The idea: Kansas City LinuxFest
At the height of the dot-com boom, back when Red Hat and VA Linux had
enormous IPOs and Linux seemed a way to print money, I attended Kansas City
LinuxFest in 2000. It was an event some marketer spent $100k
launching, which crashed and burned because he didn't know how to do it right.
It was held in huge event center that could hold a couple thousand people,
and scheduled to last a week, but it never had more than a few dozen at a time
in it, and they left before more could arrive. The few attendees felt lost in
the giant space, outnumbered by exhibitors who were mostly twiddling their
thumbs. The event was slick and shiny and smelled of money and failure.
After the first day Red Hat pulled up its booth and left, and it was all
downhill from there.
On the afternoon of the last day, as the event was already tearing down
around us, half-dozen of the remaining speakers and local LUG members got
together at an abandoned picnic table and triaged what went wrong, and how
they'd have done it right. This event had too _many_ resource, and not
enough volunteers. It had started too big. It hadn't gotten the word out
through any hobbyist channels, its advertising was all TV and radio. (I'd
heard a brief mention of it on Linux Weekly News, but that had been months
earlier with no follow-up.) The same amount of traffic channeled into a
tighter space would have seemed active instead of empty, and the same number
of people arriving all at once would have produced
a huge crowd, instead of spread out across several days as a trickle.
Scheduling the event during the work day, and closing as people got off of
work, hadn't helped. As exhibitors departed, the organizers could have
replaced their space with folding chairs and tables (which the convention
center had in abundance) instead of leaving obvious gaping holes in the
show floor. The organizers hadn't known how to manage perception, the
event had _felt_ empty as soon as we arrived.
It was clear that given even 1/10th the resources this event had, any of us
could have done a better job. It occurred to me that _I_ could have done a
better job. As the group discussed basic principles of marketing and
shaping space and crowd flow control, I took copious notes.
The seeds of Penguicon
A few months earlier I'd read Eric Raymond's "conventions at light speed"
paper, on what Linux events could learn from science fiction conventions.
And one of my hobbies was computer history, where I'd read a lot of interviews
with famous computer scientists who talked about how much they liked E.E.
Doc Smith's "lensman" series (the inspiration for the PDP-1 killer app
"Spacewar"), how the mainframe game Adventure was loosely based on Tolkein's
"The Hobbit", Linus Torvalds quoting Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... As far as I could tell, there was about an 80% overlap between
computer geeks and science fiction fans, a combo event was so crazy it
might actually work. I even found an existing "Tux in a starfleet
uniform" graphic from a California LUG, and got permission to use it as
the new project's logo.
I spent the next year researching how to run a convention. I drove up
to Seattle to attend ConComCon, a convention for people who run conventions.
I read lots of notes convention runners had written and stuffed away
on various obscure web pages. I had the name "Penguicon", which
could as easily come from Monty Python's "and now it's time for the
Penguin on top of your television set to explode" as from Linux's Tux
mascot. As I traveled around the country to the various Linux conferences
and SF cons I normally attended, I contacted people who would make good
guests for such an event and floated the idea past them.
One thing about a hobbyist convention is you can't pay any of your speakers.
(If you pay one to attend, you have to pay everybody to attend, and then you
get into a race about who's paid more than who.) What you _can_ do is
make sure the event doesn't cost them anything: you pay all their expenses
(travel, lodging, and food) either up front or reimbursing them depending
on which they prefer. (A good rule of thumb is to budget $1000 per guest
you're flying in.) So keep in mind you're asking people to volunteer
their time: it has to be fun for them to do, or they won't do it.
I especially followed Atlanta Linux Showcase as it uprooted itself and
migrated to California (where it predictably died). At the last ALS in
Oakland in 2001 I spent hours in the green
room talking about it with Peter Salus, why it had happened and how it had
been run and what went wrong... (I'd been there to talk to him about
computer history, but we spent most of our time talking about how to run
a technical conference.) At the time there were four main Linux events:
ALS, Ottawa Linux Symposium, and LinuxWorld Expo East and West. They were
evenly spaced (three months apart), and rotated geographically around the
country. The loss of ALS (which announced it was moving out of Atlanta in
2000) left a hole for a Linux event in the south, and in the fall.
Penguicon could fill that hole.
Hotel contract negotiation seemed like the toughest bit (a black art),
and once that contract was signed the clock started ticking to when you
had fill a big room block and/or cough up a lot of money. But _until_ you
signed a hotel contract, your event didn't actually _exist_. (No specific
place and time you can invite speakers to, meaning they can't work out
schedule conflicts to accept or decline, meaning you can't advertise that
they're coming because you don't know... Everything starts with the
hotel contract, it makes the event real.)
This is only one reason it takes 12 to 18 months to properly organize
a convention. In addition to securing a date when they're still free,
it's best to inite guests a full year ahead of time, because
they're busy people whose schedules fill up well ahead of time. Also the
advertising "rule of seven" means that statistically speaking, until potential
attendees have been exposed to mention of your event on seven separate
occasions, they won't remember ever having heard of it. So you need to
advertise a _lot_ to get the word out.
But Penguicon was a "todo" item with no date attached. I didn't know how
to run an SF con, and my studies had shown how much there was to _learn_.
Enter Tracy Worcester
And then at the General Technics party at Millenium Philcon (Worldcon
in 2001 (?), using the pedantic definition of when the millenium starts), Eric
Raymond introduced me to Tracy Worcester, who had been the
con chair of "ConFusion 19100" the year before in Michigan: a science
fiction con with a Y2K bug joke in its title. Eric had met her when she
invited him to be a Guest of Honor at her con (she ran Linux on her laptop),
and she'd also read Eric's "conventions at light speed" paper and had the idea
of starting a combo SF/Linux convention. But she was still too burned out from
her own recent convention running experience to start something new
on her own, and didn't have the tech-side contacts or experience she'd
She liked the name "Penguicon". She was surprised by how aggressive
my proposed guest list was, all of whom I'd already researched extensively,
and most of whom I'd already contacted and gotten tentative expressions of
interest from. (One side effect of keeping years of old email, other than
driving kmail _nuts_, is that I still have the email from Tracy responding to
Terry Pratchett's acceptance of his invitation. She squeed, in all caps.
You could tell she was bouncing up and down even through the internet.)
The whole world trade center thing made us pause a bit and wonder if we
should delay the launch a year, but we pressed on regardless. Tracy had
contacts up in Michigan, where the local SF convention had three evenly
spaced events: ConFusion, ConClave, and a recently deceased convention
called "ConTraption" which had succumbed to internal political squabbles
a couple years previously. She could recruit concom not just from
her ConFusion experience, but also grab contraption veterans (carefully
filtering out the ones who had caused the political firestorm) who had
longer to rest and were fresher. We could also grab the old 'Traption
time slot, and use their only slightly stale address list for a bulk
mailing advertising the new convention. (Postal, not spam.)
From my perspective, this was not only a chance to turn the idea of
a combo event into a reality, but having it in the spring in Michigan meant
I could still fill the fall-in-Austin timeslot with a "Penguicon South"
at some point in the future, without much conflict between the two.
Penguicon 1.0 (2003, Tracy Worcester chair) "The cheese is still in England!"
Five of the first six guests I invited said yes. (Marcelo Tosatti, then
stable kernel series maintainer, had visa issues that prevented him from
visiting the US at the time.) Tracy stopped me there and worked on building
a con big enough to support this guest list.
Our first year Guest of Honor list was Terry Pratchett, Eric Raymond,
Rob Malda (co-founder of Slashdot), J.D. Frazier (Illiad of User Friendly),
and Pete Abrams (Sluggy Freelance).
Eric and I had met PTerry when he was GoH
at a now-defunct New Jersey convention called Jersey Devil, where we'd pitched
The Discworld Tarot to him and gotten permission to develop it. (That project
died due to lack of a good enough artist. The idea came from Steve Jackson's
"Gurps Discworld" full of wonderful art by a then-obscure artist named
"Paul Kidby", who became famous and quite busy by the time we contacted him
(and also highly disinclined to work again with Steve Jackson or anybody who
knew him). My mother was an artist (and knew many others), but she died in
December 2002. As a fallback plan we'd hoped to use Penguicon's art show to
audition artists for this, but the art
show was dropped as one of the events we didn't have enough bandwidth to
pull off in year 1.)
I'd also been studying Terry as a potential guest for the nascent
Penguicon, reading hundreds of his posts to usenet, finding out about his love
of video games (we couldn't work out a multi-player version of Thief II: The
Dark Project, but did do the celebrity fragfest), and his love of cheese.
(We imported british cheeses, with half a wheel of his favorite "cornish
yarg", and had a cheese tasting. Actually the cheese was impounded by customs
in Cincinati as an "active biological agent" even though we _hadn't_ ordered
any Stinking Bishop (which Terry said "tastes like a nuttier Brie"),
and I had to sidetrack to Cincinati as I was driving to Michigan on Thursday
(with Nancy in the car) to and pick it up,
meaning I missed the Thursday night dinner with all the GoHs and concom. And then when we opened
the box of cheeses we found all the labels had been removed by the customs
agents and stacked neatly in the corner, so we called up Mr. Pratchett
and held an impromptu cheese tasting in the con suite while he identified
the cheeses for us. (His first words upon opening the box: "That's cornish
yarg". Yeah, we knew that one. We ordered half a wheel so everybody got
to try it.)
I'd also read his post about proper guest invitation etiquette, his anecdote
explaining why he personally required first class tickets across the atlantic
(although he recommended a specific airline's business class for us, which he
was willing to use as we were small and poor; Tracy's friend John Guest put the
ticket on his credit card, back before we had any money or any guarantee he'd
be paid back)...
Similarly I'd met Illiad at the same 1999 ALS I met Eric at, and met Pete by
attending a Sluggy Freelance halloween party in New Jersey. Malda I'd bumped
into at multiple LinuxWorld Expos, and he lived in Michigan already so could
just drive to the event rather than needing a plane ticket. And of course Eric
was onboard before the event actually existed. The trick to getting a strong
guest lineup is finding out why _they_ would want to come, you have to
_research_ guests before approaching them.
We cheated slightly and said "we have three potential weekends, which
do you prefer" when inviting the guests. In reality, we didn't have a
hotel contract yet but we were looking at enough different facilities,
and we were small enough, and it was far enough in future (especially with
post-world-trade-center recession starving hotels for travelers) that we
weren't too worried about finding event space once we had guests. We were
more worried about losing a good guest due to a schedule conflict.
Webcomics weren't nearly as big in 2002 (when I was inviting guests) as
they are today, but from our perspective they were perfect. They combined
art and storytelling with web technology, smoothly bridging the two sides of
our event. They also gave us a marvelous advertising outlet, we could buy
cheap but perfectly targeted web ads from them, and they gave us an excellent
rate because it was in their interest to let their fans know about their
We spent all year advertising, me on the national stuff and Tracy on the
local. She hit the LUGs, and the local the SF mailing lists. I changed my
.sig to a two-line Penguicon blurb to subtly get the word
out on the technical lists I posted to. We both took flyers to other
conventions we attended, and held room parties promoting the new con. I
registered a sourceforge project for penguicon, where I ran the event's
and did a regular heartbeat blog
posting every scrap of news about the event or our guests to drum up
interest. The real message of the blog was "we're alive, we're working on
this, here's another post, we're still around, remember us, check back".
(It was _vital_ that our online presence be regularly updated, we were
an active devevlopment process working up to a scheduled release, not a
cobweb site.) And we had a public mailing list (also on sourceforge),
where Tracy and I cc'd our emails about the event.
We did our development in public, like any good open source project.
(The fact that "sf.net" is an abbreviation for sourceforge was just another
random bonus. We were penguicon.sf.net, on both sides of the aisle.)
Tracy and I started out as co-chairs (I was tech-side, she was fen-side),
but a couple months before the event I stepped back to get out of her way;
you can only have one point to a wedge if you want to make progress, and
she had a full head of steam, knew all the concom personally, and lived locally.
The technical side of the conference suffered a little, but we were
focused on getting something launched and could rebalance it later.
(The concom Tracy put together was actually a bit tech-phobic in places. Most
notably her registration people did not have email or any online presence,
thus preregistration could only be done by mailing a check to a PO box.
For a technical conference. Ok, calling them "luddites" wasn't the
best political move on my part, but _dude_. That was frustrating.)
From my Motley Fool days, I'd learned about corporate structure, and
drove down to the appropriate office to get and file the paperwork to
incorporate Penguicon as a Michigan corporation. Our incorporation meeting
was Tracy and me talking on a cell phone, but we followed a checklist out
of a book to get the steps right.
We carefully tuned our panel list. I'd always wanted five simultaneous
panel tracks: two tech, two fen, and one "crossover". Each GoH could do
six to ten panels through the weekend, depending on what they were up for.
We came up with a bunch of potential topics for each GoH and asked them to
pick ones that interested them. We gave each guest of honor one "spotlight"
panel that was their opportunity to shine alone, and then tried to put each
GoH on at least one panel with each other GoH. (This means asking questions
like "What do Terry Pratchett and Rob Malda have to talk about?", to which
the answer might be "nothing" or might be an interesting new angle.
A lot of it was asking one guest if they wanted to join a panel another guest
had already approved.) Plus there was an "all your eggs in one basket" panel
with every GoH on it, which you couldn't really schedule anything else against.
(It turned into GoH speeches, one of the few things we managed to record.
They're online at
five, although the tape ran out halfway through Terry's
speech. No, they're _not_ from Penguicon 2.0, I just gave my copies back
to the con which put them _up_ on the 2.0 website.)
We had a second tier of "Nifty" guests (named after the motto of
Pete Abrams' comic Sluggy Freelance: "is it not nifty?"). These were
good guests in their own right, worth mentioning by name on our flyers,
but who we didn't have travel or lodging budgets for. (They got free
admission and as much pampering as we could manage, but had to make it
there under their own power.) We got some great ones,
such as Eric Flint making a 4 hour drive to tell us about the Baen Free
Library. These anchored the next layer of panels, and then we filled in
the remaining slots with local LUG members, writers, college professors...
anyone we could find. (I myself gave half a dozen talks on the tech
Penguicon 1.0 was held in a run-down old hotel with a leaky ceiling
(which was condemned shortly afterwards, I think they turned it into a senior
center) in Novi, Michigan. It was big and cheap. We tried hard to put it
in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti (where Tracy lived), but there were just no
facilities that could handle more than about 350 people. If we wanted a
reasonably sized facility, it had to be near Detroit. After about six
months of location scouting, Tracy negotiated a contract with the hotel,
and we signed it.
We flew our guests in on Thursday, giving them time to recover before
friday afternoon's opening ceremonies. (Air travel takes up a full day,
whether you acknowledge it or not.) We scheduled a dinner Thursday night
for the GoHs and concom, letting them meet each other and us before the
horde of attendees arrived. (It was a fun bonus for our concom, and gave
the GoHs a chance to meet each other and gear up to being "on stage"
gradually, without immediately being flooded. But it was optional for
The event itself was great. We got a little over 500 attendees, and broke
even financially. For a first year con, that's not bad at all. There
were plenty of con reports (I collected a bunch on the website),
and excellent word of mouth.
Penguicon 2.0 (2004, Steve Gutterman chair) "Thanks, J.D., for the whipping."
Tracy had started out somewhat burned out, and she'd recruited concom
with a lot of experience but some fatigue. They were motivated by starting
something new and the opportunity to do it all _right_ this time, but Tracy
wanted to rotate all the concom positions every year to prevent people from
getting tired and stale.
So Tracy stepped down as con chair, handing it off to Steve
Gutterman, and became head of programming instead. The other positions
shuffled around similarly. (I didn't have an official title, nor did I
live locally, so I continued helping out where I could and jumping around to
anything that looked interesting, but mostly contributing ideas and remote
work through the internet with the occasional long drive to Michigan for
in-person meetings. We got a real domain name and dedicated web server,
so I handed off the website, but continued to do guest recruitment and
national advertising and a half-dozen other things.
I still had the second half of my original guest list. (Tracy had stopped
me from inviting more guests than we could handle after the first evening,
so half the names I'd researched were still left.)
Terry Pratchett had a good enough time that he recommended our event to his
friend Neil Gaiman, who accepted both because of Terry's recommendation and
because his son was a computer science student interested in attending our
technical conference, and it was an excuse for the two of them to hang out
together. (Said son came down with the flu and spent the entire weekend
intermittently worshiping the porcelain throne, but had a marvelous time
anyway. I still want to arrange an event that Terry and Neil could attend
together, but haven't had the opportunity.)
Neil actually wanted to drive to the event (he lives on the
Minnesota/Wisconsin border, and had a new Mini Cooper he quite enjoyed
driving. It also gave him the most flexibility about when to leave,
although he wound up showing up right before his first scheduled panel
with about a minute and a half to spare, to the point where somebody had
to get his luggage and bring it up to his room while he was speaking.
Of course we tailored large chunks year 2 to Neil's interests, such as
organizing a charity auction for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund with Neil
as auctioneer. And as a prominent blogger, Neil could be on crossover panels
about that with several of our other guests.
On a side note, I am proud I got Neil to say "By Grabthar's hammer, you
shall be avenged" into the microphone after his reading of Crazy Hair, but I
never tracked down the recording. The science fiction oral history society
showed up, recorded panels, and then buried the recordings in a vault
somewhere and vanished, never to be seen again. (I wanted to make mp3s
of them and post them on the web as a MARVELOUS form of advertising for
the con, but panel recordings fell through the cracks year after year
until I finally broke down and did it _myself_ year 5.)
Another GoH I invited was Steve Jackson, who was an Austin local I'd first
met at Armadillocon in 1998, and who told us about this cool thing
he wanted to bring called the "Chaos Machine". We didn't know what that was
and he couldn't really explain it, but we took it on faith that if Steve
thought we'd enjoy it, we would. I drove a dozen boxes of it up in my car,
a station wagon I'd inherited from my mother. The first year I'd driven Nancy
Lebovitz's buttom business to the dealer's room from Philadelphia, year 2
it was the chaos machine. It was also useful for driving to Blenheim South
Carolina to fill up with Blenheim Ginger Ale for the con suite (stored in
John Guest's basement until con time), and filling
up with Water Joe so we could caffeinate mashed potatoes and jello. (Going out
and finding cool things and bringing them to Michigan describes the majority
of what I did at Penguicon.)
During the long gestation period I'd
Wil Wheaton, impressed by his slashdot interview, and
for year 2 invited him. He was a big fan of Steve Jackson and Neil Gaiman
(and Penguicon 2.0 is the reason Neil Gaiman wrote the introduction to Just a
Geek). Alas, he became our first cancellation, but oh well.
We needed a solid Linux techie, and John Maddog Hall was another person
I'd bumped into at a lot of conferences who made an excellent GoH. We
invited him and he accepted.
And of course the Slashdot guys were still an hour's drive away, so we
invited 'em back and cheated slightly (calling Hemos the GoH this time and
Malda the Nifty).
We needed to come up with some policies on returning guests. We decided
that any returning Guest of Honor (that year Eric Raymond, Pete Abrams, and
Rob Malda) would get free admission for life, making them just about automatic
Nifties if they chose to return. We also decided that we wouldn't bring back
any GoH _as_ a GoH for three years, to prevent us from getting too tightly
focused on the same group of people.
On the Nifty front, I got Novell to fly in one of its employees on their
dime, to speak at our technical conference. He was
the manager of one of their Linux products, and also a webcomic artist of a
then-obscure strip I was a fan of: Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary.
(He gave me a novel/suse/ximian t-shirt commemorating their recent merger,
which I still have. A year and a half later, I brought him to Linucon for his
first time as a Guest of Honor at a con.)
A notable event at Penguicon 2 was the con chair, Steve Gutterman,
proposing marriage to his girlfriend (Dawn Wolf) at opening ceremonies.
Penguicon 2 got a little over 800 attendees, making us the largest science
fiction convention in the state of Michigan in only our second year, and
put us on a great trajectory. Thanks to Steve Gutterman's excellent business
acumen and hotel negotiation skills, the convention actually made a comfortable
profit. and our Guests of Honor had a marvelous time again
and were willing to tell their friends about our con (Gaiman recommending us
to Scott McCloud, Maddog recommending us to Linus Torvalds, etc).
I do note that I dilligently followed the
procedure, but it took over two years to finally
get Lorraine her mangoes,
which involved me, Steve Gutterman, and Anne Murphy (chair of another con
entirely, but one who had contact info for them that didn't go through
DreamHaven, which is not a place you want to send fruit), international
shipping, and missing the growing season _twice_. (Anne eventually put in
a pre-order at Mack's Groves in Ft Lauderdale, Florida, and they shipped the
following year when they were ready. So if you want to know where to get
"The Mangoes of Love", the answer is Mack's Groves, Ft. Lauderdale, around
the end of July/start of August.)
Towards the end Steve and Anne were asking me "Why are we sending Lorraine
mangoes again?" and I told them I didn't actually remember, but that wasn't
the _point_. After a while, it becomes a quest, and must be completed.