Changing Business Through The Unconference

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Attending a business conference is one of the best ways to both grow your business and network, learn and connect with your peers.

But in a post 9/11 world, travel has become complicated, expensive and time consuming. Also, with the advent of the Internet and new communications technology, finding out about the latest and greatest in your industry no longer waits for that once-a-year junket to Las Vegas to walk the conference floor and soak in the glory of your competitor’s brochures, knick-knacks and breath mints.

As someone who attends conferences regularly and helps organize them as a volunteer, I can personally attest to the trials and tribulations of constantly having to uncover and provide the best of the best when it comes to speakers. It’s a struggle to create an event where everyone from the organizers to the participants feels that the money is well spent.

Enter the unconference.

An unconference is a self-organizing event where a handful of interested people decide to hold a meet-up.

One of the first kinds of unconferences was called BarCamp where people in Silicon Valley decided to come together to discuss technology. This handful of people set-up a wiki (a wiki is a webpage that anyone can edit – check out Wikipedia if you’ve never seen a wiki in action). Without much else, the community (that would be you and me) takes over. Everything is a blank page as we self-organize.

If you want to attend, you add your name to the wiki. If you want to make a presentation, you add the topic, time and your name. If you want to help out by sponsoring to cover costs… well, you get the idea.

No one ever just "attends" an unconference. The spirit of it is that we are all equal, able to share our knowledge or help in any which way we feel will best serve the community.

You might be shaking your head at this point thinking this is all a little too much "kumbaya" for your liking, but trust me: unconferences will change the way you think about business.

On Sept. 8, 2006, I did something I had never done before. I got in my car and drove from Montreal to Boston to attend the first-ever PodCamp. This was an unconference geared towards people interested in Blogs and Podcasting.

I wasn’t an unconference virgin – I had already attended a couple of the more tech-oriented ones in both Montreal and Toronto. But this was a real leap of faith.

According to the wiki, over three hundred people were supposed to be converging at Bunker Hill Community College (the same school where they filmed the movie, Good Will Hunting). But what if nobody showed? I didn’t buy a ticket; and there was nobody to call if there was a problem. It was self-organized!

Sure enough, almost everybody who registered showed up and the sessions were incredible. They had titles like Inside a Pre-Launch Startup New Media Company, Hollywood 3.0 – The Challenge of Video-Podcasting, The Advertising/Marketing World And Video Social Media: What We’ve Learned So Far and so on.

It was three rooms, two days and more information overload than I’ve experienced at big conferences that I’ve paid thousands of dollars to attend. They even had free t-shirts for attendees. Lifetime friendships and business opportunities were forged.

Unconferences work because everyone attending wants the same outcome: to learn more and share with their peers.

It’s an amazing experience and since PodCamp Boston, similar events have been held all over the world including Germany, South Africa and Ireland.

Two PodCamps have taken place in Toronto and now – for the first-time ever – PodCamp is coming to Montreal.

If you’re interested in the new world of the Web, PodCamp Montreal is happening on Sept. 20th – 21 at the Pavillon de De Design at UQAM. In the interest of full disclosure, I am helping to organize this event, and will also be co-presenting two sessions. One with musician David Usher (the former lead singer of Moist and a multi-million CD selling solo artist) called, The New New Music – Fans, Community And What Business Can Learn From An Industry In Peril, and one with podcaster C.C. Chapman called, Podcasting From The Heart – The Value Of Recording A Show With No Editing And No Second Takes.

PodCamp Montreal is free to attend (but you do have to register by going to and if you’re also interested in presenting or helping out, just hop over to the website for more information.

Vancouver is getting two major unconferences in the coming weeks. BarCampBank is coming to town on Sept. 20-21 at BCIT’s downtown campus. According to the wiki, BarCampBank is a place to "foster innovations and the creation of new business models in the world of banking and finance." So far, there are 65 registered people attending (there is a $35 fee to cover the facility and food costs), and you can find out more information here:

BarCamp Vancouver 2008 is taking place Sept. 26-27 (the venue is still to be determined). BarCamp will have a technology focus, and you can find out more information here:

Even if you’re not fully interested in technology or banking, I highly recommend you check out these events to get a feel for the unconference movement, and a better appreciation of how the business of conferences is changing.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions here:

Montreal Gazette – You Should Attend An Unconference.

Vancouver Sun – Changing Business Through The Unconference.


  1. Thanks to colleague Gary Schlee, and the support of IABC Toronto, we hosted “Talk is Cheap,” an unconference, last fall. With over 100 practitioners and students in attendance, it was a terrific event.
    Centennial College plans to host it again: it’s really a “feel-good-learn-a-lot” way to share information.

  2. great comment and it sparks me to say this: why not share your unconference story here in the comments?
    My guess is that many people are looking at stuff like this for the first time and would live to hear from those who have been, what type of unconference it was and what they got out of it.

  3. Looks like I’ve got to plan a flight to BC or SC. Thanks for the tips.
    Unconference are a thousand time more fun than conference. In conferences you always ended up with the same people because they’re from the company that are ready to spent the money for it. While in unconference you get all kind of people with different background and it’s easier to interact, because you leave you job credential at the door.

  4. This sounds great if you have something to add to the conference.
    But what about for those that are starting out and just want to take in as much info as possible without necessarily adding to the discussions? Is it rude to just show up and take it all in?
    Is everyone expected to “bring it”?

  5. Not at all – you can come to soak it all in too.
    The spirit of it is very community-focused – people are encouraged to do whatever they like. Some people don’t present and just attend… which is perfect 🙂
    I hope to see you there.

  6. So Mitch, can I count you in for BarCampAlbuquerque? Its on September 13th and 14th. 🙂
    The unconference has changed my life. I met so many great people when I attended the first BarCampAlbuquerque, some of which i still work with today. It only takes a day or two to participate so there is no reason for anyone not to attend one. Thanks for promoting the cause Mitch.

  7. Great article Mitch. And thanks for the shout out to BarCampBankBC. I am one of the organizers and we excited that we have so much interest in it. Less than one month to go!

  8. Hi Mitch – these events sound good. I think people relax more in environments that are unstructured. And it makes it easier to share ideas when you’re more relaxed.

  9. Hey Mitch, I’m looking forward to meeting up again with you in MTL! We should get a dinner organized!
    Random thought: Have you considered compiling every single six points of separation into a single document? I’m guessing you may do that in your book, however if not, I think it would be quite valuable. In fact, I was thinking of creating a wiki based on exactly all of your “six point” lists , to which people would be able to add items freely. Thoughts?

  10. Mike, I am actually going to be doing Blog versions of my Six Points of Separation with more in-depth commentary as a new Blog feature.
    So, it seems like your random thought is exactly what I was thinking as well 😉

  11. Of course, there is a critical mass of “peers” necessary for an unconference. The idea flourishes when there are enough people with enough different perspectives to make “conversation” a more effective way to share information than “talks.”

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