2014 is the tenth year of our BriForum conferences. With less than a month to go before BriForum 2014 London, Gabe and I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of our favorite BriForum moments over the years.
The Origins of BriForum
I've talked about how BriForum came to be several times over the years, but as far as I can tell I haven't actually published the history on BrianMadden.com.
I trace the origins of BriForum back to the THIN list email list which was popular among Citrix geeks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was a classic listserv operated by Jim Kenzig (of thethin.net|WayBack link), and as I remember it there were thousands of members and hundreds of posts per day. (This was before the days of blogs and web forums.)
At that time Citrix's annual user conference was called iForum. (This is the conference that's now called Synergy.) The members of the THIN List would start talking about iForum in the lead up to the conference, and those of us from the list who were at iForum would all get together at Shula's Steak House at the Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando to meet each other face to face. Those dinners (which typically had 20 or 30 people) were the highlight of iForum for me, and they were probably the first real international "geek" meetings of the Citrix community. (This was even a few years before Alex Jushin started arranging his "PubForum" weekend gatherings in Europe for people who were active in the Citrix.com support forums.)
I remember the THIN list fondly. It's where I first posted, in early 2001, that I was writing a book about Citrix, and it's where I first got to know guys like Ron Oglesby and Rick Mack.
Citrix iForum was much different than today's Synergy conference. Back then the speakers at iForum were only Citrix employees, large customers, and partners, and Citrix had to vet and approve all the content from every session. (I remember my first iForum presentation from I think 2003 where Citrix said that I couldn't say that printing sucked. They made me change it to something like, "Due to the inherent challenges of server-based computing, printing can be challenging.")
Naturally the THIN list gatherings at Shula's would end up with us bitching about iForum. Our primary complaints were that (1) the content was all Citrix propaganda, and (2) the so-called "technical" sessions weren't that technical at all and in fact just thinly-disguised marketing pitches. It was at that dinner in October 2003 that I declared (hastily and after drinking all night) that I was going to make my own conference that would be highly technical and vendor-independent. ("How hard could that be?" I thought.)
We even started kicking around names that night. The Terminal Server Expo. Server-Based Computing World. The Thin Client Expo. Nothing really stuck until someone shouted out, "Brian's iForum should be called 'BriForum!'" Everyone laughed and we didn't think much more about it. (I've given Ron Oglesby credit for that but at this point I really can't say for sure. I know Ron was there though so as far as I'm concerned, the BriForum name was his idea.)
When I got back home I set up a Yahoo Group (remember those?) to start planning, inviting members of the THIN list who were interested to join so we could start kicking around ideas. Where would we hold it? When should it be? Is this even possible? When the topic of the name came up, the general response of the group was, "Dude. You have to call it BriForum!"
The domain was available. Citrix didn't have a trademark on "iForum." The name didn't lock us in to a specific technology. And it was freaking funny. And so BriForum was born!
At that time The Brian Madden "Company" consisted of me (I had quit my job at HP the previous May to become a full time blogger, writer, and consultant), and Nicole (who worked part time keeping the books). Nicole and I kicked around ideas and talked to potential speakers, sponsors, and attendees, and by December we decided to pull the trigger and go for it. We chose to host it in Washington DC because that's where we lived. We started visiting venues and seriously planning logistics throughout 2004 as we continued to do our day jobs and keep our fledgling company afloat.
We quickly realized that we couldn't afford a "real" hotel or conference center which is how we ended up choosing the AFI Silver Theatre, a recently renovated art deco theater that showed movies at night but was unused throughout the day. (Seriously I think we got the entire place for like $1500 a day.) The only "catch" is that we couldn't get in until 5am and we had to be out by 5pm. (That meant that we had to break down the entire conference at 4:45 on Day 1 and then come in early the next morning to set everything up again.)
Planning took an entire year. We did literally everything ourselves. Printing badges. Ordering food. Booking hotels. Arranging thin clients. Designing and printing shirts. Renting tables for sponsors. Figuring out how to post videos on our website. Figuring out how to accept credit cards from attendees and track registrations. Hiring a third-party company to come in an setup WiFi. (Seriously, that was a thing you had to do back then. We got like 5 DSL lines from AT&T brought in just for the two day conference!)
Just about everything was a gigantic pain in the ass. For example, did you know that if you accept credit cards, you actually have a credit limit as to how much you can take in in a month? We hit that pretty early on when we opened registration in early 2005 (Michael Keen was the very first person), which meant that no one could register anymore! (Our merchant processing would decline their charges!) I spent hours on the phone with the bank, ultimately getting them to agree to charge all the cards but that they would hold the money for 90 days! (Apparently they didn't want us to rack up like $20k in incoming charges and then empty the account and flee the country before our customers realized they'd been scammed.) Of course all our vendors wanted to be paid, so I emptied out my savings account, maxed out my credit cards, and offered sponsors serious discounts if they paid right away. (A move which I'm sure instilled confidence in them as to whether this event would actually happen!)
Speaking of sponsors, I want to give a shout out to John Byrne at Tricerat. He was one of the guys I told about BriForum over lunch in early 2004, and he literally tried wrote me a check when we got back to the office! I didn't even know when or where BriForum would be, and I certainly didn't know how much to charge a sponsor. Without him I seriously wonder whether BriForum would have ever happened. (The same thing happened a few months later with Mike Schumacher at Lakeside Software. They were our second sponsor and supported us in a big way.)
It was around this time in early 2005 that I went to dinner with my two best friends in DC, Chris and Emily. I was talking about how hard everything was over beers and how I thought we needed to hire a "real" event planner, and that's when Emily said, "I know an event planner." I said, "Really? Who??" She pointed a thumb at her chest and said, "Me!" We talked a bit about it over the next few days and she joined The Brian Madden Company as Employee #3 (and our second full time employee).
Looking back I can't believe (a) how screwed we'd have been without her, and (b) that she didn't start until about 6 weeks before our first BriForum! I seriously think she worked about 80 hours a week "fixing" everything we'd naively done wrong.
At this time in my life I was already best friends with Gabe. He lived in Omaha and had a real job, but he was a big part of the planning, gut checking my ideas, and providing moral support. He attended that first BriForum and performed his first role as the "fixer"—the guy running around like crazy making sure everything went smoothly throughout the show. (And he had to burn vacation time from his day job to do it!)
BriForum 2005: The Latch Malfunction
After 15 months of planning, the day of BriForum finally came in April 2005. Gabe was staying with me at my house. In addition to Emily, Nicole, Gabe, and me, the BriForum "staff" was my mom, my sister and her boyfriend (lured by the free "vacation" to DC), Emily's husband Chris, my neighbor GK, my friend Allie and her friend whose name I forget but who endeared herself to everyone by passing out (err "falling asleep") behind the movie screen in Theatre 1 the morning of Day 2.
The speaker lineup was the list of everyone I knew in the industry from all over the world who I could convince to come, including Ron Oglesby, Benny Tritsch, Jeroen van de Kamp, Tim Mangan, Rick Mack, Claudio Rodrigues, Doug Brown, Jeff Pitsch, Stefan Vermeulen, Thomas Koetzing, and a bunch of other people I'm unfortunately forgetting now. We got together for dinner the night before which was great because it was the first time that many of us had met each other. Even me. For a lot of these folks I just randomly emailed them based on books they'd written or their reputations online. It was literally, "Hey, I'm making a conference. It's new. Do you want to speak?")
We finished loading a 15-foot Ryder truck at about 11:00 the night before. It sat outside my house packed to the brim with computers, tables, chairs, thin clients, badges, soda (four flat carts from Costco worth), coffee makers, signage, badge scanners, and everything else you need to run a conference. The wake-up call was 3:45am, though in my case I didn't make it to my bed until about 3:00 and I'm sure I didn't actually sleep.
At 4:45 Gabe, GK, and I pulled ourselves into the truck for the short drive to the theater. As we turned off my street (at about 4:46am, 30 seconds into our first conference and 200 feet from my house), we hard a loud "BANG!" from the back of the truck. I instinctively hit the brakes, assuming our impossibly-crammed-in load had somehow shifted, when I noticed in the rearview mirror that something huge, round, and shiny was rolling down the street.
I turned to Gabe and GK to ask them about it. But they weren't there. Their door was open, but they were gone.
I looked back into the mirror and saw the two of them running down the middle of the street, in pitch black, chasing what I later learned was one of our rented coffee urns. I put the truck in park and got out to meet them, wondering how we missed a 15-gallon coffee urn sitting on the back bumper of the truck.
When I got to the rear of the truck I saw how—the rear door was wide open!
The rest of the show was a blur. I left the party early to sleep, and the next day when it was all over and everyone had left, Gabe and I sat on my back deck and smoked cigars. And in a moment I will never forget in my life, Gabe said to me, "Dude, we called it f***ing BriForum!!!"
BriForum 2006: The Fire
The next year we moved BriForum downtown to the National Press Club of Washington DC. The venue is steeped in history as countless world leaders and politicians have given speeches there.
I have always felt that if we can just make it into the first hour of sessions without any major snafus then we would be good to go. The conference can run on autopilot from then on. (This is not a viewpoint shared by Gabe.)
So by lunch I was a bit dismayed when the fire alarm went off. Jim Kenzig stood up, said nothing, and speed-walked right to the exit. Everyone else ignored it.
Eventually the wait staff came in to let us know that we had to evacuate the building. "Ugg, they're making us leave," was the prevailing attitude. The Press Club is on the 12th and 13th floors of an office building in Washington DC, so an evacuation means that we have 200+ attendees walking down the stairwells. We were all horsing around and joking about sabotage from Citrix as we ambled down the stairs. 11...10...9...8...With each floor more and more people poured into the stairwell, and our progress became slower and slower. 7...6...5...The people from the 4th floor streamed in followed by a trail of smoke and the smell of something not right.
Let me tell you there is no better way to instantly wake up 200 geeks than to add fire to a fire "drill." Everyone immediately stopped talking and started marching, left right left right left right until we found ourselves standing on the street, wondering what exactly the hell we were supposed to do now.
It turned out to be a minor fire and we just delayed the rest of the day's agenda by an hour. Unfortunately for the attendees who chose to wait it out in their hotel rooms a few blocks away, there was also a (we assume unrelated) bomb threat at a neighboring building which caused the police to seal off the block. We weren't affected inside the Press Club ourselves, but those who chose to head to their hotels (or the bar, as many did) found that they couldn't get back into BriForum for several hours.
BriForum 2006 Darmstadt
After two successful BriForums in the US, we decided to expand to Europe. Being on the East Coast meant that we got lots of European attendees, but we felt that if we held a separate event in Europe that we could get more people from Europe to attend, and then we could move the US event to be more central to pull more people from the West Coast.
We picked Darmstadt (in Germany, near Frankfurt) because that's where Benny lives. Benny and his wife Tina made BriForum Europe (as we called it at the time) happen in a big way. His company handled all the attendee registration and collected the money, and Benny and Tina found and arranged the venue, hotel, and speaker dinner.
The other thing that Benny brought to BriForum was the concept of "call for papers." For the first two BriForums in the US, I literally hand-picked the speakers myself, mainly because I didn't know the concept of call for papers existed. Today I can't imagine doing a BriForum without a call for papers. It's what gets us the diversity of speakers and helps keep the content fresh.
BriForum 2006 Darmstadt has another important footnote—it's the only BriForum that Gabe didn't attend. He was still working a real job as an IT guy at a freight company, plus it was during his first wedding anniversary and his wife's birthday. So no bobble head for him.
BriForum 2007: A move to Chicago
Let me go on record right now to say that I never lived in Chicago. To this day I meet people who think I'm from there, and I assume that's because we hosted BriForum there for seven years. We picked Chicago because it was in the middle of the US, you can fly in non-stop from anywhere, flights are cheap, and no other IT conferences were there.
BriForum 2007 was also when we introduced the Geek Out Game Show. By this time Gabe had quit his IT job and joined full time. One of his first tasks (after he got us off of Palms and onto BlackBerrys) was to build the Geek Out Game Show set. I think he told me about 200 times, "I can't believe this is my job!"
The Geek Out Game Show set in our official company workshop. (a.k.a. "Gabe's garage")
Since 2007 was our first year in Chicago, we rented a storage area to store our ever-growing list of equipment we needed to run the show. Transferring everything from the storage area to the truck took several hours, so we decided to do that the day before load-in so we could get to the venue bright and early.
But doing so poses a challenge: Where do you store a rental truck full of high-tech and very critical equipment in downtown Chicago overnight so it doesn't get jacked? You take a page from closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark and drive that fully-laden truck right back to the rental lot and park it amongst the others for the night. :)
There are $50,000 of TVs & Computers in one of these trucks
After 2007 Chicago, we had BriForum 2007 in Amsterdam, and then again in Chicago in 2008. TechTarget acquired us towards the end of 2008, so starting with BriForum 2009 the conferences were run by TechTarget and not us. So at this point the stories involving sleep deprivation end. (Well, at least for Gabe and me.)
BriForum 2011: Bobbleheads!
I'm not sure exactly when this idea came to me, but I definitely had the thought in the 1990s, "If I ever make a conference, I'm going to buy custom bobbleheads for all the presenters." (I have similar plans for what I'd do if I ever become President of the United States, a city bus driver, or a flight attendant.)
It turns out that custom bobbleheads are somewhat expensive, so it wasn't in the cards for that first BriForum in 2005. But for our tenth one, TechTarget gave us the okay to make bobbleheads for the five presenters who had presented at all ten BriForums. (Benny, Ron, Tim, Jeroen, and me.)
It was a total surprise to them. (Assuming they weren't suspicious four month prior when Gabe asked them each for a series of high res photos of their heads taken from several different angles.) The bobbleheads turned out great and really looked like each of the presenters. Except for Tim's. Tim's bobblehead did not just look like him. It was him. Seriously, if you shrunk Tim Mangan down to be six inches tall, that is what you would get.
Bonus points if you noticed Big Tim & Little Tim's coordinated outfits
BriForum 2013: The Butter Knife
I'll let Gabe tell you why we call this BriForum "The Butter Knife" in the comments.
Seriously, it was a butter knife.
I'm not sure what I was expecting BriForum to become when we first started kicking around the ideas in 2003, or that it would last ten years and that we'd have videos of over 500 sessions online. What made BriForum successful ten years ago is what makes it successful today—the amazing community of speakers, attendees, and vendors who gather once a year to really try to figure out what the heck to do in this industry and how everything works.
What are your favorite BriForum memories? Share them in the comments!