How to Make Your Own Conference at Home
Does not require yeast.
In April of this year, I used yeast for the first time. It went well. Shockingly well. I realize it’s supposed to go well, but not all of my lockdown baking adventures had been successful (see: structurally unsound cinnamon bread) and on top of that, yeast is weird. I persevered because there’s something exhilarating about making things versus getting them pre-made — even when it takes a lot of extra time and effort and doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would.
This principle can also be true of things that are not baked goods.
When I realized that in-person conferences were a thing of the past (and the far distant future), my first thought was to just attend one of the conferences that had gone virtual. And that’s probably what I would’ve done had I not been slightly drunk with my newly-acquired soft pretzel-making powers.
I decided I would make my own conference.
To be fair, my motivations were at least partly practical. I wanted more flexibility with the schedule, and I wanted the whole experience to cost less than $100 (the final cost was $50). But when it comes down to it, I really just wanted to make something. I had high hopes that the combination of making and learning would be as satisfying as the combination of making and eating.
Armed with determination, pretzels, and the kind of hubris that only comes from bending yeast to your will, I started planning.
I figured I would focus on exploring three topics — branding for startups, audience research, and inclusive content strategy. The format would be a mix of recorded talks from past conferences, books, and articles. I presented it to my manager, got approval, and marked off three days for the conference. This, I thought, was going to be great. And it was — just not for the reasons I expected.
As is so often the case when we try to make things, it all had to go wrong before it went right.
Day 1 of the conference wasn’t exactly a failure, but it certainly wasn’t a rousing success. Despite all my research, the talks I watched turned out to not be quite as relevant as I had hoped. I also had a much harder time focusing than I thought I would, and I let myself be pulled into meetings that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say no to.
In the end, I abandoned several of the articles I was planning on reading, and wasn’t able to watch a few of the talks I had scheduled.
On day 2, I got through one rather disappointing talk before being stranded on my patio in 95 degree heat while the gas company investigated a suspected leak. It was an hour before I could go back inside, and after about 30 minutes of squinting at my laptop and perspiring freely, I decided it was time to re-evaluate. Clearly, this wasn’t working — but was it time to admit defeat? Did my self-guided conference deserve to land in the bin?
I decided to forge ahead, but with a few changes. Thankfully, conferences are much more forgiving than cake.
First off, I decided to swap out talks for interviews
I seemed to have a much easier time finding interesting interviews than interesting talks. Maybe it's just that interviews are inherently kind of fascinating. They’re surprising. They're often messy. They feel more human — something we crave when we’re sitting in front of our screens all day. On top of that, a great interviewer will ask great questions, and great questions lead to great answers — answers we might not have thought about while planning out a slide deck.
Second, I designated a “reading day”
Okay, fine, maybe I was just looking for an excuse to have a reading day. I miss having the time and space to not just read things, but actually study them — underline sentences, dog-ear pages, and write things in the margins that will embarrass me later (e.g., “IS THE WIND THE PROTAGONIST??”). Emily Heyward’s book Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One is a good one to study, so I made the third day my reading day. I read more slowly, drank a lot of tea, and made a lot of notes. I’m not sure if I learned as much as I would have if I had sped through it and watched some talks or interviews, but I think (hope) I learned better.
Lastly, I spent more time not networking
Before the conference, I emailed a few people I admire and asked if I could talk to them during/around the time of the conference. Surprisingly, they said yes. I devoted a lot of time to coming up with questions to ask and things to talk about that would yield great insights (and maybe make me look good). An hour before the first meeting, I threw away the list. I had woken up feeling pandemic-y (which is a thing), and realized I didn’t care about looking good, or getting “insights into their process.” I just wanted to talk about something real. I think they did, too. The conversations covered a lot of ground — from Hemingway to mentorship to critical theory. It was refreshing and inspiring, and by the end I didn’t feel so pandemic-y.
So. After all that, would I recommend doing a homemade conference? No. But only because I hesitate to recommend anything right now. We are currently experiencing unprecedented levels of advice. Never has it been more important to listen to recommendations. Never have there been more recommendations to listen to.
Even if I did want to offer advice, I doubt it would be very helpful. Because if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that there is no one right way to learn. Making your own messy, unpredictable, wonderful conference is one way to learn. Ignoring this article and embracing the virtual conference is another way. Other options include tinkering in the wee hours, talking to people about interesting things, and sobbing into your cereal while watching Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. All of these are wonderful. All of them can make you feel more hopeful than you were before — perhaps a bit less cramped, and a bit more excited about the world. And we need that now more than ever.