How SupConf went from an idea to a customer support conference
Scott Tran, one of the main organizers of SupConf and founder of Support Driven, and I have been doing monthly coffees for almost two years. Over our usual Philz orders, we would exchange ideas, opinions and suggestions: his from from a product and support perspective; mine from HR and culture. One of the most memorable collaborations resulted in me making drastic changes to Olark’s new hire onboarding process and sharing those ideas with the Support Driven community.
During one of these coffee collaborations Scott asked me a simple question, "What do you think about Support Driven doing a conference?" Thus started a year long journey of seeing this conference grow from an inkling of an idea to SupConf 2016, a conference for support professionals. Before the conference happened on May 23 and 24, Scott and I chatted again to revisit how this vision has come to fruition.
Note: Interview edited for length and flow.
Kimberly Bringas (KB): What inspired SupConf?
Scott Tran (ST): The idea was 'driven' by the Support Driven community. Members of the community weren't happy with the conferences that were currently available. They felt we could do a better job creating actionable content for professional growth, and making an environment where everyone felt comfortable and included. So various Support Driven members started asking, "Hey, can we do a conference?" That was all the spark we needed.
KB: And so a conference was born. How then did you come up with the theme for this innaugural conference?
ST: The theme was inspired by actual conversations within the Support Driven community. A lot of our members were wanting to move ahead in their careers and remain with their current companies, but didn't have a clear support career path to achieve this. So we decided to focus on "a career in support" for our theme.
KB: That's probably why there is so much buy-in from the community - you're addressing actual concerns. At Olark right now we're facing the same question - how do we give our Customer Support team the opportunity to develop and grow? It's unrealistic to think someone will just stay in the same role forever - people want to progress in their careers!
ST: Exactly, so we focused the whole round of talks on the issue of career growth, from the perspective of an individual looking to advance, but also from the perspective of a manager/leader who wants to provide the opportunity to grow. All talks tackle our theme from different angles.
For our speakers, we're trying out a talk development program. Each speaker is given a mentor who helps them develop their talk to make sure it resonates with our attendees. I’m excited for all the speakers, since I’ll get to see how our talk development program has worked out for them.
KB: That's cool, I hadn’t heard about talk development programs before. What other aspects make SupConf unique from other conferences?
What is SupConf?
SupConf 2016 is a brand new conference series targeted at customer support professionals. SupConf will be a place for support professionals to see how they can develop their own careers as well as take home best practices to their support teams. Can't make it to San Francisco? That's ok! You can get the videos :)
ST: SupConf is unique because it was conceived by the support community and is now being driven by that same community. Because of that we are prioritizing attendee experience. For example, we have sponsors, but we are focusing on how we can work collaboratively with our sponsors to enhance the attendee experience instead of sacrificing it for the benefit of the sponsor.
One of things I’ve loved is our sponsors' enthusiasm and willingness to contribute to the conference in ways that will make it better for attendees. It is kind of like a potluck where they are offering things they think we need. An example is our sponsor scholarship program. The idea behind our scholarship sponsorship was a "you buy a ticket you give a ticket" concept. We have several people coming who wouldn’t have been able to attend if it wasn’t for the free ticket provided by a sponsor. This helped us broaden our audience and mix up the types of companies and people coming to the conference.
We've also put a lot of thought into setting attendees up to have interesting conversations. We’re designing the conference so attendees will meet a ton of people and provide the chance to create long term connections. Making human connections is, to me, one of the biggest reasons to attend a conference. Your learning doesn’t just end here - the connections you make can help you throughout your career.
(Some of the many smiling faces you can expect to see at SupConf 2016.)
KB: What aspect of the conference are you MOST excited about?
ST: For me, it's finally getting to meet so many Support Driven members I’ve been talking to online, sometimes for years, in person. A LOT of the attendees are from outside the San Francisco area (where I live), so this is the first time I’ll get to meet them face to face.
KB: I understand you’re trying to limit the number of participants. Why?
ST: I’ve been to conferences of all sizes, from 50 to 5,000. What struck me is how much more fun I had at the smaller events. When there are fewer people, everyone just seems more willing to talk and interact with each other. I knew from the beginning I wanted to keep it small to make a better attendee experience. We’ll experiment and try out different sizes to find the sweet spot, but long term, we want to continue to keep it small.
KB: You're hosting this event at the Automattic offices in San Francisco. Tell me about the conference space. Is there a story behind it?
ST: We had a fair number of Automatticians in the Support Driven community, and I've known most of them for a while. Because of the personal relationship we had with Automattic, they were willing and interested to offer their space. When they did, that's when things got real because when you get a space, you get a date too and that's when SupConf went from an idea to, "this is happening!"
The people from the Support Driven community stepping up has been the key to making this conference happen. If you think about it, it sounds weird for me to say, "Hey, I hang out with 200 support people online, let’s do a conference." That would be ridiculous to most people. However, the community wanted it enough to offer to help and drive it. When we blew past our original kickstarter goal by 500%, it felt like it validated our decision and our efforts to put this on. We knew we were on the right track when people were like, "Here take my money."
KB: I’m feeling the enthusiasm for this event and am looking forward to see it in action. After this event, what is next for SupConf?
ST: Part of the challenge of any event is how to keep people coming back. What is going to make it worthwhile for people to go twice or three times, and why should they come back again after that? Our Support Driven Slack channel gives us a slight advantage here. The conversations that happen in Slack provide us with a read for future needs, and drive the programming for future events too.