Mark Littlewood has been running the Business of Software conference for the last 16 years. If you've ever set foot inside a BoS conference, you'll immediately notice it's not your normal business-y conference. When chatting with Mark he said,
"I couldn’t possibly be corporate if I tried, and I don’t think people like that. I think they appreciate a bit of fun, and a bit of difference, and a bit of play."
And Mark runs with that freedom of fun and play. He wanted to create a two and a half day experience around learning about business but in a space you feel comfortable. Over the years, Mark has been successful in making networking less stuffy and boring. Here's the three things he incorporates at every conference that he knows sparks more meaningful connections.
The following has been edited for length and clarity. Excerpt begins at 6:08.
Mark Littlewood: We try and run something that’s very deliberately friendly, welcoming, and open to people. We think about how we can make it fun for introverts, and bring people into the community that wouldn’t otherwise want to go to events. We took a very deliberate step to restrict the size of the number of attendees, and we do a lot of things to help people connect. People hate networking, because networking’s such a horrible thing. People think of people in shiny suits, giving each other cards and trying to sell each other five-year leases for photocopiers and stuff.
Taylor McKnight: Yeah, inauthentic.
ML: But actually, networking is really a thing that people do to interact with each other and ask questions. So we try and help people network effectively and get them to introduce each other in the audience. Which I know sounds like a really dumb, simple thing,
but how many times have you sat down at a conference, possibly even for two days, and not spoken to the people on either side of you?
TM: It’s happened. Yep.
ML: I mean, I do it. Because you know, you go into those sorts of situations and you feel uncomfortable, like you’re an imposter, you shouldn’t be there, or the people that you’re sitting next to are really important and don’t want to talk to you.
But actually, we’re all humans, and we’ve all got something interesting to say.
TM: What are some of your strategies for helping people make those meaningful collections as opposed to just swapping business cards?
ML: There’s a bunch of things that we do.
1. Talk to Me About..... Name Tags
ML: We ask people when they register what they want other people to talk to them about, and that appears on their badge. And then it says who you are and what your Twitter handle is. If people are too shy to introduce themselves, then they can go and find you on Twitter, and then it says, “Talk to me about:____”
TM: Did it take you a while to get to that current badge design? It seems very thoughtful with all those pieces.
ML: I’ve been in the business a long time. It’s all those little things that make people go, “Oh, that’s nice.”
TM: Yeah, and I feel like all those little things do add up to less friction, like it just takes those little, thoughtful bits all together that encourage me to speak to somebody about shoes that I might not have.
2. Quiet Corner
ML: We have a reading corner. We get support from companies like O’Reilly who give us books to take there, and we also then encourage people to bring a book that they’ve read and want to pass on to somebody. So people can go in there and that’s very much kind of a quiet corner.
TM: Is it business books usually?
ML: Yeah. Generally business books 90-plus percent of the time.
ML: We’ve started doing a "Bring Something From Your Local Area".
TM: That’s fun!
ML: People have brought coffee from Costa Rica, Belgian chocolate, and Colman’s mustard. We just want people to feel comfortable.
I don’t want people to feel like they’re in a big hotel, at a big event, doing a big, corporate thing, and everyone’s in suits and ties.
3. Birds of a Feather Tables
ML: The other thing we do is the thing called birds of a feather tables which are set out at breakfast and at lunchtime. If you go into a room and there’s a bunch of people talking, you don’t want to sit down and interrupt. But you don’t really want to eat by yourself and some people do. But now you’ve got tables where people could go and talk about SaaS marketing.
TM: So, these are topic tables?
ML: Yeah, effectively. Some get very specific and some are much more open.
TM: Who comes up with those topics?
ML: Some people suggest them and then we make some up, as well. Because generally when people suggest them, they come up with really sensible ideas.
TM: I love how it kind of goes the gamut, from simple icebreakers, right? Like my favorite podcast, to very specific, help me pitch better.
ML: Things like that definitely make a difference.