Running A Convention: Stage 2: Financing Your Adventure

“How do I fund my convention?” This is definitely the most common question I receive from potential con directors. Typically, they are hoping I will give them an easy answer–go get a loan from such and such bank. Make it 15,000, and mortgage your house to get it. If you talk to this particular book vendor they will give you loads of money. Here’s the magic.

Unfortunately for all of you, there isn’t actually an easy button. But there are some very straightforward principles that will keep you out of trouble and out of debt. If you can’t follow these, you might want to reconsider running a convention before it ruins your personal financial life.

First of all, let’s clarify. AnomalyCon was started on $147. That broke down to $50 for an LLC, $25 to start a bank account, and the rest was for web domains (and I think we had to pay a couple bucks for some modules for our website). $147 out of pocket. The rest paid for itself.

To do that, you’re going to need some integrity, a website, a business bank account, a paypal account, a business plan (see previous chapters), and a ticket pricing schedule.

And a return policy. This is the most important. Since this is your first year event, you need the website to have information about your plans, and a way to take money. Have a cart with tickets, but make sure that the disclaimer says the tickets will be refunded in case of event cancellation. This is where your integrity comes in.

Now, notice I did NOT say you need a hotel. I didn’t mention location at all, actually. Since this is your first year event, I’m going to advise that your nearest college and cozy up with a member of a student organization. Make friends, then negotiate the use of rooms for the student rate. It might be a weird space, but it will be close to free. In most cases you don’t even have to pay until it’s almost time for the event. AnomalyCon didn’t nail down our space until we’d been taking vendor registrations for a couple of months. Thank goodness, because we needed a bigger space than we had initially scoped.

Now, here’s the key. Go steal vendors from other events.
What I mean by that is–attend other conventions. Find out who’s local. Meet the vendors and talk to them about how they are doing at the show they are at, and whether they’d be interested in a startup show. Charge them maybe $50 for a table, and explain what you’re doing to get attendees. They get the same refund policy in case of cancellation.

If you do it right, the vendors pay for your event space. Your job is to make sure there are enough attendees to make it worth it for them.

Do NOT promise guests that you’ll “pay them if the show does well.” Bad BAD precedent to set, and also without integrity. It’s better to find locals willing to perform/appear for the sake of a first year event than to lie to guests.

Most importantly, budget as though almost no one is going to attend, but plan as though you’ll have great attendance.

The Process of Perception

Welcome to those of you headed this direction via the writing blog tour! Also Happy Memorial Day!

Thanks to Jennifer Kincheloe at http://jenniferkincheloe.com/ for sending folks my way.

I’m working on some cool projects right now, including a series of Business Principles for Geeks (starting with How to Run a Convention), a series about Cole Harris, the super hero psychologist, and a set of short stories retelling fairy tales as LGBT Steampunk fiction.

Speaking of LGBT Steampunk fiction, I do have a lot of Steampunk elements creeping into my writing. My best quality is definitely all the great female characters of impact. Not to brag, but I work (type) hard to develop characters with power over their own destinies, without turning them into the tomboy-man-with-boobs concept so prevalent in modern fiction. If you’re tired of the tropes, dig into one of my stories.

And why wouldn’t I write science fiction with real characters in it? Who doesn’t want to read about real people? I write to give life to the amazing people around me.

Now, let’s talk about process. Some of you may know that I write a lot of female characters–and QUILTBAG characters, and characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. My process of character development and writing comes from observation, and from perception. I hope my worlds will reflect the world I live in, if only by the characters that exist within them.

So first a crazy idea comes to me in a dream (maybe), and then I sit down and outline it. A short story under 1500 words will probably not be outlined, but anything longer than that needs to have a solid beginning->middle->climax->resolution->ending sort of pattern. So I write up an outline.

That outline usually looks a little bit like this:

Chapter 1: Kip wakes from a bad dream, realizes her roommate is missing. She leaves without saying goodbye and takes the maps with her.

Chapter 2: Kip runs into trouble with the local gangs while searching a library for clues to the past. She escapes on her bike only to be surrounded.

Chapter 3: Kip gets knocked out and wakes up in a strange place. She meets a man who claims to be part of an underground resistance. He wants her to help him.

…and you get the idea. Each step of my outline gets a little mini two-to-three-sentence rundown of what I expect to happen in that chapter. That way I can connect the dots and push through roadblocks if I get stuck.

 

Unfortunately, this long blog tour is slightly dead-ended on my side because I got on the train after all the bloggers I know were already on.

But! I hope you check out a few good reads:

There’s Josh Vogt, who has lots to say on writing and publishing process.

And then there’s Quincy Allen, who spends a lot of time honing his craft and writing about Wild West Steampunk.

And Guy Anthony De Marco, who is published all over the place.

Enjoy your travels, friends.

Running a Convention: Stage 1: The Business Plan Cheat Sheet

Some of you may remember from last Wednesday’s post that I am releasing mini-notes from my book project on running conventions.

I frequently get asked lots of questions about this process. In part it’s  because there are lots of people looking to start conventions, and in part it’s because AnomalyCon is one of the most successful startup conventions to ever occur in the Denver-Metro area. But more about that later.

Chapter 3 of this book will be entitled “Stage 1: The Business Plan Cheat Sheet.” It has that title because I like nerdy titles, but the truth is that there isn’t a true short cut to planning out your business. However, in this abridged introduction to the chapter I will summarize some key points I would like to drive home.

First of all–and this is vital to your success–you have to treat the convention like a business. There are some key ground rules. You can’t accept personal gain in exchange for convention property. For example, you shouldn’t be exchanging a table in the vendor’s room for a product that vendor carries if you’re keeping that product (prize exchanges might be OK if you want to build your model that way. I don’t).

The very first step you should take is to get out some scratch paper and figure out a few things, like what you’re going to call it. I advise you google any cool names that come to mind and MAKE SURE that they aren’t already in use. If there’s another convention with the same name, find something else. It doesn’t matter if that convention no longer exists (bad juju there) or if it’s in another country (bad SEO for you). Name it something unique. And then think about that name and make sure it doesn’t have an easily-negative connotation. I have a friend who I tease about her con name because it’s easily misconstrued.

Granted, no one can spell AnomalyCon apparently, so we have to put “anomoly” in our metatags too. But these are important things to watch out for.

While you’re at it, figure out about what date you’d like to be on–and make sure it doesn’t conflict with any major events in your area. Don’t just look at other conventions–geeks like to go to renaissance festivals, outdoor rock concerts, etc. Don’t kill your own audience by scheduling the same weekend as an established event.

Now that you’ve named your business (which will be the name of the convention unless you are planning to do other products as well), you need to nail it down. So go get an EIN (so that you have a legal registration with the federal government) and apply for an LLC in your state. It doesn’t matter if you are planning to apply for a not-for-profit status, an LLC will protect you until that paperwork goes through. It’s usually about $50 to get an LLC. So these are the things you can do online, and before you even present your convention ideas to someone else. The other thing you need to do (as soon as you have an LLC and EIN) is go open a business bank account. I advise finding a bank with no minimums, free checking etc. Avoid banks that charge fees just to have an account. A credit union may be a good choice. More on this in the chapter on financing your convention.

So you have an EIN, a bank account and an LLC. Congratulations, the government considers you a business.

Now, your business plan is the next vital step. This is only a sneak peak so I won’t give you the full cheat sheet, but here are some starters.

To succeed, you need to have low expectations but big plans. What I mean is that you need to budget to have little-to-no-income, but plan to have the kind of entertainment and growth that occurs with an influx of attendees. This will keep you out of trouble financially, if you’re careful.

Your business plan needs to cover a minimum five year plan. The first part of this plan should contain your WHY statement, your mission statement in a paragraph or so. This is your driving force. Your next paragraph or so should cover what you want to do differently to set you apart from other conventions.

Now you need to write out how you will make that happen. Your business plan needs to contain your growth goals per year–be realistic. Don’t expect 3,000 people the first year. Don’t expect your entire Facebook friends list to show up either. *Most* first year cons are happy to hit 150-300 people (unless they are backed by major sponsorship, IE a major comic convention). AnomalyCon hit 600, but we were the first Steampunk-related event in a huge radius, and one of the first Steampunk conventions in the U.S.

So let’s say you want to have 150 people year 1 and 600 year 2. If that’s your plan you will need to find a space that will fit the 600, but won’t seem too large with 150. Colleges, student unions, and other event centers are good choices to examine. More on that later.

Write down how you’re going to get an audience. Are you going to hand out fliers? Attend other conventions to garner interest? Hit the forums? How will you pull in new audience? This is the place to brainstorm about things that cost time but not money (or minimal money, such as printing lots of fliers personally).

A lot of this business plan will be about the finances. How much out of pocket will you spend? What is the payback schedule for the convention paying those expenses? The answer to the former should be a small number and the payback schedule should be “after the first event.” Many conventions die the first few years by virtue of bankrupting their proprietors.

Now move from the financing segment to programming. What kinds of programming do you hope to have? Who do you need to talk to to make that happen? Schools? Authors? Artists? Bands? Write out a five-step where each year you are increasing your guest impact.

Now move on to staffing. You’re on your own right now maybe. What does your staff need to look like? Answer: You need at least two leftenants and a number of volunteers that is about 1:10 ratio volunteers to attendees for the first 200 attendees and then about 1:20 after that point. That may seem like a lot of volunteers, but it gives you flexibility if someone is sick for example. As you expand beyond that ~1000 attendee mark you need to expand your leftenants, or you will go crazy. This is where you will write down your plan for recruiting.

Finally, you need to address income intake. Namely, vendors (how many, what kind, what growth rate), and merchandising (what kind and when).

Ultimately, your business plan is a road map to your next five years. It’s important not just for you, but so that you can show people this plan to gain support before you have an event under your belt. If you’re not already notoriously awesome, this is your key to getting that interest.

Next week I’ll touch on the most popular question–financing your adventure.

 

So You Want to Run A (Convention? Business?)…

I’m working on a book project that will likely release as an ebook. I intend to title it something like “Business Principles for Geeks: So You Want to Run a Convention?”

Yeah, snazzy. Obviously I need to come up with a better title. I’ll get on that after I name my bard. Snarflord Flarghlehopper maybe?

In the process, I’ll post updates and snippets of the idea of where it’s going here. Probably on Wednesdays because today is Wednesday and that just makes sense.

First of all, let’s say you do want to run a business. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that its a convention you desire to run. You should be able to answer all of these questions.

What will the convention be about? Will it be a Pony con, a Whovian adventure? A generic Science-Fiction/Fantasy convention? Who is your audience? How old are they? Where do they live? What do they like to do?

What is your motivation? What’s driving you to make this happen? Why do you care?

Who will help you? Why will they help you? More importantly, why will they help you?

There are those who say that if the WHY is big enough, the HOW won’t matter. I prefer to think of it this way. If your WHY is powerful enough, the HOW HARD won’t stop you.

The facts always count. Success is in the details.

Before you start counting your thousands of planned attendees, picking your venue, rolling out your red carpet, and especially before you quit your regular job, you need to know what you want from this venture. You have to understand why you want to venture outside of your comfort zone.

And remember, this WHY has to be really, really big. Otherwise it won’t survive the five years it will take before you’re established enough to even consider escaping the huge workload you’re about to take on.

Brace yourself.

To understand your end goal, you need to decide what it should be first.

Do you plan to run a successful science fiction convention on an annual basis with positive increase in attendance every year? What does that look like? 500 attendees? 5,000?

Do you desire to have interesting and thought-provoking entertainment content and a well-rounded vendor’s room? Does that mean people are making their own content and programming, or are you controlling the whole schedule yourself?

Now why do you want these things? Is it to become well known in the community? To fill a gap that exists? Are you starting the first convention in your town or joining the ranks of many?

Write your final destination out in positive present tense, and make sure it’s something you can grasp onto. Make sure it really lights a fire in you to think about it happening.

For example, mine for AnomalyCon is this:
“I lead a highly successful convention that grows every year. We provide diverse content that supports authors and artists in their personal growth and chosen career paths while entertaining our attendees. We offer a safe, friendly and diverse environment where everyone can enjoy music, art and literature without fear of harassment.”

Ask yourself why you want to take on this project, or any major project. Until you have the why deep in your gut, your foundation will be shaky at best. This is like the very beginning of your business plan. It’s your mission statement. It’s what defines you. And if you can’t reach inside yourself, Simba, your volunteers won’t know how to find direction either.

So find your Why.

Women are Not Androids

This morning, as it is Revenge of the 5th, directly following May the Fourth (be with you), I was intending to post a long con recap of Starfest. But as I was getting my second cup of tea in the breakroom, I saw a ticket scroll by and tell a story that stirred something sad deep inside me, and reminded me of some conversations that arose throughout my panels this year.

Trigger warnings for rape possible in this post.

The story that clicked across on CNN was that of a rapist who pled guilty to raping a girl and got a 45-day sentence because she’d had sex before.

Let’s break this down into a totally different analogy for you. I own a home. I have grass, trees, a fence, windows. The house was built a few years ago. Let’s say someone throws a rock and breaks my window, not only shattering the glass but also clonking my 2-year-old-daughter on the head, causing her extreme pain, emotional trauma and possibly brain damage. And then the person who does that admits to a court that he did it, and the judge gives him a slap on the wrist because there was a time (during construction) when my house did not have windows. Without even taking the violence of the act into consideration.

During my panel discussions at Starfest this weekend, we covered Overcoming Barriers in Science Fiction, and Female Role Models in Science Fiction.

A very important part of this conversation revolved around female sexuality. People asked questions about whether a character who was sexualized could be considered a role model. I want to call to mind characters like Bo from Lost Girl, Inara from Firefly. This is very important. In those worlds, those women are portrayed as powerful partly because they maintain control of their bodies and the right to enjoy themselves and others sexually without being persecuted for that right. Bo is a succubus whose powers come from her ability to be a sexual creature. Kinda like a lot of women, actually, even if they don’t realize it.

Women are sexual creatures. Men are sexual creatures. Weirdly enough, human beings still like to enjoy one of our basest instincts: sex. So why are women punished even by other women for admitting to or giving into those desires, so much so that having ever had sex before is enough of a “pass” to ignore the violence and hatred involved in rape?

 Before anyone jumps in with any uneducated rants on how I’m clearly anti-life because rapists make babies, let me turn you toward this amazing article by an ex-pro-lifer, who points out that the so-called “pro life” movement is really brainwashing people to give up a really important part of themselves: the part that identifies as a sexual creature. 

I recently read a comment from a cosplayer in the community who was complaining that skirt length varied depending on who was making the costume. This (female) cosplayer seemed to imply that the length of the skirt showed the personal values of the woman wearing the costume. As though if a woman didn’t cover up enough of herself, she was unworthy of the stipulation that Cosplay is Not Consent. If the idea were true, even a little bit, that covering up stops the power-hungry Other from devouring the bodies of women and getting away with it, then there wouldn’t be rape in countries where women are forced to cover it all.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop telling our girls that it’s OK to judge each other for the sex they want to have. Am I advocating teen sexual activity? Nope. Am I advocating slut-shaming them and telling them they deserved to be raped because they’d had sex before? What kind of twisted crazy is that?

Here’s a thought. This kid is getting beat up in school. Do you tell the kid that they deserved to be beat up because they’d been hit once before?

I want to be able to talk about other big issues, but this keeps coming back. Every day there’s something new about another rape case gone awry because the victim isn’t heard. There was even this wild explosion over anti-harassment policies, new to Steampunk World Fair. Most of those explosions were by men allegedly afraid of being considered “guilty before proven innocent.” Like SPWF is taking away their personal rights by telling them they can’t rape people.

Stop telling girls they deserve to be raped like it’s your privilege to punish people with your penis.

Fastforward a bit. Guys. You should be outraged, because this is just one more case of the world relegating you to the sum parts of raping meat popsicle. Obviously you can’t control yourselves so you get a freebie. Especially if the girl is underaged and sexually active.

Now let’s talk about how to overcome this barrier. Because this barrier starts with you.

Don’t assume that because you’ve never been raped, this doesn’t apply to you.

Don’t assume that because you’re in a good relationship others are exaggerating their problems.

Don’t blame the victim. That only happens in hate crimes. No one blames the victim when their own car gets jacked. Or their house gets burglarized. Why would you blame the victim when their body gets violated, whether it’s rape or racist/homophobic violence?

Do understand that having your very core freedom–the freedom to be able to own your body and be safe within your own skin–violently ripped from you is damaging and terrifying, and that people may not be able to talk about it.

Do be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Do find someone to speak for you, if you are a victim who is afraid of speaking out.

Do realize that the victims don’t need forgiveness, they need understanding.

Do understand that the victims don’t know that they don’t need forgiveness.

Don’t give up on the people you know who have been damaged. A $20 bill is still good even when crumpled.

Don’t ever, EVER say “but he’s such a nice guy…”

Do be aware. Keep your eyes open. Look around you. You can prevent so many bad situations by just saying “Hello” when someone looks uncomfortable around the person they are with. This goes quadruple for science fiction/comic conventions.

Oh and hey, don’t be THIS GUY. If a person is concerned for their own safety, they might have a good reason.