How JAM organised their first design conference

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A few months back, with a couple of friends, I set up JAM — a 1-day event to share the stories behind the products we use every day. The idea came to us last year when we started working together at Adbrain. Having had little experience designing and building products, we often asked ourselves how other companies do it. You know, companies like Google, TransferWise or SwiftKey — how do THEY do things? What goes on behind the scenes? How do product managers, designers and engineers make it all happen?

We really wanted to know more, so decided to create an event where people could learn from the best product companies around. JAM was born.

Organising an event like this is harder that it seems, and in the last couple of weeks, several people have asked me how we’ve got it off the ground. It hasn’t actually happened yet (it’s on the 3rd of October), but I figured I’d write a post about how we got to where we are today.

What’s your ‘thing’?

Whatever your event is about, chances are someone else is doing something similar. And while there is always room in the market for one more, we wanted to be different.

A few months in, we stumbled across the Teehan + Lax blog. We were instantly inspired by their approach, which involved publishing detailed stories about how they built amazing products, like Medium or Readability. Having used these products ourselves, we could relate to the knowledge being shared. This was the lightbulb moment, and “Sharing the stories behind great products” became our mission.

Find awesome speakers

We decided to focus our efforts on inviting speakers who have built products people are likely to have used at least once in their lives. Getting in touch with these speakers was fairly straightforward, and in almost every case, the response was positive — people were happy to meet, talk about the event, and be part of it. Events like this are a win-win situation — the speaker has an opportunity to elevate their profile alongside the company they work for, and we’re able to create a great learning experience for our attendees.

The quality of the speakers is, of course, critical to organising a successful event, so it’s worth spending enough time finding the right people. Wherever possible, we’ve tried to find people with previous speaking experience, and for those who don’t we’re providing them with guidance and support to help them prepare an interesting and engaging talk.

We’ve also made a conscious effort to create a good gender balance in our line-up. Women are still largely underrepresented in tech, and as event organisers, we felt we had a responsibility to try and correct this (if you’re a woman working in a product role, we’d love to hear from you: hello@jam2015.london).

Find a venue

Having attended various conferences before, we were aware that a great location matters just as much as the line-up. Good transport links are important, but we also wanted somewhere that had some real character. More often than not, we’ve been to events where the venue looks a bit too much like a Premier Inn. It’s also the biggest cost, so we shopped around before making our decision. Using HireSpace (AirBnb for venues), we found several possibilities and eventually settled on Oval Space in Bethnal Green, London.

Finding our sponsors

Organising events isn’t cheap, and most venues will ask you to pay a deposit upfront. So before we could secure the venue, we needed cash from sponsor companies. We prepared a sponsorship pack, detailing exactly what we were doing. This included information about us, our target audience, marketing plan, pricing and benefits. Companies get asked to sponsor things all the time, so it’s important to make the benefits clear.

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Design an experience

We’ve been to various conferences before where the quality of the speakers was great, but everything else wasn’t quite up to scratch — starting with the food. It’s ironic that design event organisers focus so much on content and speakers, but forget about the overall experience. Many don’t even offer food on the premises, meaning the lunch break, which is the perfect opportunity to meet new people, is wasted. We think it’s important to create an environment that facilities this, so decided to include lunch, tea, coffee and drinks as part of the ticket price. Because great food makes people happy, ours will be sourced from a local chef (much better than a crappy ‘Upper Crust’ baguette!)

Beyond that, we’ve paid close attention to every other detail, from the venue layout to the music being played. We’ve also tried to find ways of adding value above and beyond the learning experience. For example, we’ve collected exclusive discounts with some of the best product design tools and resources around; including Marvel App, Bohemian Sketch 3, Balsamiq, Team and Solo. Every attendee will be given access to these the event handbook. The savings involved significantly exceed the ticket price, offering excellent value for money.

Tell the world

It’s hard to build a website without knowing the details of your event, but it’s still worth getting something up sooner rather than later. We built a simple landing page, hinting at what we were going to do and inviting people to sign up to our newsletters. To acquire traffic, we included a ‘resources’ section where every week, we posted the top design resources and shared them on Social Media. This allowed us to start building our initial audience, which later on, converted into our first sales.

Sell some tickets!

Without a doubt, this has been the hardest part. Getting the price point right is tricky, as it needs to match what your primary audience is going to be willing to pay. In our case, we’ve focused on selling to startups who will typically have a limited (if any) staff training budget.

To date, we’ve tried various channels, including Social Media, partner newsletters, and MeetUp groups. But we quickly discovered that direct sales — contacting people on LinkedIn to let them know about the event — works best when you don’t have an existing community. It’s hard work, but so far it’s paid off. Our personal networks have also played a big part — we emailed everyone we knew telling them about the event and asking them to help spread the word.

To be continued…

We’ve worked hard over the last six months to pull together an awesome event. There’s still a lot to do, but we’re thrilled by our line-up and can’t wait for the big day. If you want to learn about how companies like TransferWise, Google, SwiftKey go about building great products. Early-bird tickets are available at www.jam2015.london (but they’re selling fast, so don’t wait too long!).

Seb Powell is a Team user and product designer based in London. He was previously Head of Design for Adbrain, and has recently co-founded GetAgent.co.uk. He’s been organising JAM in his spare time.

If you're in London on the 3rd October, we have two JAM tickets to give away. To be in with a chance of winning share this post using hashtag #JAM2015 and link http://bit.ly/1QsBC39.

Posted by Jerome Iveson