was definitely one of the hardest parts of the entire experience for me.

MOAR Sponsors

"Let's just get more sponsors". This was probably the most naive thought I had going into planning this year's conference. The thing about sponsors is that unless you have a direct connection or are an established event, it's pretty much impossible to find them. There are three reasons I can think of why someone would sponsor a conference. 1) They're hiring, 2) they're marketing a product, and/or 3) to support their community. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we didn't have much traction from our local community in terms of financial support, but I thought it would be different if we reached out beyond our local community. Sadly this was not the case. If a company is selling a product or hiring, they want to know that their target audience will be in attendance. They need to know the conference is worth it for them. If they were basing their response on last year's conference, 75 attendees is not a lot of people to get in front of. After "cold emailing" a TON of companies and getting zero 'Yes's, it became apparent that we were wasting our time and would need to focus our attention on ticket sales. More on sponsorship in a bit...

MOAR Attendees

Going from 75 to 150 attendees is kind of a big deal. After making the decision to grow, I started to wonder, "is this too many people for our second year?". How do you even reach that many people? There are now close to 20 Ruby conferences in the U.S each year, and that number is still increasing. While having a high number of these regional conferences is great for the community, it puts a lot of pressure on the organizers to provide a unique experience. Why would someone fly across the country for a conference when they have one in their own region or state, or even their own city?

We needed to give people a reason to want to come. One of the nice things about Vermont is that it's a beautiful state and people love to vacation here. We recognized that in order to bring people to the conference, we'd need to focus on why we believed people should come. Our goal for Burlington Ruby is to build community and have fun. We see it as an excuse for people to come to Vermont for a weekend vacation, away from their normal, busy lives. Oh, and there just so happens to be a Ruby conference taking place.

I live in Vermont for its slower pace and quality of life. This laid back nature is evident in our schedule (long breaks) and the types of talks we had. We decided to focus our marketing on Vermont's beauty and not try and be something we weren't. We're a small conference focused on having a fun, relaxing weekend and making friends.

People seemed to take notice:

The history of the cat sponsors and Ruby toys

We also wanted to put on a conference that matched our personalities and felt like it belonged here in Burlington.

The cat sponsors and Ruby catnip toys were never something we set out to do. Early in the planning, we decided we wanted to do some sort of workshop to try and get people excited about Ruby and want to come to the conference. I reached out to Maureen McElaney who had just started a Burlington chapter of Girl Develop It. She was excited to meet with us and organize a workshop via GDI. During our initial conversation, the topic of sponsors came up, and Brett and I were discussing the lack of support we were getting from our local community. We started joking about how we were just going to have cats sponsor us, and two days later, the first official conference cats were born.

One month after the cats went live, and still no traction with sponsors, I was sitting there thinking about how great cats are, and decided we needed cat toys to go with the cat sponsors. I reached out to a local artist who had an Etsy store and asked if she would be interested in making Ruby shaped catnip toys that we could sell at the conference. I felt like an idiot and thought she would think I was crazy, but she got back to me literally 5 minutes later and said she was interested in making them. She went ahead and made a trial run, and after a week we had the first official Ruby conference catnip toys.

Burlington Ruby Conference catnip cat toys

We mailed out some of the toys to people who had helped us out so far, and figured it would be a good way to get the word out. Soon pictures and videos started popping up on Twitter, and we were getting a lot more traffic to our website. We don't really have any way of knowing, but I'm curious how many people came to the conference either directly or indirectly because of the cats.

Dropping sponsorship prices

We sold nearly half the total tickets during our initial early bird ticket sale (aka "Fresh Tracks"). Then things slowed down to a crawl. The good news was that we had already sold more tickets than we did the previous year. The bad news was that we still had 75 to go in order to reach our goal. We knew that if we sold enough tickets, we would at least be able to afford to put on the event and not lose a ton of money. Since we didn't have any traction with sponsors, we decided to drop the sponsorship prices to the point where we were basically selling the tickets in bulk. For slightly more than the individual cost of a ticket, you got to be a sponsor. Not a bad deal. This definitely worked in our favor as we started to have a few sponsors actually reaching out to us.

Ruby Workshop

We felt strongly that the Ruby workshop was important to have in conjunction with the conference. Burlington has a very small developer community, and last year we had very few Vermonters in attendance. As I mentioned ealier, we met with Maureen to plan out a Ruby training/workshop, and she took the idea and ran with it. The workshop happened one week before the conference and had around 25 participants. Other than maybe a free class, this was probably one of the best introductions to programming and Ruby that someone could get for under $100. Maureen put together the entire class, including connecting with the teacher Alex Chaffee who did an AWESOME job teaching the workshop. If you ever have a chance to buy either of these folks a beer, please do so.

Girl Develop It Burlington Ruby workshop


The idea for offering scholarships came from Carina Zona during one of the Google hangouts. It was something that we wanted to do, but didn't think we'd be able to make happen. Later, I found out about a new program through Ruby Central called the Opportunity Scholarship that would match up to $1,500. As the months went by, we were still getting the occasional cat sponsor, and by July had raised over $1K. At this point, we had also sold enough tickets to cover the conference expenses, and were able to set aside tickets to give to scholars. We ended up giving away 11 scholarships, most of which went to women who attended the Girl Develop It workshop, and this was their first tech conference.

Side note: If you're organizing a conference, I highly recommend taking advantage of the scholarship funds from Ruby Central. It's a great way to increase diversity, get the word out about your conference, raise a little money, and most importantly, give people an opportunity to attend a conference who would not have been able to otherwise.

Selling Out

During the last week before the conference, our headcount was 149 attendees. This included reselling a handful of tickets that we refunded earlier on. I wanted nothing more than to sell this last ticket to say that we had sold out. Sure, we could have just said that we had sold out, but that would have been lame. So finally it was friday night, 15 minutes before the kick off party started, and I got an email saying the last ticket had been sold.

The guy who bought the last ticket became an instant celebrity:

Since we're planning on keeping next year's attendance at 150 (including speakers), I'm hoping the fact that we sold out this year will create demand and make it easier to sell tickets next year.

Mission Accomplished

In the end, we reached or exceeded every single one of our goals. We had 150 attendees, nearly doubled the number of speakers, increased female attendance to over 20%, had a considerable increase in sponsors, and were able to hire Confreaks to come and film the talks.

This year:

This post discussed just a few of the things we did for this year's Burlington Ruby Conference that I felt were either unique to our event or contributed to our success. I don't think people will notice too many drastic changes next year as we'll likely focus on polishing things up and continuing to make it an exceptional experience for everyone. If you're interested in hearing more or have specific questions about conferences or cats, please reach out!

Thank you so much to everyone who made the event happen, especially Brett, my supportive wife, my mom who provided unlimited phone support, and my partners at Agilion. I am incredibly grateful to have had the experience and cannot wait to start organizing it again next year. See you at Burlington Ruby in 2014!

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