Once again, for the 7th straight year, I attended EntreFEST. This conference is a valuable tool for people who are both new and established entrepreneurs and I have always supported their efforts. Yes, last year was a bit shaky for me. I wasn't thrilled with a couple of things and I was hoping they would work themselves out this year.
I arrived at around 6:30pm on Wednesday and needed no introduction as I think my reputation got there ahead of me. I needed no "sign in ticket" as I was recognized when I walked in the door. This is a nice feeling and no matter if you've been there 7 years or 2 years, it's nice to be called by name. One thing that I wasn't thrilled about was that this event was held in 4 different buildings. The Sheraton, The Hotel Vetro, The Iowa City Public Library and the Englert Theater. They were actually closer than they looked on the map, but if a person had mobility issues, the theater might as well have been on the moon.
I checked in to the Sheraton and was told my room was poolside. UGH, a fate worse than death. I told them that I'd really wish they could switch rooms and they did. This hotel was fantastic...and I let them know that MULTIPLE TIMES! More on that later.
I then switched things over from Facebook to Twitter...as that's where all the cool kids play. ;-)
Shortly after arrival, they had a reception and drinks and a DJ. (An improvement from Tech Brew the year before.) I was approached by a gal (I think her name was Rachel) who evidentially was in charge of monitoring my good (or bad) mood and told me that she read every Tweet I had from 2013. Wow. She wanted to know how I was doing at that time. I told her that my ears were bleeding from that "Gawd Awful" music that the DJ was playing. I'm sure he thought he was good, but as you could see by the disbursement of people in the room, no one was standing near him because you couldn't talk over the music very well. She then brought over another guy from Decorah and we went back and forth about why EntreFEST always needed to be in Iowa City. He hung his hat on the fact that they had 500 people signed up. I never saw 500 people, but maybe I wasn't looking hard enough. Sure, it's hard to argue with numbers, but I met a number of "students" who got in for half price and very few who had been there for more than 3 years.
I remember a famous quote by a famous Iowa businessman, Bill Krause of Hampton. "I'd rather serve 1 customer a 1000 times than a 1000 customers once." Remember, it costs more to get a new customer than to keep a current one....yeah, they forgot that.
The keynote speakers were all fantastic, from the first to the last. Lydia Brown says that we need more women entrepreneurs in the state. We rank 51st...and they are counting Washington DC. We also learned how whiskey is now a go to when it comes for new business. It was great to hear from both Scott Bush from Templeton Rye and Nate Kaeding formerly of the San Diego Chargers who are whiskey guys and great entrepreneurs.
The breakout classes were also good. Last year I was pretty tough on Josh from a Social Media Company called Sculpt regarding his presentation. I have to admit, he hit a homerun this year. As a matter of fact, he featured my business, The Computer Guy, on his slides and I was humbled and grateful. He didn't have to do that, and as much of a jerk as I was, he shouldn't have even given me the time of day. I think I was a squeaky wheel...but I appreciated the grease.
One nice thing that was a topic this year was the amount of legal advice/help that was offered. From what I could tell, there were 4 different breakout sessions with lawyers, PLUS there was an exhibit booth with a lawyer in it. We overlook this as small business people, until it's too late. I'm glad they had this as a resource.
I went to a nice presentation about Co-Working spaces. Former Sheffield native Mark Nolte was one of the presenters. A LONG time ago, Mark and I worked at KWGG radio together. Now he does work for the Iowa City Economic Development and I'm very proud to have known his family.
Another session I went to was from Nick Westergaard. Nick had a conference in Des Moines once that I was less than thrilled with. In fact, I walked out about 3/4 of the way through it. However, being the nice guy that I am, I wanted to give Nick another shot. Anyone can have a bad day and I'll take the heat and blame myself for that bad day. He did a great job on the topic of being a Scrappy Marketer. I learned a few tips and think that I will go to his 2 day conference in Coralville later this year....as he won't be the only one speaking for 8 hours straight.
The conference was broken down into 5 areas or "tracks" depending on your need and stage of business. 70 classes, over 100 speakers and it was very polished. It was a good comeback from last year in Cedar Rapids, but I will doubt it will beat the conferences in Des Moines or Dubuque -- those were my favorites. I guess I met so many more "life long" friends. I met people here this year, but doubt they will be back again, as from what I can tell it will be in Iowa City again and it will be about getting new people, not retaining the people who'd been there before. There were 2 of us from Hampton there, Brook Boehmler, the mayor of Hampton and also the JPEC director at NIACC. This is a sad reflection, because I know so many more people who NEEDED to be here...and it wasn't about the cost. I think I only collected 4 or 5 business cards and those were from people who I honestly wanted to connect with down the road.
I didn't go to the Dream Big, Grow Here event as I still have a bad taste in my mouth about it and decided to meet a friend for supper downtown instead. I was pulling for Tony Halsted from Rudd, but he finished in 2nd place. The winner of it has a daycare and she will put the money to good use. I heard everyone did a fine job.
Friday morning the conference breakfast was at 7am and speaker at 8am....yeah, that's what I thought too. So I checked out and ran my bags down to the car. The hotel "comped" my parking pass, a savings of $23 and when I went to pay for my breakfast at the hotel restaurant, that was also free, a savings of $13. Like I said, a great place! I was a bit late for the morning keynote, but from what I could tell, I wasn't the only one.
I realize that maybe I can be an ass. I use the work "maybe" loosely, but I want this conference to be the best it can be for all of us who attend. We are ALL in this together as entrepreneurs. I want us all to take what we learn here and be able to use it, not just say, "Oh, well, the theory was great, now what?" I want Chamber Directors and other businesses in our communities to scratch their heads going, "OH, what did we miss out on?" A powerful conference can do that. This one did that for a lot of people! I came back with several good ideas, that's for sure.
All in all, I'd give it an 8 out of 10. The emcee wasn't as annoying, however lunch on Friday failed miserably as we had to scavenge for our own lunch with "like minded" businesses. That could have been done in the hotel with assigned tables as they were all numbered anyway. I actually connect better when I'm at a table and we are eating and sharing ideas. I like sitting with strangers as it gives me a chance to make new friends. I do feel bad the events on the Ped Mall got rained out.
Top 5 things that I would fix....and this will seem like a broken record from last year:
1. Change the Date to not conflict with GRADUATION WEEKEND in Iowa City. This created a room shortage and a lot of other issues. April seems to be a good month, just after the 15tth.
2. Give a discount to Chamber Directors, Development Directors and Main Street Directors. The numbers seem artificially boosted by a college student discount and those kids won't be there next year anyway. At least when I get back to town, my Chamber Director won't think I'm completely nuts.
3. Please, move it out of Iowa City. Rotate the thing back to Des Moines, Waterloo or Decorah -- cough, cough, cough.
4. Solicit to PAST EntreFEST attendees. I got a nice discount (thanks!) because I had attended for the 7th time but there are only 2 of us left. I think there was 1 person there with 6 years, and it isn't much better for 4 or 5 years either. Again, it costs more to get a new customer than it does an existing one. Use that logic instead of the "cell phone company logic" I told them they were using.
5. Bring back the live interviews and video and make part of it "real time." I miss that. I miss "The Brand Chef" and others who made this conference pop in real time.
Again, a LOT was done right this year and I tip my hat to the people who put this on, it's no easy feat. There aren't a lot of conferences lately of this magnitude and it's not priced out of anyone's budget. I look forward to EntreFest 2015.....and don't change it to "Fest 2015" -- It's still about the Entrepreneur!