Always New Mistakes

May 24, 2010

Death to the rock star conferences

Filed under: Conference — Alex Barrera @ 12:39 am

I know, I know, a long time since I last wrote here 😉 Well, been quite busy lately, but today I wanted to write about something I’ve been seeing lately. I usually attend multiple international and national congress throughout the year (LeWeb, SXSW, etc.) and one of the single most annoying trend in all of them is the lack of good speakers.

I’m not talking about the actual talk but what speakers say during those talks. Most of the times the one giving the talk is the most prominent person from that company, let it be the CEO, COO or PR spokesman. Problem with this is that, except in few rare cases, most of them already have a very mature and trained speech that bores everyone. They usually talk about something we don’t care or already know…

Which brings me to the point that, in many cases, it’s much richer to talk with the people who do the day-to-day work in those companies instead of the top executives. For example, I’ve experienced much cooler talks over dinner with Google engineers than what you usually get watching Marissa Mayer. The same is true for companies like Twitter, Facebook, etc.

In the end, those unknown persons are different from the usual PR stuff, much open to discussion and in most cases, they answer all your questions if they know them. Also, they talk to you about their projects, the next cool thing they’re building, or even the way they see the company in 5 years from now.

Other interesting persons are unknown startup guys. We always keep reverting to the usual rock stars. The reason to some extend is clear, they attract more public and that means more cash for the congress. Nevertheless, in some cases (more than I would like to remember) it’s because the organizers truly think these people are the best speakers they can find. What I’ve seen is that the nº4 or nº5 startups in a given niche are also as good or even more when it comes to give a talk. In my opinion it’s because they haven’t reached the bullshit PR level (I should talk about that sometime) yet so they speak freely about what they are doing, what problems they have (which they usually share with the top startup in their niche) and how are they trying to take the top spot.

In conclusion, I would love to start a new type of conference where we should bring unknown speakers to talk about cutting edge things. You will always have some rock star on board, the reason is that, some rock stars are REALLY good. People like Gary Vaynerchuk

from Wine Library TV or Toni Hsieh from Zappos come to my mind and are incredible speakers. Hope I could say the same from many others… This would be known as “the unknown conference” where you could feature like a 10% rock stars vs 90% “unknown” (unknown in the sense of not a rock star) speakers that would cut to the chase of what the audience is really wanting to hear.

Ah, just one final suggestion for this conference, round tables will be prohibited except if moderated by a crazy person that’s willing to ask really hard ball questions. Most round tables just suck big time… lets change that!

PS: Yes I do know the paradox I’m proposing here…



  1. Great post, Alex! I’d have you speak in my Unknown Conference!

    Comment by Lauren j — May 25, 2010 @ 5:30 am

  2. Thanks Lauren! 😀 I’m guessing you’re as sick as I am about this hehe Next time we are in Austin we should do it 🙂

    Comment by Alex Barrera — May 25, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  3. Amen! Maybe The Unknown Conference (TUC?) wouldn’t cost as freaking much as the existing conferences. €600 for a conference ticket is a disgusting waste of money for the guys at the bottom looking to learn (i.e anyone who is putting everything they have into an interesting project)

    Comment by Nick Smith — May 25, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    • Well, if you don’t fly rock stars, it’s definitely much more cost effective 😀 Nevertheless, my experience in organizing events it’s that they’re damn expensive to get them going 😦

      Although a $400 price tag for a nice conference should be the standard (that’s what I payed for SXSW, which translated into 340€ which is ok).

      We should totally do TUC sometime 🙂 Kind of a flashmob TUC 😛

      Comment by Alex Barrera — May 26, 2010 @ 1:17 am

  4. This is where the “un-conference” phenomenon was born, I believe. Things like BIL (, etc.

    As an aside, there are multiple points in your post I would LOVE to chat with you about separately — you hit the nail on the head, and I’d love to pick your brain on a few things 🙂

    Comment by Ashley Brown — September 3, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    • Sure! :)) I woyld love to chat with you Ashley, I see you also have a big interest in Neuroscience =) We should definitely see each other at SXSW 🙂

      I’ll be going to the Startup Weekend stuff in Kansas City by the end of Sept. if you’re around we could meet there, if not, SXSW will have to be.

      Comment by Alex Barrera — September 3, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  5. Late reading that post, Alex, sorry.

    I do agree. To a point.

    Conferences are interesting mostly for the networking, rarely for the talks and/or panels. Some of the latter are great, but it’s difficult to please everyone, so large the interests can be.

    Thus, rock stars serve mainly as the ticket magnet. They’re the ones who are going to make a big event break even. I’ve seen it first hand (and, no, I was not the rock star LOL).

    Now, true rock stars are rare. I need either chuck loads of info (hard in a day where most info is readily available online) or to be entertained. When you get both, you’ve got a rock star.

    Comment by Paul Papadimitriou — November 2, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    • Totally agreed 🙂 But your description of rock star isn’t what most people know to be a rock star 😛

      Or lets put it this other way, a fraction of what people consider celebrities are real rock stars, and as you say they are rare. Problem is, there are many unknown rock stars that aren’t given a chance because of stupid (or maybe not that stupid) PR. Why not focus, for once on quality (for ex. TED or BIL for that purpose) and not on PR. Who knew Hans Roselin outside his circle of influence before TED? Now he’s a true rock star and by his own merits 🙂

      Another interesting thing to discuss is that most people think that rocks stars are versatile… I’m afraid that’s not true 😦 Someone is a rock start in their field of expertise, not in others. Don’t ask Roselin to moderate a Twitter panel… yet, you find this in every conference 😛

      It’s a very interesting topic hehe

      Thanks for the comment man! :*

      Comment by Alex Barrera — November 2, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

      • But that’s the heart of the matter. Rock star definition is in the eye of the beholder.

        We all have our stars (or not). Like we all have our interests.

        The unconference format and, in a way, the TEDx one (TED is arguably a different beast, a topic in itself) allow for unknowns to rise. But I’ve seen bigger conference operating costs first hand (having helped a few). Without being fancy and glitzy, they still need to sell tickets just to break even.
        So, for them, having big names (in opposition to rock stars) is key.

        Not really so for the individuals, but for the sponsors to get on board (they will usually do it only with some big name) and for the corporations to start buying tickets (they will buy only if there’s a big name present).

        I’ll add that ticket prices are like consulting fees. Be too low (I’m not talking free like unconferences, but low) and you’re not taken seriously enough. Credibility also comes with the price tag, whether we like it or not.

        In the end, it all boils to a difficult equilibrium. Having one entertainer, a few big -but probably boring- names, some unknowns with great info. There’s no recipe. The alchemy works or not. And usually takes time until it matures anyway.

        And the rock star themselves need to mature. They’ll emerge through the small events to become bigger through the large conferences. Darwinism is needed there as well.

        Then again, for me conferences are mostly about the networking, via the halls, the pre- and post- parties, the smokers corner, etc.

        How did we meet again, Alex? 😉

        Comment by Paul Papadimitriou — November 2, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

      • haha true enough!

        Although I would think that costs of holding the conference are proportional to the size of the conference. I never proposed a free conference, but one where you get slightly more value and less bullshit.

        You can still bring the big names: Facebook, Google, Amazon engineers, etc. keep the size small and costs down too buy paying a small entrance fee. No need to go all fancy with the conference.

        Incidentally, if done right, it will evolve into a huge conference with PR bullshit and big sponsors, but meanwhile, the ride is worth while 😛

        Just doing some wishful thinking here hehe I should write about Tetuan Valley sometime because the experience is, to some extend, similar to what I’m talking about here 🙂

        Comment by Alex Barrera — November 4, 2010 @ 2:10 am

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    Comment by Poker Satellites — January 21, 2012 @ 7:16 am

  7. […] the past I’ve been critical of boring conferences with tired formats. It’s exhausting to listen to marketing spins from […]

    Pingback by When unconferences fail horribly – Alex Barrera – The Kernel — February 16, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

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