Cycles, authenticity and John Ringling

I was thinking this morning that there’s a certain irony in the fact that I live relatively close to where John Ringling’s winter home (Ca d’Zan) is located. After all, in some senses, Ringling and I are in the same business, right? It’s kind of funny to think that way (and I’m certainly nowhere near as successful as Ringling), but bringing historical perspective to anything always gets me thinking about cycles.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Brad’s writing about cycles today — asking whether we’re seeing a “warm mid-winter day” or the actual “beginning of spring” based on some anecdotal tidbits that he’s seeing.

I’ve been monitoring my own anecdotal evidence as well, and I’m leaning toward “spring” – but with caveats.

First off, I’m not sure that the “conference business” is a leading indicator. I’m quite sure it’s not when it comes to big software company sponsors. Which is to say the “my industry” is going to see a lot of continued pain over the next year — as far too many conferences and expos are based on the premise that you get BigCo 1 (HP, Sun, IBM, Microsoft, etc) and BigCo 2 to be your “anchor sponsors” and go throw a big event. Tales from the floor of the Web 2.0 Expo betray that the expo model is gonna hurt for some time to come.

However, that doesn’t mean that all events will do badly. And I certainly don’t think that events (in general) are a leading indicator of the tech economy (or economy at large). In fact, I’d argue that most potential sponsor companies are being driven largely by emotion at the moment. In fact, I could chart the emotional swings and how they correlated to sponsorship sales for Glue. We had a nice up-surge (in sponsorship sales) around the inauguration that lasted for about 3 weeks following it, and then a drop off over the last month, as people seem gripped by their “wait and see” attitudes for the summer and fall. We’re fortunate that Glue’s been hitting on all cylinders, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see how the vendors are reacting.

All of which leads me back to one of Brad’s main points: “work hard all the way through each of the cycles.”

My opinions about how this cycle plays out are just that – opinions. And they’re really pretty irrelevant.

What matters is whether I can pull together a great event. And that ability starts and ends with one thing and one thing alone: authenticity.

The first question I ask myself when starting a conference (whether it is Defrag or Glue or whatever) is whether I think the topic is big and important and something I want to spend the next 3-5 years of my life devoting myself to learning about. If the answer is “no,” I don’t start the conference.

You see, I’m a “content guy” first. Sure, I love the sale (and I’m pretty good at it), but that’s not what gets me up in the morning. The “content” does. And by “content,” I don’t mean who we can get lined up to speak. I mean, the big/hairy topics that can be surfaced and explored.

So –

1. Do I think this is the beginning of an economic spring? Yes (caveat: my real worry is a strong snap-back recovery that leads to hyper-inflation).

2. Does that really matter to how I run conferences? Eh – not really. I’ll tweak things here and there, but at the end of the day, I have to really care about the topic.

And really, if you care about what you’re working on, isn’t that an implicit optimism that makes it “spring” all of the time? 😉

P.S. If you’ve never seen Ringling’s winter home, you really should check it (and his art museum on the grounds) out some time.