Don't ask me to work for free, a reprise

Back in January, I wrote this LinkedIn post: Don’t ask me to work for free

I talked about a conference that had asked me to pre-write a new talk before they accepted me. Back in January, I had spoken at a lot fewer conferences, and I estimated that I was running about six conferences a year. Heh. I have six talks left to give this year, and that’s about the pace I’ve been on since June.

I decided that this was the year I didn’t pay to speak at conferences, and I haven’t. Well, I have, but it’s more in the range of taxi charges and parking at the airport. I’ve asked for and gotten financial assistance from a number of conferences, including (but not limited to) Abstractions, Pycon AU, LISA, DevOpsDays Tel Aviv, and SeaGL. I’ve also gotten — without asking, or presenting a statement of need — travel and lodging from The Lead Developer, SpringOne Platform, Surge, DevOpsDays Chicago, Nodevember, and APIStrat. I sadly turned down a handful of acceptances

Some of those conferences are big and well-funded, with a company behind them. Some of them are community-run, and the organizers aren’t even getting paid. SeaGL has free tickets, and they still managed to find enough sponsor money to get me to Seattle. (You should come hear me speak!)

There are also conferences that I have chosen not to apply to because they don’t say up front that they are offering a comped admission or travel help. For example, the CFP for OSCON closed last night. Nowhere on that page, no matter how many times I read it, does it say that speakers get free admission. I was pretty sure they did, based on history, but that took sleuthing to find. You could also add to your proposal that you needed financial reimbursement for travel. MadCap Flare has a conference called MadWorld. Speakers get a free pass and 2 nights of lodging for a three day conference. No travel money.

My level of anger about this is directly proportional to ticket price. Alterconf manages to offer free tickets to people who want them, inclusive catering, and payment for their speakers. Community conferences in the $200-$500 range have managed to cover my expenses. But if you are changing over a thousand dollars a ticket and you don’t offer me anything beyond free admission? Please.

I look at this two ways. The first is cost to me. Every day I’m at a conference, I’m not billing. So there’s an opportunity cost that I am willing to accept as my marketing budget for future freelance leads, and as part of being in community. I also spend time I could be billing working up a talk, customizing it to the conference, practicing it, all that stuff. Giving a talk costs me about $1000 in lost income.

The second is cost to the conference. For a domestic flight and a couple-three nights of hotel room, it will cost about $1000-$1500. It can be done more cheaply with good management (which takes time), but let’s use $1500 as a scenario. That’s what it will cost you for me to get to your city, get enough sleep, deliver a kick-ass talk, network, mentor, and participate. A typical conference runs two days, and has 10 slots a day. 20 slots by however many tracks there are. If it’s a single-track conference with 200 attendees (I’m making the math easy for myself here), I am providing 1/20th of the content, or 10 attendees worth. You would have to charge $150/ticket to cover speaker expenses. Of course, there’s a lot more overhead than that, like space and food and insurance and advertising and tee shirts*. But also, only a few conferences I go to are single-track, and very few have attendee numbers that low. If you are talking about thousands of attendees, and tickets over $500, I just have no patience for you to be cheap with me. None.

DevOpsDays Chicago managed to fly me in, get me car service from the airport, put me up at a nice hotel, make sure I had all the food I needed, give me a fancy speaker gift, and make custom conference socks — for an Ignite talk. 5 minutes. I ended up doing an unconference session, too, but they didn’t ask for that. If that is possible, if free conferences can pay, if tiny conferences can find me a roommate, then there seems to be no excuse for why expensive conferences can’t do a little more.


*I just put up my swag from Minnewebcon, which was a poster with custom art. Let me encourage other conferences to do this. No sizing problems!

Minnewebcon 16 poster

Heidi Waterhouse

Heidi is a mercenary technical writer and travelling salesperson of better process and product thinking. She loves writing herself out of a job and teaching people to save themselves from future pain.

Upcoming appearances

O'Reilly Software Architecture/Velocity
The Lead Developer London
Full Stack Conference London
Texas Scalability Summit