Launching a Successful WordCamp: Interview with Ross Johnson

Ross Johnson on what he learned from two years as lead organizer of WCA2

I’ve you’ve been to a WordCamp Ann Arbor, you’ve seen Ross, and you’ve probably talked to him more than once. He was the first to organize a WordCamp here, taking on the challenge after the lead organizer for WordCamp Detroit stepped down. With over half a decade’s experience organizing WordCamps, he has a lot to share about getting the ball rolling in Ann Arbor, and what it takes to launch a WordCamp in a new community.

You’ve been doing this a while. What got you started?

I got started through WordCamp Detroit, which I first attended as a speaker in 2010. The lead organizer, Anthony Montalbano, wanted more help in subsequent years so he reached out to a number of people, and I joined in.

I helped organize WC Detroit in 2011 and 2012, however the WordPress Foundation has a rule which says that two to three years is the longest time that someone can organize the same place. So, by 2013 Anthony’s time was up, and he put it out to see if anyone else wanted to do that year. I decided to take a stab at it, but when I talked to the foundation and they suggested I do one in Ann Arbor instead.

How did those first couple years go?

In a weird way, the first year I felt stronger than the second year. It was my first time as lead organizer, so I put more time into detail. The newness of the first year created more tension, because it was a creative challenge, whereas the second year I was maybe too comfortable. But both years exceeded my expectations: they both sold out, we had waiting lists, we opened up extra tickets, and received almost nothing but great feedback. It’s hard to please everyone, particularly when you’ve got hundreds of people, but we heard a lot of positive things about it afterward.

What’s changed most over the years?

I think the biggest thing we realized going from first to second year is that the venue is so important. I think our venue the first year was better than the second one. Things fit in better, it had a more centralized meeting area, it had better ventilation, and the support staff the second year wasn’t as attentive. Even moving into the third year, our essential first step was finding a really great location.

Another thing that we learned year after year is just the importance of volunteers. You do a lot of pre-planning, but that aspect is pretty easy when you have 6-12 months to do it in. But on the day of, there’s a lot of things that need to happen all at once. You don’t realize it at first, but when you think about everything from handing out tickets and T-shirts to making sure the rooms are set up, it takes a lot of work getting people up to speed. Our volunteers have always been amazing, but we’ve realized we could do a better job with training and orientation.

The other lesson we’ve learned that’s helped improve the event is to focus on the quality of speakers, because that’s what most people come for. A lot of times, when organizing an event, you can get carried away on all sorts of side items, like a bacon bar, or a magician, or karaoke. And those are all great things to have, but they’re secondary concerns that should wait until you’ve secured high-quality speakers. Your speaker lineup is the ultimate attraction because it provides the best value to attendees. If you have a great lineup, people are going to learn a lot, and they’ll want to come again next year and bring others along as well.

What aspect of WordCamp Ann Arbor are you most proud of?

The reputation that we’ve gotten. I’ve heard from a handful of people outside Michigan that it is one of the must-go-to, small-town camps. The bigger ones have the resources to do a lot of things, and they have this huge draw of talent from organizers and a lot of sponsors, which means people are more likely to travel to go to these. But Ann Arbor is a pretty small college town, so to hear people say that you can’t miss it is really gratifying.

What’s your current role with WCA2?

Well, as I said before, the WordCamp Foundation puts a cap on 2–3 years in a row for one person to be the lead organizer. I think they want to be sure one person doesn’t monopolize the area, and in general it’s good to give other people a shot at it, bring in new blood so that the community stays engaged, and let in new ideas so that the event doesn’t become stale. I was the lead organizer in 2014–15, so by 2016 it was time for someone else to take over and that job fell to Kyle Maurer.

I’d have to say the transition has gone really well and that Kyle has done an amazing job. I think that the first two years were establishing we could pull off a good camp. They were almost proof of concept. After my second year, handing things off to Kyle, I got to watch him take it to a whole other level.

I’m still involved in the organization, but not as the lead. Last year I did a lot of design work, but this year Ian’s handling that. So this year I’m focusing on volunteers, events, parties, and content, because that’s an area where we always said we could build better buzz.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking of starting a WordCamp where there hasn’t been one before?

I think the first thing I would say is make sure that there is some demand. You don’t have to have a giant WordCamp—I think WC Jackson proves that it’s not about how many people come. You can have a small, local camp where everyone’s glad they came and they all look forward to the next one. But it’s good to know that there’s interest, even if it’s only 50–100 people, and one of the ways to do that is to start a Meetup group.

Actually, I would be hesitant to say anyone should start a WordCamp without having a Meetup group first. It’s a great way to learn about your audience and get a finger on the pulse as to how many people will show up regularly and what topics they find interesting. It’s basically market research which you can use to inform decisions about what size of an event you should plan, and what kind of speakers you should look for.

The next major thing I would recommend is to start early. This has benefited us enormously: start small and focus on the core things that make a WordCamp successful, such as great content, great connections, and a great atmosphere. Then build. This is important because, in my head, when I was planning the first two, it didn’t seem like planning one day was a lot of work or a lot of logistics to manage. Essentially, there were two tracks with six speakers per track, so 12–15 speakers, then dinner for them and dinner for everyone else. But in practice, a lot of this is very time consuming. And if you have a job related to technology or WordPress, there’s a lot of ongoing things that can take a lot more time and energy than you expect.

Starting early can keep you from feeling behind and under pressure, and it gives you some space to adjust if certain aspects take longer than you thought they would. For instance, with the first one, I think we started eight months early, and the next one ten months early. After the last one, Kyle and I only waited a week before we began talking about securing the venue for the next event.

And of course, if this is your first WordCamp you have to work with the WordPress Foundation to get started, because otherwise you can’t legally use the name. And because of that association, they want to work with you to make sure that your values are in keeping with their code of conduct, and that it will be successful so that it provides a positive experience with those who attend. So, to get approval, they ask you about previous experience, why you’re organizing a WordCamp, and what kind of a budget you have to make it work. They offer funding, particularly for events in smaller towns who might otherwise have difficulty with sponsors, and then once that’s all approved they set you up with a website. So, as you can see, those are some fairly long first couple steps that you have to do before you can plan anything else. And because this can take up to a month or two, it’s just one more reason to start early.

Anything else?

I think starting to see the evolution of the community in Ann Arbor and the surrounding areas has been a great byproduct of getting involved. When I planned that first WordCamp, I met a lot of people involved in the WordPress space, which has opened my eyes to all the different ways people use WordPress. There’s also been a real spirit of collaboration in this community, which I can see in the way our organizing team keeps growing and growing.

I also get the impression that WordCamp has been a tremendous benefit to a lot of people, which is why so many of us continue to participate. I can’t correlate an increase in my own business to organizing these events, but I’ve met a lot of friends and colleagues through it, which has made the whole thing worth the time and the effort.

In fact, I would offer the sense of community as a key reason for why anyone who is thinking about joining in on a deeper level should do it. Just try it out. Be a volunteer for the Camps and the meetups. I know so many people who were very intimidated at first, because they don’t think they belong. They’re too new, or they don’t think they have anything to contribute. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who know almost nothing, who attend just because they have heard the word “WordPress” and almost nothing else. They’re looking for an introduction to the community, someone who can explain to them what WordPress is and how they can use it. And after a little more time I see those people begin to join in more, and soon they’re part of the community too, and are in a position to help out.