After I wrote that the first WDS operated at a net loss—financially speaking, not in terms of anything that matters—I was immediately pitched by a number of event planners, venues, and various professional meeting people, all offering me free advice about how we should do things around here.
Whoa! Thanks for all the… unsolicited… input.
“It’s good you can bring so many people together,” one of them told me, “but we know how to make your next event profitable.”
This sounded like saying: “It’s great that you’re changing the world, but we can help you out at the cash register.”
I’m no event planner, but I’m pretty sure we could have made the first WDS profitable if that was our primary goal. To do so, we would have started by charging more money (we had the lowest cost of any three-day event I’ve ever heard of). Then, we would have moved to a bigger venue and sold more tickets (more than 800 additional people wanted to come, but we sold out five months in advance and did not change venues despite the demand).
Like plenty of other events do, we could have pitched products and services from the stage, splitting the commission with the speakers. This is a huge profit center that we were simply uncomfortable with pursuing. (To their credit, not a single speaker even asked me about this option—it never even came up for discussion.)
We also could have cut costs. True, we didn’t need an ice sculpture in the shape of a globe at the free opening party. Perhaps we didn’t need custom gift bags filled with valuable things (not useless things provided by sponsors). Attendees didn’t need to receive free t-shirts, water bottles, awesome scout books, journals, and so on.
We could have skimped on providing free coffee and healthy snack breaks, not offered free tours (eight different options), not hired free shuttle buses to take attendees to the free off-site afterparty, and so on. We didn’t need an airport greeting station, a hang-out hammock lounge, a mobile command center, or any number of other fun things that helped attendees feel welcomed.
Speaking of sponsors, we could have actually had them, and put corporate logos on all our materials to offset the cost. “This session of World Domination is sponsored by Nissan. See you all later tonight at the Budweiser afterparty.”
Again, I’m no event planner and don’t pretend to know more than they do. But I do know a little about business, and I’m fairly certain we could have made it profitable. My question is, would that have determined its success?
I think not, and that’s the problem. In the traditional marketing world, success is judged by one thing: does it convert? (Which means: do the ends justify the means, or does it work?) But I object to this standard on its own. You can be a spammer and have a successful business model. You can rob old ladies in the street and it might technically work. Your conversion rate could be very high. But how would you sleep at night?
The more important question is: what are we trying to do here? What’s the goal?
Here’s what I propose as a better standard: when you go to bed at night, are you extremely excited about what you’ve done that day and what’s coming up the next day? Do people tell you about all the awesome things they are doing, in part because of something you’ve created?
Are you making art, whether you think of yourself as an artist or not?
Whatever your dream is, are you living it?
If freedom is one of your highest values, are you experiencing enough freedom in your life?
These are some standards I prefer to use. These things are what matters. It’s not just about what works. Because sometimes, it can work… but that doesn’t mean it works.