Ever since we ran the first PyCon Canada in 2012, I’ve had many conversations with would-be organizers about how to raise money for their own local events. In this series of posts, I’d like to discuss some of our approaches to attracting sponsors, as I feel like this is one of the biggest sources of trepidation for first-time organizers.
Before we begin
I’m going to assume that you’re planning an event that would be considered large for your region. By ‘large’, I’m talking in terms of headcount, duration, or both. (If you’re running a single-day event for a small group of people, I will discuss strategies for that in a later post.)
I would also assume you’ve come up with a draft budget for your event. This is obviously important, but I’m not going to say much about it here. Two things that I will say about budget/sponsorship interaction are:
- What your event costs to run and what sponsors are willing to pay are only loosely correlated. That is, running an expensive event does not mean that sponsors will want to pay a premium to participate. If this is your first event, control costs as tightly as possible until your sales start to come in. That means focusing on the most vital parts of the experience first.
- I would be pessimistic about how much money you will raise, and then work as hard as you can to prove yourself wrong. Assume 25% of your leads will buy; assume 75% of those will actually pay you. PyCon Canada was very lucky with this — every single one of our sponsors paid us on time — but we were prepared for the worst.
Being pessimistic is useful even if you end up hitting all of your sales targets in the end, because most sponsors will buy in very late in the process. (Both PyCon Canadas raised 50% of their sponsorship money in the 6 weeks before the event.) You will need to spend money long before that, though, so it’s good to get used to operating on a tight budget. Any money left over after the event can be used as a bootstrapping fund for your next one — you were intending on making a habit of this, weren’t you?
So where do we start?
In my experience, most organizers start by designing a prospectus. I personally feel that this is the wrong approach, especially if you are simply looking at your budget and then working backwards to make sure that your pricing matches the amount you need to raise. (See my comment about your budget and what sponsors can pay being loosely correlated.)
I would suggest thinking about what unique aspects of your event will be attractive to sponsors. The bulk of my experience is in developer-focused events, where sponsors tend to be interested in some subset of these three things:
What sorts of devs will be attending? Are you going to attract devs who don’t normally come to the region? What is the region in question? What defines its boundaries?
Selling services (hosting, infrastructure, PaaS, IDEs/devtools, etc.):
For services and products that sell B2B — will there be decision-makers in the audience? (i.e. people who control budget.)
For services that sell directly to developers — what sorts of devs will be there? Are they people likely to use or champion our services?
External press for these companies is also a big thing, so think about what unique channels you have there as well. Are any of your public-facing organizers popular community figures? Will there be press releases or dev periodicals reporting on the event?
There are some forward-thinking companies out there who want to be involved and associated with cool things that are being done differently than the status quo. Even if your event is pretty standard in format and content, think of things you’re doing (or could do!) that would tie in well with what you know about these sorts of companies.
Once you have some idea of what makes your event a special snowflake, think about the companies in your area (virtual or physical) who you are best connected to, or who are most likely to be interested based on the factors above.
If you’re running a regional conference, I think it’s better to win local companies as early adopters. If you can convince them that you’re going to attract a pool of potential recruits or sales leads who aren’t normally in the area, you can close them early and use that success (and money) to keep you going while you try to approach the bigger players. The best early leads, in my opinion, are the small-to-mid-size companies where you can reasonably talk directly to the founder, CEO, CTO, etc. and convince them that your event is worth investing in.
Got that list of companies down? Great. Whatever you do, do NOT send them a prospectus yet. In the next post, we’ll discuss how you can use some initial sales calls to get early feedback on some of your ideas about pricing.