I had the pleasure of going to Big Omaha recently. Imagine Ted Talks meet technology and you'd get pretty close to capturing what was going on.
Full disclosure: I was invited by the conference organizers, Joey and Caleb and they sheltered, fed, and generally guided me through a few days of awesome.
I have to say, impartially, that they put on a very good event. It inspired me to look into things they avoided to make a startup event that doesn't suck.
Here's the thing: every one of us has been to startup events that do suck. I've organized a few startup events myself and it's entirely possible that some have sucked. In the hopes of avoiding all that, send this list of insights to your nearest startup organizer:
Focus on the value attendees get from your event. A lot of startup events stray away from this especially when it comes to cutting costs. Attendees are there to learn from the speakers. Make sure that everybody can absorb their lessons, and that there's nothing blocking that: rumbles from being ill-fed, bad microphone quality, too many things going on at once. If you invest in making your attendees happy, they'll come back year after year.
Assemble a good mix of people. It's always hard to find groups that will give each other value. Audiences that are very diverse will get general talks that skip over a lot of interesting details. Audiences that aren't diverse enough will shape a stagnant discussion. Speakers with big bios bring in a good crowd, but it's often speakers with nothing to lose and a story they're burning to tell that are the most interesting. Be very discerning and strategic about the crowd you want to have and the speakers you want to come. Offer discounts to underrepresented groups. Use lanyrd to see speakers in action before you invite them.
Design for fun. Most of the magic in startup events don't happen during the main talks, they happen in the side rooms and after-parties. Make sure that you're designing an event with that in mind and remember that "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy."
Set meaningful guidelines. Big Omaha's organizers set their foot down and made it clear that any harrassment or denigration of female attendees was completely unacceptable. Meaningful guidelines send a strong message that this is the kind of place where anybody can be comfortable.
I thought Big Omaha did a masterful job of keeping things simple and delivering as much value as possible to attendees with one well-lit main stage, plenty of audio equipment, reliable WiFi, and great food with vegetarian options.
Don't underestimate the little things: they help make sure magic happens if you put the right groups together. The speakers selected were a good mix with some having been involved with startups for decades, while others were just getting started. Even the speakers with big bios were approachable and focused on providing as much value as they could--and they were probably chosen for that reason.
A lot of the speakers took the time to come with prepared talks that were flat-out awesome.
The parties that layered the event were great because they were spontaneously fun--and they came with a set of rules everybody respected.
I'd come again if they'd ask, straight away. They get what it takes to organize startup events that don't suck.