The Business of Conferences | Multithreaded Income Episode 38 with Clark Sell

Kevin Griffin: Welcome
back to the show, everyone.

I'm joined by a very special guest.

The man, the myth, the legend, Mr.

Clark Sell.

How are you today?


Clark Sell: doing well.

How are you?

Kevin Griffin: I'm good.

I'm glad to have you on the show.

It's I think three or four guests, I'd
have to go back through the catalog

where we've specifically talked about you

Clark Sell: Oh, really?

Kevin Griffin: uh, and
like the best sense of the

Clark Sell: Oh, I'm totally peaked.

Kevin Griffin: and because a lot
of guests, uh, I've, my first time

meeting him was at that conference

Clark Sell: Okay.


Kevin Griffin: and we had known each
other on the internet, but that was the

first place we were all able to gel.

And I.

I'm going to say this as
a conference organizer.

I'm going to say this as a
conference speaker for 15 some years.

I'm going to say this as a conference
attendee that conference, Texas.

Was one of my like top five
conference experiences.

And, and I'm not, I'm not
trying to say that to like, blow

smoke up your ass or anything.

I'm saying it was just
a, it was a good vibe.

I felt like everyone was super
approachable and I made a lot of

friends just during that, that event.

And so anyone out there listening
who's never been to that conference,

this was, it was my first, that
conference, which is amazing.

10 plus years you've been doing it, but.

It was, yeah, it was something special.

And I think that you, and your
team definitely don't get the

credit you deserve for it.

Like you should have all the accolades
and you should be selling out the day

of, but I'm glad to have you on the show.

Cause I think we're going to talk a lot
about the business of conferences and kind

of settle some of the misunderstandings
that people have about what goes into

one of these events and I can relate.

Immensely to all of it and, uh, so
Clark with that, let's ask you to

introduce yourself and I don't want
you to talk about that conference.

We know you run that conference,
but tell us about what else you

do other than that conference.

How's that

Clark Sell: Yeah.

Uh, and, and thank you for the accolades.

It's, you know, you went to the,
what I call our, our baby conference.

So Texas is new.

So it's only been around
a couple of years and.

Um, with going to another venue or another
location, or I'll say anytime there's,

you know, plus 1 in the array, right?

You get another get into
another problem with it.

So, um, yeah, my name is Clark sell
husband father, uh, live outside

of Chicago, or more appropriately
halfway between Milwaukee and.

In Chicago in the middle of nowhere.

Um, I run two companies, that conference,
which you already mentioned and

another company called unspecified.

I've been in the tech
industry for 25 years.

Um, primarily in the web space, did
a little mobile stent, been across

FinTech and, um, healthcare and a few
other industries, uh, started, uh,

in the At all state insurance went
to Microsoft and tellerick then spun

off and been on been on our own now
for the past, I guess, 7 or 8 years.

So, you know, throw a global pandemic
in there, um, love soccer, love

the wrench on cars over commit, you
know, all the, all the signs of,

you know, a good human, I guess,

Kevin Griffin: well, let's just kind of
dive into the business of conferences.

Um, so you've been doing
that conference for, Uh,

Clark Sell: since 2010.

Kevin Griffin: this 10 years?



So 14 years.

Clark Sell: yeah, so the company
started in 2010, we had a kind of

a 2 year ramp up to our 1st event.

The 1st event was in 2012.

Um, this will mark our
13th, I think, event.

In Wisconsin, we just did our 3rd.

Um, event in Texas, that's
if I got the numbers, right?

It was 13 or 14, I don't remember.

But so many, um, and then we've done a
bunch of stuff online and built our own

platform and whatnot, but, um, yeah,
14, 14 years, the companies existed,

Kevin Griffin: Where did the initial
spark for that conference come from?

Clark Sell: you know, I was, um,
I was sort of pissed off, if you

will, that there was nothing really
happening in the upper Midwest,

um, across technology stacks.


If you think about up here, we've got
Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Green

Bay, the twin cities, Cedar Rapids.

Um, you know, there's just, there's
this plethora of ginormous metropolitan

areas and of every 1 of those
metros, you know, you have kind of

the in the city out of the city.

So, if there's something going on
in the city, people from the suburbs

don't necessarily want to go.

And if there's something going
on in the suburbs, people from

indices, I want to go and I was like.

And then you just kind of compound
that by, well, let's take our Mongo

folks and our Java folks and our
NET folks and, and our Ruby folks.

And it's like, why, why are
we not all like playing along?

And that, that just kind of irked me.

And, um, so I wanted a conference that
was, um, actually, let me rephrase.

I wanted a gathering of people
that was, um, large enough that you

had this diversity across people.

And of all the tech stacks you could have.

In a place that was fun where you wouldn't
go back to work and like real things

are happening, like products are being
launched and, you know, all of the, all

of the fun, but also, could it be in a
place where it's family friendly, like.

I know you we've worked on this project.

We've been grinding away
for 100 hours a week.

Wouldn't it be nice that I got
to meet your spouse or your kids?

Could we, um, back then and still
now, you know, there was a lot of talk

about, well, we need more women in tech.

And so the answer was always like,
oh, let's go, like, grab the nurse

off the street and just pull them
into tech and it would be fine.

And it's like, oh, that isn't.

It doesn't really fix the problem.

Like we need to create exposure
to kids when they're young so that

they know that that's an option.

It would be great if we could have
their parents or them see their

parents as heroes, because we just,
we kind of make nothing right.

We make ones and zeros.

Um, so could we just kind of create
a place where that all kind of came

together and, uh, we live, uh, next to
a town called, uh, uh, Wisconsin Dells,

which is this water park capital of the
world, which makes no sense whatsoever.

But there's a giant
convention center space.

It's also non union.

It's kind of centrally
between all the big metros.

So, family owned business, you know,
it, it was kind of a nice partnership

of, like, how do we do this and so we
ended up creating what we now know today

is that conference and, Ironically, the
name was meant to just be this abstract

thing that nobody really related to, um,
you know, it, it gave us this ability

to not be identified as something.

And yet, just, it totally went the
other way for and for the good.

So, um, yeah.

But yeah, I was just kind of mad.

I was just kind of mad that
we didn't have, have a place.

And I wanted to, to create that place and
try to foster the larger community around.

Kevin Griffin: Well, let's kind
of dive into that first event.

Uh, what did the budget look like?

Uh, did you have any experience running
events prior to that conference?

Clark Sell: Yeah, I've ran
some code camps before.

And, uh, I ran some code camps,
ran some smaller conferences

here and in Texas, actually.

And, uh, they were kind of the, I'll
say 10 to maybe 30, 40, 000 events.

Um, I, at the time I was very active
in the local communities, kind of

through the central region, if you
will, um, spoke a lot nationally.

And, you know, I thought getting people
to a conference would be an easy thing.

Um, I don't want to say
that we really had a budget.

Um, but we walked into that first year.

And I think the cost was like 100 grand,
maybe, and we walked in maybe is 110 and

we walked in 20, 000 dollars upside down.

Um, and that's a pretty common
story for most folks, but, you

know, here's our 1st thing.

We've got 450 people going to it.

Um, as the, as the event is
progressing right through the days.

Like we're watching the budget go to
shit, you know, it's oh shit We didn't

have enough in plate counts or this or
that and that's kind of where the 20 000

came in So we kind of walked in almost
almost even um thankfully due to a series

of Complications to that first event
that were not our problem we got some

money credited back and we were able to
continue on to the next year, but um, but

yeah, we'll call it a hundred grand of
You And of holy shit, I don't, I don't

know how this is going to happen to the
point of, like, we didn't have all the

cash in hand and for anybody knows when
you have an event, you pay up front.

So, I had to go get a credit card.

So we got, I was like, fuck it.

Will you take a credit card?

And they were like, yeah, and I was
like, great call up and I was like, cool.

Can I get an annex?

And they were like, yeah, sure.

How much you want to charge on?

I was like a hundred grand.

And they were like, what?

Uh, no.

And, and so we had to do this dance
of like, well, how much can I?

And they were like, well, you don't have
a limit per se, but you have a limit.

So we had to like wire them
money so that we could do it.

And we had a float of balance
and like that, that like 45 days

and there was like a disaster.

But since then, to this day, we still
pay for the conference on an Amex card.

The entire thing.

Kevin Griffin: I I've dealt with enough
venues myself, so I think it's kind of

interesting for, for people out there.

Let's start with the conversation
with the, the Kalahari.

So you go into the Kalahari, you
say, I wanted to do an event.

What does the back and forth look like
for how many rooms you're going to need?

Um, I'm sure the

Clark Sell: What's that
negotiation look like?

Kevin Griffin: Yeah,
has a list of expenses.

They want you to pay for what,
what do you choose to pay for?

And what do you choose to do without?

Clark Sell: Yeah.

I mean, that, that process
has changed over the years.

Typically, uh, any kind of venue
contract is a multi year deal.

Now, there's kind of pre pandemic,
post pandemic, how things work, but.

Usually those contracts
are like, 5 to 10 years.

Um, most people.

Yeah, they're not really interested.


When you're talking about trying
to reserve hundreds of thousands

of square feet, they're looking for
5, 10 year commitments on things.

Um, you obviously have to build some
rapport with them over over time.

Um, our very first couple of years, you
know, we had a 1 year and then maybe

we had a 2 year and then it was a 3
year and then it was another 2 year.

I mean, we've been kind of,
that part hasn't been as, as.

Much of a thing for us, um,
but all contracts essentially

are, are you filling the rooms?


What's your kind of room?

And then what's your
attrition on those rooms?

Um, how much food are you going to buy?

That helps offset, um, the convention
center costs and then, and then

you can get into bigger line items
like the AV or if you want to call

it hardware, like stages and tables
and chairs and, you know, And then

it kind of goes down from there.

So we,

Kevin Griffin: And when you
say rooms, you mean hotel

Clark Sell: I mean, hotel rooms.


So there's, if you split a physical space
in 2 sides, it's, you're responsible

for booking X number of nights of hotel
rooms, and then you're responsible

for some payment for some cost of the
convention center, which may or may

not be offset by your, the hotel rooms
you booked, or the food you've paid

at kind of depends on the contract.

It's usually both of those things.

And the minute you sign, like
you're on the hook for, I'm

just going to use round numbers.

We'll say, let's say that the
contracts is like, it's going to

be a hundred thousand dollars.

Um, or that's the projected cost.

And so I signed on the line the next day.

Um, I'm, I'm responsible for some
percentage of that contract, say 30, 000.

And as we get closer to the
event, like that number goes up.

So if I decide, I don't really want to
do it, but it's like two weeks out, I

still owe it a hundred thousand dollars.

Like I don't.

I don't get to like, get out of that.

Um, and that happens to me say, well,
and if it's a multi year contract,

well, the same kind of thing happens.

It just kind of reduces
over the number of years.

And then the time you have to
say, I don't want to do it.

And that time you say,
I don't want to do it.

Maybe like, I don't know, um, 24
months, 12 months, you know, from

kind of termination and whatnot.

So, um, they're not, they're no joke.

I mean, they're, they're a commitment.

And they're, they're, they're
scary because you have to put

up all the capital up front.

And, um,

Kevin Griffin: And that, and
that's going to vary for anyone

out there that's listening.

That's thinking about putting
on a conference that varies

a lot based off the venue.

We've done it at venues where we, uh,
we had food and beverage minimums.

That was, yeah.

We, we get our rooms for free.

I'm sorry.

We get our venue space for free if
we met a food and beverage minimum.

And then we had a number of hotel rooms.

We were supposed to be responsible
for, and it's, yeah, you play this

game of, all right, how, how successful
do I think this event's going to be?

And, um,

Clark Sell: And not just this year,
but your following years, right?

Like if you signed a multi year
contract, you're betting on yourself

two, three, four years out and
you have, I mean, you don't know.

There might be a global goddamn
pandemic coming in to slap you around.

Kevin Griffin: do you translate
the things, you know, you have to

spend money on into, uh, let's talk
about the income aspect of it now.

So you need to sell tickets and you
need to sell tickets at a price to help.

Pay for the conference and you
also need to sell sponsorship and

you need to offer stuff to the
sponsors, get them to come in.

Can we talk about some of the thought
process of how you price your tickets and

how you price your sponsorship packages?

Clark Sell: Sponsorships, we try
to, they're the easiest because

the value returned is kind of the
easiest meaning we're giving them

the ability for brand awareness.

We're giving them the ability
to exchange contact information.

Or lead generation stuff.

Mind you, I'm going to preface all this.

We do not sell any data.

We do not give away anything that
an entire exchange has to happen

with the individual, the two parties
that are at one of our venues.

Um, and I say that because
there's a lot of conferences,

most like commercial conferences,
just give away the email list.

That's part of the deal.

Um, so we get in a lot of shit for that.

Um, so, but sponsorships, right.

It's either brand recognition,
product sales, service sales.

Um, something along those
lines, lead exchange.

So that's a pretty like known quantity.

We're giving them physical
space to be involved.

The more they spend,
the more we kind of do.

And I just spent a lot of time trying to
be competitively priced, but also we try

to take on a less number of sponsors.

At a higher rate so that
we can service better.

So, you know, some will say,
well, your sponsorship is,

is higher than X, Y, and Z.

And it's like, sure, but we're
only going to have 30 sponsors.

So like, do you, your opportunity to
network is greater because there's less

of this and, you know, you can get into
kind of the whole sales thing, but.

Um, but yeah, so we sell sponsorships,
um, obviously for Texas and Wisconsin, um,

and that's, that's a constant, like, it
feels like seed rounds of funding, like,

you're constantly just begging for money.

But that's the game, uh, tickets
are another source of revenue.

Um, our tickets don't really pay for
themselves until you hit a certain

number, which has multiple hundreds.

Um, so if you think of a ticket,
you really have kind of fixed costs.

Like let's take a t shirt.

A t shirt is, we'll say it's 10, right?

It's never going to be
anything more or less than 10.

So if a, if a ticket is a hundred
dollars, you got 10 in ticket costs.

You got 90 left to play with.

Um, then there's, uh, some variable costs.

I call these variable fixed costs.

Things like food, so it's fixed per
person, but it's variable dependent upon

how we decide what to choose, right?

We can serve you a banana or we
can serve you a steak dinner.

That kind of fluctuates depending
upon how many tickets there are

and where we'll fall in at the end
of the, at the end of that cycle.

And then there's fixed costs that
are amortized across all tickets.

So, let's say the production.

Crew is 25, 000.

You know, the more tickets you have,
the cheaper that is per per person.

Um, and then, you know, other things
that are a variable that just kind of

depend on how the company runs, right.

Marketing expenses and.

Giveaways and whatnot.

Now, we've always everything that
you see at that conference is

something that we've built or bought.

So, like, the stages, ours, the
signs we've built all of that.

We don't rent, um, you know,
typically people will go and rent

TVs from a venue or production house.

I just go buy them and they'll pay for
themselves in one or two events and then

we'll have them for two, three, four more.

Maybe one gets busted in
shipping or replace it.

But like the cost of those
things have gone down so cheap.

What am I on the hook for moving storing?

So we have a couple of shipping
containers that we use as a warehouse.

Um, so those are our two main sources
of, of income when, uh, Pandemic came,

we added a membership feature where they
could, uh, sponsor us and get, uh, get

some discounts back in that, you know,
sponsorships and memberships, they really

kind of go into running the company, uh,
like all the things that people don't

expect to happen as part of a company
that has to run this thing, servers and.

You know, bandwidth and
whatever else comes with that.

Um, but it's still, you know,
something like, uh, Wisconsin,

you know, I don't know, break even
it's probably 700 tickets before we

even get into what, what can we do?


Kevin Griffin: Yeah.

Clark Sell: Obviously the more
you get that you can depend on,

the better you can potentially
offer prices or do other things.

Um, but inflation has hit us so hard
in the last four years that some

things that used to be, I mean, some
of our costs have almost doubled.

So, and we're starting to struggling
with keeping kind of sponsorships

the same, ticket sales the same.

What do you do if you
give a discount, right?

What does that mean?

So, it's a, it's a really hard, it's a
hard aspect in that, We're not a CodeCamp

and we're not a kind of for profit
mega entity like a Microsoft Build.

So when you're in that middle, it's
somewhat of a, um, I don't want to say

touchy, but, you know, people may or
may not be paying out of their pocket.

Their company may be paying.

Who knows, you know, who knows
really how price sensitive they are.

Kevin Griffin: You were touching
on, if we just took food costs into

account, and I don't, I know this
because I've, I've done it, but.

If you're saying the range could be from a
sandwich bar is kind of like the sandwich,

if you're at an event and you have
sandwich or pasta, build your own sandwich

or build your own pasta thing, that's
literally the cheapest thing on the menu.

And that's when we say cheapest
thing is probably 25 to 35 a head

Clark Sell: Yep.

Oh yeah.

Kevin Griffin: depending on how
they're and if you're anywhere

that has protein on the menu.

Clark Sell: Yep.

Kevin Griffin: You're easily up in the 50
to 75 a head range just for that one meal.

And it's not even, it's good food.


Clark Sell: Right.

It's not,

Kevin Griffin: depending on the venue,

Clark Sell: sandwich isn't worth 25.


Yeah, totally.


I, I get really, I get really, I don't
want to say sensitive about that in that

it is overpriced, but there's also another
factor that often gets overlooked, which

is, you know, there is a whole staff
that's behind the scenes that are, um,

Making these sandwiches and doing them
into dishes and, you know, so for a given

event of ours, we may have 30, 50 people
in the back of house that are doing

shit that, you know, nobody ever sees.

And so there is some of that kind
of overhead or, or tax, if you will.

Um, is on top of that.

But yeah, food's expensive.

Like food is astronomically expensive.

And could we go somewhere
else and get it cheaper?

Sure, but then we wouldn't be at a
water park with the resort, right?

Like, now you're saying it's
a different, it's a different

thing and a different experience.

And, um, that's an option.

It's not one we've
exercised at the moment.

Kevin Griffin: part of the vibe is being
at the Kalahari, being in the enclosure

of the Kalahari and you don't get that at
the holiday in express down the street.

Clark Sell: Right.


Kevin Griffin: yeah, if you if you sell
out the holiday and it's a different type

of event than it is at at that conference.

So I, but you pay the tax for that

Clark Sell: That's right.

Kevin Griffin: being at the Kalahari

Clark Sell: right.

And there's a, there's a certain
like headroom of things, right?

You're, if I need to put a thousand
people in a room all at once, and that's

kind of like our, like litmus test of a
venue, like where can I put, or I should

say when we shop for a venue, where can
I put a thousand to 3000 people all in

one space that gets limited very fast.


Because that's you're
talking, uh, what is 1836?

I think, I think we do about 1200
and about 36, 000 square feet.

Um, you know, nevermind breakout rooms
and all that other kind of stuff.


I get, yeah, I have configurations
of, you know, 8 at a table, 6 at a

table, 8 foot table, 6 foot table.

Herringbone style, classroom style,
blah, blah, like it just goes on and on.

But yeah, when you, when you want to
stuff a thousand people somewhere,

things get limited real quick.

Kevin Griffin: couple years ago, you.

You did a second event out in Texas,
so the one I've been to, what,

what led you to do a Texas event?

Cause you're nowhere near Texas.

And as far as I know, you
don't have any ties to Texas.

So what, what led you to
doing the Texas event?

Clark Sell: Well, I do
have some ties to Texas.

Um, we've had some, uh, some family that
has, uh, lived or been rooted in Dallas.

Um, Some of the other events we did
were actually in Austin back in a day.

Um, so I've always enjoyed Texas and,
you know, the Texas things that are

down there, but really, you know,
the, it's about 2017, the Kalahari

let us in on a little secret that they
were building another venue and that

other venue was going to be outside
of Austin and the texting in Austin,

which I had been very active in.

At that time, um, was growing and doing
cool things, and I was like, well, it'd be

kind of cool if we could do a a plus one.

And part of the plus one is me
wanting to have more impact all

year round, but me also trying to
be, um, I'm gonna go more better.

Um, we've reached a point where we
own a lot of the infrastructure.

We built a platform.

We've hit a place to where like, you
know, the marketing system is expensive.

And so if I have another event, my
costs actually reduce themselves.

And I should be able to service
better because I'd have a

little bit more revenue.

And so if I could get a little more
revenue, then I could have some staff

and maybe we could perform better with
having two than we could with one.

And so that's the path we went down.

The problem was global pandemic,
um, that hit right in the middle

of us planning for our first event.

And it really reset us as a company.

Like we had already staffed up
to, you know, start doing two.

And there's a whole lot of learnings of
like, how do you market two different

events and the words that you use and the
timing and tickets and blah, blah, blah.

Um, different texts, tax
codes and all kinds of shit.

Um, And, uh, you know, the first
three years at Texas have been from

an, uh, from a company standpoint,
it's been really difficult.

Um, from a, from an event standpoint, I
mean, they've been great events as, you

know, um, but, you know, there's a lot
behind the scenes that people don't see

and contracts and timing and whatnot.

So, really, the goal is to have more
impacts, hopefully have a little

more revenue to just do a better,
um, alleviate a little bit of the.

Pressures on us trying to run
this size of event, because

my wife and I run the company.

And right now it's just
the two of us running it.

So, I mean, that's, it's a large event
for two people to, uh, to put on.

Kevin Griffin: So you said, uh, along
with the conferences, you have the, that,

um, platform and I, could you talk a
little bit more about what the platform

is and the purpose of the platform serves?

Clark Sell: Yeah.

I, I mean, we're engineers.

Um, so rather than using Tito and, um,
which we used to use back in the day, but.

Um, I am big on kind of the experience
and granted our website has plenty of

places where it's got awful ugly, but.

Um, we're able to do what we do in part
because we've really customized the

experience to how we run and operate.

So I think it gives us a little
bit of a unique advantage.

Like, if I need to do better SEO, like
we control the pages that are there

for each of the different sessions.

I can, we have an API so that I can
go through and grab your images and

create speaker cards and do this.

Thank you.

The registration is all hooked
into your profile, right?

Like all of that's there.

So hopefully from the time that
like you buy a ticket or you submit

a session, like we've curated this
experience to where you're not kind of

guessing, you're not going over here
to do this or over there to do that.

And um, that's resulted in, a front end
that's CDN cached and all this stuff.

And it's all open source.

And, you know, we kind of work on
it as much as we can, but, um, we,

we want to create a place where we
can foster the community outside

of just, like, Here's a schedule.

Show up.


We want to be more than that, right?

Who is Kevin?

Who is this company?

Who are the people for this company?

How do you do lead generation?

Like, all of that kind of integrated
into a place that everyone can

control their aspect and you
feel good about using and enjoy.

Um, is it overkill?

I mean, I guess.

You know, for some, for some they
could go, look, I could just go

to Sessionize and give everybody
an Excel doc and that's it.

But for me, I'm like, if I really want
to grow the community and interact all

year, then our job, really, my passion
is like, how do I connect people?

How do we grow their network?

So, you'll see hintlings of this,
like, you saw some at Texas and how

you can connect across the side.

Um, so, you know, future state,
and we've got a platform that

we can really do online stuff.

We can really do open spaces online.

And, um, you know, it kind of
means something to be on that.

Yep, Yep, Yep, Yep,

Kevin Griffin: that because with a lot
of events, there's, there's a couple

little humps in, in energy, right?

There's the initial, all right,
call for speakers is open.

So everyone's excited.

The event's happening.

Then it.

When that closes, it dies down
and then tickets go on sale.

And there's this gradual ramp of people
are getting excited about the events.

They're joining the, the Slack or the
discord for the events and planning

travel, they're doing all the things
cause the event's going to happen.

Then the event happens
and there's this peak of.

Everyone's engaged.

Everyone's excited.

They're going to the sessions.

They're partying afterwards.

They're doing things that we
shouldn't talk about after at the bar.

And then the event ends,
everyone goes home and no one

talks about the event anymore.

And what, or what happens is we
say, man, you remember that event we

were at, that was a good of event.

And, but that's about it.

The conversations don't really
continue afterwards because we're all

exhausted and I can appreciate that.

Clark Sell: It's exactly
what we're trying to stop.

Kevin Griffin: Yeah, yeah, pick that up.

Keep those conversations going,
at least keeping everyone.

Engaged enough where they feel like
they're part of this bigger community.

Clark Sell: That's the goal.

I mean, it's much larger than
you know, if the goal is to be a

facility to network people and create
exposure, a conference is just one

instantiation of like, how do we do that?

You Um, that's a very in person
high, like velocity conversation,

high fidelity, if you will.

Um, and the platform for us is a
mechanism of which to try to help

connect people and for us to build on.

And because we own it, we
can do other things easily.

Like I said, registration,
ticket sales, right?

It makes it, it just makes
it easier for us to plan.


Again, we've built it, so it's got
a lot of our own shit in there and

it's a problem, but that's a, you
know, build versus buy conversation.

Kevin Griffin: So along the, the beginning
of that conference, you were working for.

You said you were working for Microsoft,
went to work for TellRick, um, and

along the way you went off on your own.

Um, talk a little bit just about the
consulting that you do on, on the side.

Clark Sell: Yeah.

I mean, I, I think it was
about seven years ago.

We started unspecified.

Um, my, my enterprise life
was very much product.


Development, product management, um,
architecture, building, building softwares

for, you know, some of the biggest
companies always in the web space.

And so there was a bit of necessity
when, um, we started unspecified,

you know, TC was ramping up,
it was costing more and more.

Um, I, that was, that was a side
deal, but you know, we need to feed

kids and do all that kind of stuff.

So, um, Yeah, details.

And so, uh, I started a
company called unspecified.

We started doing freelancing.

Um, and really like I looked at that,
it was, it was an, it was an ability for

me to take all that big, like enterprise
experience and try to bring it to,

I'll call it the small media market.

Um, because I was working
for giant conglomerates.

Um, and, you know, TC for the most
part, I'd always get a contract out of

just being involved in the community
and the people that were there.

Um, and so maybe I was an architect on
a project, maybe I was just hired guns

slinging some code, but I was kind of
doing that in a day and doing TC at night.

And you know, with any company, I think
you go through these ebbs and flows

of like, shit, I gotta do business
development and I got contracting

lawyering and all this other stuff that
goes, do I really want to be a consultant?

Um, and, you know, we had, we had
started staffing up before the pandemic

on that project on that company.

Um, and we're kind of growing,
growing that with really

wanting to do more product work,
more of our own product work.

Um, but the pandemic came and then
I needed to really spend a bunch of

time on TC, do the contracts and just.

That's where I needed to be at that time.

And so that business kind of.

Slow down a bit.

And now, now we're going to be in
a place where it's picking back up.

And I've got a few client
projects now, um, and it's, you

know, it's web development work.

And I'll say the open source land.

Kevin Griffin: It seems like
it's a means to justify the,

the work you're doing on TC.

And, If

Clark Sell: it.


Kevin Griffin: be all TC all the time.

Clark Sell: I mean, yeah,
that would be great.

Um, I

Kevin Griffin: but of
course there's more than

Clark Sell: yeah, I

Kevin Griffin: money as an object.


Clark Sell: well, money, money is a thing
that gives resources to do stuff, right?

I think often, often we, especially in
tech, people get wigged out like, Oh

my God, I got to pay for this product.

There should be a free tier.

It's like, yeah, but that's like your
brother or sister over there, like writing

that stuff so that you can do your job.

Um, So spend 120 a year so that they
have some income and can do that.

Like, I'm sure you got 120 worth of
value out of that tool, whatever it is.

Um, I, I, uh, as anybody who's run a
business for some time, you, you, you

learn a little bit about your business
and yourself and what is it that you want

to do, and sometimes things change and.

Maybe what was fun once
before isn't as fun now.

Um, you know, I don't like
event planning by any stretch.

Like, I don't like it.

That's a big, big chunk of my time for
TC is like, are, are all the things

going to get, get slung at the same time?

So what do you do then?


Do you, do you hire help to
take care of some of that work?

Can you afford to hire help?

So right now.

Right now, there's a bit of money's
we're still trying to kind of get

our feet under us from the pandemic.

So there's means to an end.

Sure means to, uh, figure out what
it is that we really want to do.

Like, I've got a stack of products
that I would love to build.

Um, but that's a huge
investment of time and capital.

And right now, what I need is capital.

Kevin Griffin: What's been the hardest
part about coming back from the pandemic?

Clark Sell: I don't know.

I don't know if we did it.

If, if we did the pandemic
wrong, I don't know.

We made a huge investment in
like rebuild our platform and

everything during that time.

I think for me, we were on
such a great trajectory and.

You know, you, you kind of grow
up with your thing, if you will.

So today it's a hundred people
tomorrow, it's 200 people.

And with that, all of your things
around you grow up as well.

So you go from, you know, a hundred
person contract to a 200 person contract.

When the pandemic came, we, we
went from, you know, an 1800 person

conference to a zero person conference.


Everything that we knew before really
was reset, you know, people's behaviors

changed, uh, how you market has changed,
you know, people aren't in the office.

So, how do you reach them?

Like, what, what magic channel?

What magic water cooler
are there user groups?

They've died, right?

There's just been a lot of.

Like resetting, um, expectations
and, um, thoughts and value.

Like, where do you
exist in that ecosystem?

And it's been hard.

Um, The flip side of that is you
could also say, you know, if you were

complacent in some areas, you, that
would really come through, right.

And it's a good opportunity to go,
Hey, we, we didn't really do sales.

Well, so how do I do sales?

Or, hey, there's AI now.

So can I leverage that to
do something else better?

It's just, and I'll feel better about
things when we start getting back to

something that's more, I don't say
financially sustainable, but we've,

we've invested so much to keep the
lights on, um, that, you know, you

hope that that investment will.

I don't want to say make a return,
but at least be paid back and

made whole that the thing will
continue to live on another day.

And every business owner has to sit
there and go, I don't know, like, is

this the end or is this just is the next
step to beginning the new beginning?

And that's, that's all gut feels.

Kevin Griffin: What do
you feel your end game is?

Where, do you feel?

You're being led to right now.

Um, is it just keeping that conference
going as long as everyone will let it go?

Is there something else
you'd like to go off and try?

Clark Sell: Um, I'd say for unspecified,
the, the next, the next places.

Me building a product.

Um, I'd say for TC it's, I don't
want to say us being more involved

in the community, but I'd like to see
us use the, um, the weight that we

have to rebuild user groups, rebuild,
uh, or help other conferences.

Um, I'd like to see us.

Really kind of reformat what
the conference looks like.

Um, and so I think, I think
you'll see big changes.

Um, you know, big changes, like
we may not do sponsors anymore.

Like, what does a conference
look like if the ticket price is

higher and there was no sponsors?

What if it was more of a membership
model instead of a ticket model?

I don't know.


Kevin Griffin: No, I
don't know any other way.

Yeah, yeah.

Clark Sell: don't know.

But what I can say is I feel like
not going and exploring different

avenues of that, um, would be foolish.

And we just sit in a really
weird spot right now where.

You know, like our newsletter
list is, is dropped off

dramatically because of layoffs.

So you know, you don't, you don't really
see it until those hard bounces come in.

You're like, Oh wow, like another
a hundred people got fired today.

Like, like you can, can visually see it.

So you know, I think we, I think we do,
I think we know how to run an event.

Well, great.

I think we can always have more impact.


Um, what does that really mean?

How can we do it?

How can we really.

Um, I think I'll feel good about it when
people go, if I wasn't involved in that,

in some capacity, like my life changed
because I was involved in that, right?

That's the, that's our
litmus test of success.

And if we can, if we can
quantify that, that's great.

Um, and, and we'll just,
we'll just kind of see.

Obviously, we have to pay the
bills in the meantime, right?

That's the, that's this balance and,
um, you know, we're in the middle of

contract negotiations for Texas and trying
to figure out what that really means.

I don't, I don't know.

Nothing's nothing's ever a guarantee.

Kevin Griffin: Any chance of that
conference moving to any other cities

other than Wisconsin Dells in Texas?

Clark Sell: Uh, well, we
got to get back to Texas.

I don't have anything on a books yet.

Is there a chance, uh, potentially?

Um, what I'll say is it going
to Texas was way harder than I

thought it would be way harder.

Um, different state taxes,
different, different laws, learning

how to ship and semi trucks and
some logistical kind of things.

Um, learning how to market.


Like, how do you talk about two
events that may be overlapping

in like their marketing plans?

Um, there are a lot of things that Texas
that we really like about Texas, like

the venue is easy to get to an airfare.

So that attracts a more
international audience.

Like there's just the
weather's more predictable.

Granted we do Wisconsin in the summer,
so that's still predictable, but,

um, but I, I'm not opposed to it.

Right now I could tell you for two
people, there's no way we could

handle a third to barely handle two.

So, um, we'll see.

I mean, we'll see when we'll see when
we'll know it's right when it's right.

How about that?

Kevin Griffin: I live in Virginia and
they're building a new Kalahari here

Clark Sell: Yes, they

Kevin Griffin: Uh, Fredericksburg,
Virginia, and more than one person from

other Kalahari based conferences have
said, Kevin, you should run the, that,

uh, the Kalahari conference in Virginia.

And I go, no,

Clark Sell: yeah.

I mean, it was on our radar
that was going to be our third.

Um, but Texas has not.

It's not hit the numbers that
we thought it was going to

hit in the path that it has.

Maybe we were a little too
soon out of the pandemic.

Um, if if Texas was hitting the numbers
that needed to hit, then Virginia

probably would have been closer.

But as it stands right now.

It's not on the radar.

Kevin Griffin: Let's end this conversation
kind of on, Let's say an uplifting note.

And for anyone out there listening,
when you see these community

conferences and I'm talking community
conferences, and I'll just, just

list randomly a bunch of them.

So there's that conference,
uh, Wisconsin Dells in Texas.

We have a code mash in Ohio.

We have KCDC, Kansas city
developer conferences.

Um, there's still the random code
camps that happen off and on in the,

you have A plethora more community

Clark Sell: Yep.

Kevin Griffin: and we remove,
we don't include the, the

builds, the, um, the vs lives.

Now I'm.


So, you know, they, they stand out.

But you have like Google clouds.

You have the, uh, Amazon, um,

Clark Sell: Reinvent.

Kevin Griffin: invent those don't count.

We talk strictly about
the community events.

These are run by essentially volunteers.

We talk a lot about big money
numbers, but none of that's

really going in your pocket.

Uh, It's not going in my pocket
for the events that I run.

Um, there's big expenses and
they're all fairly justified.

And I hope we covered that the price that
you pay to get an indoor is actually a

fraction of the cost that you probably
should be paying to be at the event.


Clark Sell: why is it that I'm spending
35, 000, 4, 000 to go to Microsoft Build

and getting less than I would get out
of that conference or Codemash or KCDC?

At a third of the price, right?

Like, there's they for me
and they're good events.

They're highly produced.

Like, I, I, I'm not speaking
ill about them, but I do want

people to ask themselves.

Like, are you, are you all
right being the product?

And I think that's the segmentation for me
from like a community conference to per.

I don't know if I'm going to call,
I'll call for a for profit conference,

like they, they're, you're going into
a system that they are going to sell to

you because they want you to continue
to buy their thing and this and that,

whereas I want to make you a better human
and could care less what you buy, right?

Like I, and, and I think the community
side of things has a much more, regardless

of the money involved, the, the intent.

The altruistic nature is, you
know, really personal growth and

exposure and it's put on by people.

I mean, arguably, we have no business
running a conference like those big

companies and our shows are, I mean, for
some of them, relatively the same size.

Obviously, every events like 35,
000 people, which is ridiculous.


Kevin Griffin: category.

Clark Sell: yeah, but when
you think about me, yeah.

There's 2 people who plan 2 major events
that happen in 2 different metros.

Just 2 people, not, not a marketing
team and a sales team and hire an event

company and a, and, you know, all of that.

It's, it's just a couple of people.

So, you know, should there be more?

Yes, we should have more
people, but we don't.

Um, but you just, like, like you
said, like, there's the community

side of things and then there's this.

And a for profit side and.

Um, I look at it as like, are you
the product or are you part of

the community and support them?

Kevin Griffin: All that to say,
yeah, support them by those

early bird tickets show up.

You know, have fun.

I, I think you could look at the attendee
base for any of these events and you're

very unlikely to find someone that says, I
really regret my time going to the events.

And you see a lot of the opposite,
like, uh, that conference could be this

was, you know, The place where , I made
the connection with my next employer.

I got a job offer.

I had a conversation with someone
who connected me with someone else.

There's so many different facets
to, to these events that you're

really insane for not going.

And like the, the justification
for it all is really easy when you

look at what you could potentially
get out of it in the long run.

And, um, Uh, I'm a full supporter
of all these events and I wish I

could go to all of them myself.

Just, you know, time is really against us.

Clark Sell: Yeah.



And, and, and I think what you said is
true for like code camp to, you know, I,

I put us in KCDC and code match, we're
kind of in the middle of like the code

camp to for profit just based on our size.

I mean, your investment is time and a
little bit of coin, and I think the, the

more, the more that we as a community
invest in ourselves, the more it

attracts the things that we want, right?

If we all go and hide, like when I
started that conference, I had very

large and I'll leave their names
out, but media publications, people.

They were just like, do not have
a conference in the Midwest.

It's a waste of money and time.

Those people don't do shit.


Kevin Griffin: people I've heard that.

Clark Sell: And, and it was like,
one fuck off because that's me.

And two, like I proved them all wrong.

Like there are tens of thousands of
engineers, uh, across like our little

three state Metro, if you will.

Um, who do amazing stuff just
because it's not San Francisco or the

Silicon slopes or Austin or whatnot.

So that doesn't mean that there's not
engineers, but I think the more we

can support all the community efforts
that are there, the better our own

opportunity comes that kind of law of
attraction of, like, things are happening.

You kind of get out of your
bubble, your echo chamber.

You learn a little bit.

You see that this stuff is, you know, It's
going on and that just, that just fuels,

you know, everything that's around it.


Kevin Griffin: On that note, Clark, thank
you so much for hanging out with me today.

Clark Sell: thanks for inviting

Kevin Griffin: this was a.

Great conversation.

And I'm keeping my fingers crossed
for that conference next year.

I won't, sadly, I can't make
Wisconsin this year because

of scheduling on my part,

Clark Sell: Yep.

That is your fault.

Kevin Griffin: yeah, it is totally my

Clark Sell: That's totally your fault.

Kevin Griffin: but

I'm gonna keep my calendar
open for next year.

Clark, thank you so much again.

Uh, and everyone else, thank
you so much for listening.

We'll see you all next time.

You've been listening to the
multi threaded income podcast.

I really hope that this podcast
has been useful for you.

If it has, please take a moment to leave a
review wherever you get your podcast from.

And don't forget the
conversation doesn't stop here.

Join us on our discord at mti.

to slash discord.

I've been your host Kevin Griffin
and we'll see you next week.

Cha ching!

Creators and Guests

Kevin Griffin
Kevin Griffin
♥ Family. Microsoft MVP. Consultant/Trainer focused on #dotnet #aspnetcore #web #azure. VP at @dotnetfdn @revconf Mastodon: - He/Him
Clark Sell
Clark Sell
The Glue. On a mission is to create exposure for practitioners in software development. Founder of @Unspecifiedio and @THATConference.
The Business of Conferences | Multithreaded Income Episode 38 with Clark Sell
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