Techdirt Greenhouse… The Big Recap

from the how-it-all-went dept

The process of putting on the very first Techdirt Greenhouse event was somewhat exhausting, and while we had a few people asking us for a recap, it was too much to do right after the event happened. The team here needed a good week to recover a bit, and (more importantly) to digest all of the feedback (which keeps coming in). We’re absolutely thrilled that the feedback has been almost universally ecstatic about the event, with all of the “negative” comments being mostly constructive suggestions on things we could improve next time — and improve it even more is exactly what we intend to do. We’ll release details when we get much closer to the next event.

After the jump, I get into more of the details about what worked and what didn’t, but what’s been most exciting to us is just how much everyone seems to have gotten out of the event, whether as attendees or presenters. For example, we were thrilled to have Gabbly launch at the event — helping to generate a ton of publicity for the company, which has become an overnight sensation, allowing anyone to add chat to any website for instant collaboration. For example, if you want to chat about what’s going on here at Techdirt, just go here — and you can easily put chat on any website (even if it’s not yours) just by putting in front of the URL. We also heard of at least three of the presenters scoring meetings with venture capitalists thanks to their presentations at the event. One of the most interesting things to us, at least, was that even the presenters who some people felt weren’t as polished ended up getting quite a bit out of the event, as they got great feedback on ways to simplify and improve their message.

Before going into some of the nitty gritty, here’s some of the feedback and coverage we got concerning the event:

  • Conferenza: Techdirt Greenhouse is Innovative & Worthwhile: “Although I only attended a fraction of the overall event, I was impressed on several levels. I attended no event better organized to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds. The quality and thoughtfulness of attendees was apparent wherever I looked. The ideas to real business problems, were occasionally naive, in my opinion, but more often they were creative, concrete, funny or occasionally inspired.

    I think Techdirt is on to something with Greenhouse. I hope to spend a full day with a future event by this innovative new group. I think both are worth watching.”

  • Hillary Johnson, Kerabu: The (Techdirt) Greenhouse Effect: “If I were a VC (or a founder looking for partners, or a startup looking for key staff), I’d be pretty excited about seeing Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike and Dennis turn this into a regular event, so that I could avail myself of this forum to gauge my potential investment’s performance, not just in a pitch meeting or interview, but on the “green.””
  • Jeff Clavier’s Software Only: Techdirt’s Greenhouse: a very interesting experiment: “I spent the day hanging out at the Techdirt Greenhouse, and I am glad I did – even if this meant spending a day away from the family. Mike Masnick and his team came up with an interesting concept: getting startups to present their product/services for 5 mins, and get the audience divided up in small discussion groups that would address a key business or strategy question related to one of the presenting companies.”
  • Jackie Danicki: Techdirt Greenhouse catch-up: “Techdirt Greenhouse on Saturday was a blast, even if people looked at me a little funny during the split second when they thought I’d flown all the way from London for the day. Well, I didn’t (last night’s wedding was the main event), but having attended Techdirt Greenhouse, I’d say it would have been worth 24 hours of flying.”

  • The Long Blonde Tail: The “Un” of Things To Come “Everyone came ready to share their expertise, formulate outcomes, debate, learn and advise. Google, Yahoo!, Intel, Microsoft and Apple people meeting minds with VCs, investors, seasoned CXO’s, bloggers, journalists, software developers, and entrepreneurs. All ready to listen, learn, collaborate, teach, talk and at the end of the day, socialize. On the fly.”

  • Dorai Thodla in the Techdirt comments: “It was a great place to be. It is probably one of the best events I have been to in a long time. Its charm was that it was very, very interactive. Mingling with so many smart people, brainstorming on many of the issues mentioned in this post, sharing the insights of small discussion groups with all the participants was some of the best examples of an interactive conference.”

Okay, okay… we’re blushing. To get such a great response to the event went well beyond what we had hoped for in an absolute best case scenario. We’re thrilled that it worked out for everyone involved and hope we can keep up the level of quality — or even improve it some more. We’ve already had quite a few discussions on ways to make sure this wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. If you’re interested in presenting at the next event, please contact us. After the jump, plenty more wrapup info about the event.

Going into the event, a lot of people compared it to the various "un" conferences or "camps" that have suddenly become quite popular. While we did pay attention to what was going on at those events, the inspiration for the event came much earlier -- after getting annoyed at "yet another" tech industry conference that had all the same people yakking away on stage, saying nothing particularly new on various panels, or with big companies doing an hour long sales pitch disguised as a keynote.

As I noted at the time, the only value I was getting out of these events was during lunch -- when I actually got to meet people. So, I wanted to create a "conference of lunches." And, at the same time, since I knew so many of the speakers at these events, and what they were going to say, I wanted to push attendees a bit outside of their comfort zone -- giving them different challenges to work on.

It was thrilling to see that we apparently succeeded on both accounts (partly because we pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zone with this event). As the quotes above show, the interaction with lots of high quality attendees was what made the event work, and as Hillary Johnson pointed out, some of the more interesting aspects of the event was seeing how people discussed ideas they weren't necessarily as familiar with.

It's great that it worked out so well, because as much as we believed we had the right formula, you never really know until you try -- and things could have gone completely in the opposite direction.

What worked:

Amazingly... almost everything. There were, of course, a few small glitches here and there, but the overall concept worked. The thing we were most worried about was the logistics of moving around all of these people and forcing them into different groups (not of their own choosing). Our fancy multi-shaped, color-coded badge system did the trick -- just as we'd hoped. There was some confusion over the system at the very beginning -- and the initial shuffle of people was still a little messy (and something we hope to improve on), but overall it worked. Also, while some people originally didn't like that we chose what groups they were in, many people told us afterwards that, in retrospect, that made it much better. They didn't get to hang out with the people they knew, and they were forced to tackle very interesting problems they might otherwise have skipped.

What made it work:

The attendees: I can't say this enough. The people who agreed to come and take part in this unproven event, really made the event work. They bought into the concept and took the participation seriously. With it being open for anyone to register (for a small fee), it's great that those who did helped make this into such a great crowd.

The venue: The folks at Plug & Play Real Estate did an amazing job. Everything was great, and made everyone feel comfortable, while also making sure there was great food and drinks for everyone.

The presenters: Again, the presenters all were taking a chance on this event -- with nothing quite like it to compare it to. They believed in us and the opportunity -- and every one of the presenters we spoke to told us they got more out of this event than just about any other they were involved in. The best part was that most of the presenters also took part in the other breakout sessions as well.

The discussion leaders: We had six incredible volunteers agree to be discussion leaders. Five were set ahead of time, with the sixth being drafted early in the morning, after one of the planned discussion leaders had his car break down, and was unable to attend. To some extent, we may have underestimated how important these people would be -- hoping that the groups would naturally fall into a discussion. However, it turns out that the discussion leaders really stepped up, and in many ways drove the discussions, got everyone to participate and made sure everything stayed interesting. The importance of having great discussion leaders cannot be overstated.

The structure: With so much talk these days of doing events without any structure, we actually became a bit nervous that people might rebel against the structure. However, it turned out to give the event exactly what was needed to keep it interesting and push it along at the right points.

The discussion questions: This actually turned out to be trickier than expected. With some of the presenters we actually had to spend quite a bit of time to make sure that the question being asked was worthwhile for discussing. This meant getting rid of leading questions and rephrasing questions that were too narrowly focused (or which had yes/no answers!). In some ways, making sure that each of the presentations involved an interesting question that was both broad enough to interest most people, while specific enough to be helpful to the presenters, was what took up most of our preparation time.

What can be improved:

Plenty of things! Time management was an issue. While we successfully kept all the presentations within their five minute limit (and almost all were PowerPoint free -- as the rules stated), the discussion groups tended to go over a bit. However, that was because people didn't want to stop the discussions. It worked out okay, as we had baked some excess time into the schedule, but it's something to be aware of for future events.

The role of presenters in their own breakouts. In some cases, presenters attended the breakouts discussing their presentation/product. In other cases they didn't. We received completely mixed feedback on this. There are benefits (being able to ask questions, get them involved in the discussion) and downsides (not feeling that you can speak totally freely about something) to having the presenter in the room. Based on all the feedback we have some ideas we'll be testing at the next event to see if we can get the best of both situations.

Summing everything up. Most people felt that the takeaways went well and were interesting -- but some felt that it came off a bit disjointed as there wasn't necessarily any final wrapup. Again, based on this feedback, we think there are a few things we can do to improve this part of the program next time around.

Some presenters' quality. There was certainly a broad range in the overall quality of the presentations -- though, amusingly, many people disagreed about which ones were good or bad. There was one presentation, in particular, that I had one person describe as the best, and another, as the worst presentation of the day. Overall, though, we definitely got a feel for what "worked" in presenting within five minutes, without PowerPoint and while stating a question. For future presenters, we're going to give a lot more initial guidance.

There was also very mixed opinions on whether or not the presentations should be longer -- however, those who argued for keeping the five minute limit were very persuasive. They pointed out that if you can't make the point in five minutes, then it's unlikely that having a few more minutes will necessarily help you. Those who argued for longer presentations times mainly did so for presentations that they were confused over. Improving the presentation quality, along with access to the presenters for Q&A, will hopefully alleviate those concerns.

A record of the proceedings: This part was tricky. Quite a few people who couldn't attend asked us to webcast the event. We had thought about it, but webcasting the event, unfortunately, misses the point. It was very much about the interactions, not sitting back and watching. We did film the main presentations, but eventually decided that without the interaction and the discussions, they weren't all that useful by themselves. However, some people pointed out that the presenters who weren't in some of the breakout workshop groups missed out on some of the best pieces of feedback that didn't necessarily make it to the "take aways" session after the breakouts. Again, a few attendees made some excellent suggestions on ways we can deal with this next time around -- which we plan to implement.

Overall, though, it was a blast. We had fun putting the event on and meeting so many of you and having so many fascinating discussions. Thanks to everyone who took part and who took a chance on such an experiment. We look forward to seeing you, along with many new faces, at future Techdirt Greenhouse events.

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