It looks like the plug has been pulled on WordCamp Detroit 2013. In a blog post published on September 3rd, 2013 TJList one of the organizers has announced that they have canceled this year’s WordCamp. The primary reason given was that they were not ready to put on a high-quality event. Those who have already purchased tickets will be refunded in full, including sponsors.
It’s not often I hear news of a WordCamp event being cancelled. In fact, I asked Andrea Middleton of WordCamp Central if this was the first WordCamp to be cancelled this year and she said yes. I got in touch with TJList to see if he could provide more insight into the cancellation and what lessons if any he learned throughout this whole ordeal so that other WordCamp organizers could avoid the same fate.
I know you outlined that this years event would not be able to meet high expectations that WordCamp attendees are accustomed to. Is there anyway you could share some more information with me that I could share with others that lead to this decision? Was it poor planning, lack of focus, or just not enough time to get things hammered out? Was the foundation helpful at all or were they one of the reasons for not being able to meet expectations? Any lessons learned that you can give other WordCamp organizers to avoid the same fate?
In previous years, the lead organizer for WordCamp Detroit had experience organizing events. He is working on other things this year. Most of this year’s team had worked on previous events, but nobody had managed the big picture.The people at the WordPress Foundation responded quickly and were helpful, when we asked. We didn’t do that enough.
When I took on the role of lead organizer, I greatly underestimated the amount of work required and the number of details to be considered. The team was also busy with life and work. The designer who did last year’s logo and theme was busy with some major projects in his business. I was wrapping up a year-long leadership development program that took a lot of my time.
We did not have anyone assigned to creating content and updating news. Publicity was limited to a few tweets and a couple of Facebook posts. Speaker applications were left with no response. No work was being done to contact sponsors. If it weren’t for multi-event sponsors we would not have had any event at all. Despite all that, we had a great initial response when the site went live. We sold nearly 20 tickets and had 18 applications to speak.
When my course ended and I started breathing again at the end of August, the ladies on the team said, “We need to talk about this. Can we really pull this off?” The answer, sadly enough, was “No. Not without killing ourselves. Not with the level of quality we want to provide.“
My top 5 lessons learned:
1. Do your homework!
Read the helpful hints and suggestions that other WordCamp organizers have so generously left behind. There are a lot of killer resources out there. Use them.
2. Start early.
Six months might be enough. Ask us that next summer and see if the answer changes.
3. Ask for help.
Then do it again. And again.
4. Create a detailed project plan.
Establish key milestones at the beginning of the process. Date, venue, theme for the conference, theme, website live date, cut-off dates for speaker submissions, etc. will all impact the quality of the event.
5. Ask, don’t assume.
Get commitments from the key organizers and volunteers. What can they realistically deliver? We’re talking about doing this again in 2014. I’m starting fresh with number 1 from my list.
The Importance Of Strong Leadership
Ask anyone who has organized a WordCamp or any large event for that matter and they won’t tell you it was easy. Putting on these types of events requires strong leadership skills. Being a leader means you get things done, keep tabs on all of the work your organizers are accomplishing, provide a clear direction of tasks needing to be completed, and being an effective communicator. One of the last things TJ mentioned to me that he stressed I share with everyone else was the following:
In all fairness to the other organizers, I was the source of the breakdown for the planning failure. I was unwilling and/or unable to communicate effectively, and I was not open with the rest of the team about my limited availability. Put bluntly, my early failure to lead and provide direction caused the planning to fall so far behind that we could not recover the event.
Despite the event falling apart, I thank TJ for being open and honest about the situation. I hope other WordCamp organizers read this post and get a grasp as to how important being a leader is to facilitate a successful event. With the lessons learned, I can’t see how WordCamp Detroit 2014 would be anything but a success.
Back in 2010 during the first ever WordCamp Detroit, I interviewed lead organizer Anthony Montalbano where we briefly chatted about organizing the event.
You can also read my review of WordCamp Detroit 2010 to get a sense of how well the event was run during its first year.