Raising Webstock

Raising Webstock

There’s nothing quite like Webstock. Perhaps that’s because it runs counter to everything the experts said a Kiwi web conference should be. By Haydn Green

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PHOTOGRAPH BY Mike Heydon

There’s nothing quite like Webstock. Perhaps that’s because it runs counter to everything the experts said a Kiwi web conference should be

The two people sitting opposite me are visionaries, the architects of a world-renowned web conference that has been part of making Wellington into New Zealand’s version of San Francisco. Yet when I describe them as entrepreneurs, they are visibly taken aback.

“I don’t think we’re entrepreneurs,” says one. “Webstock isn’t a business—it’s a baby.” Natasha Lampard and Mike Brown should be very proud of their baby, too. Webstock has grown over the past six years from a meeting with 40 people to an internationally recognised event that fills the Wellington Town Hall with people, stories and ideas.

“We just wanted to make a conference where we could meet some of the people we always wanted to meet,” says Brown. “And it wasn’t that we were not-for-profit, more that we were not-for-loss. It was never about making money.”

Lampard agrees. “We were basically fanboys sending cheeky emails.”

But, as the movies will tell you, dreams don’t come easy. This wasn’t a simple overnight success. Brown and Lampard have fought and battled past a number of hurdles and outlasted more ‘professional’ conferences.

Webstock, appropriately, started in the tubes, on a mailing list devoted to discussion of web standards in Australia and New Zealand. The Australian end was run by Russ Weakley (now a Webstock and FullCodePress regular) and, in New Zealand, Brown started asking if the Kiwis on the list wanted to get together.

So in December 2004, the first meeting of what would eventually become Webstock happened. Forty people showed up to the National Library and talked about web standards. Nothing grand, but first steps rarely are.

And that’s how it stayed for a year; regular meetings at the library with around 40 people. But Brown wanted to go bigger. So in 2005 he hired the Ilott Theatre, booked John Alsopp and Jonathan Mosen as speakers and 80 people paid around $40 each to attend. It was a success—but for Brown, it wasn’t quite enough.

Over in Australia, Weakley had started the Web Essentials conference with Alsopp, Peter Firminger and Maxine Sherrin. Brown thought this would be perfect—New Zealand could hold a similar conference at a similar time. And if the speakers, like Jeff Veen, could add on a few days and a few miles to their trip, they could pop over the Tasman and speak in New Zealand too. Perfect.

But the Aussies weren’t ready to share. The speaker’s contracts were written so that they couldn’t speak at the New Zealand conference. Lines were drawn and if Kiwis wanted to see the big international speakers they’d have to go to Oz. It looked as if New Zealand’s great web conference would never be more than a few dozen people in a library.

I wanted Webstock to be like a music festival, where everyone was smiling at each other and just having a great time, And where nothing was being sold

After a few wines one night, Natasha Lampard spoke up: Fuck it, let’s get Tim Berners-Lee!

Lampard had arrived back from London in late 2004 and didn’t really want to be here. So when Brown had asked on the web standards mailing list if anyone wanted to help organise a New Zealand-based meeting, she jumped at the chance.

It turned out to be an auspicious partnership. Lampard and Brown found they had the same influences and had read the same books. They quickly compiled a list of their favourite internet celebrities, including Lampard’s suggestion of Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, and started sending emails.

The direction Brown, Lampard and the rest of the board (Ben Lampard, Miraz Jordan, Siggy Magnusson, Elyssa Timmer and Susan Skelton) were taking was completely against conventional wisdom. Professional conference organisers that they brought on board told them to start small, use local speakers, and take a while to carve out a proper niche in the conference schedule. To hell with that. Brown and Lampard wanted their dream conference and went all out to get it.

For a time Webstock was going to be called ‘The New Zealand Web Conference’. Descriptive, yes, but nothing like the vibe Brown and Lampard were after. “We wanted a conference that was about connections. During the breaks, after the conference, we want people to keep connecting,” says Lampard.

“So many people in the web industry work at their desk and talk to only a few people each day. We wanted to give them a feeling of being connected to this wider world where we are making a real difference.

“I really wanted the feel of [dub reggae festival] Kaikoura Roots. I wanted Webstock to really be like a music festival, where everyone was smiling at each other and just having a great time.” And where nothing was being sold.

That was another hurdle. How do you get sponsorship for a conference that has so many international speakers, but that doesn’t want you to sell anything? Most big conferences will give time to the main sponsors to speak to the captive audience; Webstock didn’t want any of that. It’s a ‘pimp-free zone’.

And so in May of 2006 Webstock opened for the first time with a big lineup: Joel Spolsky, Kathy Sierra, Doug Bowman, Kelly Goto, Ben Goodger and Steve Champeon among others. And Tim Berners-Lee was there to open proceedings, albeit via video. “We had buy-in from the daddy of the internet!” Webstock was ambitious, but it was clear that it had also delivered.

At the time Nathan Torkington, now organiser of Kiwi Foo Camp, was a conference chair for O’Reilly Media, running such conferences as OSCON (the largest open source developer conference in North America), and had just moved back to New Zealand.

“When [the first Webstock] was announced, I was dead keen to go,” he says. “Then I realised that it conflicted with one of the conferences I was organising in the US, and I tried so hard to get the dates of the US conference moved. I pleaded, I begged, I bargained, but all for naught. So I had to miss the first Webstock, which gutted me, because it was exactly the kind of conference I’d hoped New Zealand would organise.”

As a conference organiser himself, Torkington knows the problems inherent in a new event: the organisers don’t have a routine, sponsors don’t have a track record to back, and speakers have no idea what they’re in for.

“I have huge respect for the Webstock team and what they managed to pull off. They do it by exceeding expectations: speakers are showered with love, everything the attendees interact with is beautifully designed, and the whole thing works in a way that no other conference does.”

And in 2006 conference attendees were shown something they had never seen before. Webstock was designed, from the ground up. From the beautiful programmes to the entry and registration to the now-famous bags, everything was designed to match and be seamless. Ange Vink, originally from DNA, is the designer behind the Webstock look. A Webstock bag is now such an icon that taking one to a meeting is a secret signal of competence to others in the know.

The bags carry laptops; the Webstock logo carries the gravitas.

But it’s not as simple as throwing one good conference. “Their challenge is, of course, to be better each year than the previous,” says Torkington. “This isn’t easy. They also have to fight the problem that sets in with every well-established conference: how do we keep it open and inviting to newcomers, rather than just being the annual party for the same old people.”

But regular Webstock attendees know to expect surprises. The speaker list changes almost entirely each year, and in 2010 the Onya Awards were added to celebrate the best New Zealand websites of the year. The Onyas will be back in 2011.

Lampard and Brown also had to deal with the problem of their own success. Webstock’s budget was growing quickly to three-quarters of a million dollars, and a conference of that size takes a lot of work.

Brown was the partner in a web company, and for a while the connection to Webstock was great for the company. They were able to trade off it and so didn’t mind if Brown devoted some of his time to it. But as the conference grew, Brown had to spend more and more time working on Webstock and it caused some tension. In the end, it came down to Webstock or his job.

“I had to decide what I wanted to do. The Monday after the 2008 conference I quit my job. There was no bad blood, but I couldn’t do both.”

Lampard, who worked at Trade Me, had the same decision to make. After consulting the finances, they figured they could support two small salaries and still run the conference how they wanted. But it wasn’t a simple thing. Both have to rely on their partners to supplement their income and addiction to Webstock. Ben Lampard and Deb Sidelinger are now both heavily involved in the conference too.

And they’ve branched out into other areas. They hope to create a startup around their registration system, Lil Regie, which is hoped to help pay more of their salaries so they can put more money back into the conference.

Everything Brown and Lampard do, they do for their Webstockers. “Webstock would be a lot different if we cared about the money,” says Brown. “We’ll spend loads of time—days—on things like speaker lists, bags, t-shirt designs, to make sure they are right. But for the Onyas we just spent $40,000 on a nine-minute light show and didn’t see it until everyone else did. We just trusted it would be good.” [It was great. –Ed.]

Lampard’s former boss at Trade Me, Sam Morgan, has high praise for her skills in this area. “She has a great knack for being bold, talking people into stuff and making great things happen. Webstock has done incredible things in elevating Wellington and New Zealand to a place of relevance for webbies worldwide.”

Brown and Lampard have a sense of theatre only rivalled by, and partially modelled on, Apple. Every year there is a big surprise speaker; every year there is entertainment. “You don’t get speakers like Rives or Ze Frank without asking.”

You don’t get speakers like Rives or Ze Frank or Kathy Sierra or Tom Coates raving about your event without some hard work either. But it pays off. Sponsors like Rod Drury of Xero, winner of a Webby Award, love that Webstock is bringing the “rockstars of the web industry” to Wellington. Drury spoke of guys like Kevin Rose from Digg being in town and really interacting with Webstockers as part of the conference’s success.

And now, as Torkington points out, “There are world-leading web gurus lining up to come to New Zealand because they’ve heard how awesome Webstock is. It anchors our industry, and we’re the better for it.”