Over the last month and a half I have been hearing a number of things regarding the treatment given to one speaker in particular of the Canada on Rails conference, and would really like to offer the community some truth to what you may have or have not yet heard. I had originally hoped those who heard the rumors would be able to see through them, or at least query me to shed some light before making any assumptions, or even wiser, dismiss them as just that, a rumor.
In any event, I am going to attempt to bring some clarity, and filter through some of the confusion one man has generated.
Before I go into the heart of what this post is about, I want to give you a bit about who I am and what I do. Over the last few years I have been producing open source events, from the Web Services conference under the umbrella of PHP West, to the Open Source and PHP Security Conference through OS Events. And most recently, just finished organizing the sold-out Canada on Rails conference here in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Along side the larger conferences, I have also been organizing smaller events as well. Through founding organizations such as Vancouver Web 2.0 Forum, Vancouver Ruby Association, VanVeg (a Vegetarian Community), and a number of other groups which have come and gone as my interest sways. What I found while attending these events, some of which I organized, was that each of the speakers got up on stage, presented their some odd minutes worth of slides - left me going home to realize that the time and energy expensed by these speakers could have garnered a much higher potency of educational value if structured differently.
So I started contemplating, looking for a better method of instruction. An event whereby I could go to and not just be spoken to, but interact with the speaker on a equal level, ask them questions, work together on each others learning to achieve something much more. What I wanted was a more hands-on approach. Thus, I decided that workshops were really the events I wanted to attend, and therefore organize.
Today, deepening this realization, workshops don’t have to be one or even two days. They can be 30 or even 60 minutes long. It isn’t so much the length, but the format by which the instructor teaches. Try picturing yourself learning Kung Fu orally, it just can’t be mastered that way, and to expect us to master anything by hearing it alone without any hands on interaction is absurd.
Conferences for me are another story. They are a pure networking event. Getting to meet the public thought leaders, offering a gist of the path they are headed toward or have traveled along. And most importantly get to meet a ton of really interesting people.
In September of 2005, after having missed the chance to attend RubyConf, I focused my energy on making a conference on Ruby which I knew I could attend. Shortly after revised it to be one on Ruby on Rails. This new technology that I discovered which was proving ideal for me as a 10 year PHP developer to evolve with. The more I learned and compared with the similar framework I was currently building, the more I came to appreciate what was presented to me.
As the weeks, and soon months rolled by, I continued to organize the first ever Ruby on Rails conference, Canada on Rails. Starting with budgets and crunching numbers, I continued on paying for and ensuring that all out of town speakers flights were booked, hotel rooms for all speakers were paid for, and the venue was lined up, in addition to the multitude of other tasks which are required to make an event of what I had originally anticipated to be 500 people - function smoothly. All the while, financially backing this organically through my software development business, Inimit Innovations Inc., and taking the financial risk on myself.
Around December, I was introduced to Steven Baker. We ended up discussing test-driven development, a technical strategy of developing code by testing first. And found that I was thoroughly interested in learning more.
I have always been of the methodistic approach to promote that which I personally do. Such an example, I stopped organizing PHP conferences, because I simply didn’t believe that was the solution to web application development anymore.
Similarly, test-driven development, in as much as I have heard and read about it, was something I was very much in favor of, and wanted to promote it and learn more about it myself.
As time went on, Steven and I started discussing the details for the workshop, and I went over what I needed as far as materials I needed to make the event happen . Such as the workbook which attendees would be able to follow and use as a guide while listening to him instruct the workshop. The workbook took over 4 months to amount to any density worth formatting for print, and was a process that involved constant reminder of deadlines. The result was 10 pages, which was printable. In addition to the other logistics, we also went over the financial aspects of it as well.
We discussed several payment scales, one of which was a fixed price, another being something in the neighborhood of $100 a person (based on $495 for a full price ticket), which is about 20% of the gross revenue. When the day came, due to the hectic schedule of me organizing the conference, I truly wasn’t sure what figure we finally agreed to, although I had a feeling it was somewhere around $2,000 - $3,000. That said, I asked Steven during the final day of the workshop, being Sunday, how much I owed him. He said almost instantly $2,500, and went back to packing up his things to head back to the hotel. I didn’t doubt him, as I felt he most of all would know how much I owed, and I took his word for it and wrote him a check later that evening for exactly that amount.
My strategy behind hosting the workshops right after the conference was two fold. First, I knew most importantly that the conference which I later adjusted to have a maximum of 300 people attend, would be the single most important factor in marketing the workshop to ensure seats were sold. Second, the additional cash flow from workshops registrations would help assist in the costs associated with hosting the conference, which far exceeded the relative costs associated with the workshop.
For those that have never hosted a conference before, here is a sample of some of the costs associated with hosting a conference such as Canada on Rails: venue ($6,000), hotel for all speakers ($10,000), airfare/travel ($10,000), catering ($15,000), t-shirts ($2,500), programs ($3,000), audio & visual equipment (lighting, stage, microphones, video cameras, videographers) ($5,000), staff (beautiful as they were) ($2,500), lanyards ($1,500), wireless/internet, marketing, website development ($4,000), brand, design, and whatever else I may have missed. After all was said and done, I estimate I made about $10,000 net for 6 months of work invested into both the workshop and the conference. Which is a salary of about $1,670/month, equal to about $10/hour. If nobody showed to either, you can see that I could have potentially fielded a loss of somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000, a risk that was shared solely by myself.
To generalize, conferences are not something that are free to put on. They cost money to back it - and quite a bit of it. And if you don’t have a piggy bank to back you in case nobody shows or your break-even point never gets reached, they can be quite risky as well. Just look at the numbers above, and imagine paying for all that, and nobody shows!
About half way through organizing YVR06, I started planning that this conference was going to be the one I used as a foundation to host future events. I was happy to come out in the end with a couple key assets (such as a color photocopier and projector) I had in order to make the next conference that much smoother, and attempt to recover any lost profit I may have incurred at the next conference. In business, there is a term called opportunity cost (”… measures the cost of any economic choice in terms of the next best alternative foregone”). In order for me to calculate the opportunity cost of me running the conference, and the net profit I received. I must compare the 6 months invested in preparation and organization of the conference and workshop with the income I could have made working under the last salary figure offered to me. The salary was presented to me by a company, which wanted to employ me full time instead of organizing the event. And to be honest, monetarily, I lost quite bit.
Pure and simple - my motivation for hosting the conference wasn’t for profit. Sure I wanted to make some money, as does everyone. I have bills to pay just like the next guy, and the more bills I can pay with the work I do, the better.
The real reason why I was hosting the conference was that I wanted to meet the people behind the technology. The individuals who share in the same common goal. To provide technology to the world, with no constraints. People that believe in Open Source.
Now all that being said, the conference went extremely well, the feedback I got during the conference and up until a week after was nothing short of perfect.
Until I started hearing rumors. Rumors of me exploiting the community. You name it, the rumor mill was running full tilt. These rumors weren’t just voices in the wind either, they were coming from core members of the Ruby community. When I found the source of these lies, err… rumors, they were seeded by none other than Steven Baker, who I found out had the very strong opinion of me having ripped him off, and treated him unfairly. After discussing with him, I found that he spoke to BCIT, and had got a false quote on how much the room I used for the workshop actually cost, and grew that into a path of discrediting me to some of the core names within the community. Now, I would expect nothing more of people who hear such strong accusations of someone, to attempt to clear it before believing in someone spouting off claims as harsh as what I had heard was being said. From what I have seen, only one of the souls that heard his side of the story bothered to do any due diligence at all in seeing if any truth was within his words.
As I mentioned before, on the last day of the workshop, I spoke with Steven and asked him how much I owed him, and he told me. I paid, and that was that, or so I thought.
Well, as it turned out, a week or so after, Steven did some new math and decided he wanted more for the workshop. What he told me originally I owed, simply wasn’t enough anymore.
Close to four months before the workshop was scheduled to occur, I had booked a room for a maximum of 30 people which provided each attendee to have their own workstation. I had the option to go for a smaller room, but instead made arrangements for 30 people to attend. And booked the catering accordingly.
As I talked with Steven, I got a little deeper into his reasoning as to why he wanted further compensation. He claimed I agreed to max the registrations at 20, and based on me filling to capacity the room I booked, he should get additional funds based on the change in attendees. And that the amount should be expanded based on the profit ratio (20 people equaling $2,500, something along the lines of $125/person). After hearing this, the math just simply couldn’t be true. Why on earth would I book a room with a max of 30 people, when I had the option for a smaller room at less cost, then turn around and tell Steven I was going to cap it at less than capacity just to overpay for room which I was never going to reach capacity? It just doesn’t make sense. I have a very, very strong motto against lying, and know that I simply wouldn’t tell him something I knew wasn’t true, then turn around and do something like that. Knowing my own principles, this simply didn’t add up. At no point did I ever commit to a 20 seat cut off.
After hearing this, I was not impressed at all. And I was definitely not about to pay him this extra cash just because he changed his mind.
So after I am completely befuddled with this new “invoice”. He furthers this confusion saying that I also owe him ~$300 worth of travel expenses he managed to rack up to get from here to Vancouver Island (ferry costs with for a Dodge Dakota truck are max $40 each way, and even though gas costs are expensive, they aren’t $220 worth for 40 some odd kilometers).
Now, being that I had covered every other speakers travel expenses, whether it was Geoffrey’s gas to get from here to Seattle, or close to ten thousand dollars of other travel expenses incurred for each of the other 12 speakers requiring passage to Vancouver. I wouldn’t have had any problem at all reimbursing Steven the reasonable costs associated for him to get to and from Vancouver Island (which should have only been max $150, and that is even pushing it). But, the fact that I was being demanded to pay him for the travel expense, ones which doubled by estimates, after he went to everyone else in the community first, and attempted to discredit me saying I had ripped him off and exploit him, I wasn’t about to pay. There was no way, shape or form was I going to fold into someone when they had such malicious intent to discredit me first, then ask for money they were “owed”.
When I was at the Canada on Rails after party, I had discussed with a few people how it was a goal of mine to ensure that speakers enjoyed themselves to the extent that their hotel and airfare (and in the case of local speakers, gas or train) expenses were covered. And in future, when profits permitted, were even treated to a local trip of some sort, like going for a couple days of skiing on the house.
Comparing how I had treated the speakers at Canada on Rails to other major conferences, I found that only the keynotes had their expenses covered. And in some cases, speakers had the opportunity to host a tutorial. Tutorial units cost around $345. And would certainly gross well over the cost of the expenses covered.
So looking at how I was treating the speakers financially through covering their travel and accommodations, I was quite pleased with the generosity shown. And was quite eager to expand and grow the benefits to be events of premiere caliber for speakers to participate at. When I heard otherwise, it felt like I was stabbed in the back.
The one and only seed I can see that may have sprouted this intent of Steven’s, was when we started discussing after the workshop was over, that it was really his workshop, and he was only purely using me to process credit cards.
I was unimpressed to say the least. The months of time, and thousands of dollars that I had invested into the conference and workshop, and for Steven to now let me know I was purely being used solely to process credit cards. I decided then and there that was the end of that relationship. I didn’t want to do any further workshops with him. In addition to having heard first hand him discredit everyone from his manager, to another speaker at the conference, I wasn’t interested in doing anything further with him.
Now with all that has said, I encourage you to do what others didn’t. Ask him to verify this. And I can assure you he will have his own opinion of what happened. All you have to do is hear from every other speaker that was at Canada on Rails, and the truth should be quite clear. I don’t rip of any speaker that comes to an event I organize. And in fact, I really do try to treat them as well as I can with the budget available.
I for one, am very pleased to invest and leverage my experience to promote all forms of Open Source. Whether it is providing the organization of conferences to facilitate speakers sharing their message, or putting together workshops to provide a more in-depth and potent form of education. I look forward to continue to encourage the open mentality and freedom that Open Source brings into the future.