BarCamps Unite Businesses at User-Generated Conferences

Friday May 20th 2011 by Thor Olavsrud
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Aiming to support a wave of local, ad-hoc gatherings of entrepreneurs and small business owners, five companies have banded together to form the BarCamp Tour.

Since 2005, across the country -- and the world -- entrepreneurs, developers and techies have begun gathering in local, ad-hoc collectives called BarCamps to share their expertise. And now five small businesses with strong entrepreneurial roots have elected to support and deepen the trend by sponsoring these groups with what they call the BarCamp Tour, including the next stop: BarCamp Portland 5 this weekend.

BarCamps, the Unconference

BarCamps are user-generated conferences -- or unconferences as some dub them -- in which the attendees provide the content, typically in a participatory, workshop-like format. The unconference moniker is a reaction against typical conferences, which often involve high fees, sponsorship-driven presentations and top-down organization. BarCamps are generally free, and participants typically arrive to find blank white boards or sheets of paper taped to the wall upon which they suggest and schedule the sessions for the day. Any attendee can volunteer to run a session.

"With a traditional conference, I'm spending $300 or $400 to be there," said Jonathan Kay of BarCamp Tour sponsor Grasshopper Group. "There's a schedule. I'm going to see a couple of speakers who are paid to be there. BarCamps are unconferences. It's so far from traditional conferences. They're events put on by a community. Local companies and local organizations put them together. They cost no money."

He added, "The whole underlying point of it is to share your passion. It's very cool because you have this self-selected group of influential people. These are people who want to learn more. They want to meet other people. They want to connect. They want to learn."

Kay, whose title at Grasshopper Group is the Ambassador of Buzz, often volunteers to lead a session on low-cost brand building at BarCamps he attends. And that is an example of what a BarCamp Tour sponsorship different from traditional conference sponsorships.

"And so unlike typical financial sponsorships, we’re not interested in just paying for a badge or logo on your BarCamp’s t-shirt," Kevin Hale, co-founder of BarCamp Tour sponsor Wufoo, wrote in his blog. "We want to have a positive impact on making your BarCamp a success. That means we’ll all be there in presence and participating like good BarCamp citizens with panels, workshops and presentations on the topics you most want to know about. Additionally, we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and help with everything from setting up tables and projectors to hosting the after-party to make sure the fun doesn't’t stop when the sun goes down."

"We want to build on this idea of sponsorship as participation," Kay added.

BarCamp Tour is composed of BatchBlue, a provider of small business CRM based in Providence, R.I.; Grasshopper Group, a provider of virtual phone systems for entrepreneurs based in Boston; Shopify, provider of hosted ecommerce solutions based in Ottawa, Canada; MailChimp, a provider of e-mail marketing and e-mail list management services based in Atlanta, Ga.; and Wufoo, provider of an online HTML form builder based in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Calling themselves Tour Guides, these companies have taken it upon themselves to support the efforts of BarCamps solving their biggest pain points, whatever they might be.

"In Boston, we sponsored the after-party because historically there was no one spot where people could connect after the event," said Michelle Riggen-Ransom, chief communications officer and co-founder of BatchBlue. "At other BarCamps, we'll lend whatever support is needed most whether that be leading sessions, buying attendees tacos or sweeping up floors post-party."

Kay noted that for BarCamp Portland 5 this weekend, a local brewing company donated all the beer and wine, but the organizers were having trouble finding the funds to provide food for attendees, so that's where BarCamp Tour stepped in to help.

Sponsors Stay Active

The common theme from all the sponsors, though, is that regardless of the form of support a BarCamp Tour sponsorship entails, they commit to sending company representatives to each event they sponsor to actively join in discussions on topics ranging from technology to marketing and everything in between.

"We're aiming for BarCamp Tour to be an alternative to traditional sponsorships," Kay said. "My opinion has always been: Don't ask me to pay money just to get listed on your event's Web site or t-shirt. Ask me to donate my time and my expertise. That will yield much more meaningful conversations and experiences for everyone involved."

BarCamp Tour started this year with a goal of sponsoring 10 BarCamps across the country. It sponsored MinneBar in Minneapolis two weeks ago, and is sponsoring BarCamp Portland 5 in Portland, Ore. this weekend (May 20-21). The next stop on the BarCamp Tour will be BarCamp Seattle in Seattle on June 26. Kay said the Tour will go on a brief hiatus in June and July, but will resume in August, though actual locations have not yet been announced. Kay said the Tour is in talks with people from Chicago, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay to sponsor their events. He also noted that BarCamp Tour is continually looking for new events with which to get involved.

"If you're passionate about something, tell us," he said. "We still need more submissions."

BarCamps that want to request a BarCamp Tour stop should go to the site and click "apply" or send a tweet to @BarCampTour explaining why your entrepreneurial community is bursting at the seams.

Thor Olavsrud is a contributor to SmallBusinessComputing.com and a former senior editor at InternetNews.com. He covers operating systems, standards and security, among other technologies.

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