Why Scaling Conferences Ruins Them

Over the last 5 years I’ve attended and been a speaker at about a dozen conferences. They have ranged in size from 40 attendees to 4000+ attendees. And without fail, every one that increased in size lost the essence of what made it so special in the first place.

When a conference scales, it changes for the worse. It’s not uncommon to hear the people who were there from the beginning say things like

It was amazing the first year. It was ok the second year. I don’t plant to return the third year.

As conferences become bigger, it’s not uncommon to find more and more people who come to town for an event, but don’t actually attend the event. South by Southwest is a perfect example of this. Maybe 20,000 people will find out about your app, your music, or your art. But there’s about 1000 other things competing for their attention. Maybe you’d be better off with 20 people who REALLY cared and are actually listening to learn about what you’re working on.

At the multi-track mega conference, it’s also not uncommon to find a speaker in a room of 4 people because of an undesirable time slot that’s either at the end of the day or happens to be at the same time as somebody more “famous” than him. To top it all off, attendees get almost no time to interact with the speakers they PAID to see. As somebody recently told me “If I could have had the same experience watching this talk on Youtube, why exactly did I pay to be here?”

Small bits of time like cocktail hours are set aside for “networking” in which superficial conversations take place, business cards are exchanged and lasting impressions are hardly made.


Never allow infinite scalability to be the litmus test of whether an idea is worth pursuing. Because the truth is that by the time most ideas reach infinite scale, they are typically only sanitized versions of their original glory anyway. — AJ Leon

1. Misfit Conf:

My friend AJ Leon puts on a small event in Fargo North Dakota. The first year there were only 30 attendees. It’s held in a small intimate space. It’s one track and speakers don’t have to compete for the audience. There’s no such thing as an undesirable time slot.

2. Mastermind Talks

My friend Jayson Gaignard puts on an amazing event every year called Mastermind Talks. The caliber of talent in the room is mind-blowing. And Jason personally invites every single attendee. It’s limited to about 150 people.

3. The Instigator Experience

Out of my own frustration with the fact that I thought conferences were broken, I decided to create one of my own. The first one was held in 2014. It’s application only. It’s limited to 60 attendees. I’ve included some of my favorite things about it below. (Note: none of this can scale).

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How we feature our speakers
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Work from our artist in residence Sarah Steenland
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Food trucks, healthy food, and other stuff that couldn’t scale

Applications are now open for 2015's Instigator Experience


There are conferences that are in the business of selling tickets and conferences that are in the business of overwhelming people with joy.

The majority of conferences are in the first business. It’s what big media companies default to. The primary goal of the event is to sell tickets. The result of course is vanilla, name tags on lanyards, hashtags, handshakes and business card exchanges that will likely lead to a bit of excessive luggage, but very few real connections or any real change in the lives of the attendees.

Then there’s the second event. This is a conference that’s in the business of delivering an unexpected experience.

Live music has engaged participants. Keynote speaking has passive consumers. There’s room to be explored in how you bridge that gap — Erik Wahl

It’s the one that gets put on to overwhelm people with joy.

It’s the one that is so well thought out, the person who created it would have to be a little bit out of their mind to give that much attention to detail.

They don’t leave serendipity to chance

They delight our senses

They try what might not work.

They push edges.

Lifelong friendships and lasting connections take place.

They do things we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

They touch our hearts.

Which type of event would you rather go to?

I’m the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast and the creator of The Instigator Experience, a 2-day not so typical business conference.

Some additional essays on conferences

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Order An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake:https://amzn.to/2LVjgQa Listen to the @UnmistakableCR podcast in iTunes http://apple.co/1GfkvkP

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