Jason Charnes

Organizing My First Conference: Southeast Ruby

Three days ago the first Southeast Ruby ended. Though I’ve had the opportunity to attend and speak at many conferences, this was the first I’ve ever organized.

It won’t surprise you to find out an enormous amount of work goes into putting on an event like Southeast Ruby. I’d like to use this writing as an opportunity to decompress and share what I learned along the way this past year.

The Idea 💡

The first tech conference I attended was RailsConf 2015. I was six months into a new job (Lensrentals, my current employer) that allowed and helped me attend RailsConf. I traveled to Atlanta alone but left with new friends and excitement for writing Ruby.

Riding that excitement, I’ve been able to attend every RailsConf and RubyConf ever since. Along the way, I also began speaking at conferences. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many great conferences (some non-Ruby focused), make new friends, and gain new ideas.

However, I would be missing something if I didn’t recognize that everyone isn’t as lucky as I am. Many developers:

  • Work for a company who doesn’t cover conference tickets/travel
  • Are beginners who cannot afford tickets
  • Are unable to leave their families to attend conferences

With that in mind, I began to look around the Southeast region for smaller Ruby conferences. With not only these people in mind but also so I could selfishly have another event to meet people nearby who write Ruby.

A Lack of Regional Ruby Conferences

However, very quickly I learned that many regional Ruby conferences had already shut down. The ones that were still going were advertising their last year.

That was disheartening to me. I love the Ruby community and the conferences around them. Should I begin to worry about my choice to use Ruby? Was the continually ending events due to the Ruby community’s demise?

Don’t read that wrong; such conferences still exist, the options have just become more limited. The ones that are still/were around are mostly mid-west, north-east, or just west.

Filling a Void

I began to toss around the idea of putting on a conference in 2016. At this point, I had attended many successfully organized conferences. However, every time the thought crossed my mind I would talk myself out of it.

In December of 2016, we had our first child, Beckett. While home on paternity leave, I had lots of time to think. During this time I couldn’t shake the idea of putting on a regional Ruby conference.

One day the thought was so persistent that I got out of the shower and told my wife that we were putting on a conference.

Before my entrance into Ruby, a regional Ruby conference existed in Nashville named Ruby Hoedown. I (creepily) did a reverse lookup on the domain to find out who owned it. I reached out the organizer to ask if he ever planned on doing the conference again. If not, what advice could he give to an ambitious (err, ignorant) organizer?

Jeremy graciously responded and couldn’t have been any nicer. I had his blessing for a new Ruby conference in Nashville.

Planning Southeast Ruby

I quickly found a name, Southeast Ruby. That, though, was all I had. Until then I had never organized a conference. There were three things I knew I needed to do.

  1. Buy a domain name, obviously
  2. Register as an LLC, for protection
  3. Get a logo

I bought the domain name through Hover, where a few good ideas and an abundant amount of unsuccessful ideas reside.

I registered the LLC through incorporate.com, because with a name like that naturally, they know what they’re doing.

Without a pause, I reached out to Steve Schoger. I’d admired Steve’s work on many Laravel related products. Surprisingly he had the time to fit me in. Working with him was terrific. I got the opportunity to meet him at a conference later in the year; his work is proceeded by how great of a person he is.

At this point, these three things had come out of my pocket.

Choosing a City

If you don’t know, I’m from Memphis, TN. I’m quite proud to live in Memphis. Our Ruby scene is quite small, but we’re pretty close.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think I’d be able to attract a large number of developers to an unknown conference in Memphis.

Our sibling city Nashville, on the other hand, was central to several other towns in the Southeast region. Nashville also has a large airport that is easily accessible.

Early on I knew the conference needed to be in Nashville.

Finding Speakers

A good design and a website meant nothing (for this event) without speakers. After all, it’s a conference where people come to hear speakers.

One of the first emails I sent was to Avdi Grimm. Avdi, if you’re unfamiliar, runs a site called RubyTapas. I’d read a couple of his books, listened to many a podcast he was on, seen him receive a Ruby Hero award and had the opportunity to meet him (though I doubt he remembered me).

Much to my surprise, he emailed back and graciously agreed to be a keynote speaker. Avdi was the first real solidity the conference had. We didn’t just have a keynote speaker. We had a Ruby Hero as a keynote speaker!

From there, our keynote speaker list grew into an excellent mix of Ernie Miller, Kinsey Ann Durham, and Ben Orenstein. Four well-respected and known names in our community.

I had been following Tim Riley, a Ruby developer from Australia, for a while. Most of his work I was following dealt with combining Functional Programming and Object-Oriented Programming in Ruby. It’s very, very fascinating stuff we don’t talk about in the Ruby community much, yet.

As I did with three of the keynote speakers, I blindly emailed him and asked him if he would have any interest in speaking. I wouldn’t be able to cover his flight because at this point I had no idea how finances would end up working out for the conference.

Tim, with the support of his fantastic company IceLab, emailed and said he would be glad to travel to Nashville, TN to speak.

From there, I opened the Call for Proposals (CFP) on Paper Call sometime around the beginning of March. There were 111 submissions! That includes opening the CFP for an extra week after it closed.

The CFP was a blind CFP. A blind CFP meant that we assigned talks a rating based on their quality of abstract without knowing who submitted the talk. My friend Mike Cochran helped me rate and select talks for the event.

We only selected ten talks out of 111, which was incredibly painful. I believe we ended up with a fantastic lineup.

However, there are some things that I wish ended up differently regarding talks.

  1. I should have kept the CFP open longer. It closed mid-April leaving some people without an opportunity to submit. Next time I will leave it open much longer.
  2. I wish the lineup could have represented more people in the tech industry. We were lucky to have two female speakers, but I would have loved to have more. I would also have liked to represent more people of color, as well. Mostly, I wish the lineup could have been more diverse. That said, the talk lineup was fantastic this year, and hopefully, there is another opportunity to improve on this in the future.

Starting a Budget + Pricing the Conference

Once I knew the event was going to be in Nashville and a couple of keynote speakers had committed, I knew it was time to think finances.

At this point, I still lacked a real budget. I began to tweak numbers. If I could sell 175 tickets at $199, we’d more than cover the cost of the conference. We’d maybe even have some money for next year.

The goal of the conference all along was to break even, anything above that was a dream.

With 175 tickets in mind, I began to build a budget. Developing a budget is when I started to think about the small details.

The initial budget was created February 18, 2017, and looked something like this.

Domain $20.00
LLC $624.00
Gas $200.00
Venue $8,000.00
5 Hotel Rooms $4,200.00
Mileage $250.00
2 Plane Tickets $1,400.00
Lunch $5,000.00

The exact numbers aren’t important from the original budget. However, here’s how the initial projections looked.

175 Tickets * $199.00 = $34,825.00

Total Estimated Expenses = $25,681.00

Total Estimated Profit = $9,144.00

At this point, I was under the impression putting on a conference was going to be pretty easy. I couldn’t have been more from the truth. I, in fact, lost quite a bit of money. However, more on that later.

Finding a Venue

Pretty early on I knew that I wanted the conference to stand out. Having a venue with some life to it was essential. After digging through wedding venues on a random website, I found a place named Ruby.

“That’s hilarious!” I thought. Then, I clicked through to the pictures and realized “Oh… it’s beautiful!”

I scheduled a walk through a couple of weekends later. The price was a little higher than I wanted to pay, but there were loose restrictions on approved catering and rentals, so it all worked out.

Not to mention, the facility had a gorgeous outside area which doubled as a great place to eat lunch.

The only issue we had (and knew we would have) was parking. There was no parking lot, so parking was limited to the street or parking garage at the hospital across the street. If Southeast Ruby is in Nashville again, we’ll, unfortunately, have to consider another venue due to parking.


One thing I couldn’t quite figure out this year was how to sell sponsorships. At first, I wasn’t too worried. I was on track to put on a conference in “the green” with only ticket sales. However, that didn’t stop me from trying.

I emailed no less than 40 companies about sponsoring Southeast Ruby. To be fair, I was just some no-name asking companies to give me money for a conference that had yet to exist.

I made a prospectus (fancy PDF with sponsorship packages) based off what I could find from other conferences. The few people who did respond to my email asking for a prospectus didn’t reply after I sent the PDF, typically.

I can only assume my sponsorship prices were too high. They went from $600-$6000, then came down to $600-$4000. Next year I will spend more time making the conference appealing and affordable to sponsors.

Special shoutout to the companies who did sponsor: Honeybadger, Clear Function, and Ramsey Solutions

I also exchanged an essential sponsorship for businesses footing the bill for their employee to speak at Southeast Ruby.

Travel Expenses

If you’ve never spoken at a conference, let me explain travel expenses real quick. If you talk at an event, sometimes your company will pay for your travel expenses (hotel, airfare, etc.). Sometimes, the conference will cover the travel expenses for you. Sometimes, neither happens, and you pay for your travel.

Initially, I was only covering travel expenses for keynote speakers. However, after much consideration, I decided to include the hotel costs of any speaker whose company wouldn’t cover their hotel. After all, people were attending Southeast Ruby because of the speakers listed on the site.

It was important to me that every speaker feel important.

Selling Tickets

I initially just relied on social media to promote the conference. I also placed it on rubyconferences.org. Around August/September, I began to worry. We’d only sold around 40 tickets. I honestly started to panic.

My friend Chris Oliver recommended I put a link to the conference on Ruby Flow and Reddit (/r/ruby). Placing it on Ruby Flow got the conference into Ruby Weekly which helped bring in around 10-15 sales.

The day before the conference we had sold 87 tickets, 15 worked into a last-minute sponsorship.

I couldn’t have been any happier to have those 87 attendees because we had a great time.

PS: Use TicketTailor.

Conference Days

My wife and I traveled up to Nashville Tuesday night October 3. The extra day allowed us to use October 4 to pick speakers up from the airport, make a Costco run (shoutout Matt McCullar!), share drinks with Tim Riley, and host a speaker’s dinner.

We arrived at the venue at 7 am the first day of the conference. Shannon, my wife, helped organize volunteers into place (thanks, Shannon!). The volunteering included:

  • Registration
  • Picking up coffee for the attendees
  • Getting tables in place

Having that completed allowed me to:

  • Setup the camera for recording talks (thanks, Lensrentals!)
  • Setup the projector for speaking
  • Adjust the sound system and conference playlist (thanks, Steve Schoger!)

The conference went smooth. We had the after-party on site and didn’t end up leaving until 11 pm that evening.

During the day we operated on a schedule of talk -> 30-minute break -> repeat. Terence Lee gave me that advice, and it worked phenomenally.

We provided lunch through McAlister’s Deli, which allowed us to provide food for each dietary restriction without our attendees feeling left out. Also, we offered light snacks (cookies, fruit, cinnamon rolls) throughout the day to help keep people satisfied.

Friday was no different, great talks and everything went smoothly.

Best of all, we didn’t have to enforce the Code of Conduct. Everyone respected it, and for that, I’m very grateful.

The Financial Risk (We Lost Money)

Though we were able to bring on sponsors, my wife and I lost quite a bit of money putting on Southeast Ruby. I don’t feel comfortable sharing how much online, but if you’re so inclined- ask me in person, I’m an open book.

I initially thought I’d have profits and that I could donate a percentage to RubyTogether and Girls Who Code. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen this year as we operated at a deficit.

A Different Approach

I learned a lot of things this year. I learned what I would do different and what I wouldn’t do at all.

Alongside that, here are some ideas:

Offer tickets to people who wouldn’t be able to attend a conference usually.

I see this working two ways: First, with a substantial discount to those who qualify. Second, allowing sponsors and individuals to purchase tickets on behalf of those who are eligible.

Make sponsorship more affordable and appealing.

Find a way to cover all travel costs for speakers.

Incorporate families more.

Have either co-organizers or more volunteers.

Post-Conference High

Outside of sharing about my Anxiety disorder at RubyConf Colombia, this has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done for the Ruby community. I’m so excited to finally be giving back to something that has given so much to me.

We’re already talking about doing this again next year! If you’re interested in joining us, feel free to join the email list that is still on the existing site.

If you want to start a regional conference in your area, please reach out! I can’t tell you how to make it a success, but I can tell you what not to do! 😅

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