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Your conference is too damn big

Creativity and ideas conferences are booming. Here’s why one of the most popular, XOXO, is trying to downsize.

Your conference is too damn big
[Image: Searle Video/courtesy XOXO]

By conventional metrics, XOXO, the Portland, Oregon-based “experimental festival for independent artists who live and work online,” had its best year ever in 2018. The fest boasted 2,300 attendees, up from 400 in 2012, the fest’s first year.

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And XOXO’s creators consider it a big mistake. To be fair, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan don’t use that word. They refer to 2018’s mega-XOXO as an “experiment.” But since they’re currently undoing much of what they tried last year–most noticeably by scaling back attendance to roughly 1,200 people, a size XOXO first reached in 2015–we say: tomato, tomahto.

The kind of festival that XOXO exemplifies is hard to label: It’s by and for “creatives,” and it includes talks, presentations, conversations, and performances, but it’s not an innovation expo, entertainment event, or professional conference–even though it overlaps into and supports all of those activities. But whatever they are, they’re popping up everywhere. It seems like every city has a “Design Week,” TEDx popups sprout in one-stoplight towns, and media brands from the Wall Street Journal to, well, this one are spinning them up every year. “Ideas and creative conferences have boomed,” says Robert Capps, who used to run events for Wired and is now head of editorial at Godfrey Dadich Partners, a design firm in New York. He also co-curates PopTech, an annual conference in Maine that’s seen the value of staying small.

“With 400 to 500 people, all together in a central place for three days, by the end of the conference you can have met and had meaningful conversations with most of the people there, including the speakers,” he says. “And meeting and talking to other people about a shared experiences is really what these things are all about.”

Andy McMillan (left) and Andy Baio (right). [Image: Searle Video/courtesy XOXO]

So while XOXO’s decision to downsize isn’t totally out of left field, as a design and business choice, it’s brave. The Andys are sitting on a rocket in XOXO, but “this means we’re going to sell less tickets, which means less ticket revenue . . . that roughly equates to a 50% reduction in our production budget from last year,” says McMillan. In other words, they’re not rejiggering the back-office mechanics of the festival to scale down its size while maintaining its balance-sheet growth. They’re just . . . shrinking it. “We feel XOXO works better at this size, even if it means we’ll have less money to play with,” McMillan says.

So what wasn’t working in 2018? The Andys cite three main factors: location (the giant venue required to house thousands of attendees felt isolated from Portland’s walkable neighborhoods), “intimacy” (2,300 people is too many for a festival billing itself as a place for creatives to forge meaningful relationships with each other), and finally, stress (to their credit, the Andys admit that they had bitten off more than they could chew and administrating the festival felt “actively unpleasant”).

[Image: Searle Video/courtesy XOXO]

But XOXO is a brand now. Hell, The Verge credits it with launching Slack into the mainstream, the same way SXSW once did with a little social network called Twitter. Isn’t suffering to maintain this kind of growth worth it?

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Actually, no. It’s no insult to say that XOXO’s decision to downsize is a hardheaded product-design move–as existentially vital to the health of its brand as exponential growth is to, say, Slack. According to McMillan, the point of XOXO is “to create a space for independent artists and creators to come together and discuss the highs and lows of living and working online–which has us increasingly focusing on issues around activism, social justice, online harassment, and physical and mental health.” The internet’s relentless pursuit of scale is what has made all of these issues, well, issues for most of XOXO’s attendee-slash-customers. If the experience of a scaled-up XOXO starts to replicate exactly what already feels problematic about “living and working online,” then why pay $500 to come?

Baio and McMillan are no dummies–they’re not shrinking XOXO back down to, say, its first-year size of 400 people to serve some purist ideal of “authenticity.” To borrow a term from the scale-obsessed internet hyperentrepreneurs that the festival tilts against, XOXO is seeking “product-market fit.” Scaling up in 2018 literally broke XOXO’s product, so the Andys are responding by scaling it back down–but no more than is necessary to restore its ideal “functionality” for a maximum number of “users.” In XOXO’s case, that looks like roughly 1,200 people mingling within a medium-sized venue in a real neighborhood.

Of course, the Andys would never use so crass an analogy. “We’re just returning to a familiar size because it feels right,” McMillan says. Tomato, tomahto.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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