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.