D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Lessons Learned for Ad-Hoc Event Organizers

Friday, July 5, 2013 1:09 AM

Being involved in the technical community has been a big part of my professional life. From helping start/run user groups, code camps, and product launch events all the way to running Prairie Dev Con, I’ve enjoyed connecting with like-minded individuals and working with others in the community to put on the various events. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with a number of individuals who are fantastic – trustworthy, hardworking, and reliable.

We’ve seen many other types of events start up: Bar Camps, Entrepreneur Weekends, Hackathons, etc. and I always encourage people to get involved with organizing these events that serve our communities in such meaningful ways.

A recent experience educated me on some very important considerations when getting involved with running an event, and I wanted to share those here. In one way its a cautionary tale; in another its hopefully some great insight in how to set up an organizing committee for whatever you’re considering.

Story Time

Alright, its story time. After, I’ll talk about the lessons learned and what I’d do differently.

In the Spring of 2012 I began to get interested in the startup community. I contacted Startup Weekend as I was interested in organizing one, and I was put in contact with a local person who had already got the ball rolling – for the purposes of this blog I’ll call him Fred (not his real name). Another two people joined the organizing team and we met for the first time. It should be noted: one of the organizers was a friend of Fred, but otherwise none of us knew each other before our initial meeting.

We divvied up the responsibilities – Fred was handling the money, another organizer was the PR person, and I would arrange the venue as I had contacts through running my conference. I made arrangements with a conference center I had used before, paying the initial deposit for the conference rooms we’d need.

August came and we held our Startup Weekend. It was a great event and we all felt very good about it. There were emails that went back and forth between myself, Fred, and the venue arranging payment. Fred indicated the cheque was in the mail, all good. A few months later Fred actually put on a second Startup Weekend (I wasn’t involved) and at that time I got paid back the deposit I had put down for the August event.

Then December came, and I was contacted by the venue. It appeared that they had no record of ever being paid for the August event. Odd, considering the email discussions that we’d had. This began a frustrating, futile, cycle of email conversations:

- The venue would ask me if I had any information on the payment
- I would email Fred asking him if he had any information on the payment
- Fred would eventually reply with a short email saying he’d check on it and get back to us

January, February, March…Fred produced no proof of payment. Fred had cancelled his cell number by this point and there was no easy way to get in touch with him. I also found out during this time that he had gone dark with his business partner as well who also needed to get in touch with him to finalize aspects of their software business.

I met with the venue and we agreed that we would set a deadline of June 15th to have payment provided. I continued to try and get in contact with Fred, eventually threatening legal action. It should be pointed out that at one point he provided a picture of a photocopy of a cheque he claimed he had mailed in – but it was just the front of the cheque, not the rear showing bank stamps or any other bank documents showing that it had been paid. In a conference call we were able to set up after I threatened legal action, he revealed that he had closed the account at the bank so he didn’t have access to the records. I corrected him that yes, he could still go to the bank and retrieve records to a closed account (I verified this with the bank). With this information, Fred said he’d contact the bank and get copies of the documents showing payment.

Time went by with only a couple of emails from Fred saying the usual thing – hadn’t gotten a chance to get to the bank, would do it early next week. Finally acknowledging that Fred would never produce the information we needed on our own, I initiated taking Fred to small claims court.

Part of small claims court is serving the person. I sent the documents via registered mail, and it sat at the post office for a week. Fred never picked it up. I eventually did and delivered it to him in person – luckily catching him as he was leaving his apartment. We didn’t say much.

Over a month went by from when he was served to the court date in early June. To my surprise, he showed up! Finally, I thought, I’d get the bank documents showing this was paid and all this can be put behind us (I was still hopeful that he really had paid this, the venue had screwed up, and he was just showing a lazy aspect of his personality). But not so fast. It turns out Fred didn’t bring anything with him aside from a copy of the same cheque he provided to me before. At one point during the hearing, the court officer commented that all of this would be cleared up if Fred had the bank documents. When he made it known he didn’t have them, the court officer asked him why he hadn’t retrieved them in the month between being served and the court date. I kid you not, Fred’s answer was:

“I’ve just been really busy.”

Now you’d think this would be an easy case for me then, but not so. The court officer ruled that I could not be awarded the amount because I wasn’t the right person to bring the claim; the venue should have. You may be wondering where the venue is in all this, and why I took Fred to court instead of them. Their stance was that since I provided the deposit, I was the person associated with the event and therefore I was responsible for arranging payment. They wanted to stay out of the case, even refusing to provide the sales person I was dealing with as a witness.

After all those months of tracking Fred down, and finally bringing him to court, I was still left holding the bag. Fred still maintained that he had paid the venue, and we talked after the court hearing about organizing a meeting with the venue so he could clear this all up with them. I haven’t heard from Fred since, the meeting obviously never happened.

This story does have a happy ending though. I kept Startup Weekend in the loop about what was going on, and they were equally as upset as I was about what had happened with Fred. Not wanting their event organizers to be burdened, they stepped in and covered the venue costs for the second time! Huge props and thanks by the way to Startup Weekend, who really showed that they’re a professional organization that cares about the startup community and is driven by strong values and morals. I’d have no issue being involved with them again, and I encourage anyone thinking of doing a Startup Weekend to get in touch with them!

Lessons Learned

As is usually the case, life experiences give you the best life lessons of all. Here’s what I learned for organizing community events:

Take Organizer Responsibility Seriously

During my court hearing the court officer commented that even though we weren’t a legally incorporated organization, there was an implied organization – meaning that all organizers, regardless of what we had said our responsibilities were over lunch, could be legally equally responsible for whatever happened at the event.

So what we should have done was get everything in writing. Just because you’re a group of volunteers putting on some event doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act like you’re a professional incorporation. We should have identified:

- Who the organizers were
- What their agreed upon liability was in relation to the event
- What their agreed upon responsibility was in relation to the event
- Any verbiage as to expectations in certain situations

Everyone gets a copy, and everyone signs all copies. Now there’s documentation that you can fall back on.

Set Up a Club Account and Require Two Signing Authorities

Many people don’t want the burden of a bank account, but having used them for user groups in the past I can tell you that they are trivial to set up. Many banks offer free accounts for “clubs” and you can put in restrictions like how many signing authorities, who has access, etc. If you’re going to be getting revenue in that will need to be paid out to vendors, this is a good option. Even better…

Have Event Sponsors Pay Vendors Directly

One thing I would have done differently is ensure that Startup Weekend was paying our venue directly and not providing Fred funds assuming he would pay. I’ve seen this where an event sponsor who is covering pizza will contact the restaurant directly to pay by credit card. This takes the responsibility off of the organizers and removes the need to handle any money – you just focus on running the event, not the monetary logistics. 

Make it Clear Who Signs Off on Things

You will need someone to sign off on contracts and agreements with vendors, and you should decide up front who that will be and what the implications are. For instance, in our case we were putting on an event under Startup Weekends name. However, if something had happened (i.e. room damage), whoever signs off on the venue agreement would be the one’s held liable. For a multi-person organizing group, what does that mean for shared liability? All these decisions should be written down and signed off on as part of your initial organizer meetings. I call this out because if we had a plan in place, I may not have been left solely responsible in the venue’s eyes.

Ensure Things Are Paid Ahead of Your Event

From my view the venue made some mistakes as well. Typically you pay 90% of a venue bill before the event. They didn’t ask for that, which may have negated what happened. If they don’t ask, insist you pay 90% before the event anyway.

Don’t Do Events With Strangers

Realize that there was no reason for any of us (organizers, Startup Weekend, etc.) not to trust Fred. Note that Fred organized a successful second weekend event a few months after ours with no issues. But none of us actually knew Fred. I wrongly assumed that someone who would want to help the community had the same values and morals as other community organizers I had worked with in the past. This experience has really shown me that I need to get involved with people that I know well and trust. If there is an opportunity that arises to work with an organization team of total strangers, then the more rigid and structured organization I suggest above gets applied – but that’s a lot of work and very much flies in the face of what community is all about (read: building relationships and trust with others). Better to find a group of colleagues/friends that you trust to build a fantastic event with.

Keep Doing Community

This experience was the exception to the rule as far as my personal community experience. I’ve been doing community events for years without anything like this happening, and I’ve worked with some amazing people. I’m not posting this to dissuade people from embracing community events – we need more people, not less, encouraging our tech/startup/whatever communities to grow! I post this as a cautionary tale, because there are Freds out there and encountering one could easily sour you on the community experience (and have you paying for things out of pocket). Hopefully my lessons learned will help you avoid or at least limit the damage of Freds. Keep doing community though, the personal return on investment is still totally worth it!



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