“Blessed are the geeks: for they shall inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5 (Not!)
Geeks, once considered socially awkward and uncool, have pulled off a remarkable image makeover during the past few years. From popular TV series to city makeovers to revolutionary uprisings to, well, ruling the world, geeks seem to be mankind’s last great hope.
Today practically everybody wants to be called a geek of some kind.
The real geeks, like Kiran Jonnalagadda for example, chuckle to themselves and keep chipping away at popular wisdom.
Jonnalagadda runs HasGeek, a two and a half year old Bangalore-based company that organises technology events.
Chances are you may not have heard of them, unless you’re a developer. Because the kind of events HasGeek organizes aren’t the generic variety around mobile technology or startups that one seems to run into Bangalore every other weekend.
Jonnalagadda himself is as hardcore a geek as they come. Before starting HasGeek in October 2010, he spent over a decade tinkering around in careers ranging from tech journalism, rural technology access, volunteering and community events.
The idea for HasGeek came to him after experiencing first hand the travails of sustaining community-driven events.
“Community events were just not sustainable. Proto, Barcamp, LUG (the Linux Users Group), MoMo (Mobile Monday) Bangalore and OCC (Open Coffee Club) were all community-driven events that died in one way or the other. Not because there was no need for them, because learning from your peers in a bottom-up, community-driven manner still has value. But because its tough for a few committed volunteers alone to keep organizing those events year after year,” he says.
What if someone could take away the pain of actually organizing the events, leaving the community free to learn from each other?
“I realized then that if you do these events as a full-time commercial activity, they can become sustainable. HasGeek came in not as a representative of the community, but as a “community service provider”,” he says.
HasGeek events are based on an unsubsidized user-pays model with prices ranging from Rs.1000-2000 per day of attending. Sponsors funds are used in non-core areas like t-shirts, swag or upgrading the quality of food served. “Doing this has freed us from being sponsor-driven, which is a radical achievement in the events space. For our last two major events, the majority of our revenue came in from participants, something unheard of,” says Jonnalagadda.
“REAL ARTISTS SHIP”
Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO is said to have scrawled those three words in 1983 when the release of the first Apple Mac was getting delayed. Those words are in the framed poster hanging on the first floor wall at the Center for Internet & Society in Domlur, Bangalore, where HasGeek works out from.
For the non-geeks, the words refer to delivering actual products or software to customers, as opposed to having endless discussions or meetings around how best to proceed. In the software programming world, “shipping” refers to code being written and delivered to customers.
The poster serves as a great metaphor for the way Jonnalagadda and his 5-member team organize their events. By borrowing concepts of software programming, HasGeek is doing events in seemingly counter-intuitive ways. Here are a few examples:
- Open-source: while most conferences are top-down, meaning a few organizers and sponsors get to decide topics and speakers, HasGeek events have a decidedly open-source flavour. Topics are proposed and voted upon via an online “funnel” accessible publicly. “Most events are around conversations of what vendors want to sell, not what individuals want to learn. Which is why we don’t decide what topics or speakers will feature at an event, the community does,” says Jonnalagadda.
- Rapid prototyping: instead of spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for a “flagship” event, HasGeek spreads its energy across multiple events over the year. Doing that reduces their dependence on the success (or failure) of one or two mega events. Last year the company did 10 “major” events, according to Jonnalagadda, and several smaller ones. After a controlled retreat in 2013 where they’ll do 4 major events and many smaller ones, Jonnalagadda says his target is to do one event every week in 2014!
- Data-driven design: while Google may be getting over its famously data-driven design, HasGeek has been applying the concept to their events in order to understand what works and what doesn’t. For instance, after initially starting with events that featured multiple and parallel “tracks”, HasGeek realized that attendees would switch between tracks to the better talk at any particular time. “So we eliminated multiple tracks in favour of just a single one over one or two days,” says Jonnalagadda. Similarly, their ticket prices gradually climb up over the weeks preceding an event, but don’t ever drop. “If there are unsold tickets left in the end, we just won’t sell them. It’s a confidence game we have to play with attendees,” he says.
- Dogfooding: in large companies like Microsoft and Google, dogfooding refers to employees using the company’s products as a sign of belief in their capabilities. Often it also means learning how to solve problems internally, before bringing customers into the equation. Surprisingly for a small startup, HasGeek manages almost all aspects of their events in-house. “We’re vertically integrated, right from hiring of venues to marketing to decorations to recording & production to access control. At first we did it to discover the true cost of doing these in-house, but over time we realized we can produce the kind of quality no vendor could,” says Jonnalagadda. HasGeek’s in-house technology includes a Rs.1.5 lac lecture recorder; NFC attendee badges & scanners that do away with the need for visiting card exchanges at sponsor boots; and custom code for managing events online.
- Freemium: Coming from the world of software engineering, Jonnalagadda realizes he cannot keep on adding more employees to generate more revenue. So his idea is to also create easy-to-use tools like interactive websites or DIY recorders for the tech community that can be rented from HasGeek. BVP (Bessemer Venture Partners) organized a ”Hackathon” for over 200 developers in Bangalore featuring companies like LinkedIn, Sendgrid and Twilio using our software,” says Jonnalagadda. Though the revenue potential from such activities might be limited, over time they can become a steady source of paying customers for HasGeek’s bigger events.
Jonnalagadda says HasGeek’s goal to organize an event at the scale of Google I/O, Google’s annual flagship developer event, “which sets an agenda for the world.”
Of course, he still has a long way to there. Self-funded till now, the company delayed their financial break even to 2014 in return for capital investments in technology and operations. “We talked to some VCs informally, but they were skeptical about B2C (business to consumer) events and asked us why we weren’t do B2B (business to business). I guess it’s a bit of herd mentality,” says Jonnalagadda.
True. But that is the eternal plight of a geek, isn’t it?