Conferences are our marketing budget
We are a bit of a split team in that I do purely design and front end work and the rest of the guys do Umbraco development so we straddle two distinct communities but myself, Pete and Ste have recently returned from the annual Codegarden Umbraco festival in Denmark which is 3 days of talks, hacking, open spaces and generally enjoying hanging out with fellow devs from companies around the world.
Photo credit: Doug Robar
Now, it's often difficult to put a figure on what attending or talking at conferences bring because frankly the returns aren't always obvious but I'd love to try and put into some context how we are happy to spend what I'll tentatively refer to as our "marketing budget".
Codegarden on the face of it isn't a cheap 3 days, to have 3 of our 4 man team attend cost us roughly:
3 tickets - £1000
3 return flights - £500
3 hotel rooms with overpriced breakfasts - £500
Spending money - £1000 (It's in Denmark!)
That's just the easy to account for stuff.
We don't work while we're there. We see lots of people go to conferences and sit there with heads buried in laptops and then complain they didn't get much from the experience. If there's an emergency sure, sort it but we like to take in everything and that means on top of the actual cost, we're not doing billable work in those days (at £550 per person per day) either.
Photo credit: Doug Robar
Pete also delivered two talks on separate days as well. The prep and practice time for those is hard to account for as well.
The whole cost for Codegarden suddenly starts racking up another notch.
It's still well worth it.
A global community
As our business evolves we're working with more and more people from all corners of the world and we find conferences are a great place to finally meet some of our peers and present (and potential) clients and so investing time and effort attending selected events through the course of the year is great for us to get out of the office and share a beer or dinner with people we would otherwise only ever really be in touch with on Skype or Twitter.
The value of being in the same place in an increasingly remote orientated environment is getting greater every year.
It's not always about "doing business" then and there
Our aim isn't to attend a conference in the same way as some of the desperate business networking meets we've been to in the past where it's just a ham-fisted and akward exchanging of business cards.
No, it's an informal thing. A longer cultivation of a friendship in an industry where direct competitors regularly collaborate and pass around projects.
We pass on work, our friends pass on work and we feel any business (especially smaller ones) should look at conferences as an opportunity to integrate into a community whether it's Umbraco or the design conferences I also attend.
The value of community
Pete has spoken at the last couple of Codegarden conferences as well as making great efforts to travel the UK speaking at meetups and other conferences about a wide range of topics.
As a company we feel it's critically important to stay in touch with our friends and rivals and along with helping on forums and releasing code, being at conferences brings us closer but also gives us the chance to meet new people as well.
Talking at conferences
Pete is a regular and vastly experienced public speaker, myself, well I'm learning the ropes and having done a couple of talks at more design focused conferences it's been a great way to enable my own personal development and learning new skills and getting more ideas for how we can do things better.
Just attending conferences is fun but sometimes it's well worth taking the plunge and trying to speak at one.
We've found that speaking has raised our profile more than any other medium would have done and being on a stage rather than in the audience gives you a real authority and platform on which you can then use to engage with fellow attendees. Pete's killing of Code First in Umbraco recently was a great example of making a stand and highlighting something which got a lot of people talking about it and to us as a result.
An intangible investment
Conferences are definitely fun to attend and speak at and I'd strongly recommend getting out there if you're a freelancer or small business. Allocate as much money as you feel comfortable with and find something local if needs be but there's no doubt in our experience that being in the same physical space as our peers has improved our profile and led to more fruitful relationships with our peers.
It's just hard to calculate the exact financial returns on attending a conference but they definitely exist!