Rob Landley (landley) wrote,
Rob Landley

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History of Penguicon, from one of the co-founders, Part I.

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 need...

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 in-person appearances.

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 website 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 "" is an abbreviation for sourceforge was just another random bonus. We were, 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 one two three four 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 side.)

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 all concerned.)

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 stalked researched 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 correct 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.

Tags: penguicon
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