I spent last weekend at the XOXO festival in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been close friends with Andy Baio, one of the organizers for about a decade and he’s talked about doing a conference for the past couple years so it was pretty amazing to see those conversations about ideas turn into reality over four glorious days.
I would say right up front the conference was a wonderful confluence of passionate organizers combined with incredible attendees. I’ve told friends that every new conference that comes along is typically amazing for the first 2-3 years since the organizers are super motivated and filled with ideas, while more mature conferences start to hit a rhythm and have a familiarity among attendees that loses something eventually.
The XOXO conference had incredible food, good entertainment, fun parties, was held in a great space, and had some awesome speakers. The attendees are really what made the whole thing work. Everyone that signed onto a first year conference completely blind were people that knew either one of the Andys or had complete trust in them to deliver a good experience. I remember early on Andy Baio was telling me that perhaps the audience would be designers and tinkerers just starting out and he wanted me to speak about my longer term experience as a way of giving them advice to help them get started, but when I saw the attendee list just before the event I was blown away by the depth and breadth of knowledge collected. There were many people with a decade of experience and they came from all aspects of creative and technical industries.
Part of the amazingness of XOXO was being one giant old school blogger meetup. I got to meet people I hadn’t seen in 5 or 10 years and in a few cases got to meet people I’d been reading online for 15 years but never saw face-to-face. Whenever I got to interact with the strangers sitting next to me or standing in lines, I was constantly amazed at the cool projects people worked on and it was great to meet so many people.
Overall, the entire conference felt like Andy Baio’s linkblog/twitter stream come to life. There was every food cart he loved, every quirky band he liked to listen to, and every speaker was doing something he had highlighted previously. As a speaker there, I was a little distracted and I got a slightly different experience than most, but I got to see almost every talk and attended most parties and loved it all. I thought the speaker track would be a sideline distraction but really made the whole gathering gel. People talked about independent success, the tools they used and how they used them, and in some cases the things to look out for. There was a lot about Kickstarter and Etsy as platforms (together they are bringing well over a billion dollars in sales/funds to creators in 2012) and we heard from a lot of success stories. I think in my case and Dan Harmon’s it was a lot of what can go wrong, and how to avoid it.
The speakers and attendees were all incredibly engaged, like others said, out of 400 people I only saw about 4-5 laptops out during talks, I barely noticed people looking at their phones, most people were talking or taking notes quietly on paper. I was actually a bit dismayed after my talk because there was so little chatter about it on Twitter. If you’ve given a talk at a technology conference in the past few years you’ve probably noticed you get real-time, instant, and often scathing results from your talks but if you could imagine a room of 400 people hanging on your every word, very few of them were bored enough to break out a phone and jot down a comment about my slot (also, the amazing Dan Harmon followed me so they were probably busy waiting for him). That said, later that evening and throughout the next day I got tons of great feedback on my talk and felt it went over well. Anil Dash took great and extensive notes of my talk and everyone else’s too.
I can’t think of anything else other than to say I really hope there is another one next year that I can attend, which is just about the highest praise I can give for a conference.