Posts from the ‘Management’ category

Greg Wilson has just posted his 3 rules for supervising student programming projects. Since he’s been running very successful student projects for years, it’s not surprising to see that his article is packed full of insights into what makes a project work, and the pitfalls ready to swallow up the unwary.

If you generalize Greg’s rules just a bit, they apply much more widely than to programming projects. For example, in my own undergraduate physics education I did several projects where the goal was to do a small piece of original research and write it up or present it in a talk, and I watched many colleagues attempt their own projects. Those whose supervisors obeyed Greg’s rules were generally the most successful and least angst-ridden for the students.

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Rule 1: Spend as much time on logistics as on content

Most events run by amateurs are “amateur” because they fall down on details. They have a great idea, or a great speaker, but the event turns out mediocre because the sound system doesn’t work or because there’s no parking nearby. It’s more fun to focus on the big stuff, but getting the little stuff wrong will kill you just as dead as getting the big stuff wrong.

Now, it might seem like you need a lot of money to pull off professional logistics, but you can make up for a lot by investing time and effort in the details. Take A/V as an example. It helps to have the cash to pay experienced A/V people, but you can ensure things go smoothly by communicating with presenters well in advance about their tech requirements, arranging enough time for a thorough tech check before the audience arrives, setting up a simple back-up system, etc.

The best piece of advice I can give is to imagine your way through the event, blow-by-blow, examining each potential failure point and eliminating it if possible. For example: I was once helping organise an event with 3 performances and a party on a boat. To prepare for this complex event with extremely tight constraints, we worked our way through the day, taking detailed notes on actions, and circling back as necessary:

  • First, we arrive at the boat to set up. How early can we arrive? We should check that with the boat operator. It should be at least 4 hours early. OK, X will check on that.
  • Wait, what needs to be picked up before we go to the boat? How long will that take?
  • OK, once we arrive at the boat, what should be set up first? Where will the performances be? What furniture is needed? What needs to be plugged in? How many plugs will we need? Do we need extension cords? How many? How long? What if you’re missing a piece of equipment?
  • What if it rains? What if people are late? What if…..

We did this for several hours, weeding out problem and problem.

Next, imagine the event from the perspective of your different stakeholders. What will it be like for your presenter? Will they have rushed to the event from somewhere else? Are they likely to be hungry? If so, have some fruit or granola bars on hand. What about your sponsors? What do they want to get out of the event? This might lead you to remember that your closing remarks should include a special thank you for their support, or remind you that you need to plan a hanging mechanism for their banner.

One of the best ways to learn to do this is with someone else – preferably someone experienced. Get them to ask you critical questions.

And if you ever catch yourself using the words “I assume” then you have to stop right there and ask yourself what happens if the opposite of X happens. I learned this from the producer for a large festival, who drove me crazy by doing that again and again…. but it was the right thing to do. It’s especially useful in bringing out conflicts over who’s doing what when. For example, at a meeting:

Producer: Who’s picking up the speakers at the airport?
Jen: I assume that would be our shuttle as usual.
Producer: You assume? Who else has plans for the shuttle?
Other person: I’ve already booked it to be on call for the exhibition….
Jen: Uhhh…. right. I guess I’m booking some cars for the speakers….

After your event’s over, if you can’t see flaws in the execution then you are probably deluding yourself.

Rule 2: Spend an hour on promotion for each new attendee

This sounds insane, but it’s not.

It applies most when:

  • Your event is new or changing. Well-established, successful events often have their own promotional momentum through word-of-mouth.
  • You don’t have much cash to promote your event. If you can’t buy ads, you’re relying on friends, colleagues, social media and mailing lists. Suppose you want to promote your event on several mailing lists. For each one you have to find the right contact and craft an email for them, then respond to follow-up queries, often asking for specific formats. Most people won’t send your email out, so if you do this 10 times you might get your message on 3 mailing lists. Response rates are pretty low for such mail-outs. So, that’s an hour’s work for between 0 and a few people.
  • Your event is unusual and needs explanation so that people “get” it. This means you have to tailor your messages for different recipients. “Film festival” is a concept people get across most societal and cultural boundaries. “Unconference” is not.

It’s not as important if:

  • Your event caters directly to a well-defined group of people. “Well-defined” means you can communicate with them through a small number of effective avenues (e.g., their professional association).
  • You’re offering something free that people normally pay for. “Free beer” does not require one hour per person.

Promotion is one of the most striking areas of delusion. First, people overestimate how well-known their organization is, how instantly interesting their event will be to large groups of people, how easy it is to understand, how good their promotional materials are. As a result they do way less promotion than is necessary.

Second, people tend to amazingly overestimate the number of people who actually show up. This is so prevalent it can cause serious disadvantages to people who report honestly. Very common: “the room holds 300, and it looked pretty full, so I’d guess there were 250 people there”. In fact, rooms look “pretty full” at 1/3 to 1/2 capacity. You have to actually count.

Third, it’s tempting to assume that the audience that comes is the one you want. But it’s rarely the case. For example, “public” lectures run at universities often have healthy attendance, but if you look at who’s actually attending, it is often mostly academics from other departments rather than people from outside the university. If the goal is to reach outside, people from inside shouldn’t count towards your attendance. You can easily make a very rough assessment of the audience demographics by (1) estimating the range of ages, genders, job-types, and so forth; and (2) by talking to random audience members before or after.


  • Track the hours you spend on promotion, the number of emails you send, etc.
  • Set up a registration site, even for a free event. The conversion between registrations and attendances can vary a lot, but if 0 people sign up, you’ll know you have a problem.
  • Accurately measure your actual attendance and estimate the demographics that are relevant to your goal.

Rule 3: Every compromise lowers quality

Insidious compromises arise from conflicts of interest. You’re putting on a lecture about genetics. A university is providing the venue. They want you to feature their top geneticist, but your first choice is the founder of a local bio-tech start-up. You have a conflict between your desire to have the best speaker and your desire to appease your benefactor.

People succumb to these pressures way more than they think because they are usually subtle and easy to argue away: “Now I think of it, it’s better to have an academic rather than a business person because it’s more relevant to students.” I know that I have succumbed often, and I suspect there are even more instances that I don’t know about.

Other sources of such pressures include colleagues who want you to show their work, your own desire to include your friends, and unexamined assumptions (“such and such is famous, so he must be good”). Issues to watch for include anything to do with prestige, money, seniority, fairness (“it wouldn’t be fair to show X’s work without featuring Y’s work too”). Keywords to watch for are “ought” or “should”. You only say things like “we really should include such and such” when you’re reluctant for some reason. Often the reason is that you unconsciously realise that this is not in the best interests of your goal.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Anything that causes you to include certain people or topics for reasons that are not directly related to your goal will damage your event, even though each individual compromise may seem small. The best events are run by people who monomaniacally focus on their goal, and fight tooth and nail against anything that takes away from it.

Here’s some things that help guard against these problems:

  • Be clear on the goal. If it’s a reading series to promote a publisher’s authors, fine. If it’s to bring the best writers to town, that’s different, and the two shouldn’t be mixed up, even if the publisher is paying.
  • Be clear with the people who pay. They have the right to know what you’re offering them, and what you’re not. This helps you stay aware, too. The best idea is to be creative in finding mutual benefits. For example, a public lecture series I ran guaranteed a certain percentage of speakers would be from the university that was paying for it. I could do this while presenting the best speakers possible, because I knew that a fraction of the best people I could afford to bring would in fact be from the university.
  • Cultivate a prickly attitude to content suggestions from people who have agendas. It doesn’t make you popular, but it helps bring the subtle, insidious pressures out in the open.
  • If you have to capitulate, be extremely clear with yourself about the fact that you did so, and why. Tell your family or friends about it or write it in your diary. Cement it into a story so that you know exactly how it happened, and don’t delude yourself out of the recollection later.

Metarule for execution: Stop deluding yourself

You have to be insanely optimistic to start something big or new or creative. But when it comes to the execution, you have to be your own harshest critic. You have to shift from assuming difficulties can be overcome, to assuming everything will go wrong. You have to stop being excited about what’s good about your plan, and focus on how to fix what’s bad about it. That’s the only way you’ll pull off something that validates the insane optimism you started with.


This is the first in a series where I will be asking various people to share their 3 rules for doing something that they do well. This “3 Rules for X” heuristic was developed in conversation with Hassan Masum and Michael Nielsen, and formed the basis for a session Michael and I held at Sci Foo Camp in July 2010.


As Subtle Technologies is growing, we’re creating and upgrading our basic administrative systems. After too many hours of fruitless wading through a wealth of unsuitable options, I have decided to reach out to my network and collect insight from other people running small businesses and not-for-profits.

I’m especially interested in mailing list managers, accounting/book-keeping software, and contact/membership databases. None of that sounds very exciting compared to our core mission (bringing artists and scientists together to do cool stuff!) but without good tools for these tasks we’re spending a lot of time working around inefficient systems and, what’s worse, we lose opportunities to build on our hard work.

Here’s the common threads of what I’m looking for in all these systems:

  • Preferably hosted (since Subtle Tech involves several different people all working in different locations, at various odd hours and on at least 3 different operating systems)
  • Relatively easy to use – no $5,000 training courses just to get up to speed, but it’s OK if it requires a small amount of technical know-how or little learning (say, 1-2 days max)
  • Free or cheap (preferably no more than $100-$200/year) , at least while we’re small (that is, it’s OK to have paid upgrades for thing like more users – if we have 10 full-time staff who need access to the mailing list manager, then we probably have the cash to spend on an upgrade)
  • Import from standard file formats
  • Easy export to standard file formats for back-ups and to keep us flexible for the future
  • Customizable for the needs of a small organization (as a tiny not-for-profit with little cash to spend, we can safely assume that most companies aren’t optimizing their products for us)

As I learn about the best options in the coming weeks, I’ll blog about what I find out.


[This is a post I wrote in 2008 for my previous blog that I’d like to save.]

The question of how to get sponsorship for science-related BarCamps, and events in general, is something I’ve had some experience doing, so I thought I would write up my best understanding to date – my personal, evolving checklist – to share. I’d value any comments and other ideas.

There’s two parts to getting sponsorship: the first is making contact with the companies you’re hoping will support you, and the second is making a proposal that will convince them.

Brainstorming potential sponsors

The first task is to make a long list of potential sponsors:

  • Companies that you and your coorganisers are associated with.
  • Companies that your event’s participants are associated with – participants are often enthusiastic about helping out with an event they feel is important by approaching their employer for sponsorship.
  • Companies with missions that are a natural fit for your event – for example, if your event is aimed at improving scientific literacy, then you might think of makers of scientific toys, publishers of popular science books or school textbooks, local bookstores, and so forth.
  • Companies that have sponsored similar events.
  • Companies that would be well-placed to provide in-kind sponsorship (e.g., the venue might provide their space for free).

In many cases you won’t know who the potential companies are – for example, you’re unlikely to know who employs most of your participants. Go ahead and ask them to suggest who they can help you contact; people are generally glad to do this if they can, and if your request is polite and not pressuring then they’ll be comfortable refusing when they can’t. It’s best if you do this directly and personally rather than by a group email; people are more likely to help if they are personally involved.

Making contact

The most important step is making contact with each company via someone who knows you. In my experience, it’s rare to obtain sponsorship without this contact. (The exception is when you’re applying for an established grant via a formal process. I’m assuming that you’re not doing this.)

Go through your list and, unless you personally know someone to contact in the company, then for each work out someone to give you an introduction. If one of your coorganisers is well-known or senior in their field (e.g., a Faculty Dean, the author of a best-selling book, etc) then they can often help you make contact even if they don’t personally know anybody in the company, simply by writing in support of your event or sending the proposal on your behalf. But the best approach is to find someone who has direct connections to the company in question. (Sometimes your existing sponsors will help you with this.)

Once you have an introduction, in many cases the person will want more information about your event. At this point you need a written proposal, even if you plan to discuss your event with potential sponsors over the phone:

  • A potential sponsor will usually eventually ask for something in writing, especially if they have to convince colleagues. Having a document ready to go is professional, and ensures that you won’t miss the window of enthusiasm.
  • In the course of writing you will almost certainly address issues you haven’t previously thought about, and craft a compelling statement of what your event is about that will help you be convincing when explaining it to a potential sponsor.
  • The written descriptions in the proposal will be reused over and over again – on your website, in a description you send to potential participants or to the media, and so forth.

“Big” and “small” sponsorship

There are two kinds of sponsorship you can ask for, corresponding to different types of proposals: “big” and “small” sponsorship. Small sponsorship is any amount that an individual from a company can easily pledge without a detailed justification or getting approval from higher up – usually no more than hundreds of dollars. Big sponsorship – usually thousands of dollars – requires a formal process or multiple people to sign off on it. Of course the amount that an individual can readily sign off on depends on the company and the individual, but in my experience the distinction between hundreds and thousands of dollars is about right. (An interesting point is that asking for more than a few thousands (tens or hundreds of thousands) doesn’t require a longer proposal to get started – although you may eventually need to supply a much longer document.)

Based on this, assess your list of potential sponsors and see which ones are most likely to be big sponsors or little sponsors.

Writing a proposal for big sponsorship

For big sponsorship you need a compelling case based on a detailed understanding of what the company stands to gain, in the most practical terms possible. Even if the person reviewing your request is deeply sympathetic to your cause, they will have to justify it to their colleagues or superiors, who may be more or less unsympathetic.

Building a compelling case means focusing on the point of view of the company. For example, it’s no good saying that “sponsoring this scientific event will improve scientific literacy” unless you can explain how improving scientific literacy helps the company achieve its mission.

This seems obvious, but in my experience it is easy to lose sight of it in my enthusiasm for something I feel is important. I find that going over my proposal and subjecting every single sentence to the test of asking “what does this mean for the company?” is incredibly valuable. Of course every sentence doesn’t have to directly address the company’s interests (i.e., not every sentence has to end with some variant on “and this will help your company achieve it’s mission”) but they all have to be written from the point of view of the company.

So, how do you determine what this point of view is for a given company? Some companies are very explicit about what they support (usually explained on their website). Other companies aren’t so explicit, but you can usually guess based on their past sponsorships, their mission statement, and how they are trying to position themselves within the market. Of course, speaking to someone within the organisation is often the best and fastest way to get an idea of what they’re likely to support.

To make your proposal convincing, it should be based as much as possible on facts. For example, saying that “contributing to scientific literacy programs is a valuable activity” becomes compelling only if it is supported with a fact such as “similar programs have shown that participants improve their scientific literacy by 20% according to the such-and-such test”. This is especially true when it comes to claims for the benefit that the company will see. If the company’s motivation for supporting an event is to have their brand publicly associated with it, then there should be facts about media coverage for similar events.

A related point is that you should have a well-thought out plan for what you’re going to actively do for your sponsors. Think about the best value you can give them (without, of course, constraining your event or being artificial), and then explain in some detail how you’re going to do this. For example, explain that you will associate their logo prominently on the webpage, at the event opening and closing, and on the event hand-out.

Once you have your arguments and evidence together, make the proposal professional:

  • Make it short (a few pages at most), well-laid out, and check for spelling and grammar. It should read like a good newspaper article, with all the best bits up front and all the boring bits left out.
  • Include a short statement of the gist of the proposal, probably as the opening paragraph: what the event is, why it’s exciting, and its relevance to the company. Use simple, direct language with lots of active verbs and no jargon. Don’t forget to say what, explicitly, your sponsors will receive.
  • Also include a brief budget, even if this isn’t explicitly requested. You needn’t have details down to the individual pens and pencils you plan to purchase – just a rough accounting along the lines of “$X for venue hire costs, $Y for equipment, etc”.
  • Include (very briefly) anything that notably increases the credibility of your plans: e.g., point to the event website if it looks good, note if there will be a board of advisors, and mention your existing sponsors if you have any.

After your proposal has been received, be prepared to answer questions that are skeptical of your goals and plans. For example: “Why is your event going to succeed when several similar ones have failed?” “What do you plan to do if… [insert a bad outcome relevant to your event here, such as bad weather, no turn-out for the opening event, etc]?” “Why do you need this amount of money rather than half (or double) that amount?”

Writing a proposal for small sponsorship

The challenge of writing a proposal for small sponsorship is in some ways less, and in some ways greater, because it should be much shorter. In many cases, it must be short enough for a single email – perhaps 200-400 words. This means it should be extremely concise and impactful – it needs to be a quick read for the busy person you’ve sent it to, and you want it to grab their attention.

The basic content is the same as for the big sponsorship proposal, but compressed to the essential points. I recommend the following:

  • A few-sentence description of the event and how it relates to the company, similar to the opening paragraph of the big proposal.
  • A short paragraph about what is most exciting about the event, with the most compelling facts you have about the likely impact.
  • Some information to establish your credibility (a sentence for each person, no more than a few sentences in total).
  • What sponsors you currently have, what you’re doing for your sponsors, what you’re asking for, and what it will pay for.

If you have more than 200-400 words of information that you think is essential, then most likely you should throw it out anyways – it’s usually not as important as it feels. If you really feel that it’s essential, then include it “over the fold”- that is, after the end of the main body of your email as “additional information”.

Since you’re likely to apply to many different companies for small sponsorship, it’s impractical to write a new proposal for each one. Instead, I suggest writing the proposal from the point of view of a “generic” company. For a small amount of sponsorship, it’s likely that most companies won’t be looking for a detailed fit with their sponsorship priorities, but instead will be satisfied with having their brand and logo associated in a prominent way with your event. If you know something specific about a company, then by all means adjust the proposal to suit, but I wouldn’t recommend doing too much in depth research for each one. Since it’s most likely that a given company will refuse your request, it’s best to figure this out as quickly as possible and move on to the next.

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