Eric Norlin: ‘The Zealous Conference Founder’ Tells His Story. Part 1/2

19 Aug 2010 in Interviews

How many times have you read a blog post and been inspired? Have you ever come across a particular blog post and had the thought, ‘this topic could be something bigger, I bet I could make a conference out of this’? Well, Eric Norlin has. More than once. Eric is a zealous conference founder (he’s founded 3 conferences: Defrag, Gluecon, and Blur) and a dedicated blogger on technology who has worked with the likes of Brad Feld and the Foundry Group. He has been featured in BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, CNET and NetworkWorld. His story is different, and his passion for creating things of value is unmistakable. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Eric about his unique story. This is what he told me (you can read part 2 here).

If you are thinking of starting your own conference, or just want to learn how to get the most out of the next conference/event you go to, then I am confident you will find something valuable from this interview.

1. What is the story of your career, how did you get your start in technology?

Okay – the long version:

My dad bought a Commodore when I was a kid – though I’m not sure if that was my start or not. I got my bachelor’s in South Asian studies from the UW-Madison (Sanskrit, Buddhist Literature, etc.), and was approached by a few government agencies about working for them. I turned them down and went to Grad School instead — but ended up leaving that and working for the government anyway (I was a crypto-type for the US Navy; working for the National Security Agency).

Post-that, I became a stock-broker. I got into that because I LOVED the stock market, but what I discovered was that I was actually a really good salesman. But trading tech stocks was my thing. In late 1999, I told my clients the markets were too crazy (JDSU was gaping up 20 points every morning; it was stupid), advised them to go to all cash or government bonds, and walked away to get into consulting around technology stuff (whatever the hell that meant).

Eventually, I wormed my way into knowing Chris Locke (co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto) — mostly just by being incredibly annoying. After getting to know Chris, he helped me land a position working on a website called Personalization.com (think Amazon’s recommendation algorithm) for a guy named Steve Larsen (then VP at Net Perceptions). Steve was throwing “Personalization.com summits” – and that was really my first exposure to tech conferences.

One of the great things about that time was that Steve and Chris introduced me to *everyone* they knew (and they knew everybody). The bulk of my “rolodex” got built because Steve and Chris were so gracious with their social networks. One guy that Chris introduced me to was Doc Searls (his co-author on Cluetrain).

Later on (after that gig ended), Doc emailed me one day and told me about this guy that I had to meet in Denver (where I lived) who had started Jabber and was now getting into “digital identity.” That guy was Andre Durand. Andre and I met, talked, liked each other — and I ended up getting involved in 2 startups he was doing…..1) Ping Identity (where I was employee #1 and VP of Marketing) and 2) Digital ID World (aka, “DIDW” — a tech conference on digital identity).

Ping and DIDW were my life for years. And they taught me startups and the energy, madness and passion that’s required. I could spend hours going over what I learned at Ping, etc.

In the course of all of that, I met Phil Becker (who was also a co-founder of DIDW) — who would later become a true mentor to me around business, conferences, etc.

Eventually, Ping landed angel funding, series A, series B, etc. and DIDW *blew* up (from nothing to 70 vendors, 700+ attendees, etc.) — so much so that it just made sense for us to sell it. So we did.

In the summer of 2005, IDG acquired DIDW, and I walked away from my role of VP of Marketing at Ping Identity (moving to a beach in FLA). I spent most of my time either working on DIDW post-acquisition, or working as a contractor for IDG — where I worked on events like LinuxWorld, and started events like SaaScon (which runs under the ComputerWorld brand).

Once I began to recover from some serious startup burnout, I began getting the itch to start something on my own again. About that time, I read a blog post by Brad Feld around a topic he was calling “intelligence amplification.” I’d met Brad just briefly years earlier when Andre and I pitched him on Series A funding for Ping (he turned us down). I sent him an email and told him I thought his post would make a good conference and it should be called Defrag. Brad responded by saying that he hated conferences, but thought it was a great idea.

And Defrag was born.

Defrag’s now entering year 4 – and we’ve had such fun with it that we’ve started Gluecon and now Blur.

When I look back on it, I realize that I’ve now been running/involved with tech conferences for over 10 years. I never set out to be a tech conference guy — it really just all happened.

2. How did you go from reading a blog post by a renowned venture capitalist to launching several successful conferences? What happened in between?

You can actually search on Brad’s blog and find the whole sordid history. Brad and the gang over at Foundry Group are “thematic investors” — which is to say that they have themes that they’ve identified as transformative over the next 10/15 years, and that determines their investment focus.

One of the themes Brad was blogging about way back when was something he was calling “intelligence amplification.” The basic idea was that we’re just dealing with SO much data, and everything we’re doing (including installing things to deal with data) is generating data at a greater volume and velocity. “Intelligence Amplification” was the idea that you could build software that would assist in our ability to deal with that data.

I really liked the idea.

A good conference shouldn’t be just focused on one niche (IMHO) — rather, it should take a really large idea that sits at the intersection of a bunch of niches and explore it. Brad’s blog post had a kernel of that. By focusing on “data” and the tools we’re building to deal with it, we could talk about niches as diverse as enterprise 2.0, collaboration, semantic web, big data, business intelligence, analytics, etc. Further, it allowed us to constantly be evolving the idea/conference — one year we might focus on enterprise 2.0, the next on social media, the next on the intersection of social and BI, etc.

How’d it all get started? I emailed Brad. I guess he knew me somewhat (from the failed pitch I mentioned before), and I’d been around blogging, raising hell, etc. for a while. Plus, I had the DIDW win/experience under my belt — so my “we should start a conference” idea was pretty low risk (relatively speaking). We kicked it back and forth via email and phone for a while until we were both comfortable with what we were trying to do, I pulled in my former DIDW partner Phil Becker, and we were off……

Defrag was born.

The tagline just came naturally — so much data, increasing volume and velocity, we need tools to deal with it……what we’re really looking to do is to gain *insight* on data *faster* — to “accelerate the ‘aha’ moment”……stupid, but catchy.

Now, running a conference is no small feat, especially when it’s done by two people (me and my wife, Kim)…..but I can get into that later.

We ran defrag a few times, decided it was working well, and the launch of Glue just came naturally. Now Glue’s off and growing, and the launch of Blur comes naturally (though Blur is radically different from Defrag and Glue)……

3. Brad Feld is a well-respected Venture Capitalist (Foundry Group) and widely read blogger. As the story goes, you pitched your startup to him and he rejected the opportunity to invest in you. How did you stay on his radar and evolve your relationship with him to the point where he is now a highly involved partner in your conferences?

Honestly, I didn’t. ;-)

Brad and I met once, maybe twice (over a 10 year period) prior to starting Defrag. As I mentioned, he turned down Ping Identity for funding — and really, Brad was running in pretty different circles from me back then. He was doing the Mobius Venture Capital stuff, and I was hanging out (for the most part) with Chris Locke, Doc Searls, etc. (i.e., “Internet Marketers,” not Venture Capitalists).

So, I’m not sure if I stayed “on Brad’s radar” (you’d have to ask him). What I did do was go to work….i.e., I put my head down and worked my ass off on Ping Identity and DIDW — for years.

Back then it was all really just Andre (Durand – Ping’s CEO), Bryan Field-Elliot (CTO and co-founder of Ping), and me on the Ping side of things; and Andre, me and Phil Becker on the DIDW side. And we *worked*. Like dogs. 90 hour work weeks were the short, easy ones. It was pretty crazy, and heady, and fun. Andre would be in CA trying to do some fund-raising, and he’d call me and say, “this whole identity theft thing is gonna really help drive Ping; we need a whitepaper; write one” — and I’d sit down that day and crank out a 25 page whitepaper on identity management and identity theft.

I’m getting a bit off track here — what I mean to say is this: I never concerned myself with staying on people’s radar, or “making a name” for myself — I just went to work. Tirelessly. Endlessly. With Passion. For YEARS.

In 2005, I lifted my head up, sold DIDW, moved to Florida and discovered just how tired I was. I actually thought I was depressed when I first moved to Florida, until I realized I wasn’t depressed. I was burnt out – and really, really tired.

By the time I got around to talking with Brad about Defrag, I’d really grown-up as a person and entrepreneur. I remember a conversation with Phil Becker (in 2005), where he said, “that’s it. you’re ruined.” To which I replied, “ruined for what?” And he said, “you’ll never be able to work for anyone else again.” It was true. I turned around one day and realized that I’d rather have the extreme highs and lows of startups, than the (false) security of a “job.” I mean, shit, what’s life for if not for risk-taking? ;-)

Asking Brad to start Defrag with me just seemed natural when it happened, and I guess I kinda figured, “well, if he says ‘no’ – I’ll just go do something on my own anyway.”

Beyond that I’d say that working with Brad (and all of the guys at Foundry Group) has been great. They’re approachable, fun, human, humble, hard-working, entrepreneurs. And, I think like most really good VCs these days, they take an explicit attitude that anyone who wants to pitch them on anything should contact them. They WANT to hear from people. They’re not sitting behind some wall, collecting management fees, picking out their next luxury auto — they really do wanna get down in the mud and build companies.

4. From mega-corporations like Microsoft to startups like Gist, how did you go about securing so many great sponsors?

Short answer: hard work.

Longer answer: I sell.

Running a tech conference really isn’t rocket science (or brain surgery, or, for that matter, rocket surgery ;-) — it really is just nuts and bolts hard work.

Now, granted, I’ve built up a network of contacts over the past 10-12 years, but more than that landing sponsors is about good sales discipline.

Every week, I have set goals of:

A) outbound sales emails
B) sales calls
C) follow-up emails
D) X dollars in revenue (I track my revenue on a weekly basis, as that gives me a good hard “push” for the week, and makes failure easy to define — successful week, you sold something; failed week, you didn’t.)

…all of which I track in a fairly standard “weighted pipeline.”

Roughly six months prior to a conference, I finalize the amount of “inventory” (i.e., number of sponsorships at each level), and begin selling. I’ll normally send out 30-50 “sales emails” every week. Those emails lead to sales calls. Those sales calls lead to follow-ups. Those follow-ups turn into contracts. Once we get within three months of a show, I’m normally doing anywhere from 3-5 sales calls per day.

The “sales pitch” itself is something I’ve worked on over time, but, in truth, I really just enjoy it. When I first became a stock broker, I had this vision in my head of “sales guys” as something akin to a stereotypical used car salesman. I didn’t want to be that. What I came to realize was that A) if you’re delivering value, you’re not a used car salesman and B) I really enjoy closing sales. Now it’s to the point, where closing sales is one of my most favorite parts of the work week.

And really, the process isn’t any different from selling software, or fundraising (for example).

One last bit that helps: we’re a “mom and pop shop” — ie, my wife and I run the shows. It’s not a team of 12 with management to answer to. I’m the final authority. All responsibility lands on me. As a result, I have tremendous latitude to structure sponsorship sales however I need to — and I think that helps a lot of startups come on board for our conferences.

Bottom-line: I’m a startup guy. I love working with startups. I love building sponsorships for them that can help them to achieve their goals. The only real frustration around selling is when I *know* I can help a startup and they just can’t wrap their head around it.

Lastly, if you set out to sell something remember this: your job begins at “no.” I was told this by the COO (Bob Smith) that was brought into Ping and it had a lasting impact. Selling is not order-taking. When someone says “no,” your job as a sales guy is to find out *why* they’re saying no, and then address that underlying issue in such a way as to get to “yes.” If all you wanna do is hear “yes,” then you’re not selling, you’re taking orders, and you should probably go get a job at McDonald’s (that’s where they hire order takers).

*****To Be Continued Tomorrow*****

Many thanks to Eric for working hard in producing all of his detailed answers, and also a big hug to my friend Michael Benidt for the initial introduction to Eric! If you want to catch the 2nd half of my interview with Eric, where he will share some secret tips for organizing a killer conference, then read part 2 here.

What is your favorite conference? Is there anything you wish I had asked Eric?

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  • http://www.CareForYourProperty.com George Exley

    John – great article! Eric is very candid and clearly energetic in his approach. I don’t blame him for getting “burned out” and “tired”. That was a lot of work, and yes the highs and lows can wear one thin. But the fun and reward along the way can pay off. Just remember family and friends, in the end, are the largest rewards. Keeping that focus sharp, have at it guys (and gals)!

  • http://JohnExleyOnline.com John Exley

    Dad, it is so awesome having you comment on my blogs! I’m glad you enjoyed Eric’s interview, I think you guys would probably enjoy chatting as he is very much a hard worker like you and also a good people person it would seem. I agree wholeheartedly with you about family and friends…those truly are the largest rewards and essential for “true” fulfillment, I think.

  • http://invinciblemind.com/19/how-to-set-goals-in-3-easy-steps/ How to set goals

    Whenever you like to be pushed to achieve your ambitions, Ensure that everyone around you know about your personal improvement goals so that there’s sufficient public pressure on you on a consistent basis. Reporting to them would make you think twice about letting go of your goal .~ Margene Gergely

  • http://JohnExleyOnline.com John Exley

    Nice quote…thank you. Mark Suster says similar things on his blog ‘Both Sides of The Table’ quite often, how he performs the best when he has committed to doing something for someone else. Glad to have ya stop by my new site!

  • http://twitter.com/wildwomanfund Mazarine

    As a conference organizer, I have to say, I was intrigued to read what Eric Norlin had to say. I raised $45K with a conference/job fair in 2009, and raised $.25M for a dinner in 2008. I look around at the different conferences that happen in my sector, fundraising/ art, and I think, how could I do it better? It’s easier to do a conference if you’ve got the experience behind you to make it work. And you’re right, it is work. You’ve got to get on the phone, call, email, make the followup happen to get the relationships you need for the money you want.

    Good questions John.

    Mazarine
    http://wildwomanfundraising.com

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com/ JohnExley

    Mazarine – I’m glad you got something out of my interview with Eric. The guy is a pure hustler. Brad Feld writes about his conferences all the time…I’m constantly seeing him (Brad) mention Blur, Defrag, and Glue in his posts. I love that hard workers like Eric take the time to share what they’ve learned with others so we can all think creatively about how to get better, how to apply the lessons he’s learned in our own projects.

    Meanwhile, thanks for sharing your own experience with organizing conferences! Are you planning a big conference for 2011? I hope you’re able to take some of the insight from Eric and use it to build a super killer conference. Please share what you’re up to in the comments here so I can help to get the word out about your conference…maybe we can even do an interview together!

    Thanks again for your comment and it’s reassuring to know that you liked my questions. Have a great Sunday my friend!

    - John X