Jason Preston & Steve Broback co-founded the Dent Conference, an annual gathering and a year-round community of innovators looking to make a dent in the universe.
Jason and Steve launched the event with focus on content and programming. But they quickly realized that the event was really the centerpiece of an ongoing, year-round community they had created.
We talked about:
- the origins of the Dent Conference
- the benefits of getting people out of silos and interacting
- how an advisory board can help guide programming and content
- using “editorial pillars” to guide content decisions
- “combinatorial creativity” – connecting people at the event so they can do great stuff together later
- how a humming community vibe changed their fundamental thinking about the event
- how panels are like PowerPoint presentations: “You can do a good one, but you probably won’t.”
- the benefits of including non-traditional speakers in the mix
- how to nurture year-round community among conference attendees
- how creating safe spaces to connect leads to deeper connections
- their induction into the Gender Avenger Hall of Fame
Jason Preston is a co-founder of Dent, a company that creates and supports a community of entrepreneurs, executives, and creatives who are driven to “put a dent in the universe.” Dent began as an annual conference but quickly developed into a strong community of people who call themselves “Denters.” The name Dent comes from the Steve Jobs quote: “we’re here to put a dent in the universe, why else even be here?”. The conference focuses on drawing actionable insights from success and building an environment where peers from diverse backgrounds and fields of expertise are encouraged to build meaningful relationships through conversation and shared experience.
Steve Broback is the cofounder of the Dent Conference and Founder of the Parnassus Group, and is best known for his recent Tweet House and “140” Twitter Conferences produced by his company, the Parnassus Group. With Parnassus, Broback also hosted the Blog Business Summit and the Web Community Forum events.
Steve cofounded Thunder Lizard Productions, (a technology event production company) in 1991, which became a subsidiary of Fawcette Technical Publications in 2000. Steve is also the coauthor of Publish and Prosper: Blogging for Your Business (Peachpit Press, 2006.) and was a professional magician for many years.
Here’s the video version of our conversation:
[Not an actual transcript – just my quick notes on first listen-through]
0:50 – Steve intro – first Photoshop and Pagemaker conferences early 1990s, then web stuff in mid 90s – 300-1,400 folks per conference – sold company in 2000 – then Blog Business Summit 2005 – then world’s first Twitter conference 2009, which morphed into The TweetHouse at SXSW, Sundance, etc. – that’s era when he met Jason and early ideas about Dent emerged – death of Steve Jobs was catalyst – “dent the universe” –
Jason – why else even be here
3:25 – Jason intro – always entrepreneurial – Andrew Jason Aris Smythe – ARIS Software – TI-83 games and other convoluted schemes – also little interest in pop culture celebrities, but was always fascinated with greatness – how do people rise up and excel and change the course of the universe – and saw Dent as a great way to do that – to promote significant, meaningful, impactful activities – not just business but also – Marie Curie, JK Rowling – many ways to Dent the universe – great stuff often happens at the intersection of disciplines – cancer science, literature, leadership, business – bring those often-siloed groups together and you end up with fasicnating new stuff – both topics and the people they bring to Dent keep him going
6:20 – me – if you can create even one more Steve Jobs in the next century, mission accomplished, right?
6:55 – Jason – recruited an advisory board – a great resource to help focus topics and speakers for each event – pitch to prospective board members: “imagine the leverage here. one more Tesla. one more JK Rowling.”
7:55 – Steve – also, if you can take 100 or a thousand people and have them each get nudged a little further along, it can be a more diffused accomplishment as well – feedback from the community each year is that they feel recharged and motivated – maybe not at a Steve Jobs level, but more micro level accomplishment
9:00 – me – origins of Dent, and early content – and themes?
9:20 – Steve – themes? – one view: helps make everyone aware of what will happen – OTOH: speakers don’t always align, can feel forced – theme often emerges after the event – first Dent was fine, “theme” was making a dent – they do use “editorial pillars” – each session should align to one of those – team, alchemy, – tried theme the second year – but in his experience speakers always talk about what they want to and then post hoc plug it into the theme – so they now let the theme emerge –
12:00 – me – curious about pillars –
12:10 – Jason – pillars are one dimension – vision, people, process, focus, design, and alchemy – important aspects of denting the universe – called them “starting points” – gets at idea that on-stage presentations are starting points for more intimate conversations later – turn stage presentations into a more organic interaction, to a relationship, to a new idea –
13:45 – Steve – original themes line up with Jobs-ian notion – trying to map content back to original inspiration – making connections, combinatorial creativity, connecting people at the events so that they can do cool things together
15:00 – me – how quickly did they discover that they were not just about content but that they had a community on their hands
15:30 – Steve – immediately after first event there was a hum that he hadn’t seen in years of tech conference production – doubted it would happen again, but even more so in the second year – realized that that community was likely why people were coming to the event – so in year two there was a fundamental change in his thinking about the event
16:50 – Jason – same perception of the timing – started with intent of creating a forum where we could explore the practical lessons about putting a dent in the universe – rather than saying that they put content on backburner, more like they changed the intent of what they did on stage – e.g. first year, most of the sessions — aside – don’t do panels at Dent – “A panel is like a PowerPoint. You can do a good one, but you probably won’t.” – when they’re not good they’re a waste of everyone’s time – so they avoid them – went from sessions that were instructional or about giving advice to the audience – expanded to quirky, unusual – drawing connections across disciplines – had only one talk like that the first year, and it was the most popular talk – it was by a magician – “A peak into a diffeent world can be not only inspiring but instructional, if done right” – still care very deeply about content they put on stage
19:55 – Steve – in addition to individual speakers they also do fireside chats – chats often well received – good example of what they *don’t* do, over choreographed, scripted presentations common at other non-named events – they had one years ago and not well received – one other well-received talk: a detective – also a free diver Mandy Rae
21:00 – emergent thinking at Dent – how actively do they solicit feedback?
21:40 – always do a post-event survey – rate presenters – shorter survey this year – get good sense of what works and what doesn’t – but also get a huge amount of feedback from board and other anecdotal responses – so get both quantitative and qualitative feedback –
23:00 – me – top-level business goals? financial? etc.?
23:35 – Jason – as a business we’re a conference – we’ll ask for time, attention, and money, and that worked – challenge was that people wanted more – so they added dinners and other events throughout the year – engage with folks throughout the year – did them also because they were fun – but ended up with extra fun, engaging events – how to keep the lights on while doing all of that? – how to turn that year-round activity into revenue, typically comes from conference registration – created Dent Passport, “a jui jitsu move” that frees them to serve community directly – takes friction out of the year-round events – e.g. diving down to a research facility with an astronaut to the underwater astronaut training facility – get a demo of preparing for space station duty – do a lot of these kinds of events throughout the year – passport program frees them up to just do that kind of programming – conference still going on, but if you can’t make it for whatever reason – many good reasons folks miss the conference (having a baby, one-time opportunity, planned surgery) – change idea from “this is a conference” to “this is a community that is connected throughout the year”
27:20 – Steve – just got back from Dent Harvard Biz School and MIT Media Lab tour – he and Jason both magic fans so did a dinner at Magic Castle in LA – no formal editorial plan for content of these events, more about bringing people together
28:25 – Jason – expected only about 30 people to sign up for Passport, but had more than 70 people sign up in first 30 days –
29:00 – anything last?
29:55 – Jason – baked into the DNA of Dent: people’s lives are driven by powerful moments, a conversation, the powerful 2:00 a.m. conversation, and that’s what they aim for – often more powerful with fewer people involved – so they are intentional about creating safe spaces to be vulnerable with one another – e.g. they give all Dent attendees a jacket every year, everyone has same symbol of community that all can see – “helps us get to vulnerability faster” – other similar conferences famous giant one giant community dinner, but they go the opposite way – instead, they split into smaller portions and go to restaurants for dinner – results in deeper conversation – the point is: context you put people in is very important to how content and other people are received
32:40 – Steve – “banging the spoon on the high chair for years” now about – has been producing panels and talks on tech and science at San Diego Comi-Con, so has met folks like NASA astronaut Jason Cruzan – Jason met Harvard professor and worked on project about crowd-sourcing innovation – they found that “‘non-traditional participants’ tend to provide extreme outcomes in terms of innovation” – the best results, the best innovations, often come from non-traditional participants – “so we are constantly striving to get people in a room together that are from unique and varied and not-connected environments in the hopes that together they can make some magic happen” – would love to have this resonating in everyone’s ears
34:40 – Jason – 50% or more of Dent speaker roster each year is female – in fact, Dent is in the Gender Avenger Hall of Fame