Planning a Conference for Hundreds of People with David Bisset

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David Bisset is a WordPress developer who also happens to plan one of the biggest WordCamps in the United States. Their 9th one happened recently so I sat down and talked to David about what goes into planning a WordCamp, especially one this big!

Show Notes


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Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks “How did you build that?” Today, my guest is Dave Bisset who is one of the organizers for WordCamp Miami, one of the biggest local WordCamps at least stateside. Dave, how are you doing today?

David Bisset: I’ll let you know when I finish my coffee.

Joe Casabona: We are recording earlier in the morning here. I am annoyingly a morning person which Dave learned from WordCamp US so I will be very chipper until you finish your coffee.

David Bisset: You’re being very, you’re being very kind. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon right now.

Joe Casabona: So Dave and I met at WordCamp US specifically for the post status event. And Dave, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do for your day job and then how you got into organizing WordCamp Miami?

David Bisset: Well, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for like probably ten years with WordPress, started off very early on WordPress 1.5. I’m currently, so I’ve always been building customized sites that are getting more and more complex. I do things, I do plugins and I do a lot of work but [Inaudible 03:05.8] I now work for a three company called awesome models which handles plugins such as OptinMonster, Envira Gallery and [Inaudible 03:14.3] among other plugins. So I more specifically focused on the Envira gallery plugin and I’ve got a couple of side projects on the side. So…

Joe Casabona: Awesome, that sounds great. And then so when did you start with WordCamp Miami?

David Bisset:  2009 I think. We actually, this is our 9th year for WordCamp Miami and 

Joe Casabona: Wow!

David Bisset: Yeah. So back when the first WordCamp Miami was really a room that would for one day there was that hell they think maybe like seeing people or something like that. WP candy-covered it. [Inaudible 03:50.7] so yeah. So there, it was kind of a track, I think it was part of a BarCamp Miami thing and BarCamp Miami or BarCamps at that time was really really at the forefront of these, you know, community social events you know, like a large beat-up or kind of like WordCamps. They were unconferences and it was a, for the time they were really popular, they still exist today. So after I experienced that, John, Jacobi, Todd Dunbar, and the few other people that lived in Miami at the time and I got together in a room and we decided let’s just throw on a dedicated WordCamp Miami. I’m drawing a blank in the year when the first WordCamp was but it really wasn’t like maybe WordCamps were going on for two years at this time.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, I think like WordCamp San Francisco, the first one was like 2006 but the next one like I went to WordCamp New York in 2008 but 2009 is still very early like well before a formalized process for WordCamps started.

David Bisset: Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Maybe it was only, maybe it was two years since like we were like they were popular, you know, we were “aware” but yeah it was so early on that. There wasn’t any organization at all in terms of the WordPress foundation. And when I say that I mean just there wasn’t anything set up yet, they were so, they were still so new that you were still, there was no guidance, there was no game plan really set, there were no handbooks, there were no mentorships, there is nothing. So a lot of things we learned we learned on our own and you know, yeah. I think our first WordCamp is at a University in Miami with but like, I like to estimate like around 200-250 people maybe for, think we did it for, I think we started with a two-day event. So but anyway, yeah. So it was so, yeah back in those days you were pretty much-running things by the skinnier teeth.

Joe Casabona: Yeah. So I guess it’s worth noting, right that WordCamps first of all for those who don’t know who might be listening, WordCamps are you know, these weekend WordPress focused conferences and these were not something that we’re kind of like handed down by the WordPress foundation or the WordPress powers that be right. These were like community-organized events that seem to take off especially in the last few years, right?

David Bisset: Yeah, they keep the number’s current dramatically in the past couple of years. I think those, I think 2016 there was a big bump and we’re starting to see WordCamps now places that most people have not heard of, you know, smaller cities and also cities and locations in Russia and India and which is fantastic because without that concentrated level of support than there’s, and it’s really harder to get in WordCamp together and some countries outside of the US So I think and I think that’s where now I think that falls in line with what the WordPress focus has been to try to make WordPress available to as many people as possible especially those who don’t speak English. so I think WordCamps has been following along in that.. the same, the same path.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. And so I organized WordCamp Scranton in 2015. I’ve been involved in either through speaking or other ways, involved in a lot of WordCamps but like I mentioned earlier it’s a fairly formalized process now. You kind of start off with a little bit of seed money, you have a mentor, you have essentially a checklist but none of that existed in 2009. So can you tell us a little bit about like the research and work that went into event planning in the early years of WordCamps?

David Bisset: I don’t think there was much. I don’t even, I didn’t even attend the WordCamp before I organized my first WordCamp Miami. WordCamp Miami was the first official WordCamp I was ever at and it’s hard to remember back then but we had people go to other previous WordCamps. And so we had first-hand knowledge back and I can’t remember what WordCamps are up until the organizers went to. But we really, we had a lot of, we had general conference knowledge ’cause we attended conferences down here in South Florida and more. Miami specifically, was a host to a number of tech conferences in the late 2000s trying a blank in the one, [Inaudible 08:57.8] future of web apps was a conference that used to be hosted in Miami several times and that was one of my first exposures and two larger conferences. And also I met some people there, then I eventually would meetup up with another WordCamps across the country back then. In the late 2000s, there were not a lot of large-scale tech conferences at least once that is approached general affordability. My note CNET, that was the time we’ve seen it, was still a thing and running conferences as well so there wasn’t a lot you know like I said BarCamps were just becoming a thing and those you know, the concept of local community-run conferences was still kind of fresh and kind of new. And I look back on the attendance of the BarCamp Miami where WordCamp Miami was. I actually saw a lot of interesting people and bigger names and then that you would recognize today like Kevin Marks, Frank Carson, and all these other people that are probably there because it was so new in there. There weren’t 10,000 conferences at that time.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, wow! Yeah, exactly like I remember I mean Matt Mullenweg came to the New York one in 2008 and it was the only one I really knew of. I just was like “Oh, WordPress event” so that I mean, that’s really interesting. And you know, like we both said they grew a ton in the last couple of years. I’ll include in the show notes some statistics from the state of the Word, mass kind of end of the year keynote speech. Now they say it takes a village, and planning any event of considerable size takes more than one per person right? It was me and a Co-organizer to organize a 100 person event in Scranton.

David Bisset: It takes more than one person for me to organize my family dinner, so…

Joe Casabona: Yeah, exactly. So you have several Co-organizers right? So in lieu of like the, do you have a mastermind? a question that I usually ask: maybe you can talk about what it’s like, you know, working with several other people as well as the WordPress Foundation in order to plan a WordCamp of about 800 people, you said.

David Bisset: We had 850 last year.

Joe Casabona: Wow! Yeah so, yeah why don’t we talk about that a little bit.

David Bisset: Yeah, you need to have a really strong organization team and you do need to have people that are willing to step up and make decisions or to crack the whip sometimes. That doesn’t always have to be the lead organizer that does that. our lead organizer, like we have a lot of people that love to help but we’re still having few people that want to be in the command chair necessarily which is fine because sometimes it’s the people around the community that do a lot of decision-making getting with the lead organizer. Sometimes the best way to lead organized is to just make sure everything is flowing properly. Communications are a big help too and I think once we got our Slack channel, it started two years ago I think that also helps tremendously. And just communication and regular checkups are the big things in organizing WordCamp in any size. Especially, one is especially once you get above like maybe once you start getting above 500 it starts to exponentially increase in complexity and needing additional people even for the same general task like instead of one sponsor coordinator, speaker coordinator you may need two or something like that.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely ’cause I mean with you know, we smaller WordCamps have maybe one or two tracks, maybe a dozen speakers or so, so I can only imagine, you know, what it’s like wrangling enough speakers to accommodate 850 people. And actually, that’s a great transition into the next question, right, which is kind of the title question which is how did you build it? And in this case, maybe you can take us through the process like a 10,000-foot overview of what it’s like to plan a WordCamp from kind of start to finish, and then some of the challenges that you run into for a WordCamp of your scale.

David Bisset: Well, I think the two biggest things that you do with any WordCamp especially ours is the venue and the budget. The venue dictates kind of the date a lot of times unless we have a lot of freedom. And for WordCamps, the venue can sometimes be free if you’re, I guess fortunate, so that’s usually like a local college, university or school, or some other venue like that. Other times it’s paid for so your venue is the key thing and that’s what I do WordCamp mentoring as well and that’s the first thing you talk about with the WordCamps. Where your venue is going to be dictates the size of your event, that dictates a lot of times like how many tracks you have, and budget-wise it’s a foundation thing. spending sometimes can affect your, you know, if you cater and a few other factors which affect your budget. 

And then the budget of course is the next vital thing you know, in terms of what kind of money you could be bringing in and what support will be getting from the foundation in terms of dollar signs. So those are the two fundamentals that we start off with. So just like if you were, if you are establishing a boilerplate for a plugin or theme or something goes would be part, that’s part of the boilerplate for getting the foundation for the New York event started. And for WordCamp Miami, we’ve always, it’s always been there’s always something that goes off every year like you know like a venue can’t give us this room or there’s a scheduling conflict or something along those lines and we have to flip flop on dates sometimes. But so that’s probably one of the bigger things regarding the event itself for our event in particular.

Joe Casabona: Gotcha, and I know that. So there’s kind of two things I want to ask about based on what you said. And the first is regarding budget, I think that will inform the second question that so when you if you decide today that you know if I decide today I want to plan a WordCamp West Chester PA which I probably wouldn’t get ’cause it’s very close to Philly anyway, but I would go to the foundation I would apply, and if I’m accepted I’m not starting at zero as far as money for the event goes, is that right?

David Bisset: Well, you’re not putting up any money but the foundation would initially. And then before even applying there’s, you know, the assumption that you have a local communicated sustainer. So sometimes WordCamps start off with 100 attendees but as long as there is, ’cause the WordPress foundation will support the event if they see an indication that, that event is going to be a measure like a level of success and the bar can be set really low but it’s still a bar. So like if you have a meetup group you know, that’s if you have us if you have any strongest, the best work with maybe a consistent meetup group in your area then that would be the first priority because that’s where some of your speakers are gonna come from, that’s where your networking starts for promotion of the event. When the foundation sees that, that approves it then they will, you know, put up a percentage of money depending on the number of different factors. And then it’s up to you to fill out the rest of the budget in terms of like trying to obtain sponsors. 

And sometimes if an event can like I said if a venue or event is, fortunately, the venue is free, then food is usually the next biggest cost, so…And if you’re having a small event like 100 people that’s like a large meetup to me so it’s fair, the budget is the budget can almost be I’ve seen WordCamps were like they just need like one or two smaller sponsors to help fill out the rest of it. 

Joe Casabona: Yeah, so that’s a great point right? So the foundation is going to pay for the whole event. They expect that you will fundraise but don’t give you either the necessary seed money or recommend some percentage from them if you need it. Now I ask that first because when it comes to the venue when you’re getting the support of the foundation, there are some limitations on the venue, right? And this was something that took me by surprise ‘because I didn’t know this upfront. So if you’re planning a WordCamp, what sort of things do you need to look for or look out for when you’re choosing a venue?

David Bisset: Well location, location, location. So you know, you have to make sure your venue is not a hole in the wall somewhere and that doesn’t mean it’s a small venue but just you know, make sure it looks like a proper place for people to actually meet.

Joe Casabona: It’s not like some dude’s basement.

David Bisset: Yeah, I mean but you know it’s somebody is a good basement and it fits that’s fine, right?

Joe Casabona: Right.

David Bisset: But the cost is a big factor. The location if people are going to be traveling out of town usually for your larger WordCamps that are like really really local, you should have it at someplace where it should be getting easy to get to at somebody when he comes out of town. There’s a bunch of different factors and fortunately the WordPress foundation kind of gives guidance in terms of selecting a good venue. There’s everything from you know, larger things. What should we think of evenly off the bat like what you know,  are you allowed to cater, are you allowed to bring in food, is there Wi-Fi you know, those are pretty, you know in fact Wi-Fi probably comes before food and the priority scale for many people. And down to the smaller things too like, you know, our rooms are easy to find. You know there are no bathrooms within considerable distances, is it accessible for those who are disabled and all you know, all those everything kind of factors to it. So unfortunately the foundation hasn’t checked [Inaudible 19:35.0] but that’s yeah. If you’ve got power, if you got, you know, easy access to food and wifi, and enough seats and the technology that we need to have projectors hopefully, those are the basics. It really is not a lot to survey WordCamp from the very basic level. I’ve seen WordCamps to, you know, copilot bearable as long as you got people like and put their butts in seats, you’ve got speakers and some sort of technology to start, that’s where you start from.

Joe Casabona: Gotcha, that’s excellent. And so venue budget. What about speakers and sponsors because I think those are probably next on the priority list, right? it wouldn’t be much of a conference if you didn’t have speakers and sponsors. Can you talk a little bit about your process? well I’m sure from Miami you know, you get tons of applications but if someone’s just starting out, what do you think is the best thing to do to get speakers and sponsors?

David Bisset: Speakers and sponsors for WordCamps. Sponsors are always a challenge especially if you’re starting out. I think that there is, it is a lot more of a credit space and the motto is you know, go for your local find sponsors in the yellow area that’s a lot harder than it sounds. And it is actually a challenge for a lot of smaller WordCamps. Even for WordCamp Miami, our challenge is it’s always somewhat a challenge every year first breath sponsorships. Particularly sponsorships for us are the ones that are in the middle where you don’t pay as much because you don’t have a presence but you still want to support the event. Those are actually the hardest sponsors for us to get because you know, either you get somebody who wants you to contribute to communities but shipping with somebody like a big hosting company that wants to, so yeah we’re still looking for sponsors right now and we’ve been doing this for nine years. And I do my best to keep the budget and the price reasonable and unless the WordPress foundation asks us to raise our prices, we rarely do. But still looking for sponsors is tough, something. It helps to have that network of people staring at your meetup group to be able to branch out from that and forming relationships with some other meetup groups too so it helps to have the network.

Speakers again, if you’ve been running a meetup for it’s the first place to look for in terms of speakers. And the second most common way again is to branch out to other meetup groups like a group of PHP or front end developers, JavaScript meetup groups in your area, those are also places to ping and find potential speakers too. So you’re starting off from if you’re starting up for the WordCamp, staying very local. And if someone you know, there could be a couple of people from the outside, you know some people come automatically like to go to WordCamps you know that are just starting out especially think if their travel is comped. But yeah, it’s you know, worry about your local speakers first and you even said you don’t get surprised, you could start serving your meetup group way before WordCamps in the plan like “All right. Hey, you’ve spoken in a meetup before, how would you like to speed up the speaking slightly larger?” So that’s how to start, that’s how the story is. 

WordCamp Miami’s a little bit different because we’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve got more of an international, I don’t know, attention, especially in South America where people like to come up from South America or the Caribbean. There are not as many WordCamps down there oh but that’s growing. So our local percentage is a little bit less in terms of first knowledge but yeah we’ve got kind of that part. But we’re still, even WordCamp Miami there were still, we reach out to other speakers. So one of the things I talk about frequently is don’t just announce the speaker. Call and sit back and wait for the applications to come in even if you are a 2000, 3000 attendee event because if you want diversity then a lot of times you gonna have to work for it. So finding local meetup groups not for profits even parents, kids to have a really neat event, it should you know, diverse events are unique events, and a lot of times you have to go out and invite people or invite organizations to apply on a larger more diverse speaker application or the better diverse and interest [Inaudible 24:29.1]

Joe Casabona: Gotcha, that’s some great advice. And for anybody listening out there who wants to start a meetup group, there’s a great episode of How I built it with Liam Dempsey who runs the Philly burbs meetup, one of the older and more popular at least originally meetup groups. So definitely check that episode out if you want some tips on running again meetup group.

I can speak to local sponsors thing. I have a lot of, I know a lot of people in the greater WordPress community, so finding sponsors that were not local was a bit easier for me but getting the local by and was very tough. So though in fact that I actually wrote like this open letter to the tech community in Scranton about the importance of supporting these smaller events, and that finally generated some buzz to get people to sponsor this event and bring people together and it was a very successful event. But don’t get discouraged, it can be very frustrating to find sponsors you know especially if it is your first year.

David Bisset: Yeah and a lot of it like I said a lot of this network and networking means that you attend other meetups and then shake some hands, show a face you know if you ping a meetup month on the road or something that just says “Hey, would you like to spread this around?” it will help you more enthusiastically if they know you truly care about the larger community in general not just your particular [Inaudible 25.59.9]

Joe Casabona: Gotcha, gotcha. That’s great. And so we are coming up on the end of time here and there’s a couple of questions I still want to ask so this was by no means a comprehensive guide to planning a WordCamp but there are resources I will link in the show notes. What I wanna ask you is what are the, what would you say are the biggest transformations that WordCamp Miami has gone through since it started in 2009?

David Bisset: It’s gone from renting a couple of small side rooms. It is at one university to two grabbing the biggest spaces that we can at these larger state universities like the size has been, they can’t deny we’ve gone from 250 and five years. I don’t see us growing probably any faster than that just because of the venue limitations so that’s probably going to be, you know, whatever changes or transformations we’re making in the future it’s gonna be space on something else. A lot of the transitions or a lot of the things that we’ve done I think over the years in terms of like using speaker cards or for the speakers there like trading cards for speakers that we intend, we give out to the attendees randomly and so, therefore, should network together to try to collect them all. But we also do I think what’s made us so different when we started from the beginning is also the like the swag ideas that we’ve done like the Walker trading cards that we’ve released to open source and you know, stuff like that, it doesn’t and the formats for the talks as well and we’ve tried you know, we don’t you know, we’ve tried like variations of the beginners or 102 type of track on our primary conference day. We’ve always done a beginner’s workshop which has been consistent and that consistency helps us establish new people coming in. 

And then finally I think in the last, last year is I learned to just skip deeply, track which is I think if not the only least one of the few like official tracks devoted to JavaScript word for WordPress work ends which was suggested. I mean it always came up with the idea and then we executed it three months after his talk and then the state of the word. So that I think is helping, that we hope is gonna encourage others to try that as well. And I think Matt mentioned that very graciously on his last day of the word about WordCamp Miami’s efforts and we’re really hoping that we’re doing that again this time around. Really hoping that catches out in 2017.

Joe Casabona: Gotcha. That’s all great, very creative stuff for a constantly evolving WordCamp which is great. And what are your plans for the future?

David Bisset: We’ve got, well our 10th anniversary is 2018 so we’re starting to make plans for that. And we’ve got some interesting ideas in terms of how we can schedule that, that obviously I’m not going to mention here specifically ’cause that’s kind of, I’m worried about our night but too busy worried about our, too busy to worry about our 10th. But yeah, for the future I think you know, it’s not being about the biggest and the best, it’s not a competition other than to compete with ourselves so as long as we have a successful event for and all the 800 people or 700 or so forth, I personally and I’m comfortable with our attendant level actually. We’ve gotten a number of people asking us when is WordCamp or WordCamp US coming to Miami and I say well “**** in a hurry. I really do not, just have these advantages though I have to admit the weather’s December you can’t beat it. But then anyway yeah, I’ve, as far as success goes moving forward I think we just need to keep making people happy and we keep getting good positive feedback from the event cause even though we get Emma sponsors too I think a part of the successful event for this long is how many spots do you get back. And we’ve got some excellent feedback from sponsors and that’s part of how I qualify them you know, How we are doing well. In fact, Tony Perez gave very high marks to WordCamp Miami recently in an [Inaudible 30.33.6] article about working smart issues so it’s that kind of feedback that we consider we’re doing something right.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. And OK, so with the last minute or so here, I want to ask you my favorite question, do you have any trade secrets for us?

David Bisset: There are no secrets because practically it’s an open book, right? So I’m a WordCamp mentor, I tried to attend the community summits so I have what part makes a WordPress conference or WordCamp successful is that you don’t keep secrets. You share your knowledge of that and though I mean we do you know, anything that I could share with me something probably limited in terms of swag or so along those lines. One of the things though that maybe I would share is that we’re doing something new WordCamp Miami in March. We’re incorporating a speaker tool and I can provide you a link for the show notes for, by the time this airs it’s already gonna happen. So but the link I could share right now is for a preview of it. We are WordCamp Miami is I think a trade secret would be to try to find something that your WordCamp does that very few WordCamps are doing or can make you stand out in some way so that’s why we started the JavaScript track and all of that. So that’s a no, that’s not really a secret but it is I think, if you are, if you’re doing a WordCamp for a number of years, always try to find something to spice things up and make yourself stand out a little from a lot of the crowd. Miami’s doing that through a site that right now it’s called but its long story short was we’re giving people the opportunity. 

And working up this year to pick up their phone and do a live-like feedback system when the speaker talks but it’s not a, they’re not typing anything they’re actually pushing a few emojis and those emojis organic, it’s stored. Those emojis are gonna get stored so the speakers will be able to go back and look and see “Oh, this person clapped here at the five-minute mark. And this person laughed here” and so yeah, that’s already been kind of tested already at WP Campus. So I’ll provide a link kind of show notes for it and that you know like I said, not really a secret ’cause I’ve been blabbing about this now for almost a year. In fact, we didn’t talk at WordCamp US about the same general but if there is a secret you know, it is that you try to find something you need. 

And probably two would be another trade secret is trying to be involved in the actual process of these decisions that are being made forward, keeps you know that make a community channel. If you want to be more deeply involved in or get a better picture of how WordCamps are run and how decisions are made in the latest updates that is definitely pleased to enhance yourself. In fact, there’s a question up there right now, I think they’re restarting the discussion about whether WordCamps pay for speaker travel. So yeah.

Joe Casabona: That’s fantastic. Well Dave, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

David Bisset: Oh, no problem, no problem. You know, the blackmail has nothing to do with it.

Joe Casabona: I Will try to keep that under ask for at least a few more months.

David Bisset: That’s could, that can be edited down.

Joe Casabona: Thanks so much to a great guest and our awesome sponsors. And most importantly thank you, the show wouldn’t be where it is today without your support over the last few months. I couldn’t have imagined that the show would be as big as it is. At the time of this recording, I am approaching 50,000 downloads total in less than a year and I am ecstatic about that. And for Season Three, I want to learn more about you, so I put together a survey if you go to just a little bit of information about who you are and what you do, and what you like so I can deliver the best content for you. Again that’s built

And once again, thank you so much for listening. As we wind down Season Two, I’m really looking forward to Season Three. It’s gonna be our best yet.

And until next time, get out there and build something.

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