The Emamo Show: Event Planner Conversations

Event Founder Dylan Schiemann of HalfStack - Bring Authenticity To Your Events

Episode Summary

Dylan Schiemann, Founder and event organizer of HalfStack Conferences, talks with us about the importance of authenticity at their events. Dylan shares how HalfStack's thoughtful touches affect every aspect of their event from hand-lettered badges to booking local speakers for their event. We learn about how saying yes, and staying authentic has helped them grow the HalfStack Conference to 7 cities around the world while staying true to HalfStack's vision and community.

Episode Notes

Dylan Schiemann, Founder and event organizer of HalfStack Conferences, talks with us about the importance of authenticity at their events. Dylan shares how HalfStack's thoughtful touches affect every aspect of their event from hand-lettered badges to booking local speakers for their event. We learn about how saying yes, and staying authentic has helped them grow the HalfStack Conference to 7 cities around the world while staying true to HalfStack's vision and community.

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Intro & Outro music: "Funk Game Loop" by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Episode Transcription

Taylor McKnight: 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, and I’m really excited about our guest today. Dylan is the CEO of SitePen, a development and training agency, as well as founder of HalfStack, a set of international dev conferences. Hey, Dylan. Great to have you on the show!

Dylan Schiemann: Hello. Thanks. Great to be here. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. Awesome. So, let’s get started by… Let’s describe your event series to somebody who’s never attended them. 

Dylan Schiemann: Sure, so there’s a series we do called HalfStack, and it started out in a pub in London about five years ago, which might seem like a weird place to start a conference series, but I, over the past 15 to 20 years, I’ve been invited and spoken at many, many conferences throughout the world. Meetups, conferences, and I kind of found myself realizing that I liked certain types of conferences and events, and was drawn more towards them, and or at least certain talks at conferences, and certain experiences, and so I wanted to kind of create something that was more intimate, more fun, more relaxed, less serious, less focused on, “Hey, use my product, or buy my service, or you’re doing it wrong, you should do it this way.” And more focused on, “What are all the great things we can do with the technology we create?” 

So, I’m a web developer, JavaScript developer, that sort of thing, and so I created a conference called HalfStack, which was sort of a troll on the term full stack, as in full stack developer-

Taylor McKnight: I love that. 

Dylan Schiemann: And originally it was like, “Well, we’re gonna meet for half the day, in a pub, and have talks, and they need to be interesting, because a pub isn’t exactly a quiet environment.” So, maybe they’re either UI-centric, with really fun demos, or really inspiring, or interactive, or things like that. And it’s kind of morphed from there, and so we did that for about four years in London, and people loved it, and people kept asking, “Hey, when can I have this in my city?” And so, this past year, in 2019, I started saying yes to people who said, “Would you be willing to host it in Vienna if I helped you out a little bit? Would you be willing to host it in Tel Aviv? Would you be willing to host it in Phoenix?” 

And so, we’ve grown to seven cities throughout-

Taylor McKnight: That’s amazing. 

Dylan Schiemann: Europe, the US, and then Tel Aviv is technically Asia, though some people still think of it as Europe, because it’s just right on the edge. But you know, the idea is to just grow events where either it’s a really big tech scene, and there’s a lot of events, and that’s great, or it’s an area that’s kind of underserved, so my town of Phoenix is a big, has a big tech community, but it’s been seven or eight years since we’ve had a truly huge JavaScript conference here, so we thought, “Let’s bring it home.” 

So really, it’s just kind of this fun, creative, people talk about virtual reality, web audio, music, Star Wars, just random stuff mixed together with the technology we create, and just have a lot of fun with it, and it’s just been a real joy to work with that. So, yeah. That’s the gist. Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I haven’t been to one of your events before, but just based off the branding of the website and the feel of the social media stuff, you can feel that enthusiasm and that kind of creativity come through, as opposed to a lot of more corporatey conferences, and so it’s really cool to hear that the basis was like a bunch of people meeting up in a pub, and kind of… It has to be interesting and fun, if it’s gonna be in that environment to start, right? 

Dylan Schiemann: Right. Exactly. And you know, the idea was really tell the story of what you can create, or why you might create it, rather than necessarily just focusing on how you create it. Because a lot of the like, “How do I create this really complex tech demo,” is really a blog post, or a tutorial, or a workshop. It’s not necessarily a great conference talk. The great part of the conference talk is the story that got you there, or what you ended up actually doing, or the crazy demo of like someone built a Dance Dance Revolution clone out of like an Arduino and a yoga mat. 

Taylor McKnight: That’s cool.

Dylan Schiemann: And so, you know, they get them up on stage talking about it, and then he’s about to end his talk and I’m like, “So, can you show us how you play this game?” And of course, you know, then he busts out his dance, his DDR moves, and it was great, right? So, it was just fun, and relaxed, and really enjoyable. 

Taylor McKnight: That’s awesome. So, that kind of leads me to my next question, like what is the goal of your events? How do you know if they were successful? I guess both for you and like the attendee. 

Dylan Schiemann: So, I’ve been very fortunate that all of our events have been successful from a perspective of people enjoyed it, people come back, people tweeted about it like crazy. Which really, it doesn’t matter if people tweet, but the fact that people are passionate enough about what they’re seeing to show it on Twitter and say, “You missed this. You’ve gotta see this.” Just positive feedback. You know, I’m not really that into formal metrics, so for example, we don’t send out surveys after the fact, because I feel like-

Taylor McKnight: Oh, wow. 

Dylan Schiemann: You know what? If someone wants to give feedback, they should give it, but they shouldn’t feel obligated to fill out yet another survey. So, really, just were people smiling? Did people enjoy themselves? Did people stay the whole day? And just kind of looking at those sorts of metrics, and metrics is probably too strong of a word. Just looking at what the vibe was like. Were people happy and did they come back?

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. I love that you… It really feels like you’re running that community by a feeling, or by the connection between people. Again, not necessarily just, “We got a 7.5 on the 10 scale.” 

Dylan Schiemann: Right. 

Taylor McKnight: But did people, were they inspired to create something new or tell other people about it? 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, I mean we’ll get people who will say how this event changed their life, like they went, they came, and they learned something new, and then they got passionate about it and ended up getting a job doing that. Or someone volunteers one year, when they’re a student, or when they’re struggling, or they’re between jobs, to the next year they’re speaker at a conference like ours, or even at our conference. And so, yeah, it’s really just about bringing these communities together, and connecting people, and I put a lot of emphasis on authenticity, so for like sponsorship, we need sponsors to make the event more affordable, but we don’t want to degrade the attendee experience, so we don’t accept paid vendor pitches. We don’t connect sponsorship to speaking slots. We don’t have booths, because we feel like we want the people attending the conference to be in the conference, rather than this separate expo hall area.

Which, for a huge event, an expo hall kind of makes sense to me, because you need a way to find someone. But our events try to be 300 people or less, so you don’t really want the sponsors over here, and the attendees over there, kind of trying to avoid each other. And then we don’t sell out our mailing list, we don’t spam attendees with emails trying to sell people services. Instead, we say, “Thanks to this sponsor for sponsoring lunch. Thanks to this sponsor for providing these prizes for our JavaScript pub quiz.” And just really making it more of a fun, unique experience. 

We’re doing something really fun for HalfStack Phoenix, so it’s gonna be in the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Chandler, which is this theater with really good drinks and food, right? And so, they’re letting us pretty much take over the theater in fun ways, so they’re letting us replace some of the now showing and coming soon movies with our own posters, right?

Taylor McKnight: Amazing!

Dylan Schiemann: So, we’ve got posters made. We’re showing Hackers as part of our after party, so we’ve taken our speakers, and put their photos into the Hackers movie poster, and replaced all the small credits with the names of the speakers and the names of the sponsors, so it’s really just like a fun thing. And then there’ll be posters we’re giving to the speakers, like commemoratively, so they can take that home, and then we have postcards of those posters that the attendees can take home. In addition to normal, fun swag, but just like something different based on the venue we’re in, like because we’re in a movie theater, we should do movie posters. We’re gonna do something similar, but a little different in Tel Aviv, where we’re gonna be in a circus theater.

Taylor McKnight: Wow. 

Dylan Schiemann: So, I’ve got all these ideas, like kind of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey kind of themed stuff for just kind of retro, circus vibe kind of feeling, or carnival vibe to it. So, we’re just kind of always looking for something that’s a little bit creative, where people walk in and they’re like, “Whoa, this is different.” Like in Vienna, for lunch, we ordered food that was this place that makes pretzel sandwiches, and these pretzels were like four feet wide, and they’re massive pretzels, sliced horizontally, with like schnitzel and other things in the middle, and people just were like, “Whoa, this is different. This is cool.” Right?

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: So, just something that reflects the local environment, but also is kind of consistent with this theme of event. So, obviously for me, it’s almost an outlet for creativity, for like, “How can we make something really fun for the local community, that reflects the area we’re in, and just bring it all together in some fun way?” 

Taylor McKnight: I love that. I love that you’re not just, especially with this expansion, and taking place in all these cities across the US and Europe, you’re not just duplicating the same thing 10 times. You’re actually, like you said, you said authenticity is really kind of one of the core values there, is making sure it fits with that community, with that space even, right? Even if it means more work-

Dylan Schiemann: Absolutely.

Taylor McKnight: It would arguably be less work for you to just kind of copy paste the same event series everywhere. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, like for speaker selection, I try to have a few people that we’ve had before at each conference, but then mostly people that are fairly localized to that area. So, we’re not just bringing the same 10 speakers around the world. Maybe two or three are the same, but then we’re bringing like four or five people that are local-

Taylor McKnight: Awesome.

Dylan Schiemann: And then two or three that are kind of new, that are further, so in Vienna, we had a lot of speakers from Vienna, Austria, Germany, just kind of that part of Europe. Whereas in London, almost all of our speakers, except for maybe three or four, are from London or the greater London area. And the US is a little different, because we’re so used to traveling, that the US people travel all over. For us, a four-hour flight is like nothing. In Europe, a four-hour flight would be like, “Oh my God, I’ve done that once in my life.” And it’s funny, the culture is that’s a big trip, but for us, that’s just like, “Oh, we’re just going halfway across the country.” 

Taylor McKnight: Right. 

Dylan Schiemann: Right? Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: Do you think that that mix of local and international speakers… How did you arrive at that mix, and does that contribute to the experience?  Do you think that’s providing a better connection for attendees in Charlotte or Phoenix? 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, it sort of started out by accident, which was in our first couple years, we had no budget. We were a small conference that couldn’t really afford travel. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: So, we started local, but then we realized that there are amazing speakers who travel worldwide that we would love to have at every event, but if we just had the same people at every event, we’d just be like every other event, so we wanted to find a way to discover or highlight people that were local, that maybe were not as well known, but had really interesting things to say. So, I kind of look for people that have a very new, or creative, or alternative twist on a topic that I haven’t seen before. 

There was a talk in New York this year, and the same speaker’s gonna do an updated version of it in Phoenix, and it was called Listening to Maps, and so he works at this map technology company called Esri. They’re very well known in the map space. But he also has a passion for music, so he took demographic data, overlaid it on maps, and then used that demographic data to generate musical sounds, like… So, he took, one example was income disparities. If income disparity was high, the drum sound was really fast, right? And then if income disparity was fairly level, and not too significant, the drum beat was more harmonious, so the idea was like a way to visualize data and maps, and he thought about it, maybe it would be a good way to provide accessibility for information, where if you can’t see very well or at all, this would be very difficult to understand, but these sounds might help. So, again-

Taylor McKnight: That’s fascinating. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, it was just a very different kind of talk, and actually, and then oddly enough, a person in London this year proposed a talk, and it was really nice, as well. It was basically inspired… So, in Croatia, there’s this town that has a sea organ, and basically, it’s… Oh, what’s the town called? It’s in the North. I’ll think of it, I’m sure, but they have a sea organ, and the sea organ basically, as the waves go through this organ, it creates sounds that almost kind of sound like dolphins or whales. And it basically, based on how intense the waves are, and how it splashes against this organ, generates music. And it doesn’t sound great, but it’s interesting, right?

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: So, he took this idea, and used weather data and geographical data to generate music, as well. So, there’s a lot of just interesting fusions of real world, and tech, and web, and creativity, and they kind of come together and create cool stuff.

Taylor McKnight: Super interesting. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah. Yeah. Just the stuff where you might not do it every day at work, but it inspires you, and gives you like a newfound passion for the platform we use every day to create software.

Taylor McKnight: So, are you hunting out these speakers yourself, or how do you find this kind of… these undiscovered voices?

Dylan Schiemann: Right now, it’s roughly a third people that I know, and I reach out to them, and I say, “Hey.” This woman, Charlie Gerard, is speaking in Phoenix, and she’s amazing, and I’ve met her before, and saw a talk of hers last year, and I’ve been… and she’s gonna speak in Phoenix, and she’s really cool. And she’s doing this really neat, creative talk. But sometimes people send them to me. They’re like, “Hey, someone proposed this talk for my conference. It’s not quite right for us, but you should have them at HalfStack.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right. We should.” 

Someone actually recently asked me if I wanted a talk that was a web-based toilet urine analysis tool, and I’m like, “That’s weirdly gross. Maybe.” Right? I’m not sure about that. You just get weird stuff. And then a third of it is probably just open call for proposals or call for papers, so we have a very democratic process. People can submit their talks, and we review them, and basically, it might… The answer is sort of yes, no, or maybe. Yes is like, “We have to have that talk,” and it’s an immediate yes. No is, “Okay, that’s probably a great talk, but it’s not right for our conference and here’s why.” And then maybe is kind of like, “That’s cool, but maybe, have you thought about doing this instead? Or this in addition to it?” So, it’s sort of like we see some potential in the talk, but to make it a true HalfStack talk, maybe morph it in some way that makes it a little more edgy, or a little more fun, or a little more creative, and you can kind of tell by how people describe what they’re going to talk about whether it’s gonna fit, and then can kind of help them shape it into a really nice HalfStack talk. 

And most conference would just say no to those, but that maybe, where it has the potential, is kind of where you find your undiscovered speakers. Because the yeses are probably people who know how to write a really good abstract and have given a lot of talks before, and the maybes are often our first-time speakers, or our relatively new speakers, so it’s just like looking for those people who might need a little bit of nudge in the right direction to help create a really good talk. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah, that’s really interesting, right? Because huge conferences, like you said, would probably just accept or reject, accept or reject, and to have that kind of extra touch where you can make some suggestions, can you give me some idea of the suggestions that you give potential speakers? Is it around expanding the content, or like a certain way of looking at it?

Dylan Schiemann: Well, for example, someone might propose a talk on like machine learning with plants, right? And the talk itself is very much about the machine learning algorithms, and happens to have the context of plants, and I’m like, “Well, what’s the demo? How can people realize this being a real thing?” Right? And then the person will come back and be like, “What if I made it so when I touch the plant, it takes my slide forward?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s cool. Show how that works.” Right? 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: Make it something the audience can see, and experience, and make it real. Right? Because we’ve all heard talks about machine learning, or at least in this space. We’ve all heard talks about machine learning algorithms and how it works. So, skip that part of the story, because everyone in the audience has already heard that part of the talk. And instead, focus on this really unconventional thing you’ve done with that particular talk. 

Taylor McKnight: So, would you say, like I was talking to the organizers behind MicroConf a while back, and they try to balance half inspiration, like their event is trying to be half inspiration and half application, right? Things that you can actually do to apply to your business. How do you think that that content… How would you describe your content, right? Like that kind of-

Dylan Schiemann: I sort of say that HalfStack talks are some combination of informative, inspiring, interactive, and engaging, which means we probably skew more towards the… Like, “I may not directly apply what I learn today unless it’s very relevant, but maybe it will inspire me to do something in my domain a bit more creatively.”          So, really, it’s more about… I sort of feel like it’s, “I come to this conference and maybe I’m a little burnt out. Maybe I’ve been working really hard. Maybe I’m kind of just doing the same thing every day. Maybe I’ve had a really long project, and I get to go to this conference, and I come out of it kind of rejuvenated and re-inspired to create new things, or to try and experiment, or maybe I start working on a side project for fun that becomes really cool, and helps me learn something.”

So, it’s kind of like a reminder of why we got into software engineering to begin with, right? 

Taylor McKnight: I love that. Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, because I actually was at JSConf earlier this year, and signed up for… They have a conference day, and then an activity day, and then a conference day, which is really nice. And the activity day, I chose node art, not really knowing what it was. I mean, it said something like, “Will use Node.js and art to do something interesting.” All right, whatever. And so, I got there, and it turned out two of my HalfStack speakers from New York were the organizers of it, which was hilarious, right? So, I knew them, and we created these midi devices, basically like a box with like eight joystick buttons and a couple of knobs and controllers, and they lit up, and we soldered it. They gave us some shortcuts, but we took a good six hours to solder this up, and then connect it to some data visualization.  And so, what I did was I created this thing that would play different Star Wars and Star Trek songs, and then I had dials to speed them up and slow them down, right?

Taylor McKnight: Cool. 

Dylan Schiemann: And I did this because the next week at this conference, there was a bit of a sci-fi theme, so I took this with me, but it was like the most fun I’d had in a day in a long time, because I was just noodling and creating. And hardware for me is usually a fire, like literally a fire, so it actually just worked, and it was fun, and awesome, and inspiring. And so, if we can give people a similar experience through just entertaining them, and informing them, and inspiring them, then I think we’ve done well. 

Taylor McKnight: I love that. Yeah. I mean, right. We’ve all been to the conferences that are just for networking, or walking around, like scanning badges kind of thing, and I really like… I personally think that there’s a place and time for those ones, as well, but like you said, the kind of mindset of those ones, if it’s just all business, you can’t get burnt out. And that this one really feels like, like you said, reminding you of why you got into this industry in this first place. Even that kind of connection to be like one of the things that I love that you do is the after the conference, that JavaScript pub quiz. Right? 

And what a fun way to end the day, but still keep it within the community, you know? It’s not just like straight drink up. It’s kind of related to the community, but making it in a fun, playful way, I guess?

Dylan Schiemann: Right. Exactly. Yeah, so I find a lot of conferences have after parties, and after parties typically have two things. Drinking and music, right? Or maybe drinking and games, or maybe drinking and food, or some combination of that. Some of them have really nice games and activities, but again, it’s like there needs to be something to do, right? And so, what we do with HalfStack is we have this JavaScript pub quiz, and it’s modeled after a British pub quiz, and basically you get into teams of six, and with like pen and paper, you have to answer questions. It takes about an hour and a half. But it gives people a purpose of something to do as a group.

So, they’ve been inspired all day, and now they get their brains jarred through this challenging, ridiculous pub quiz, that’s more about making them laugh, and sharing history of things, and asking them questions they can’t quite remember the answers to. But you know, it’s just like something fun to do as a group, rather than just like, “All right, I’m gonna drink till the free beer runs out, and then I’m gonna go home.” Right?

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: And so there’s just a lot of things we can do like that, that make it like the conference transitions to the after party, but the only difference is really no one’s on stage anymore, but now we’re doing stuff together that is fun, and lighthearted, and still interesting. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah, it’s always… I mean, that’s I think a big challenge for event planners, and attendees also, right? It’s like those activities that can create connection, and I’ve seen some of the good ones are like the kind of lunch conversations, where you have topic tables and things like that. 

Dylan Schiemann: I went to an event last year which was kind of cool, and the event itself was decent. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t the best ever, but the one thing they did that it was cool was they had a place where you could sign up and say, “I want to go to dinner tonight with…” And they made reservations at four or five different restaurants for groups of I think six or ten people, and so basically, so you would just come back there around at the end of the day, and they would say, “This is the restaurant you’re going to at this time.” Show up and people were there. 

So, it avoided the sort of challenge of like, “Oh, I’m at a conference by myself. I guess I’m just gonna go have room service.” 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann:  Or, “I’m just gonna go eat at a restaurant by myself.” But what was interesting is it turned out the better thing they… The second night, everyone wanted to just go together, because they didn’t want to be fragmented. So, they made a booking for like 30 people at a restaurant, and like 30 people went, and it was pretty cool. 

The other thing I’ve seen a lot lately at conferences, and something we do, as well, it’s called the Pac-Man rule. So, during breaks and meals, people tend to stand in circles of people they know. But they tend to stand in a closed circle, and you don’t necessarily know, “Hey, could I go up and talk to these people or not?” Especially if you are solo. So, the idea with the Pac-Man rule is you stand in a Pac-Man shape with a space for someone to get gobbled into your group, like the open mouth. 

Taylor McKnight: That’s awesome!

Dylan Schiemann: And then you could just grow the group if you want more people to join, or if you don’t want to have an open conversation that time, you close the circle off, because it’s like your team’s having a discussion about something private. And it just makes people more mindful of yes, get involved with this discussion with us, and so it’s something… We mention it for a minute at the start of the conference, but then we notice everyone’s standing in Pac-Man groups instead, because they want to meet new people as well, and they don’t want to intimidate someone who’s there solo. 

Taylor McKnight: Those simple social cues can be so powerful, right? 

Dylan Schiemann: Yes. 

Taylor McKnight: I love that. Is there anything else you do to help attendees meet each other or connect? Either before or during the event? 

Dylan Schiemann: We generally just encourage people to use Twitter, because we’re a fairly small event. I mean, I’ve seen bigger events have Slack channels and things like that in advance. We just try to create a very relaxed environment where people feel comfortable talking to each other, and you know, it’s kind of like you arrive, you’re welcomed, you get your badge, you get some swag, you get some coffee, there’s a relaxed place to meet and just mingle and talk to people, and then about 10 minutes before it’s gonna start, it’s kind of, “Let’s take our seats. Let’s get started.” 

So, it’s not this rush to get your seat and have the perfect spot, because like in a pub, there are no good seats, but there are no bad seats. It’s just there are seats. 

Taylor McKnight: Right. Right. 

Dylan Schiemann: And then in a movie theater, we’re in a stadium-style cinema, so they’re all good seats, as well, except maybe the first row, right? So again, it’s just kind of this give people cues that, “Here’s what you can do for this.” So, we have an open sticker exchange, and so I have thousands of stickers from conferences that were just like leftovers, and I just create a sticker exchange, and then people add their stuff, so people will hang out by the sticker table during breaks to sort of see what new stickers have been added. So, the conversation of a sticker alone is kind of interesting. 

At the event where we had the sort of Star Wars, Star Trek dual theme, I had ordered a bunch of bootleg… I don’t know if they were bootleg, but they weren’t official Star Wars or Star Trek stickers, but they were like, “Women of Star Trek,” and just various cool, artistic Star Wars and Star Trek-inspired stickers.

Taylor McKnight: Cool. 

Dylan Schiemann: And I put those out with all the company logo stickers and stuff, and that was really popular. So, just again, little touches make a big difference, and something you can do with a smaller event than you can do with bigger events. Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: Do you have strong feelings about name badges, or stickers, or the design of those things?

Dylan Schiemann: So, I feel like the most important thing… Actually, there’s a few interesting things we do with name badges. So, we mostly have a space for a name. On both sides, it’s the same spot. When possible, we like to hand write them, so they feel personalized, but we write them, so they look consistent and the same. 

Taylor McKnight: Oh, wow!

Dylan Schiemann: My wife actually is a calligrapher as one of her trades, so she will write out all 300 badges.

Taylor McKnight: Wow. That’s awesome.

Dylan Schiemann: And it’s interesting, because we allow people to transfer their tickets up to like the day of the event, so she’s constantly rewriting some of them. We put the sponsor logos on the top, because it’s like a way to recognize them that’s tasteful. And then at the bottom, we have the Wi-Fi information and hashtag, but that’s upside down. That way when you look down you can see that information, instead of having to flip your badge around. And then we have a little bit of space for people to personalize it, so we have a table that’s called badge customization. We have Sharpies. And people can write in a camera logo, like, “Don’t photo me.” Or they can write in their gender pronouns. Or they can write in, “I am an introvert, leave me alone.” Those kinds of cues, and we have little ways to do that. 

I’ve seen conferences do like buttons, and stickers, and things like that, which works well also, but we kind of have this half-digital, half-manual mindset for HalfStack, so we… This logo we have is hand drawn but then techie, and so a lot of our… Actually, for our sponsors, one of the things we do is we put up little signs around the conference, like, “Thanks to the sponsor for dinner,” but they’re hand drawn by, again, my wife, the artist. And they look like… It’s cool for a sponsor to see their logo drawn, sketched out in a really nice way. So, we do that. 

But yeah, and again, the badges should be lightweight. The lanyards are very thin. But the key is the name should be on both sides, so that you’re not half the time just looking at the name of a sponsor or whatever.

Taylor McKnight: Right, right. 

Dylan Schiemann: Obviously, people can take them off if they don’t want to wear them. We’re not that strict. But the idea is just like the badge is just so you know what to call someone, and you remember their name if they want to be remembered. It’s interesting, sometimes people register with just a single name, and some conferences wouldn’t allow that. We allow that. If someone wants to just be known as Joe, that’s totally cool or whatever. Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: That’s awesome. Do you feel like a lot of these… I guess everything kind of fits into that kind of like hand-curated thing, like even the hand-drawn logos. An event needs sponsors, but that’s kind of the HalfStack way of making it part of the environment, as opposed to like big, loud banners that don’t maybe feel like they belong. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, like we do have some banners, but they’re more like your popup banners, or like the movie poster-style thing. But, so for example, some conferences, you hate to give out your email address, because you know you’re gonna get an email from every sponsor, right? Instead, what we do is we send the attendees out a single email… Well, with like a reminder, so two emails, so basically this is the email with the information packet to attend the conference. And it’s a five or ten page Google Doc that contains everything you’d want to know in a nice, organized manner, like from how to get there, to what to expect, to the format of the data, the schedule, just all the details. At the end we’re like, “We’re not going to email you with sponsor emails. Instead, here’s the information about our sponsors at the bottom.” It’s basically, “Here’s this sponsor. Here’s this sponsor. Here’s a paragraph about them.” And so on, throughout the bottom. 

And the idea is it’s… If you care about sponsors, you can read about them. And if you don’t, well, you don’t have to anyway, but you’re gonna delete their emails anyway if you don’t care. The feedback we’ve gotten is people actually then are like, “Hey, I want to read about the sponsors, because this is cool that they aren’t spamming me.”

Taylor McKnight: Yeah.

Dylan Schiemann: They are not gonna send me stuff for life. And then the other thing we do is like during the breaks, we have a slide deck that rotates, which just have a brief slide about each sponsor. So, it’s not like we’re forcing you to watch it or listen to it, but if you’re in the room during lunch, there is a slide deck that’s rotating about the sponsors. It’s more background stuff. Actually, so-

Taylor McKnight: People opt-in to that. Right. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah. It’s actually SitePen, my day job company, organizes one conference a year, which is TSConf, which is the TypeScript Conference, and that’s in Seattle. And they create… I say they because I didn’t actually work on this video, but for the sponsors, they created this, they had this theme that was sort of like a Dark City version of Seattle, and so they made a series of banners of all the sponsors that were the same style, sort of skyscrapers, and they had a logo on each panel-

Taylor McKnight: Oh, cool.

Dylan Schiemann: … which was really tasteful. Then they made a video that they ran in the area where food was served, and the video was like this 3-D aerial view of Seattle plus other buildings, and you would just be flying around and randomly you’d end up on a building that would have a logo of a sponsor. So, you’re just kind of mesmerized, watching this video of like, “Oh, it’s like the Space Needle with Google’s logo on it.” Or, “It’s the Amazon Tower with the AWS logo on it,” or whatever. 

But it fit in the theme, and it wasn’t in your face. It was actually kind of fun to watch. And the sponsors saw it and were like, “Oh, this looks great. Wow! This is better than what we would have put in here.” You know, so it’s… And then the sponsors don’t have to spend the money to ship their booth, stand in front of a booth all day when people generally don’t want… The reason they’re at a booth during a conference is because the conference is either too big, too crowded, or the talks aren’t any good. Right? Otherwise, they’re actually engaged in the conference, right?

Taylor McKnight: Right, right. Is there any ideas that have been too crazy to pull off so far?

Dylan Schiemann: So, I have a couple ideas for Tel Aviv that I’m not sure if we’re gonna be able to pull off, but just to give you the things we think of. So, this circus theater actually has an acrobatic team that can perform, so what I’m trying to find is a speaker who wants to do data visualization of acrobatic positions in real time. Like maybe have them wear sensors, and track that data, and then do something with it. If I could find someone that wants to do that talk, we will do that, and we will pay this trapeze team to perform while showing that. 

Taylor McKnight: So cool. Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: And then one of the thoughts was, “Well, we’re in a circus theater. Maybe for the after party we could  have like carnival games.” So, like you know, ring toss, and the basketball hoop, and maybe like each sponsor stands by one of the games and provides prizes for people who complete the game or something. But like, those aren’t that crazy, but they’re pretty cool ideas, right? So, like, there’s always something where we’re like, “Well, maybe we’ll do that next year, or maybe we could do that.” There’s been, like in London, we had someone and his team perform. Basically, he is known as the Weird Al Yankovic of JavaScript, so he’s like a proper musician who’s written all of these crazy tech songs. 

So, after the pub quiz they performed, and so there were these Spock and Yoda masks, so we asked them to put them on for one song and they did. And he’s performing, and he took his normal song, and he starts singing it in Yoda, so reversing the wording in this funny voice, which was really hilarious. So, people are pretty open to like random, off-the-wall, creative stuff. But you know, again, we’re just kind of looking for different things. 

We have one event in the southwest of the UK, in an area called Newquay, and it’s right by the beach, so we’re planning something beach-themed for that, but we’re still pretty early in that discussion. But barbecue and beach and whatnot. Again, it’s just kind of what works for the area best, really. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. I just love that that’s really the emphasis, is customizing and bespoking each area, each city, each experience, even based on the venue that you happen to find, as well.

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, like I do try to keep things that work, so like in London, we’re in the same venue for the fourth year next year.

Taylor McKnight: Okay. 

Dylan Schiemann: But each year I find a way to make it a bit different, kind of evolve it, improve it, so it’s not just the same event, but if I have something that I really like, I don’t want to change it just to change it. I know some conferences will never have the same venue two years in a row, which is their prerogative, but I kind of feel like if you’ve got a good venue, then you have the opportunity to innovate and create on top of that in some interesting ways. Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. Cool. So, I guess one of my last questions are like how do you… You’ve expanded these events in 2020. How do you find new attendees? You know, you’ve been doing some of these events for years, so you kind of have that audience built up. How do you find and market to new people? 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah. So, what I would say, most conferences would probably agree with me on this. The first year and the second year, both years you’re kind of hoping to break even. And then the third year, you expect to maybe earn a bit of a profit. And I’m not really necessarily doing this to earn a profit, but it’s more like the more we earn, the more we can do to create a unique conference. 

Taylor McKnight: Sustainable. Yeah. Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: Like we don’t want to find ourselves short in doing these events, right? So, London was fairly easy, because I had a Meetup group there already. And so, what we actually usually do is partner with local Meetup groups. Now, Meetup organizers usually get bombarded with people who are like, “Tell me all your attendees, and I’ll give them a promo code please and now.” Right? And it’s kind of like, “Well, all right.” But instead, we reach out to the Meetups and we say, “We’re creating this event. We’d like to list you as a sponsor, because we want to promote your community, like your group. We will offer the organizers of your Meetup free tickets to attend. We’ll offer a couple free tickets to raffle off to your attendees, and then a promo code for other people in your group to sign up.” 

And what we’re doing there is we’re recognizing that like organizing Meetups is difficult, but that’s generally where you find a good local base or community. So, we’re trying to do it in a way that rewards people for taking the effort to have a Meetup group, and organize it, and sustain it. Not just trying to use them to get their members to sign up for our conference. So, in many ways, like our sponsor list, you’ll see for most of our events, five to ten local Meetup groups as part of our sponsor list. 

Taylor McKnight: Oh, you’ll partner with that many Meetup groups.

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: Wow. 

Dylan Schiemann: If they’re relevant to the topic of our conference, we want to recognize them, and help grow that community, not replace it. Right? So, we will partner with similar events that we feel we share something in common with. And most organizers are kind of relieved that we’re not just asking them to sell out their members for some soulless conference, but that we’re inviting them there, we want them to be part of the conference, and we want to engage them. And again, it goes back to like that authentic relationship. We’re not looking to use them, we’re looking to collaborate with them and share with them, and so it goes pretty well. 

Taylor McKnight: Such a good strategy. Do you feel like that came out of your own experience, like starting as a Meetup? 

Dylan Schiemann: Definitely came from my experience of how conference organizers approached me as a Meetup organizer and what I did not like about that, and realizing that like, but that’s where a community grows, right? Is the sort of once-a-month get togethers.

Taylor McKnight: I love that, and because you’ve been approached kind of badly as a Meetup organizer, and you’ve been doing this for years and know how to properly approach it, the response is pretty good for those Meetup organizers?

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah. I mean, no… You’ll never have 100% success in anything, but it usually is enough to make it work. And again, like you know, generally we don’t know how… We always learn lessons, like we learned that we plan an event in Vienna in September, and no one in Germany, I mean Germany or Austria, or that area, work in August. So, you’re trying to make your last-minute plans, and get people to sign up, and everyone… You get out of office notifications.

Taylor McKnight: For everybody. 

Dylan Schiemann: Because they aren’t gonna be back for four weeks. You’re like, “This is gonna be fun.” And you learn things like that, but at the same time, I think that most people are pretty open to what we do, and we’ve got enough of a reputation of being this authentic conference, because it’s what we care about, that people hear about it, or someone mentions it to them. Like we have an event in New York, it’ll be in its second year this year, and I met the person who is the local host at a conference, and we happened to be on the same flight from Phoenix to Vancouver last year, right? 

Taylor McKnight: Cool. 

Dylan Schiemann: And he had heard about HalfStack, like he knew of the conference in London, and was like, “Oh, that’s such a great event. How could we have that in New York? I have a venue for it.” 

Taylor McKnight: Wow! 

Dylan Schiemann: You know, usually a lot of people will talk like that, and then nothing will happen, but he persisted, and that’s how HalfStack New York happened, was this one person at this company who happened to meet me on a flight, like almost demanded that we do it in New York. 

Taylor McKnight: That’s fantastic. 

Dylan Schiemann: Pretty funny. Yeah. 

Taylor McKnight: Awesome. Is there anything else that you want to share about your event? How many events are you doing in 2020 again? 

Dylan Schiemann: Seven. 

Taylor McKnight: Seven. 

Dylan Schiemann: Phoenix in January, Charlotte in April, Tel Aviv in May, Newquay, which is in the southwest of the UK in July, New York in August, Vienna in September, and London in November. 

Taylor McKnight: Awesome, and you’re going to all of those.

Dylan Schiemann: I will be at all of them. Yes. 

Taylor McKnight: Excellent. 

Dylan Schiemann: And it’s the website is halfstackconf, like HalfStack conference, dot com. And we strive to create an affordable experience, so compared to most conferences, our tickets are quite cheap. It’s more expensive than like… I mean, you get all your meals, food, drink, everything included for the day. But if you go to the site and it’s like, “I can’t afford that,” reach out to us. We have volunteer options. We have diversity options. Mozilla is our diversity sponsor, so they sponsor all of our events, and what they ask us to do is make a certain number of tickets available for diversity every year, and we think that makes for a better event anyway, but it’s nice to get their support to make that happen, too. 

Taylor McKnight: Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: And yeah, so it’s just like we want to create an event that everyone can attend, so if for some reason it’s like, “I would love to go, but I simply cannot afford that,” just let us know and we’ll make it happen. 

Taylor McKnight: That’s awesome, and that just kind of circles back to the authenticness of everything you guys do, right? Yeah. 

Dylan Schiemann: Yeah, we want a great event for each of the communities we represent, and that’s what matters most. 

Taylor McKnight: Wonderful. Dylan, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing all about HalfStack and some of your behind-the-scenes stories and strategies. 

Dylan Schiemann: Awesome. Thank you. Thanks for making the time. And thanks for listening. 

Taylor McKnight: Thanks for tuning in this week, and thanks again to Dylan Schiemann for sharing how they bring authenticity to their events with every thoughtful touch. Find links to learn more about HalfStack in our show notes and visit us at That’s E-M-A-M-O dot com. See you next time