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How to launch a lean event at short notice

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A couple of weeks ago, regular Anthill contributor Mick Liubinskas heard that lean startup luminary Eric Ries would be in Sydney. He and a few friends sprang into action to organise a Lean Startup event for Sydney’s digital startup community in Sydney. Here’s Liubinskas’s account of how it came together.

On Monday night we had a fantastic turnout to start a new community group around lean startups.

It was a little bit opportunistic, with Eric Ries — the key proponent of the concept — in town, and a little bit of ‘about time, we need this in Sydney’. We only confirmed the event with less than two weeks ago so we had to move fast.

In fact, we had to be lean. So we ran it like a lean startup.

Openly, with a pregnant wife, moving house, eight live projects at Pollenizer and catching up after a recent flu, I knew I didn’t have the time to do a good job on the event. I wasn’t aiming for perfection — we just wanted to get started. So I tweeted out for help.

Mick Liubinskas lean startup tweet

I got about 10 offers of help, including from Michelle Williams, who I knew had been doing some great work in the community and a bit of that around events. I reached out to her and she said yes to helping organise. So our lean team was coming together.

Customer development for customer development

Again, we wanted to be lean, and one of the principles of lean, I believe, is to charge people money to see if they are really interested. This was important to me. I know that communities need love and I was only prepared to put the effort needed to get it going if there was enough real interest. Charging money is a great way to gauge that. I would have been very happy if we only had 20 good people who cared enough to fork out $50. I really had no idea of what the price should be, but I thought if 20 people paid, at least we’d cover our costs.

My goal with the two tiers was partly so that the big company people or the PR/Marketing providers could pay a bit extra (I thought they’d have it) and the startups and students could get a cheaper price. It was also a good way to see what type of people were interested.

Action stations

We also had to move fast. We had just over one week to organise it, promote it and make it work. Again, we weren’t aiming for the Oscars, just a solid first event. I put the event details on Amiando the day Eric confirmed he could make it, even before Michelle found a venue. And I just tweeted it out. Launch early!

Within an hour I received some emails and DMs alerting me to things I’d missed out. I got the hashtag wrong, a URL and more, but most of it was there. The best thing was that we got signups and re-promotions straight away. People were keen and keen to tell their colleagues. Good start. And the good thing was that with the event setup, the promotional machine could just start building while we worked to actually set up the event.

Monday with one week to go, Michelle got moving on a venue. She looked at a bunch of them, but at that point we had no idea how much money we’d have so we were aiming for super cheap. But we also needed a projector and a mic for Eric. And probably food since it would go on.

With me running offsite workshops for much of the week, Michelle and I were SMSing and emailing until we settled on Bar 333. Basically, we didn’t have any more time to find a better venue or better deal. It was Thursday and we needed to finalise it and tell people before Friday. It wasn’t perfect, but we’d make it work.

By Thursday I think we had about 40 people signed up — great, we had a big enough group to cover the costs and have an interesting event. Eric was currently at Webstock and communication channels were not great, but we managed to work most of it out, if very slowly, over the week. Remembering that Michelle and I have day jobs, so we were squeezing this into busy schedules.

Monday we met up a few hours before the event. Michelle arrived with the hired projector and screen and we printed the audience lists, grabbed some pens and labels and took off to the city. We still hadn’t heard from Eric yet, though we were pretty sure he was deep in the bowels of Google working with the Google Wave team.

Arriving at the venue, it was packed with chairs as if we were having a massive hens night. After furniture removal, Eric arrived with a very sore throat after a day of constant talking. A cup of tea and two Vicks Vapour Drops and we were going to make it through, though he wasn’t sure if he’d finish his full deck of slides.

Then the night took off:

  • People turned up, grabbed a free drink. (Some people who were late missed out. Sorry, that’s the way it goes. Come earlier next time.)
  • Most people were actively running a startup, which was great.
  • Eric gave an excellent talk, doing a full hour on Lean Startups and telling some good background stories to make the point.
  • I won’t try and paraphrase Eric. Instead, you can see the presentation and full deck of slides below.
  • A few questions from the audience before I let Eric’s voice rest and everyone else mill about and chat.

Eric Ries’s ‘Lean Startup Lessons Learned’ Presentation

Eric’s Slides

Lessons From This Lean Event

So we did it quickly, cheaply and with a big goal of seeing if enough good people were really interested in this. After talking to people after the event, I think we definitely showed this was true.

For a quick sprint, we also learned a lot:

  • Pricing was ok for corporates and service providers ($90), and $45 was probably ok for startups. Should have a $20 option for students. If you’re not willing to part with one night out’s drinking money, then you’re probably not that interested.
  • Honesty is interesting since we don’t check what category you’re in. Ninety nine percent of people paid into what I’d guess was the right category.
  • The venue was pretty, but chairs could have been laid out a lot better and a second mic for questions would be nice. I’m not sure Sydney has enough good venues for events like this.
  • Food was ok, but not spectacular. We didn’t spend a lot of money on it, and compared to other events I think it was reasonable.

So what’s next?

  • Join up to the global group — Lean Startup Circle
  • Join the Sydney group for event updates — Sydney Lean Startup Circle. We have some money left over from Monday night to run the next event.
  • Check out the Lean Startup Wiki
  • Eric is hosting a talk in San Francisco and will be streaming it out. Pollenizer will aim to host a Jelly at our office on the day to watch and hang out. More details to come.

Thanks to everyone for turning up and being positive. Very exciting to be part of a growing, energetic community.

Thanks to Eric for giving up his time to give such a useful talk and for really driving some new learnings into the startup space.

Big, big, big thank to Michelle Williams who got stuck into this quickly and did a great job in such a small space of time with a terrible brief from me.

Mick Liubinskas is one of Australia’s leading web strategists, having served in head marketing roles at Kazaa, Zapr and Tangler. He now runs Pollenizer, the business incubator he co-founded with former-Kazaa colleague Phil Morle.

This post was first published on the Pollenizer blog.

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