Mark Littlewood, Founder of the Business of Software Conference has learned the value of sharing their event content to a wider audience. With two events a year, Business of Software has amassed hundreds of hours of content that they share all year long. We talk about how BoS keeps their attendees engaged, their event communication strategy, and learn why it's so important to record your conference content.
Mark Littlewood, Founder of the Business of Software Conference has learned the value of sharing their event content to a wider audience. With two events a year, Business of Software has amassed hundreds of hours of content that they share all year long. We talk about how BoS keeps their attendees engaged, their event communication strategy, and learn why it's so important to record your conference content.
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Intro & Outro music:
"Funk Game Loop" by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Taylor: Awesome. Welcome to the Emamo Show, where we have open and frank chats with event producers, to uncover lessons about bringing people together. I’m your host, Taylor McKnight. I’m really excited about our guest today. Mark Littlewood is the CEO of the Business Leaders Network, behind one of my all-time favorite business conference series, the Business of Software Conference, which is both in Europe and the U.S.
Hey, Mark. Great to have you on the show!
Mark: Hey! Hi, Taylor. How are you?
Taylor: Really good. Really good.
Taylor: Actually, just saw you in Dubrovnik about a week ago, which was-
Mark: It was fantastic to catch up. It’s been far too long.
Taylor: It has.
Mark: It’s been far too long. Can I just ask a quick question?
Mark: I can see your lovely face here. How do I know when I’m being… I’m on the screen, and who, and you’re on the screen.
Taylor: Oh, it’s recording both of us. Yeah.
Mark: All right. Okay. Cool, so I can’t just pick my nose when you’re speaking.
Taylor: Nope. All eyes on you.
Mark: Good to know.
Taylor: All eyes on you. Cool, so let’s start off by just… Maybe you can describe your event to somebody who’s never attended before.
Mark: Sure. So, Business of Software’s been going on for quite a while. We’ve run 13 events, one a year in the U.S., and we’ve just done our sixth European conference. We help CEOs, founders, entrepreneurs, senior people in growing businesses, from probably 10 to 500 people, build great products, so build products people love, and build companies people love working for. We don’t really talk very much about code, because that all feels a bit like religion, and we don’t really talk about finance and venture funding, because that all feels a bit like religion, as well, and I think that the funding part of running a business is hugely over indexed, and the hard stuff, the people stuff, the strategy, the culture, the sales, the marketing, the product is under indexed, and so that’s really the gap that we try to fill.
Taylor: I love that you have such a strong opinion about that stuff, and I think some of the best events are created by those people that have a strong understanding of what it should and shouldn’t be.
Mark: I’ve learned to not bother hiding my prejudices over the years. I think… Just makes me miserable and angry, so we try and be what we are, and stick to our knitting, and stick to what we think is right, and it seems to work.
Taylor: Yeah, and there’s so much personality in your brand, too. You know, we were talking earlier about the lobster there on your shirt. I know that’s an important part of the Business of Software brand. Can you tell me what that is?
Mark: Absolutely. This is our… So, last year, we had a… The event was completely an homage to Motorhead, so we used this as our brand, and we had our previous years-
Mark: … conferences on the back as the tour dates-
Taylor: The road show, yeah.
Mark: … because obviously, Lemmy is the greatest rock and roll god of all time, and Motorhead is the greatest band of all time. In fact, I’m glad you asked about our branding, and I managed to segue into Motorhead straight away, because in fact, this has just turned up.
Taylor: It just happened to be there. Lovely.
Mark: Phil Campbell literally arrived this morning. Old lions still roar, and Phil was the guitarist in Motorhead for 20 years.
Mark: And this is his first solo album, so I’m gonna go and sit in the car after this, and listen to it very, very loud.
Taylor: Excellent. That’s… You know, when I was designing my last company’s shirts, my kind of criteria was that it had to be cool enough as a band shirt, so that you would wear it even if you didn’t care about the software, itself. You know?
Mark: Totally. Totally.
Taylor: So, it’s kind of cool to hear that rock and roll background fueling events, and-
Mark: Yeah, we just decided last year. I mean, we have our own logo and stuff, but we’ve always had a little device for each event, and one year we had a unicorn, prancing unicorn with its horn going through a bubble, and that was the unicorn bubble event, and this, that, and the other, and then we’ve kind of settled on lobsters for Boston, because they’re very Boston. And in fact, this is our-
Taylor: Oh, man. That’s good.
Mark: Eight bit lobster. I don’t know if you can see that?
Taylor: Yeah. The space invaders?
Mark: Eight bit lobster space invaders for this year.
Mark: Hey, look. Someone’s handing me tickets.
Taylor: Merch and stickers? I love it! I love it.
Mark: So, give me your address and we’ll send you some of this, and here we always like to do nice giveaways, so this, you’ll notice, isn’t a lobster.
Mark: In fact, it’s upside down. Yeah, so in the U.K., we’ve just settled in Cambridge, England.
Mark: In Cambridge, England, there’s a little genetic knot of black squirrels-
Taylor: I did not know that.
Mark: … which are much more aggressive than the gray squirrels, and they’ve been… They must have broken out of some biotech lab or something at some point in the past, and they kind of take on, so you see little black squirrels running around, so we’ve had a black squirrel as our motif in Europe.
Taylor: That’s awesome, and how did… I’ve seen you use those emojis, also, in various tweets. Not always related to your event directly. Talk me through that. Is that just a-
Mark: Well, the lobster, like that, that’s just a… Yeah. It’s like that, but more powerful, right?
Taylor: Okay. Yeah. I just love that you can create that kind of, like you said, like kind of a band, right? You have the merch, you have the emojis, you have this brand that means something, especially not just for the event, but like the year-round community that I think you’re really good at building.
Mark: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s fun, and I think we… I couldn’t possibly be corporate if I tried, and I don’t think people like that. I think they appreciate a bit of fun, and a bit of difference, and a bit of play. So, yeah, that’s how we’ve always been, and I’ve just started a little Google map, actually, of BoS merchandise in the wild, so people have been posting their… What have we done? We did this was from 2016.
Mark: So, we had an event in Ireland, so basically we kind of ripped off the Guinness thing, so that’s like you can have a-
Mark: Yeah, things get posted around the world. We always do things like make nice cups, or things that people keep.
Taylor: Yeah. Useful stuff. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah. Life’s too short to have a load of crap that you tip in the trash.
Taylor: Excellent. So, before I ask you a bit more about the communication strategy you have, both during the event and year around, let’s circle back real quick. You told me a little bit about your event. What’s the goal of your event? How do we know, how do you know if it was successful?
Mark: Very good question. So, it needs to make money, and that, I think, it’s one of those kind of hygiene factors, but we don’t want to make money at all costs. It would be much more profitable to bring in a ton of sponsors, and run an exhibition alongside it, and do that thing where you really scale, but about 10 years ago, we got… We outgrew the venue we had at the Seaport, the World Trade Center in Boston. We took a new venue, and we had about 650 people, and when I stood up on the stage on the first day, I was just like, “Eh. It's too big.”
Taylor: You knew. You knew.
Mark: Yeah, and it’s… I couldn’t see the people in the corner of the corners of the room, and I think, you know, we try and run something that’s very deliberately friendly, and welcoming, and open to people. We think about how we can make it fun for introverts, and bring people into the community that wouldn’t otherwise want to go to events, because they’re just loud, and noisy, and DJs, and parties, and everyone’s showing off.
And so, we then took a very deliberate step to restrict the size of the number of attendees, and we do a lot of… People hate networking, because networking’s such a horrible thing. People think of people in shiny suits, giving each other cards and trying to sell each other five-year leases for photocopiers and stuff.
Taylor: Inauthentic, yeah.
Mark: And that’s all. But actually, networking at the end of it is really a thing that people do to interact with each other and ask questions, and so we try and help people network effectively, and we get them to introduce each other in the audience, and… which I know sounds like a really dumb, simple thing, but how many times have you sat down at a conference, possibly even for two days, and not spoken to the people on either side of you?
Taylor: It’s happened. Yep.
Mark: I mean, and I do it. I do it. Because you know, you go into those sorts of situations and you feel like… You feel uncomfortable, or you feel like you’re an imposter, or you shouldn’t be there, or the people that you’re sitting next to are really important and don’t want to talk to you. But actually, we’re all humans, and we’ve all got something interesting to say. Even me.
Taylor: Yeah. What are some of your strategies for helping those people, like you said, network more effectively, like the introverts, or just in general, people make those meaningful collections, as opposed to maybe just swapping business cards down a hallway?
Mark: So, there’s a bunch of things that we do, I suppose. We ask people when they register, when they sign up. We ask people what they want other people to talk to them about, and that appears on their badge.
Taylor: That’s really interesting.
Mark: I don’t know if we’ve got a badge. Oh. There’ll be a badge coming up, but you’ll sort of see, it doesn’t have kind of logos, and this, that, and the other on it. So, we ask people what they want to talk about. We have things like Slack channels, and Twitter, and… Oh, yeah. Cool.
So, this is a badge, and the things that you might not note, or you might notice or might not, is that Jo is the biggest thing on the badge, because that’s someone’s first name. And then it says who you are and what your Twitter handle is. If people are too shy to introduce themselves, then they can go and find you on Twitter, and then it says, “Talk to me about.” In Jo’s case, shoes, which she’s a world-renowned expert on, certainly in our house, she’s one of the top experts.
Taylor: That’s really interesting. Did it take you a while to get to that current badge design? It seems very thoughtful with all those pieces.
Mark: I’ve been in the business a long time, so I guess yes, but the kind of format that we’ve had is fairly standard now. The other thing is… You can’t see it on this one, because it’s a dummy badge, and it’s a different event, but it’s printed both sides, and on the other side it will have Jo… Oh. As if by magic.
Taylor: Your magical assistant.
Mark: So, that side, and then when the badge inevitably flings around, you have the person’s name again.
Taylor: So thoughtful.
Mark: Because that’s the only thing you want to know about someone when… Because then you can say, “Oh, hi Max.” And then we have a tiny print schedule on the back, and people-
Taylor: Upside down, I see. Yeah.
Mark: Well, it’s not upside down. We quite often write, “You think this is upside down, but it’s not.” It’s actually because people have their badges like this.
Mark: And then they look at the schedule and it’s the right way around for them.
Taylor: So thoughtful. Yeah.
Mark: It’s all those little things that make people go, “Oh, that’s nice.”
Taylor: Yeah, and I feel like all those little things do add up to less friction, like it just takes those little, thoughtful bits all together that encourage me to speak to somebody about shoes that I might not have… I would have never known that she was a sneakerhead or anything like that.
Mark: Yeah. I don’t think she’s a sneakerhead. She’s shoes, darling, and that’s a very different thing.
Taylor: Shoes. Okay.
Mark: But yeah, what else do we do? We have a quiet corner, a reading corner, so we get support from companies like O’Reilly, who give us books to take there, and we also then encourage people to bring a book that they’ve read, that they’re not gonna read again, but they want to pass on to somebody, so people can kind of go in there and that’s very much kind of a quiet corner.
Taylor: Is it business books usually?
Mark: Yeah. Generally business books. Generally business books. Yeah. 90-plus percent of the time.
Mark: We’ve started doing a bring something from your local area.
Taylor: That’s fun.
Mark: Just as a little thing, and then we’ve got a local corner, and people can put their thing in, and they put a little note by it, and people have brought coffee from Costa Rica, and Belgian chocolate, and Colman’s mustard, and… Yeah, I was just about to get to that.
Jo: I’ll go away.
Mark: There you go. Somebody came from Camden Market, which is a very… Yeah, it’s a very cool, trendy place in London, and they brought Camden Market rizzlers, which we thought was great, so it’s just those little things that you want people to feel… I don’t want people to feel like they’re in a big hotel, at a big event, doing a big, corporate thing, and everyone’s in suits and ties. We just want people to feel comfortable, so there’s a bunch of things like that we do.
The other thing we do is the thing called birds of a feather tables, which are set out at breakfast and at lunchtime, because then there’s a other thing, if you go into a room, and there’s a bunch of people talking, and you don’t want to sit down and interrupt, but you don’t really want to eat by yourself, and some people do, but you’ve then got tables where people could go to and they can talk about SaaS marketing.
Taylor: So, these are topic tables?
Mark: Yeah, effectively. Where are the topics? … them somewhere.
Jo: For what?
Mark: The birds of a feather topics. Yeah. Come back to that. So, some of them are measuring SaaS metrics at companies of more than 200 people doing B2B.
Taylor: Oh, pretty specific. Yeah.
Mark: Some get very specific, and then some are much more open.
Taylor: Who comes up with those topics?
Mark: Some people suggest them, and then we make some up, as well, because generally when people suggest them, they come up with really sensible ideas. But then, that’s like an example. Preparing for venture capital, what people are looking for, who inspires you and why.
Taylor: I love how it kind of goes the gamut, from simple icebreakers, right? Like my favorite podcast, to very specific, help me pitch better.
Mark: Well, some people are very focused on doing something. This is my favorite one.
Taylor: The quiet table.
Mark: And it’s always the noisiest. So, if you just want to go, and sit down, and have your lunch, and not have… And there are tables without topics, as well, but things like that, yeah, definitely make it-
Mark: Definitely make a difference.
Taylor: Awesome, so yeah, that… We’ve talked a bit about those strategies at your event. I’d love to hear more about how you think about and what your kind of communication plan is from your conference ends, to getting through the next conference. When do you start that communication plan? How often do you communicate with those attendees? And how do you find new ones?
Mark: Great question. You should probably have Paddy on at some point, who heads up our marketing and sales stuff now. He’s put a lot of thought into that over the last couple of years, and really come up with some very well-structured stuff.
Mark: But we’re thinking about next year before this year happens. We’ve got a few speakers lined up. We haven’t announced them yet. Over the course of the year, for a specific event, we’ll put tickets live the day the event finishes, and we give people an incentive to sign up there and then, and actually we get a lot of repeat customers at that point who are just like, “Great. Off we go.”
Taylor: Yeah. I think it’s one of the big things about your community, right, is that you have so many repeat attendees.
Mark: Yeah, about 60% of the attendees are repeat attendees.
Taylor: That’s huge. Yeah.
Mark: And we have what’s called a BoS number, which is… Guess what? It’s the number of times someone’s been to BoS. And there’s a guy called Carl Ryden who’s now been 16 times.
Mark: Bear in mind, that’s 13 U.S. events and 6 European ones. That’s quite a fan, but he hasn’t done badly. He brings his exec team every year, and he just sold his company for $510 million cash.
Mark: So, that’s quite cool.
Taylor: Yeah. Super fan. Obviously, he’s getting a lot of value to come back all those years. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely, but you know, I don’t think… He’s not the only one I hope. No. We know there are… I think the flipside of that is that it can feel quite cliquey, and quite like it’s an insider club on some levels.
Taylor: For new people to… right. Interesting, the balance.
Mark: To break in. So, we have a very conscious approach to that. One of the things that we’ve started doing, which happened because we had a bit of a disaster, actually, about four years ago there was a typhoon, or a hurricane, or whatever you have in the States. Big, swirly thing that runs around the sea-
Taylor: Yep. Hurricane.
Mark: … messing everybody up. Anyway, our lanyards were lost at sea, or held up at sea, or something, so we weren’t gonna get the lanyards delivered, so we kind of scrambled around. We went, “What the heck are we gonna do?” And we managed to find a bunch of lanyards from previous events, but actually we had some white lanyards, and some maroon lanyards, and we had enough to cover everyone, but we were like, “It’s gonna be a bit weird just kind of randomly giving lanyards to people.”
So, we then decided, “Ooh, how about we give purple lanyards to the people that had been before, and white lanyards to the people that haven’t, and then make a thing of it?” So, actually it was then that we introduced people, we said why we got the different lanyards, and then made the people that had a purple lanyard responsible for taking a couple of people under their wings.
Taylor: How interesting.
Mark: So that they could make intros, and it just, again, it’s not rocket science. It’s not difficult. Just takes a little bit of thought, I think, to make those things become… It’s become quite a thing now.
Taylor: So, you’ve carried over that kind of happy accident into-
Mark: Yeah, all the best things that we come up with happen because I’ve messed up, usually. Have to dig my way out of some hole.
Taylor: Yeah. Cool. So, tell me about… I guess some of those other things you do to keep attendees engaged throughout the year. You know, I ask because I’ve been getting your newsletter for, I don’t know, eight years now or something, and it’s been a couple years since I was in the country to attend your conference, but I look forward to that every month, and so tell me a little bit more about that, and how that came to be.
Mark: Cool. Well, you’ve gotta have email, because otherwise you can’t spam people, right? And you know, we just love sending out-
Taylor: And it’s gotta be valuable.
Mark: Massive sales messages going, “Save now! Buy!” It’s all bullshit, isn’t it? We’re really lucky that we’ve got a massive library of content, and you know, we’ve had people over the years, everyone from Geoffrey Moore, and Joel Spolsky, and Jason Fried, and Kathy Sierra, and there’s a whole bunch of people that have contributed to the event, so we’ve always got content that we can send people, and it’s always gonna… Whenever we send an email, we make a commitment to put a new piece of content in.
Whether it’s a video of a talk, or potentially then a Q&A that we run with a speaker post-event, because what we’ve tended to do now is when we publish the talks, we get them transcribed, we publish the slides, the video, the transcription. We do collaborative notes at the event, so that we kind of put them all in one place, give people a couple of weeks to look at the talk, and then come up with questions, and then run a Hangout with the speakers.
Mark: So, then those become quite valuable pieces of content in themselves, and we have… I don’t know, 250 hours now of content?
Taylor: That’s incredible.
Mark: It’s not shabby. It’s not shabby.
Taylor: Yeah. Did you know that was… I guess one question is when did you start recording those talks? What was the first year of that?
Mark: The year two.
Taylor: Okay. Wow.
Mark: So, they weren’t recorded in the first year, but the first year was slightly… It was an experiment. I didn’t set BoS up. It was set up by a really good friend of mine, a guy called Neil Davidson, who was one of the two founders and co-CEOs for a company called Red Gate Software, which is a very successful, self-funded, 300-person, $70 or $80 million revenue now company, and he built the company to about 30 or 40 people, and kind of looked up and was like, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I better go and learn.” And he looked around for conferences to go to. Everything was about starting up, or doing some kind of financial shenanigan to IPO, and he wanted to build a long-term, profitable, sustainable business.
So he’s like, “Well, I better just do my own thing,” and so he… The first event was run as a, “I’m gonna get ahold of all the people I’d like to come and talk,” so he got ahold of people like Geoffrey Moore, and a whole bunch of really interesting people in the industry and said, “I’m gonna run this conference. Would you come along and talk?”
Mark: People said yes, and he didn’t really think of it as a… He didn’t do much marketing. I think there was sort of 70 or 80 people at it, but hugely high value, and then he realized quite sensibly that running conferences is a pain in the backside, so he got me involved.
Taylor: It’s very challenging. But I love that, the founding story, and I think maybe that’s why, even today, your conference stands out as like you said, something that’s so practical. You listen to these talks and it’s not just high-level stuff about being inspired. It’s like literally, how do I hire better, make better hiring decisions, or how do I actually take advantage of new marketing channels. It’s very specific, and I think that comes out of his experience, right? He wanted something to actually use.
Mark: It definitely comes out of his experience, and I think it also is a little bit about how I try and curate the content, so we have over 500 applications to speak a year.
Mark: A lot of them are just… They’re just not the right kind of talks for BoS. We have a single-track event. It’s kind of essentially keynote only. BoS USA is two and a half days, and we have 15 speakers, which means people are taking up a good amount of time. And when I first heard of this concept, I was like, “Oh, no. That sounds so boring.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but actually I have ADHD, so the thought of sitting still for an hour just horrifies me.
But actually, that’s turned into being quite a superpower, because if someone can convince me that they’re gonna keep me, as someone that’s seen 9% of the top 100 films of all time, because I get bored by the time the, “In production with,” and the… So, okay, whatever. Most people are gonna be sucked into something, and I think I don’t like the, “Hear the 77 sexy secrets to SaaS success,” all those kind of guarantees.
Taylor: Right, like on the cover of Ink Magazine, or something. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah, it’s just… That’s just horrible. I mean, it’s just… That’s just taking advantage of people, and I’m surprised people don’t see through it more. Every entrepreneur exists within their own context, and all questions about business growth, and what you want to do in your business, are very context specific, and that’s not just about the industry, and the type of company you are, and the type of software you want to be, but it’s what are your personal circumstances? What are your own goals and ambitions?
We don’t prioritize funding over business growth and scaling a business. There are people that want to grow a great business that they want to be in charge of three generations down the line. There are people that want to build a business, and scale it, and flip it as fast as they can. We’re less worried about what people’s motivations are there, and more concerned with helping them understand that whatever you want to do, you have to ask a set of questions that’s right for you.
So, yeah. In a way, we-
Taylor: I just hear that you know your audience so well, right? You’re so opinionated about what your conference… The content you want to serve, and the people you want to help, and I love that purity.
Mark: Yeah, I think so. That doesn’t make me right, but-
Taylor: Well, right for you. You’re doing something right. Yeah. I’m interested, again, about like… So, you started recording those talks in year two. And that’s something I think so many event producers can… should be doing. Recording this content and making it this kind of year-round community building off of it. How did you decide it was worth the investment in year two, and how has that grown? It’s expensive to record all those talks, right?
Mark: Holy cow! You have no idea. So, when I first started working on BoS in the States, I think it was costing us… Well, I thought it was costing us about $20-something thousand.
Taylor: For two days.
Mark: And I didn’t discover… For two and a half days.
Taylor: Two and a half days.
Mark: I didn’t discover for another year or something that there was also another $18,000 of AV equipment that was hidden in the AV cost, which was there for the videographer, as well. So yeah, swingeingly expensive. But you know, I mean some of those videos have hundreds of thousands of views. Some of them have become quite canonical talks. There was one that I’m really very pleased with for lots of reasons, but one called The Long, Slow SaaS Ramp of Death, which a lady called Gail Goodman gave.
I actually, my claim to fame, I came up with the talk title.
Mark: But she’d been running a SaaS company for 14 years at that point, and this was four or five years ago. Six years ago, in fact. So, she talked about how she built that SaaS business, and how she kept searching for the magic bullets, and then realized there weren’t magic bullets. And I was at a conference last month over in Dublin, and there were four speakers that referenced the talk.
Taylor: I’ve sent that talk to friends. I’ve seen it. It’s huge. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah, there are… So, there’s lots of benefits to that.
Taylor: So, the leap of faith, right? How did you decide to spend that $40,000 that first time?
Mark: When I found out how much we were spending, I took steps to address it, so we did reduce the cost, and I don’t think we’ve… We haven’t… That hasn’t impacted the quality. It was just, it was sort of set up in a way that it didn’t need to be set up, and anytime you spend money with a hotel venue, it’s expensive. But it just seemed the right thing to do, and I think what we’ve done off the back of that is built a database of people that we can email, that trust us, and take the emails, read the emails, pass it on to people, and that’s been one of our kind of prime ways of getting people involved.
And it’s quite interesting watching the kind of cohorts of newsletter readers that come in over the years. Some of them will take four or five years to come to an event. Some of them won’t ever go to an event, but you know, you know they’re kind of clicking on things. You know they’re… Not because we’re watching them, particularly, but quite often we’ll get an email going, “Oh, I’ve been watching your things for years, and we’re really thinking about coming this year. How do we know if it’s gonna be right for me?”
And we’re small enough to be personal about that kind of stuff. The last thing I want to do is to have someone there that either shouldn’t be there, or is the wrong kind of person, or isn’t gonna get something out of it. Not least because, and I think we’re probably unique in this, we have a no-quibble moneyback guarantee to our attendees. If you come, you pay for a ticket, you feel you don’t get value, we’ll refund your money.
Taylor: Wow. That’s incredible. I don’t know many other events that would do that.
Mark: It feels like the right thing to do.
Taylor: Have you had people take you up on that?
Mark: I was just about to answer that question. No, we’re very, very open about it, and we will always, and I say at the end, “Don’t forget. We’ve got a guarantee.”
Taylor: I think that speaks to the thoughtfulness of your events, and also your clarity of message, right? So, like before I buy a ticket, you’re very, again, just even our conversation now, you’re very clear about what you are and aren’t, and who you’re trying to help, and so I think the right people are kind of opting in.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. And I’d love to find more ways, so we’ve put money into sadvertising. We’ve done Facebook stuff, and Google stuff, and some magazine things, and nothing ever comes of any of it. I know it’s very difficult to measure, and blah, blah, blah. I mean, ironically, the kind of great promise of all this digital advertising and digital marketing-
Mark: … was to see exactly where all your spend goes, and what works, and what doesn’t, and now it’s all completely… Everyone’s backtracking, because if you’re selling a kind of an ecommerce-based widget for something, yes, that kind of works, but I think this is a bigger kind of-
Taylor: The journey to buying a ticket is longer.
Mark: It’s a journey, and it’s a bit of a concept sale, and frankly, we’re always gonna be competing against a bunch of other… I mean, if we wanted to do a big campaign to push the conference, which we don’t really, we would effectively be going into competition with a bunch of much, much bigger-scale events, that offer far more, or say they offer far more, and there’s all these, “We’re the fastest growing, we’re the most profitable.” I mean, where’s the benefit to you, as an attendee, in all those things?
Mark: And it’s like, “We’re the biggest.” That just shouts, “Oh, a bit scared. I don’t want to go to it.”
Taylor: So, how do you… The videos, the content, the newsletters, you mentioned how you guys have made an internal promise of like, “We only send out newsletters about tickets when there’s something new of value we can share.” The Q&As you hold, you’ve kind of stretched this content into this year-round community. Is that whole… Is the only way you monetize all of that content right now is just trying to sell tickets to these two events?
Taylor: Okay, so like that’s all, though, just spread the word?
Mark: Pretty poor, isn’t it? Pretty poor. Call yourself a capitalist. We are actually thinking about some things that we can do that are taking some of the content and producing a set of courses, and things like that for people, which would be subscription-based. Partly because I see a lot of kind of… There are a lot of kind of little mini businesses, or businesses doing 100 grand a year, or 50 grand a year, or… and it’s someone monetizing some bullshit ebook, basically, which… Really? Who’s paying for that stuff? It’s absolutely amazing that there is such a kind of a market for that kind of stuff.
Mark: Because if you know where to look, there is a lot of that content around, and-
Taylor: I think there’s value in simplifying it, though, right? I think those people are buying it, not that they can’t get it elsewhere, they just want an easy, delivered package.
Mark: Yes, and then there’s also that kind of self-perpetuating thought leader, social media influencer thing that I’m not desperately a huge fan of, I have to say, where someone like Gary Vee, who… You know, I’m sure he’s not an awful human, but I mean, he says something and people just go… It’s like, “Amazing! He’s spoken!” And he’s either said something completely wrong, or you know, it’s like let’s not go down that track.
Taylor: I understand.
Mark: You haven’t got time for that rant.
Taylor: That’ll be the next episode.
Taylor: The rant show. So, I keep coming back to this talk stuff because it’s just so interesting that you’re recording these, you have this library of hundreds of hours of content, and I guess I’m interested in some of the mistakes you made there, and like… I mean, how other events should be recording this content, and using it to drive some of their strategies all year long. Do you have the rights to all this stuff? Let’s start there.
Taylor: Was that difficult or challenging to communicate to speakers?
Mark: Not at all. Not at all. I mean, people are… There are very few speakers that don’t want to be recorded. What we offer them is a high-quality recording of something that doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles of a… There’s no dry ice on the stage.
Mark: You know, you don’t have KISS as the backing band, or-
Taylor: It’s their message.
Mark: It is just a.. Do you know what? Here’s your message, here’s your thing, so that becomes a very useful resource for people. So, someone like Bob Moesta, the Jobs-To-Be-Done guy, for example, has increasingly come to BoS to do the first run of a talk that he’s doing.
Taylor: How interesting.
Mark: You know, and that’s where he would sort of do his first run of it, and it’s a great environment to do that. I mean, he’ll come, he’ll get involved, he’ll get engaged, and is there from the beginning to the end, but he’s also gonna get something that he can put on his website, and-
Taylor: Do they use this to promote to their audience? Or do they use this to promote to other events that I can give this talk? Or-
Mark: So, it’s a bit of both, and I’m English, so bear… hang in there with me on this one, because I’m not… It’s quite difficult to say, but we’re damn well respected in the business, and I think there are people that speak at BoS who are well-known names, and then there are people that speak at BoS who people won’t have heard of, but you will certainly hear from them again.
I mean, I know that a lot of people, a lot of other events look and see who we’ve got speaking, and then use that as the, “Oh, these are gonna be interesting people.” See, that’s me slightly showing off, I think. We take a lot of care. I mean, that’s the thing I really sweat.
Taylor: Because, like you said, every talk is a keynote, essentially. You’re being in that single-track situation, you really have to have every content really high quality.
Mark: Yeah, and I don’t always get it right, but I think we get it right enough times for me to get away with it.
Taylor: Nice. So, you mentioned before, like you have 500 submissions, typically. Somewhere around there per year. How do you even begin to start building that up to fit your criteria and your quality control?
Mark: Dang. So, it used to be really hard, and it, over time, I just can’t… I mean, that’s basically twice a day, if I had to stop what I’m doing and look at a talk submission, and this, that, and the other. It would be a… It’d be really hard, and you get quite a lot of applications who you think it’s actually a very… You think it’s a kind of a custom thing, but actually it’s just someone pushing out to everybody. And the first time you get that email going, “Oh, been a big fan of-“
Taylor: So and so.
Mark: So and so, and it’s usually Business of Software, but quite often it’s a real telltale sign when it’s a, “I’ve been a huge fan of BoS SaaS in…”
Taylor: Right. Oh, I lost your audio.
Mark: Am I back?
Mark: On mute. Don’t tell anyone I said that.
Taylor: You muted the good parts.
Mark: A lot of people that just buy a list of conference organizers and spam them, and we don’t take submissions from people who are applying on behalf of third parties.
Mark: So, we have an automatic email on that, which is if you’re an agency, or if you’re a PR company pitching blah, blah, or you’re a marketing person in a company pitching an exec at blah, blah, blah. If people are submitting on their own behalf, and then I go to their LinkedIn profile, and they present themselves as the thought leader and international keynote speaker, that’s a no. You know, any of that self-promotional bullshit.
Taylor: Back to your audience that you’re serving, right?
Mark: Yep, exactly.
Taylor: You’re looking for people that are doing it, and talking about their experience, as opposed to maybe professional speakers.
Mark: Yeah, and that… You know, we do have professional speakers, but only a very small subset of that kind of category of person, and actually, or the motivational speakers, there’s a guy that… I’m not gonna say who he is, but he breaks out of chains, and proves that you can, through the power of thought and focus, achieve anything, and his agent emails me once every three months. His agent keeps changing, not surprisingly, but you know, it’s just not for us. I think there are so many super, superhuman people that fit the brief.
Taylor: Right, so 500 down to what? Have you cut out half in the-
Mark: So, if we’ve got 15 people that we put on stage, we’re probably gonna take five from that group of people that apply.
Taylor: Oh, interesting.
Mark: I mean, it is that. It is that-
Taylor: Oh, and then you hunt out the other 10 that-
Mark: Yeah. Because then the other thing is that those 500 are 90-plus percent white guys in suits, which, I know, there’s people that want to go because they don’t want to buy a ticket. There’s people that want to speak because they just want to have a platform. There are people that want to go because they want to speak because they want to raise their own profile, or get a better job, or-
Taylor: And this many years in, can you pretty much detect that in the-
Mark: I think so.
Mark: I think so. Yeah. I mean, generally. Generally. The other thing is I should get a T-shirt that says on the back of it, “No, I don’t want you to speak at my conference, you haven’t even asked what it’s about,” because the number of times I’m sort of talking to people, and someone says, “Oh, you must talk to Mark. He runs the most amazing conferences.” And the person that you’re meeting goes, “Oh, I’d be prepared to speak at those.”
You know, yeah, I do. These conferences are called Losers Anonymous. People love speaking at conferences, and people… There are lots of events that people can go to, and lots of events that people can go to and speak, and you know, that’s all great, but there’s definitely a certain type of person that makes sense.
Taylor: So, talk me through, in the last 10, 15 minutes here, I’m kind of curious more about your event tech stack, like what tools you’re actually using to get some of this stuff done? Spreadsheets, email, keep everything organized communicating with speakers. Things like that.
Mark: Ah, spreadsheets, email, yes. We’ve actually just been kind of rethinking our internal stack, so obviously we have email, and we use Gmail and Google Mail. We’ve started using a thing called Twist, which is done by a company called Doist, who are absolutely amazing.
Taylor: It’s like project management software?
Mark: So, no, not quite, it’s like Slack, but Slack drives me absolutely mad. I cannot work it out for the life of me. I just… It’s too many cat .GIFs, and blah, blah, so we use Slack to communicate with the community, and people that come to the event. We use Twitter to broadcast. I think we’ve got a Facebook page still, but… Yeah, we have, and we’ve got like a LinkedIn group, which is as pointless as the Facebook page.
Taylor: So, Twitter is where most of… you’re seeing the engagement with your audience is.
Mark: Yeah. I’d say so. I mean, the best way to sell tickets is via email, and having people on the email list. But in terms of what we do internally, we use Trello as project management, and that’s a fantastic saver there. We use Twist, which is a really good way to manage projects to a degree, but also then manage collaboration with projects. I’d say we use Trello to look at the structure, and the overall project, and milestones, and this, that, and the other.
Twist to do four things, really. One is kind of have those conversations about, “Oh, we’re working on badges.” Whoever needs to be involved in that can kind of talk about what’s going on, so that’s that kind of just day-to-day chattery stuff. There’s the kind of longer-term ideas, so something like, “How do we waist less crap and be more ecofriendly?” We used to email everyone in the team that, and email is a really bad thing, because it basically becomes someone else’s to-do list in your inbox, and so the first thing that’s there is the thing that you kind of deal with, or you don’t deal with it and then feel guilty about it, and eventually forget it about it, or someone comes back and says… So, that’s move-
Taylor: So, that stuff has moved to Twist? Right.
Mark: That’s moved to Twist. And then we have our sort of output, so our processes, our manuals, our, “How do we archive a website? How do we build a new website? How do we put a new speaker up? How do we onboard a new person? How do we…” Any of that kind of stuff, so once something’s been discussed and agreed, it then gets just put in Dropbox, basically, as a sort of… We’ve got various manuals in there that people can access, so people don’t go and change stuff in those manuals unless they’ve then come back and said, “Oh, this is what we’re doing at the moment, we’re thinking of changing it to this, what do you think?” Gives everyone a chance to provide the input.
Taylor: That’s interesting. How did you get the discipline to document all those processes? When did that-
Mark: No idea, because we only started yesterday.
Mark: No, we… So, actually we started doing this sort of for real yesterday. We’ve built a bunch of those manuals and things, but then we just got to this point where one of our team, so Paddy is now based up in Manchester, so he’s working remotely, and it became increasingly… It’s obvious we have to document everything, and it just makes it so much easier, so we’ve taken the existing stuff and then put it in a slightly different structure, and then come up with that overarching process about how we manage it, and so far, so good.
Taylor: Is Dropbox Paper still a thing? Is that what you’re using?
Mark: No, we just have docs in Dropbox, so we’ve got a marketing manual, and our-
Taylor: These are Word docs that are just stored in-
Mark: Yeah. But that could be just as easily Google Docs, but just historically, they’ve been Word docs, and there’s not a real… There’s no real point in changing those just for the sake of it.
Taylor: So, what about the… So, that makes sense. That’s like the documentation of the processes. What about like communicating with speakers? Where do you track? Is that Trello board where you’re-
Mark: Yeah, so that’s been… Sorry, that’s a Trello board, and I have a list of people that we’re chasing. We then have pretty simple spreadsheets. I mean, we’re lucky in that I don’t have to manage 300 speakers.
Mark: And today we’ve got 15, so we have a thing called Pipedrive, which is our CRM system. We use that a lot for our sales, so kind of high-value ticket sales, supporter sales, and then managing relationships.
Taylor: Is that sponsor stuff? When you’re saying like high-value tickets, is that-
Mark: No. High-value tickets would be someone like Carl, who we mentioned before. The guy from Precision Lender, so he’s been 16 times, but you know, I think he went with him and his founder the first year, and they now bring 10 people on the team or something.
Taylor: Right. Okay.
Mark: So, they basically bring their senior leadership team, do two days, or two and a half days at the conference, and then go off and spend a day in a hotel working it all through, and thinking about how it’s going to-
Taylor: Oh, amazing, to use that as a foundation for change.
Mark: Exactly. Exactly.
Mark: So, yeah, I mean anyone that’s-
Mark: Anyone that’s buying, they’re potentially buying-
Taylor: Multiple tickets? Yeah.
Mark: … multiple tickets, or that sort of thing.
Taylor: And then you’re… I’ll kind of wrap up here by asking about the email list we’ve been talking about for the whole hour. You know, that’s… You’ve done such a great job communicating with that, sending out the value with the videos and things. How do you manage that, both the tool, and the schedule? Is that pre-planned, or is that in Trello?
Mark: So, we keep tabs of it in Trello, but moving to Twist actually for that. We generally send something out once every… Well, probably we send something out twice every three weeks. So, it’s not weekly, and we quite like sending it out at different times. I don’t buy into this, “It must go out at 1:00 on a Wednesday,” or-
Mark: So, we sort of tend to send it out when we feel it’s right, when we’ve got something to say. We plan the content. There’s always a new video. We kind of collect interesting stuff we find around the web, that we’ve found interesting, and we’ve got a little section in there with some things we’ve found-
Taylor: Yeah, I love the resources at the end. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah, exactly.
Taylor: Is that part of your, just kind of day to day, because you’re obviously interested in this stuff personally, you’re kind of collecting these links?
Taylor: When it becomes enough value, or things to say, you’ll send that out in a-
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. But then there are also things like speaker announcements that tend to drive the rhythm and the pace, as well. So, speaker announcements, ticket price rises, so that’s the other thing. I mean, people should just say, “Do you know what? I’m going to the conference. I’m buying it now. Done,” and you know you’re gonna be there in 12 months. But the reality is one of the things that drives ticket sales is putting up the price, and it doesn’t matter, interestingly, whether it goes up by $10 or $1,000.
Taylor: Just the incentive.
Mark: It’s really weird. I wish it was… and what’s even weirder is that whenever you have a price jump, and early on, they’ll typically go up by like $100 or something, you get a ton of people that book it in three hours before the price rise goes up. So, if you get 50 registrations in a period from one price break to another, you might get 10 of them in the three hours before the price goes up.
Mark: Literally, what’s changed from there to a week before?
Taylor: The procrastination bug is strong. Yeah.
Mark: Humans are amazing.
Taylor: Yeah. That’s interesting, but it works, so obviously that’s effective and that’s something you’ve carried over throughout the years.
Taylor: Yeah. Awesome.
Taylor: Well, that’s all my questions. This was really fantastic.
Taylor: I learned so much.
Mark: It was great fun.
Taylor: Thank you so much for your time, Mark.
Mark: My pleasure. My pleasure. Come and find us.
Mark: Oh, one other thing we do. So, businessofsoftware.org/updates is where you get onto this incredible email list. It’s truly, truly amazing. Probably one of the bigliest mailing lists out there.
Taylor: It is truly amazing.
Mark: We have over 250 hours of content. It’s quite hard to navigate, so when people sign up, when they get their confirmation email, we ask them to get in touch with us and say what challenge they have at the moment, and we’ll send them some stuff-
Mark: … that we hope can help, and we have ML doing that.
Taylor: Personal onboarding. Love it.
Mark: Which is Mark Littlewood, not machine learning. Yeah. So, those are all personal emails, so, cool.
Taylor: That’s fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing.
Mark: My pleasure.
Taylor: Big fan of your event, and your team, and everything you’ve done, and I think that organizers can learn a lot from you, and yeah, have a great day.
Mark: Thanks so much. You should get Paddy on, as well, because he knows about the marketing stuff, and… Yeah, stay in touch. Let me know how I can help you.
Mark: And we’ll see you soon.
Taylor: Thanks so much.
Mark: Take very good care, my friend.