How to Make Money Hosting a Conference

Last week my friend Teri and I hosted Bootstrap Live, a 3 hour meet up on bootstrapping a company (aka growing a company without outside capital). We were inspired by this very helpful post by Noah Kagan… so I wanted to pay it forward and explain exactly how we did it.

Sold out crowd of 120
Sold out crowd of 120

Note: I hate when people with very little experience write posts as if they are experts. So I’ll say up front that this was our first event and we are not experts. This is more of a “how we did it” kind of thing.

This post explains:

  1. The exact steps we took to make Bootstrap LIVE freakin’ awesome
  2. How we found a venue for free
  3. How we sold 120 tickets and made $2,000

Land a whale – make it EASY for them to say YES

To make this event amazing we had to establish credibility. If we had credibility then everything would be easier…so this was our first step. Selling tickets, getting PR, landing other speakers…everything would be easier with credibility. We decided the best way to do this would be to get a semi-famous host in the tech world: Andrew Warner of Not only is Andrew very talented at interviewing people, but he has a TON of clout.

I  hung out with Andrew a few times in the past but by no means were we best buds, so we really took a ton of time to impress him. Our goal was to make it VERY easy for him (and the other speakers) to say yes. Before we even asked him we created the event page on Eventbrite with all the details like speakers, schedule, location, and stuff like that. We didn’t actually have any other speakers or even a location, but we took a risk of saying we did anyway..,knowing once we got Andrew we could get the other stuff. This made it easy for him to say yes.

Stick out and land great speakers – our email template

Popular folks like Andrew and the rest of the speakers get asked to do stuff all the time – interview requests, coffee meetings, etc….so we had to stand out from the crowd.

In Andrew’s case, it was a handwritten letter and bottle of scotch. In the letter, we made it very, very, very clear about how this event would benefit him. Here’s the exact letter we sent him. Feel free to copy it.

Once we wrote the letter, we found his work address and Teri personally delivered it. He said yes right on the spot.

Here’s the email we sent Neville. Funny and straight to the point (this is the first time we ever spoke).

Sam Parr and Neville Medhora

In our opinion, landing great speakers was KEY. We wanted accomplished people who were actually experts in their field, had a great story, and were genuinely nice and fun people…not the VP of marketing of some silly company, a self-proclaimed expert, or someone bragging about being a “growth hacker.”

In the end we end up with three awesome founders:

  1. Chris Herndon, Apartment List
  2. Nikhil Auroa, Back To The Roots
  3. Neville Medhora, House of Rave, Appsumo, and NevBlog

Funny story: when I called Neville and convinced him to come I told him we’d take care of accommodation…This really meant having him sleep in my room and me crashing on the couch. This was amazing for me because he’s a super cool and smart dude and he even came to our book club…so it was cool to have him around for a week. He ended up loving my dog so I think we both won. 🙂

The Venue

This was actually pretty freaking easy. Most offices LOVE hosting meetups. We cold emailed a few co-working spaces and they all said yes. I can’t emphasize this enough, but the key in these emails was to appeal to their interests. NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOU…THEY ONLY CARE ABOUT THEMSELVES. Remember this. We would email the office manager and tell them how we were going to have 150 entrepreneurs in one room and this would help the work space land a new client or two. We ended up picking Geekdom SF, a share working space in SOMA. The venue even supplied free beer and pizza.

Selling tickets

This was the hardest part, but it really wasn’t even THAT hard as we sold out two days before the event even took place. Weeks before we even sold a ticket we sat down for a few hours and systematically wrote down everywhere we wanted to advertise.

Besides $50 in Facebook ads, all of the advertising was free.

The event was posted and/or blogged about in the following places:

Startup Digest – anyone can post here

The Fetch – same as Startup Digest

Jason Evanish – my buddy who retweeted us

Ryan Hoover – same as Jason. We sent them free tickets in exchange

Web Wallflower – my buddy Sieva took care of this one. He simply cold emailed her and asked

The Bootstrappist – I offered them free tickets and in return they advertised the event

Neville Medhora’s email – I didn’t ask him to, but Nev sent out a link to his followers

Key takeways: Word of mouth sold the most tickets. If your event is awesome people will find out. It sounds scary and ambiguous but it’s true. Most events sell 90% of their tickets two days before the event…but we sold the majority of them two weeks before.

Bootstrap LIVE
Click to watch the video

Making money!!!!

This is the stuff you REALLY wanna know, right? How much money did we make?

Before I dig into this, the main reason we did this was not to make money. I do plan on hosting more events with profit in mind, but this event was just a test. Had we wanted to make more cash I would have increased ticket prices, found sponsors, organized a special dinner, yadda yadda. We wanted to do this our way, which was a bunch of badass speakers and a fun crowd…so no sponsors telling us what to do or any other nonsense to get in the way of our goal.

Here’s a breakdown of ticket sales:

Early bird – 60 x $19 = $1,140

Regular price – 20 x $25 = $500

Late buyers – 2 x $50 = 100

Discounted tickets – 20 x $10 = 200

Free tickets – 20 x $0 = 0

Total revenue- $1,940

Costs breakdown

Neville’s flight – $250

Andrew’s scotch – $50

Facebook ads – $50

Professional videographer – $500

Total costs- $850

Profit = $1,090

Note – knowing that we will host future events, we went big and hired a pro video guy. This will help with future event ticket sales. And like a bootstrapped business, all of the cash is being reinvested into future events. Now we have a little bit of cash to fly in the next guest.

What worked for us

Have a purpose:  We had a very clear purpose: to learn about the early days of bootstrapped companies (specifically the first $150k in sales). Having a clear goal helped us make decisions regarding the flow and purpose of Bootstrap LIVE. We also had a little inspiration: Noah Kagan’s blog post on conferences, Neville Medora’s video on the power of organizing events, and this Creative Live interview with Tim Ferriss.

Have a plan: We were very systematic in our approach and minimized risk whenever possible. We knew how many tickets we had to sell, where we had to advertise, what our goal was, and who we wanted to come. If you want to throw an event, sit down for a day and write out a plan. Once we had a plan we executed like crazy.

Make the speakers HAPPY by making things EASY and FUN: It was imperative that we make the speakers happy. Apartment List and Back To The Roots are growing like crazy, so we printed their job openings on the back of the programs. We even made a detailed itinerary for Andrew. Before the event, we emailed everyone the questions we’d be asking. The goal was to make it so easy for everyone to say yes. The ideal situation was to make it SO easy that the guests (including Andrew) simply had to show up, sit down, and have a conversation (but in front of 120 people).

Be ignorant, confident and over work: A lot of people didn’t realize how cool this event would be because most events suck. Thankfully, Teri and I rarely ever go to meetups…so we didn’t know this. Once we set our goal, we worked our asses off to execute, over prepare and sweat the details. This made everything fall into palce

In the end this was a very, very fun time. In the big scheme is was pretty small, but it helped us prepare for future events.

Wanna hear about future events? Sign up here and I’ll shoot you an email when we have the details all set.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article! The one thing I’d point out though, from a business standpoint, in your costs/profit lines you negated to attribute any value to your *time*. If it took you 2-3 hrs in total to think and do all of this, bravo! If you spend weeks of hunting, preparing, etc. then you essentially paid yourself below minimum wage. Just a thought 🙂

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