So here I am sitting in my hotel room on Monday afternoon. I came in early because I had wanted to attend REBarCamp NYC being put on by the awesome folks at Lucky Strikes Social Media Club. You will notice the word “had” in the preceding sentence, because I just decided I’m not going to go to REBarCamp. This is not a knock on Patrick Healy, Scott Forcino, or the rest of the amazing, wonderful folks at LSSMC; I was involved with planning the REBCNY last year, and I thought we all did a great job. I’m certain, positive, that the crew of 2011 will do an even better job, and it will be among the best REBarCamps ever.
No, I just decided that I’m not attending because… let us be frank: the REBarCamps have become a more-or-less standardized affair over the last three years that is much less about conversation amongst equals and much more about social media and technology training for newbie real estate agents. Since I’m not a real estate agent, and not a newbie, I find myself looking forward more to hallway conversations and #lobbycon chats than the sessions themselves.
No reason to take up a valuable spot then. But I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Which is why I believe it may be time to reinvent the REBarCamp, and perhaps bring it back to the future.
First, Disclaimer… Plus Predictability
Every single time the topic of REBC comes up, there are passionate opinions on all sides. I think I still have some scars from last year, actually, when fierce debate was going on about what a barcamp is, what it is not, and the lovely hashtag #notabarcamp comes to mind.
So let’s start with this caveat: If you are organizing a REBC, then REBC is whatever you want it to be. You’re putting in the effort, you’re doing the work, so you get to call the shots and make the decisions. I will be the last person to throw stones or criticize anyone willing to put in the work to organize one. Having done it myself, I know how much work it takes, and I have all the respect in the world for those who put one on.
But let us be frank. I can predict several of the sessions tomorrow without knowing a thing about what’s been planned: Social Media 101, Facebook for Real Estate, Using Video for Real Estate, Location Based Services (e.g., Foursquare, etc.), How to Blog Effectively for Real Estate, Killer Apps for Real Estate on iPad/iPhone/Android, Essential WordPress Plugins, Mobile Search Apps, Google Analytics, Converting Online Leads, and so on. Anyone who has been to more than two REBC’s in his life can likely predict the same list of sessions. The once-upon-a-time Un-Conference has become quite a bit Conference-like.
The purpose of REBC these days appears to be to provide free training to real estate agents on how to use the Internet, use social media, and whatever else to improve their business. That is a noble goal, perhaps, but I rather think other organizations — such as REALTOR Associations, various conference organizers (such as Inman with its Agent Reboot series, or RETechSouth), and others — are better suited to achieve it.
The thing that made REBC special, at least for me, in the early days when no one really knew much of anything, was the sharing amongst equals. There was no sense of ‘teacher-student’ or ‘expert-newbie’ in the early days. Everyone knew just about as much as everyone else, and the sharing of ideas, talking about what each of us was doing, and the friendly constructive criticism from one’s peers were all very special.
A Modest Proposal
So, here’s what I’d like to propose as a way to reinvent and revitalize the REBarCamp.
Give, Not Receive
With all apology to newbies, if you really just need to know the basics of technology-centered real estate, go elsewhere. Check out the training your local Association or local MLS provides. Check out Agent Reboot. Definitely check out RETechSouth. But REBC is a place for practitioners to share with each other, not for free training on using Facebook to increase leads. This means that each attendee is expected to have some expertise, some perspective, on each and every session attended. No more passively sitting around taking notes from the “gurus” — you also are a “guru” like the person presenting.
All Sessions are in the nature of “What I’m Working On Now”
Once you cut out the newbie-training stuff, the dilemma becomes “Okay, Mr. Smartypants – what do you think is ‘advanced’ then?” I suppose you could have a session on “Programming Real Estate Websites for the Semantic Web Using Ruby on Rails” but literally three people could even understand such a session. Or, someone could think that a topic is suited for a truly expert audience, only to find out that everyone else knows that stuff cold and couldn’t care less.
The answer, I think, is to have every REBC session be in the nature of “What I’m working on these days”. It could be your blog redesign. It could be a new way of handling listing data from RPR to display on mobile apps. It could be a new product you’re building for Android. It could be a new business model for handling REO sales. It doesn’t much matter what it is; it does matter that it is something you are personally working on right now.
This way, even if the “topic” is something that everyone else knows, they can help you really advance your idea or product with constructive criticism. “Have you thought about using the new WalkScore API’s in your mobile app?” or “I think if you cut your price by 10%, you would get more market share” or whatever helpful advice they can give. And you in other sessions would add your expertise to help out a specific person with his specific issue.
In some cases, we’ll all be wowed by whatever it is that you’re working on. “Wow, I never thought of using Facebook and Google Voice like that before!” Those are the moments of insight and excitement for people who have been around the block a few times.
No Stages, Just Circles
Each and every room will be setup in a circle or set of circles. No more stages, lecterns, microphones, or anything that creates the impression that the presenter is a teacher and the rest of us are students. If you have to use a projector, use it. But the people will then be in a semi-circle and know that you’re a peer.
Cut Costs, Reduce Pressure to Fundraise
Sponsorships are a major headache for REBC organizers. When you’re putting on an event with a couple hundred attendees expected, finding space for free becomes troublesome. And of course, the badges, t-shirts, random office supplies, and the free lunch all add up.
With a small group, which is what I suspect the above principles would naturally lead to, the pressure for fundraising and finding sponsors decreases significantly. It’s really nice to have beautiful custom-designed badges and t-shirts. They’re not essential, however. Free lunch is wonderful, but if people are coming to REBC to get fed, I think their priorities are a bit mixed up. Space is always an issue, but if the number of people is closer to 25 than to 250, perhaps it’s easier to find someone willing to give us a large conference room for a day.
Part of the cost-cutting, however, absolutely has to be an accurate count of attendees. Too many REBC’s I’ve seen and been part of expect 350 people based on pre-registration on the website, only to have 200 of them cancel at the last minute. No thanks. I love what REBCNY 2011 is doing in this regard: charge $25, but that pays for your free t-shirt and lunch. That’s a good deal, and besides, people are less likely to skip out on things they have already paid for (unless it’s a gym membership).
So, every REBC should charge a nominal non-refundable registration fee — say $15 to $30. And give a free t-shirt (which would cost about $15) to each attendee. It remains “free” but you really cut down on no-shows.
More than Words
I figure, if I’m going to suggest these things as principles and ideas, I should be willing to do more than yap about it. So I will.
Once my move to Houston is complete, I would like to organize one of these “REBC-style” events either in Houston or in Austin, to see how such a thing would go. I’d expect it to be in the April/May timeframe, and frankly, if it ends up being me and two other people in a conference room, that’s fine by me.
I apologize if this strikes anyone as incredibly elitist and snobby. But I really don’t want to have to start arguing with the presenter at some session again, only to realize there are sixty people in the room who were hanging on the guy’s every word who now feel that their “learning experience” has been disrupted by some random troublemaker. I guess when I do feel as if I have something to teach, rather than discuss, I’ll go ahead and teach. But REBC for me will be a place to discuss, to debate, to talk about what I’m working on to get useful feedback on it, and to provide what insight I could to what others are working on.
Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.