Update: Republishing this, because Tumblr somehow un-indexed it.
Every year I travel to listen to people speak about topics I’m interested in. Most are confident experts in the field. My positive experiences range from relatively educational to life changing. I remember the first time I heard Lawrence Lessig speak about Creative Commons. My mind went nuts. It was burping out ideas like I’d just poured a 2 liter of Dr. Pepper through a hole in my head. It wasn’t just Lessig though, it was the discussion afterward on the car ride home. I couldn’t sleep that night and I loved it.
The conference experience can be a worth every penny, but before you sign the next check over to one of the big-boy conferences, ask yourself if its worth the dollar.
Real and perceived costs and returns
I attended SXSW in 2009 and 2010. Each year I spent an average of $1800 for travel, room, board, and ticket. I missed a good week of billable work. That’s conservatively 25 hours at ($125/hr - my rate at the time). That’s a total of just under $5000. Five Thousand Dollars. Ouch. That number should put a few things in perspective.
The value of those two years at SXSW is hard to quantify though. Without a doubt it has led to more work, and being a speaker adds ballast to the Squared Eye brand. I get exposure to the ideas and practices of other great speakers and thinkers. Not to mention many of my closest friendships in our little web industry started at SXSW.
From Zero to Grok in 60 days.
If going to conferences all year seems fiscally daunting, and if one of the best parts of the conference experience is the discussion between conference sessions then why not work to make that happen at home? That’s the question that sparked what we now call Zero Days. A monthly measure to break away from the norm of work and make use of the collective mind of CoWork Greenville. We wanted to create community and grow the camaraderie of our small collective of businesses and freelancers. My expectations for what a small group of talented and idea-hungry people could do went through the roof.
The next experiment was to see if you could sustain these kind of focused sessions over a few days. I knocked the idea around with Mr. Cameron Koczon, a co-founder of Brooklyn Beta, and in mid-March, the week after SXSW 2011, I launched Greenviile Grok. Yes, I know, Grok is a strange name. It’s perfect though, rooted in sci-fi, Grok basically describes a kind of deep mind-sharing. Besides a great mind-meld I set out to share Greenville’s best BBQ, beer, and backyard fun with what ended up being about 25 people.
Dispersed between three days of meals, downtime, and other breaks were 10/20s, the highlight of the Grok weekend. Born out of our Zero Days these are ten or twenty minute sessions when someone presents an idea, a new app, a business challenge, a question, a technique, or anything else that’s likely to hold the attention of 25 people for a handful of minutes.
In order of occurrence not awesomeness
Though many more than just these folks shared, talked, drank, ate and played with our Grok herd, the list below details the topics that were covered in the three 10/20s.
- Matthew Smith - Sharing wireframes of the Name Brain App
- Cameron Koczon - Discussing The Old Man Schedule
- Yaron Schoen - How many projects should I take at a time?
- Kevin Smith - How do you schedule personal/side projects?
- Bermon Painter - Jack of all Trades, Master of Many (Generalist vs Specialist)
- Jamin Jantz - Project management Questions (How do you do it?)
- Jeremy Nigh - How to make the best of the “design by committee” process.
- Kevin Smith - Wren App preview (OSX Twitter App)
- Cameron Koczon - Orbital Content or What the hell is orbital content? Yaron Schoen - Is there any money in content on the web?
- Chandler Van De Water - Side projects: How do I get crap done?
- Kevin Smith - How to structure business partnerships (ex: a developer & designer want to make an app)
- Adam Clark - Doing freelance work vs. growing a business.
- Matthew Smith - Rethinking Craigslist
- Jamin Jantz - Personalizing Project Management (Not one tool to rule them all)
- Joshua Blankenship - How do you articulate design thinking to clients when it’s largely instinctual to you?
- Bermon Painter - Building Teams - A perfect storm
- Joshua Blankenship - I’ve got 10–15 hours/week for freelance + a demanding 9–5. How can I be professional at it?
- Yaron Schoen - Help me think how to make Tweetment (design your tweets) work quicker.
A few nuggets we gathered along the way
Track Time. Keep the 10/20s time accurate. Its best to let the downtimes before and after these focused sessions handle any overflow on discussion. Keep people hungry for more.
Write it down. Next time we Grok we’re handing out notepads rather than tshirts. Just getting some cat scratch down so that you can remember your ideas for later is good. Using your phone or computer might be distracting to you and others.
Make room to chill. The time between the 10/20s was not only effective for hashing out the ideas and questions that the 10/20s raised, it was also great for laughing it up, and getting silly over a few pints.
Go get it done. If all this ideation and talking goes nowhere and does nothing, we should all go home. Its important to sift through the cruft and find the three take-aways from something like this and go and make them happen.
Grok is not a conference killer, but its a serious alternative or a way to augment your conference attendance in a year. Grok is not a focused teaching time, there is great value in learning from industry leaders in a conference setting, and Grok isn’t well suited for that.
Grok is not for networking. You may meet new people and that may have the fruit of building some kind of false “network” for you, but we all came to Grok because we are truly hungry for new ideas, answers to old questions, and ways we can throw out the status quo or refine old standards.
Grok is not for large groups or an elite few. We had roughly 25 people attend and we might have been able to add a few more, but beyond that it would have lost its edge. We would have also lost out if we had focused on industry elites. We had a great mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds and skill sets, both in and peripheral to the web industry and I think it made all the difference.
Curate your crowd. As I picked the group that came to Grok I had a distinct desire to find people who were eager to think critically and ask hard questions. Their level of experience was less important to me than their energy for change and growth.
Don’t create something that’s more work than it’s worth. I set out to make Grok easily manageable and require next to no extra work on my part. The main way to do this was by getting people to attend who have some level of self motivation. I’m not interested in dragging anyone along.
Your turn now
Keep going to those great conferences. Keep doing incredible work. Read your ass off. But somewhere in between all that, take the time to do something like this. Do your own thing. I hope my little treatise here will give you some ideas along the road. In general I find that high quality and high gravity beer moves the whole thing along nicely.
Something to remember us by
This fine specimen of a caveman is named Grok. He’s a reminder that you don’t have to be a genius to get into this stuff. You just have to be hungry for great ideas and pizza.
When’s the next Grok you ask? Well that’s a hot little question. We’re asking ourselves that same question now, but I’d be surprised if we’ll be able to wait a whole year till the next one. There is a rumor that we may throw the next one in Brooklyn somewhere near The Beer Table, but I can’t confirm that.