How ItWorks At MassTLC’s Innovation unConference, MassTLC’s TomHop- croft said, “a lot of the formality” associated with typical confer- ences “is gone.” Everyone first comes together in a roomset with concentric cir- cles.A facilitator goes over a few unConfer- ence ground rules, including the Law of Two Feet: “If you are not getting or adding value to a session,” Hopcroft said, “it is your job to get up and move to a different session.” People write down
once they are there,” Hopcroft said. “It is much more dynamic and customized to the audience, because they are the ones who create it.” No matter how expert a conference-planning staff might be, he added, even when they work with a good advisory board, “they are not going to be as accurate in predictingwhat attendees are going to want to talk about as the attendees themselves.” The unConference format alsowas intended to
appeal to the fast-paced nature of the techcommu- nity. “There is adownside to the traditional confer- ence,” Hopcroft said. “They have to lock in an agenda amonth in advance.Thatmeans that just bythe nature ofit, it cannot be that current. For our conference, if something happened that morningon the drive in, that could be a topic that people wouldbe talking about throughout the conference.” Handing over the reins toMassTLC’s audience
hasworked:The unConference has grown steadily since its launchfour years ago,whenabout 250 peo- ple attended. The following year, it attracted around 400 people; it inched up to 600 in 2010, and brought in morethan800in 2011.Andnot just any- one can attend. Since their registration cost is large- ly underwritten, entrepreneur attendeees are vetted.
‘A Massive Mentoring Program’ While the MassTLC Innovation unConference does not line up speakers or topics in advance, at its core is “a massive mentoring program” that involves recruiting a roster ofexperts. “Ifyouhave 150 of the who’s who of the tech [world],” Hopcroft said, “that alone would make for a pretty good hook instead of [having] speakers for the conference.” In addition, MassTLC seeks applications from entrepreneurs who can choose to have a one-on-one meeting with some ofthose experts. The 2011 unConference offered 150 experts—venture-firm partners and serial entre- preneurs, such as Kayak CEO Steven Hafner— who were handpicked by MassTLC. Peoplewho have reached this level often wish
to give back to their professional community, Hopcroft said, “but the problemwith being a men- tor is it is often awfully expensive in terms of time, commitment, or money.Andsowesaid, ‘Just give us one day, and we will make a great impact on a number ofentrepreneurs.’” Each expert was asked to commit to three20-minute one-on-one meetings withentrepreneur attendees over the course of one hour—for a total of 450 mentoring meetings at
the topic they would like to lead a session on using card stock and markers that have been placed around the room. MassTLC’s unConference has progressed to the point where “most of the people in the roomare at a level at which they would be good session leaders,” Hopcroft said. “A ses- sion could have six people or it could have 60 people. It does not matter and success is not judged by how many people come, because you might have a very nar- row niche topic you want to talk about.” Session leaders