600 Miles, Limits, Fears, and Possibilities for SQLSaturday

Last week PASS published some new guidance for SQLSaturday that sets a 600 mile rule (has since been updated, still keeps the radius) to keep events from being held too close together and another that reduces the funding from PASS for most events. I appreciate the stated goals, find myself a bit frustrated at the lack of impact analysis that should have accompanied the change, wonder if total funding is being reduced or just reallocated, and, as often I do, question why PASS seems to publish changes like this without prior public discussion.

As I read and have since re-read the post, the thing that stuck with me most is that we are indirectly setting a cap on the number of events we can have and we seem to be doing so based on the perception that the market can only support X amount per weekend or per year. Is that good thing? Have we reached the limit of what we can do?

We have always worried about limits. Way back when SQLSaturday was starting we heard from almost every prospective organizer one of what I call the four fears (concerns). Interestingly few organizers had more than one concern, but that one – it was important. A deal breaker. What we tried to do was to find a combination of coaching and strategy to address each one, to help them reach that point of “I think I can do this now”. Here’s that list:

  • Finding time/the amount of work.  Having the web site, tools, and some documentation all helped to do this. We tend to take them for granted now, but together they might account for 5% of the effort, but it was a critical 5%.
  • Finding a venue. We stressed free over paid, especially over the first one. We shared examples of venues found and encouraged out of the box thinking and using the local network. Stressing free was key – taking on a big financial commitment isn’t something a team should do on their first event.
  • Finding speakers. We didn’t understand at the beginning the eco-system that would evolve. We had a glimmer of it when Geoff Hiten and TIm Mitchell came to Jacksonville to see what was going on. We made it easy to contact the speakers we knew about, we broadcasted event launches, tried to attend a lot of them, and somehow that worked. Just having a list mattered. Remember back in 2007 & 2008 we weren’t nearly as connected to each other as we are now.
  • Finding sponsors/funding. In many ways this is a repeat of the finding speakers answer. We built a list, had a semi-standard way of dealing with sponsors, and tried to teach that you should spend based on receipts and not on grand plans. Still, it was a concern. Back when we had 10 events a year we thought this might not be sustainable. So we hedged. We added the optional lunch fee to cover the single biggest cost (assuming a free venue). Optional fit the mantra of guidelines and options over rules, and it gave our venue partners an out – they could say this is a free event.

Kudos to PASS for budgeting to pay for a coach/evangelist and sponsoring each event. I think we take those a little bit for granted as we run our 2nd, 3rd…10th!…events, but it’s invaluable to know that there is someone you call when you don’t know how to do something, or even what to do, and having some guaranteed money is a nice thing to have, at least the first time out.

We’ve worked on mitigating those fears, but they are still there, though perhaps not in the same proportion. If you’re not in the US you might well still struggle to find speakers. Finding a venue is the ultimate local challenge – we can’t just give you the answer. The work, well, it’s still there – it takes sweat to make it all happen. Sponsors & money are still a worry for some. There is always something to worry about and to manage. In language we speak, there’s always a bottleneck.

But getting back to the topic of limits, I think that as we’ve grown we’ve added a fear to the list: competition. If you’re running an event and there are other events on the same day, whether they are 100 miles away or 1000 miles away, you’re competing for speakers and sponsors. It’s a valid concern. As we increase the number of events, regardless of the distance or what day they happen, we’re competing for dollars and speakers. I can understand it would be frustrating to get fewer speakers or fewer sponsor bucks than the previous year due to ‘competition’. Frustration aside though, let me ask – how much real impact would it have on our ability to deliver free training to our local members?

We average 50 speakers for SQLSaturday Orlando. If we dropped to 25 we could have each speaker (I suspect happily) do two sessions each. If it dropped to 12 we would probably run fewer tracks and put them in our biggest rooms. If we received zero dollars from out of  town sponsors  we could still provide coffee and donuts, lunch, and a speaker shirt for those that wanted one. If we received zero dollars from any sponsor we would probably not provide coffee/donuts, we’d pull together our pocket change to pay for lunch for speakers and that would be that. We’re committed to making it happen. What would the impact on our attendees? I think they would miss the sponsors, miss the donuts and the coffee, and otherwise enjoy getting what we promise and deliver – a great day of free training.

That said, it’s not unfair to look for a way to mitigate the concerns. The 600 mile rule is one way. An alternative I prefer is a 100 mile guideline, where if two cities within 100 miles of each other want to host on the same weekend they have to agree. If they don’t, we’ll let PASS broker a compromise or make the final call. We’ve done pretty well with favoring guidelines over rules, I hope we continue that.

Free training. That’s why we’re in this, to train our peers and grow our craft. It’s nice to have money to spend on near-essentials and nice-to-haves, it’s nice to have 20, 30, even 50 speakers, and it’s great to aspire to increase attendance – but none of that should be more than important than accomplishing that fundamental goal. I hate to see fear or imposed limits reduce our ability to train anyone that wants to learn about what we do. That’s not criticism. I stand in awe of what we’ve accomplished together.

Thinking about growth and the impact of growth is a good conversation, one I’ve tried to start here, because it’s not just PASS and not just us, each influences the other. PASS tries hard to respond to concerns and I think they try equally hard to respond to challenges. What if we start thinking about what it take to reach the top 100 cities in the US each year? Or to reach 2x as many people in 2017? Or to reach 20 new countries? Not numbers for the sake of numbers, but to reach people that need and want training and the chance to build connections that will last a career, if not a lifetime. I’m optimistic about the possibilities.

2 thoughts on “600 Miles, Limits, Fears, and Possibilities for SQLSaturday

  1. Great Post Andy. I like the “guidance” on 100 mile on same Saturday idea. I, too, am amazed at the amount speakers available. Today, when I go and speaker at a SQLSaturday, I always attend 2-3 other sessions to validate the cost of traveling to an event. That “Free” learning is what brings me back, not the lunch or speaker dinner or shirt or gift. Oh yeah, the networking is priceless.



  2. Great thoughts, and I like the 100mi guidance with arbitration. I think < 100mi might work in some locations, and it's always worth getting organizers together and discussing the event.

    I also agree fear is a big issue. Is that can be alleviated, usually things work out well.


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