Conferences are Essential (and Expensive)

In 2018, I went to six conferences, which is, according to my bank account, too many conferences.

Today I have a new podcast episode out with Clint Proctor, about how going to FinCon, a conference for financial writers, helped him go from a blogger to a freelance writer billing $8,000 a month in one year.

Meeting people IRL makes a huge difference. It shouldn’t, we should live in a meritocracy where the most talented and hardworking people get the best opportunities. But unfortunately, we live in a world where the people who get the best opportunities are often the people who just happen to be across a table from the people empowered to give them out.

Psst: This blog uses affiliate links.

It’s a fucked-up system, but it’s the system in which we’re working.

So, as a writer, how do you decide which conferences to go to, and which are worth your time?

Let’s look at what I decided was worth my time last year:

  1. AWP: This is the biggest conference for writers. I have a lot of identities — writer, student, educator, designer, entrepreneur — but the one I cling to most is writer. So this is the one conference I would most likely choose to go to over all others. Cost: $155-$320. Plus hotel and airfare.
    Last year it happened to be in Tampa, where my mom lives, so I stayed at her house, and she packed me a salad every morning with a note in it. I go to AWP because it’s for people like me, which brings us to…
  2. The Habit Summit. This is a behavioral design conference put on by Nir Eyal, whom I helped last year with his book Indistractable. While I’m interested in behavioral design, as a writer who helps writers be writers, I mostly went for this reason: This was the place not for people like me, but for people who want to hire people like me. I thought it would be the perfect place to find more corporate clients, and I wasn’t wrong. I landed Fender there.
    But I was broke AF, finishing Welcome to the Writer’s Life that year, so I had to stay in a dorm room in San Francisco, on a fucking bunk bed (hence the photo). I also bartered photography services for a free ticket.
  3. Lola. I got to be a speaker at this conference for women and money. Payment: $200. Enough to help with the ticket to New York. This year, it was in Seattle, so I went and moderated a panel and did photography, earning $400. This conference combines the people who do what I do and the people who want to hire people who do what I do. I landed a client, but not only that, a woman who constantly sings my praises to other people looking for a writer or designer. That’s another kind of person you might meet at a conference — your cheerleaders.
  4. Statement: This was similar to Lola, but more of a mastermind of women entrepreneurs getting together, many of whom were writers. We went to a house in upstate New York right after Lola. Cost: $250, free place to stay. The best thing I got out of this was hearing women talk about money in a way that shocked me. In this open, businesslike dialog, they convinced me to double my freelancing rates, which I did and still got work. Benefit: knowledge.
  5. FinCon: Like the AWP for people who write about money. Huge gathering, which was in Orlando. It’s the conference I am currently, as we speak, missing, because I chose to do the financially responsible and stupid thing of staying home from it this year. It’s the worst. Last year, I got a fairly cheap AirBnb and packed lunches.
  6. Seattle Interactive. I wanted to go to this because interactive design is part of my online courses, and I wanted to learn new techniques, and also meet locals, including Chase Jarvis. I met my best client here, sitting next to her before a session. They gave me a non-profit ticket because my course is through writing centers, for about $200. No plane, no hotel needed.

As you can see, last year was really finance-heavy. I was still basking in the glow of The Fuck Off Fund, thinking I might run that as a separate brand. This year, I decided to roll personal finance into my brand of me as a writer who helps writers be writers.

When I look back at all these events, what I think about is how fun they were. I remember though, last year Erin Lowry skipped FinCon because she was planning her wedding, and, she said, “It takes a lot of time and energy to plan a conference in a way that makes it worth the money.”

I was like, oh shit, should I have been planning more than just my outfits?

The ROI of Conferences for Writers

The return on investment for a conference can be hard to gauge. Here’s one number: I’ve billed $3,446.67 worth of work to the client I met at Seattle Interactive.

But what I can’t put on a graph is the worth of knowing and enjoying people I respect in my industry. Even if nothing ever “comes of our relationship,” the relationship itself is a joy.

But perhaps that’s why I’m broke and Erin Lowry is not.

If you can afford a conference:

  1. Try to set up meetings or coffees with people beforehand, so that you have some valuable events on your calendar.
  2. Connect with the speakers over social media, and let them know you’ll be in their session.
  3. Use the hashtags to track your time there on social, bring cards, connect with people on LinkedIn. Solidify your network.

If you can’t afford to go to a conference:

  1. Follow the hashtag, sitting in your nightgown, and tear up looking at photos of everyone having fun without you. Then start budgeting a little every month to be there next year.
  2. Check out the schedule, and follow all the speakers on social to stay in their loop.
  3. Look at the conference’s website for any extras, such as videos, handouts, or slides. Have a little at-home conference while eating ice cream and extending zero effort to look cool and comfortable in a room of a thousand strangers.

I already have a budget line to save monthly for AWP. If you wait until the conference is HERE, the cost is going to slap you in the face like a dead salmon.

If you’re looking to launch your freelance writer’s life, get a free guide and invitation to join my webinar on Sept. 12th! Click here to sign up!

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