What's dubbed by the startup, tech, and designer community as the friendliest web conference around (unless you're in Bill O'Reilly's camp)? If you guessed Brooklyn Beta, then you're correct! I had the privilege of attending this year, and can honestly say this is one of the best un-conferences I've been to for the not-so-obvious reasons. I could write a novel as to why, but would rather just encourage you to attend next year if they have it again. So I'll leave you with my top 10 favorite moments.
But first some background. There's three parts this year for Brooklyn Beta. This will help in reading the post when I reference these areas:
- The Main Event: taking place Friday, the last day, at the Navy Yard
- Beyond Beta: Tuesday – Thursday which is different sponsor/partner events around Brooklyn and Manhattan
- Alumni at Invisible Dog: Tuesday – Thursday, we weren’t eligible for these tickets. They sell out too quickly and go out to those who’ve attended previously to purchase first.
And now to the top 10.
Hacking: As the hostess of the Quick Left Hackfest, I always like to see and experience what other tech communities are doing in their hacker/developer spaces. Brooklyn Beta started as a maker community gathering with 300 people, and they didn't forget it when they sold out at 1300 people four years later. I loved that during the conference they hosted a hackathon with The Onion, and shared presentations between the tracks at the Main Event. Plus, who doesn't like to laugh?
One of my favorite presentations, ClickstrBait, pokes fun at all the Upworthy-like sites that use "click bait" – random images paired with ridiculous headlines – to get you to click on a link, and then puts you in an infinite loop of signing up for a newsletter.
Yearbook: Do you remember having your yearbook signed each year?
"Love you like a sister" "I was the first one to sign your crack" "YOLO"
Everyone was encouraged to get other attendees to sign your yearbook. This great icebreaker included everyone's Twitter picture and was separated into Freshman through four-year Repeat Freshman classes by the number of years in a row you had attended the conference–and all for only $5 because of Mail Chimp's support of the event. This fit well with the 'school' theme of the entire event: custom elbow patches they were selling to sew on your jacket on the spot, paper airplanes, and handmade pennant sponsor banners.
Beyond Beta: Though we missed out on Invisible Dog tickets prior to the Main Event, we did get to participate in Beyond Beta. Similar to a Boulder Startup Week feel, events took place all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. It was a great way to not only see the city, but companies like Facebook, Meetup and others welcomed you into their HQs and spoke on various topics. Personally, I loved the willingness to share the ways these companies tackled problems or created internal processes that work for them.
One talk in particular stuck out with MeetUp's Strategy Team for Usability Testing. Not only did they conduct nearly 400 tests a year, they do them on a rig that cost less than $300 – otherwise known as the in-house usability lab. Brenna and Andres openly shared how they conducted their testing with UX/UI changes to how they recruited, moderated and shared results. Things don't have to be complicated or expensive to collect data and make iterative changes along the way.
Seeing the city on two wheels: Not sure how I lucked out with Chris Shiflett cc'ing me on an email with the fellow cyclists attending Brooklyn Beta, but it was a great excuse to pack my bike up and get a ride in the city. Jace, Doc, Charles and others were kind enough to show me around the best way–via bicycle. We also were treated to a cappuccino and croissant at the new Rapha Cycling Club. While I was the only one NOT in Rapha, completely kitted out in my racing team's attire, this ride was the highlight of my experience. Can't wait to return the favor during Boulder Startup Week.
Whiskey Friday: According to the website, 'Whiskey Friday is a notoriously complicated concept: on Friday, drink whisk(e)y.' It started with employees at The Onion who would gather in the Art Director's office around 5 PM on Friday and drink…whiskey. Thus #WhiskeyFriday was born. It's now a network of folks who like to gather with good people, generally but not limited to folks in comedy, media, and technology. On Fridays. And maybe drink whiskey. They often host events regularly in NYC and the San Francisco Bay Area (would anyone like to get one started in Boulder?).
During the conference, they managed to serve hipster communion to all 1300 conference in attendance, sharing a little bit of the NYC/Brooklyn culture with us at the Main Event. I'm not huge on whiskey unless I can dilute it with some soda, water or coke but this…this was a nice touch.
Closing with a comedy show : Definitely wasn't expecting one of MY FAVORITE ARTISTS, Reggie Watts to show up on stage and serenade us with a ridiculous song about the internet. Or Judah Friedlander making a stop on his 'presidential campaign' to explain to the Brooklyn Beta audience his viewpoints on economic reform, wedge issues, and karate. Nothing like ending a long week with a lot of laughter. Coupled with comedic host Wyatt Cenac and many other talented local comics, the organizers and volunteers outdid themselves. Noticing a trend? Brooklyn Beta-ians love to make you laugh (and cry).
Brooklyn community: If you couldn't tell through my twitter accent, I'm a southerner and they're known for being friendly. Business Insider was lying when they said New York was the rudest state, and they clearly didn't hang out in Brooklyn. I even had a construction worker tell me, "smile, you're prettier that way."
I also was blown away by the pedestrian and bike friendliness. Leaving my hotel at 5 AM on my bike to meet the group ride about five miles away, I felt more safe than I do during my daily bike commutes to work. With dedicated bike lanes the entire way and ample amount of light in the dark, cars seemed to pay more attention to me than in the land of bikes–Boulder. And if this world weren't small enough, I ran into a person I knew while on the bike from North Carolina who now lives in Brooklyn
From the architecture, to the eateries, to the style and to the people, Brooklyn seems like an amazing place to hang your hat for a while.
Speakers from different industries: While some of the tracks around the city consisted of industry-specific topics as did the Main Event, the types of speakers brought in were meant to inspire or were people 'making or doing something they love' from industries outside the familiar tech or design scenes. Someone mentioned it's not a Brooklyn Beta unless you are moved to tears, and that happened on more than one occasion during the Main Event.
If you get time, check out Defy Ventures. Defy Ventures transforms the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey. Think MBA program for inmates that transforms their hustle. Catherine Hoke, CEO and founder, bewitched the room. She began her talk with a question that wasn't rhetorical in nature for her as she shared her secrets with a room full of strangers, "What if you were known for the worst thing you've done?" Her honesty, passion and business acumen were clearly evident as she spoke. The best part is she shared her success by bringing three former inmates who are attending the program. All were from broken homes, have been in prison for 15-plus years and had their first brush with the law under the age of 10. Her program actually works: though early to calculate, the program has a 0% recidivism rate while the national average hovers around 70%; nearly 100% of graduates generated revenue in their first eight weeks; and all but two reported profits one year later. If you ever get the opportunity to hear Catherine share her story or get the chance to volunteer as a mentor for the program, do it. You won't regret it. And yeah, I teared up a bit.
Another great story was from a veteran Brooklyn Beta goer, Raul Gutierrez. At the first Brooklyn Beta, he had just lost his job and wanted to do something big and make something he loved. He shared with the crowd his notes from the first BB and a picture, highlighting some of his now collaborators and cohorts. A few years later, Tiny Bop was born and thriving.
So much I'd love to say about this speech, and I wish it were recorded. Very moving. BTW-Tiny Bop owns the kid market for apps in several different countries.
Joe Gebbia, CPO and Co-founder of Airbnb, shared some incredible stories from customers. Also, loved that he touched on the sharing culture in other countries, like Seoul, and how it's taking off internationally. And to think it all started out because they wanted to help MAKE AN EXPERIENCE BETTER and DO SOMETHING THEY LOVED. Again, notice a trend here?
Smiling: Yes, smiling (which you can endorse me on LinkedIn for if you wish). Need to get to know your neighbors? Turn your conference tags around. Sitting by yourself? Someone will come up and sit next to you. Throughout the conference, there were constant reminders about smiling and saying hello to strangers. Even as I walked around, someone would randomly say, "Hi Rachel," as they read my conference tag and thus, sparking a conversation. I found myself doing the same thing, and it makes for a much different experience than other conferences I've attended in the past.
Also, many of the speakers encouraged you to participate with them and with each other in the audience. From creative exercises to sharing something you love, you felt as if you had made 1300 friends before the day was done (I feel like I've said 'love' quite a few times in this post).
Element of Surprise: The only thing I had known coming into Brooklyn Beta was that barring a broken bike or bones, I was going for a bike ride and that the conference had bike valet. That's it. I hadn't seen any emails until I arrived in NY. Even at the Main Event, no one had a clue what was next, who was speaking, or what the 'surprise' was at the end of the evening.
Normally, my type A-personality couldn't handle this type of spontaneity, as I usually plan out every minute of every day three months in advance, but it was worth it if you can't tell from all that was mentioned above. I had ZERO expectations coming into it and the element of surprise blew me away. I mean, who makes smores for a conference of 1300, or sells yearbooks as ice breakers, or sews elbow patches on your jacket for that added professor-like dapperness, or moves you to tears with speakers who you wouldn't typically have the opportunity to hear, shares a glass of whiskey to make you feel a part of the community, or ends the night with comedy and food trucks…and the list goes on.
Helpful hint: If you say you're carrying 'marketing materials' with a smile while checking baggage instead of a bicycle, you don't get charged!
So will I be attending Brooklyn Beta again next year? You bet your sweet elbow patches I will be. And I hope I get the opportunity to share a whiskey and chat with you next year, too.