First we take Boston… then we take Berlin

For those of you who don’t know about the MaRS Experience!Tech 2008 event, here’s the pitch.

This event brings you two great events under one roof. We’re broadcasting the plenary sessions and keynote live from IDC’s annual Directions Conference in Boston, combined with local and U.S. tech superstars featured in our MaRS Master Class panel sessions in Toronto. These sessions will cover six individual tracks of content across key IT sectors.

Add to that the opportunity to engage with promising tech companies selected to demo in the Experience!Tech 2008 Showcase area and top it off with Tom Kelly from IDEO in Palo Alto closing out the day with a blockbuster keynote. It all comes together on March 19 at MaRS. More information on the event can be found on our Experience!Tech 2008 site.

As we move into the home stretch of planning this event, we are continually reminded by colleagues and friends in the tech community about what we need to achieve with such an event. A contemporary example of best practices we can all be inspired by is DemoCamp.

Ask anyone who attended DemoCamp17 this past Monday what they thought of it and they will tell you lots of good things. What organizers David Crow and Jay Goldman and their band of merry coders have built is nothing short of extraordinary. DemoCamp is all about smart creative class people who are empowered by technology and really want to change the world.

The seemingly casual yet tightly scheduled DemoCamp format has all the featured talent and audience interactivity that great events need at the core to be successful… with a measure of irreverence and cheekiness thrown in. As the night came to a close this week, I was one of hundreds of people from all walks of life — coders to corporate suits and venture capitalists — who left the room inspired and energized. Technology event organizers in this town could really learn a lot from the DemoCampers. A few thoughts…

Lesson #1: Be inclusive. Many events are exclusive, sponsored formats that are often prohibitively expensive for self-funded entrepreneurs. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs who could benefit from events still have student cards. Better pricing options will get more of these creative, talented people in the door. DemoCamp starts its pricing at free. It also shows its appreciation for “community all-stars” who are encouraged to donate a few bucks to help offset costs.

Lesson #2: Be interactive. Simply stated, the formats for many events fail to engage many audiences. They’re often not designed for a deeper discussion of key issues by sector and, in many cases, speakers stick to pre-formatted keynote-style sessions with humongous numbers of PowerPoint slides. Interaction is generally relegated to a few minutes for audience Q&A at the end. The DemoCampers’ No PowerPoint rule is refreshing and the session breaks are well-designed to encourage follow-on discussion.

Lesson #3: Celebrate the Demo. There is possibly nothing more enjoyable (OK, maybe a few things are more enjoyable) than seeing an entrepreneur reveal his or her work to the crowd in a live demo. It’s one of the best ways for the community to celebrate this fine work and learn at the same time what’s being coded out there. Yet there are far too few events that allow for this interaction. Incorporating more mini-DemoCamp components into conferences would help move the development community and the corporate community closer together. Just think about the possibilities for exposing corporate buyers to more Web 2.0 applications and innovative business models.

Beyond the DemoCamp lessons, there is a deeper issue: we need to focus on problems not products. What should really drive innovation? The customer’s problem. All too often, creative brains want to invent. We have an idea that needs code. We want to start pushing products before having a substantial discussion about the customer issues and market trends that generate the real opportunities to connect ideas to income. Once we have this perspective then we should be building the product… Then we do the demo.

We also need to focus more on sous chefs not just celebrities. Event organizers tend to program keynote formats with celebrity CEOs where the focus is drawing a large audience. Given the pace and specialization of tech innovation, many entrepreneurs want to interact with successful innovators who have demonstrated success in sector-specific areas — and functional areas.

Entrepreneurs are often better served by a dialogue with functional experts in product management, development or marketing, who are not necessarily CEOs. These are the talented people at Director or VP levels with deep expertise in key functions of the tech start-up process. These are the people who don’t have a set of conference slides ready to go. Yet they often have the most to impart to the audience. We need to feature them more prominently in conference formats; it’s how we connect this talent to the community and nurture the next generation of great CEOs.

Finally, don’t settle for second-rate content. Get creative and deliver what your audience needs. While there are a considerable number of technology events throughout the year here in Toronto, a frequent complaint from colleagues in the tech community is that the best conferences are found south of the border in hotspots such as the Bay area. Many entrepreneurs need access to the kind of insight delivered by experts who are located right in the market they want to sell to.

Event organizers in Toronto have to find new and innovative ways to deliver first-class content from the speakers we need to hear from without blowing the budget. This is how many of the top U.S. business schools are scaling their MBA and executive education programs – with technology. We must think differently. One solution is to start licensing broadcast rights to top events worldwide, and using broadcast technology to beam the action right into our neighbourhood. Better content, less hassle, lower cost and, bonus, it’s better for the environment.

Boston at MaRS on March 19 could be a great starting point for a whole new conference model. Berlin… we’re coming for you next.