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Why freelancers should go to conferences

Let me take my Event coordinator hat off for just one moment, and replace it with my “Hey, I’m a freelancer – why should I fork our hundreds of dollars to go to a conference” hat (I have a lot of very specific hats). Miles Burke recently wrote about why you should attend two conferences every year, but what about you, my fellow freelancers, who have to watch the pennies? I personally think freelancers have the most to gain from attending conferences – think about it:

  1. Learning new stuff. As a freelancer, every minute you aren’t working on a client project is money you aren’t making. When do you get a chance to find out about new stuff? It’s usually squeezed in around lunch time or after hours, which is cool but how can you moot the benefits of a new tech? Although things like twitter or forums fill the gap a little, nothing beats old school, real word face-to-face talks. There are lots of people at conferences who’s minds are focused purely on new stuff.
  2. Meet famous people. Conferences are really just an excuse for the organisers to fly over people they admire. The thing is, because these people are only really famous on the internet, they are still usually really down to earth and approachable and are more than happy to chew-the-fat over a beer or three.
  3. Inspiration.  Smart people hang out at conferences. Smart people talk about smart stuff at conferences. Smart ideas are inspirational. Every time I come back from a conference I have a head full of crazy ideas that I wish I had more time to implement.
  4. Networking. I don’t care what anyone says – the MOST important skill a freelancer can have is the ability to network. 90% of my freelance work comes through people I’ve met (And I’d put money on the fact that most freelancers are the same). Freelancers by definition won’t have a dedicated marketing person, or a huge marketing budget, so networking is really a cheap and easy way to meet new clients (and more importantly new friends). Conferences have many people in a small area who could potentially want to talk to you. (Don’t forget your business cards).
  5. Tax Deduction. ‘Nuff Said

Ok, ok talk is cheap (thank god, otherwise I’d be bankrupt) but there really isn’t a way to describe the experience of a conference – the only way you’ll understand is to go to one. Now, you sandgropers are lucky because we have Edge of the Web on our doorstep. I had to fly to Sydney and sleep on a mates floor to get my first conference experience, and it still cost me nearly $2000 (but it was freaking awesome). You can get the same experience for $495 – I’m no Dr. Maths, but that sounds a truck load better.

Seriously, if you are umming and ahhing, just do it. I’ll see you in November :)


  1. Dude you nailed it, its network network and a side over of networking.

    Seriously the last WDS and OZIA cost me $3000. Balancing $495 vs $3000, yeah its a not brainer. And then there are workshops. Conference workshops are often really good value.
  2. yeah, yeah, I know :)

    I am not going to harp on about the "real" cost of conferences, which for those with families is much more than $2000... but this one thing I am genuinely wondering.

    By networking with what are essentially competitors, how does networking inside the industry benefit a freelancer? I guess for a programmer who might be used to working with Agencies more, there might be more benefit than, say, a generalist?

    It's something I have been curious about. Not that I necessarily see other web firms or freelancers in an adversarial way, but I am curious where the networking aspect fits in. Is it overflow work? Is it outsourcing?

    Just curious - because obviously for a $3000 investment there would need to be at least double that, in either literal monetary payoffs or non-monetary ones, to be worth it?
  3. I'm not a freelancer, but as a small work from home business there's a lot of overlap. I get maybe 90% of my work from word of mouth and referrals. Maybe half of that is collaboration with or leads from other small operators and freelancers that I know personally - so networking is everything to my business. And it's a far more reliable source, IMHO, than search engine rankings or advertising.
  4. ;Ahh, the networking with competitors debate. Two reasons that is the wrong way to think about it:

    1. Freelancers can't do everything - if you are a designer, then having a chat with a developer or a copywriter or a hosting guy means you can build up a group of contacts that can help you out when you get a job that is out of your skill zone

    2. At the end of the day, the best ideas aren't worth anything unless you implement them, so if you are 6-months a head of a competitor, they have to play a lot of catch up to get to where you are.

    The inspiration part of it comes in too - that is hard to put a financial value on, but getting the chance to bump heads with other people is really invaluable.

    In regards to what a generalist will get out of it, you can't be an EXPERT at everything, so you have the change to learn stuff across the board!

  5. Totally!
  6. The only reason I share an office with Myles is so that I can keep an eye on my competition and sabotage his every move.

    I have said too much...
  7. "Conferences are really just an excuse for the organisers to fly over people they admire."

    Damn! We've been rumbled :)
  8. Networking is also great for getting out of the office and meeting people with similar interests.

    We claim that social networking sites and forums bring us closer together but in reality, we are still human and we need face to face relationships.

    Oh and any free piss goes down a treat too :)
  9. lol, sorry if the debate has been had, it was a genuine question from my point of view.

    I don't necessarily see it that way, but I have wondered what the bottom line is when it comes to the benefits of a conference. For someone who is known, I suspect the payoffs might be better than someone who is not, or someone who doesn't find it easy to "mingle" or "network".

    I am not disagreeing just for the sake of it, I just like to make sense of other points of view. :)
  10. Look, at the end of the day, if you aren't one for networking and you already know everything about the topics that are being presented (or you have no interest in said topics) then sure, conferences probably aren't for you.

    Just to be clear though, I think of networking as meeting people, not as a lead generation exercise - leads are secondary. The more people you meet and talk to the more likely you are to meet someone that can help you out on future projects, or that can refer you work.

    As I've said, this is how I get a large majority of my work, and I know a lot of other freelancers that are the same - for those types, conferences are no-brainers.

    And in regards to the "being known" comment, the easiest way to become known in your industry is to be seen, and real life meetings are the ultimate way to achieve this (it all ties back to networking).
  11. Thinking on this if you know all the topics inside out, and don't need to network, maybe you should be speaking at the conferences concerned.

    The Face to Face networking at the conference is just invaluable.

    One tip is get there early and be the last to leave. And don't go talk to the people you usually hang out with.
  12. I do think that 2 - 5 are the most important for FreeLancers. I don't think that conferences are as important for non-freelancers or non-consultants. I am a .NET architect. For example, the MIX conference in the last 3 years every single video is posted online. Same goes for ReMix and to some extent the PDC. The only thing I am missing by not being there is the: networking, meeting people and inspiration etc. The content I am getting online...albeit later and on my own time now.

    I also do think conferences are a big thing for vendors for the respective conference to get the direction and "mood" of the clients.
  13. networking with competitors - Seriously this is the wrong way to be thinking.

    Take a look at the greater ICT industry and what the analysts have been saying and proving over the last 2 years.

    If you think you can do it all yourself then you wont be around in a couple of years. Instead of thinking that you are networking with competitors look at it as networking to determne who your next alliance / business partner is going to be.

    It more beneficial to partner with a friendly and work in harmony than have an aggressive competitor on the site that is trying to cut your lunch which ultimately is distracting you from your delivery and potentially compromising your quality of service.

    Just MHO...

  14. Amen to that, Con
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  17. No need to be so aggressive, Con. I already stated that it's not necessarily my point of view, but a case could well be made for it. It was a genuine question about the day-to-day choices between generating income, and spending potentially thousands of dollars for the warm n fuzzies. I didn't realise that it was so cynical of me to expect some return (financial or not)?

    Of course, reality lies somewhere in between that, and Myles answered my question about the non-financial rewards. But don't make the mistake of assuming that everyone shares the same point of view with regard to the value. Free alcohol, for example...

    Going to the conference, on its own, is not where the value lies. If you go, don't talk to anyone and don't make an effort, then of course it's not going to benefit you. Similarly, if you don't go to conferences, and put yourself out there in other ways... that does not mean you have "rocks in your head" for not going to a conferences.

    That is my point. The inherent value is not in the conference themselves, but in the effort you make generally, to network, or the seize opportunities as they are presented. Conferences are an opportunity, sure, but they might not be for everybody.

    As for knowing everything... well it's quite obvious I don't - noone can.

    I feel like words have been put in my mouth, and those who have met me will know that I am not a person with a "competitor" mindset. It was all intended as a discussion point, and I am going, but I think people tend to overstate the importance of some events at the expense of other things... that's all.

    Sorry for the essay...

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