The header of the conference portion of the website 99u.com is emblazoned with a familiar saying: “1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.” Clichés aside, the saying is exactly in line with 99U’s philosophy and actions. A brand dedicated to delivering “insights on making ideas happen,” 99U is a part of Behance, an online platform on which creatives — including architects, marketers, and fashion, web, and graphic designers — can showcase their portfolios. An important channel to deliver those insights is 99U’s annual conference in New York City, held on May 2-3 this year.
While many conferences and presentations provide attendees with inspirational speeches, “What’s unique about 99U,” said Jocelyn Glei, 99U’s editor in chief, “is that it really focuses not on inspirational idea generation, but really on idea execution.” To that end, Glei and one other colleague work hard to curate speakers who have achieved “remarkable” accomplishments — whether it’s starting a business or creating a work of art — and help them structure their presentations on the pragmatic takeaways they can provide attendees about what they’ve learned while putting their ideas into action.
The speaker lineup at the 2013 conference read like a who’s who of the creative world — entrepreneurs, designers, authors, and photographers — including Joe Gebbia, co-founder of the apartment-rental website Airbnb; Kaaren Hansen, vice president of design innovation at financial-software development company Intuit (one of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies,” according to Forbes); and Leah Busque, founder and CEO of TaskRabbit, a job-outsourcing app. Past speakers have included Jack Dorsey, creator and co-founder of Twitter, and John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Speakers are generally sourced on an invite-only basis, Glei said, although there is a place on the website for speaker nominations. “We are constantly thinking of a running list of people who we think are really amazing and who have accomplished incredible things,” she said. “It’s not just about hearing about your experience — it’s hearing about your experience and understanding what you learned that I can apply to my experience.”
‘IT WAS EVEN BETTER’
Conference organizers ramped up attendance this year, from 400 attendees in 2012 to 1,000. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the 99U team decided to increase the number of attendees after finding a great venue, rather than sourcing a venue to accommodate more attendees. From 2009 until last year, the conference was held at The TimesCenter, an event space located on the first floor of the New York Times Building. “[It] is a really beautiful conference center that was designed by [Italian architect] Renzo Piano,” Glei said. “… 99U is very focused on design, so the design of the space and quality of the space is really important to us.” But when organizers looked at the 1,085- seat Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, they knew they’d found the right fit, and started planning an expansion accordingly. “Once we decided to go with that venue, which is one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world,” Glei said, “… for us the content and the overall structure of the event was able to stay largely the same, but we had to expand certain offerings.”
Since its inception, the 99U Conference has sold out well in advance of the event — sometimes up to nine months ahead. Despite the huge increase in capacity, this year was no different. “The reason that’s worked is that it’s not just a conference, it’s a larger brand and it’s an editorial property,” Glei said. The website 99u.com shares articles and tips geared toward creative-idea execution, and so attendees (and potential attendees) stay engaged year-round. “[Attendees] really identify with the mission, and they are themselves people who really want to make their ideas happen, so it makes it a much easier task than if we were just saying, ‘Hey, you bought a ticket last year,’ then we contact them nine months later and ask them if they want to do that again.”
A natural fear with that much expansion is that it might dilute the content or experience for attendees, Glei said. That was not the case. She heard from a number of people who have attended multiple 99U conferences that this was the best event yet. “It was kind of amazing to have people who had been to the conference in a smaller setting,” she said, “come to the larger event and feel like it was even better.”
MIXING IT UP
The main conference presentations are structured as 20-minute general-session talks, both as a way to get speakers to distill their information down to action-oriented takeaways for the audience, and so the content is easily sharable online — 99U makes nearly all conference sessions available on its website. “When you start to get a little bit longer in online video,” Glei said, “it’s kind of a lot to digest.” What isn’t recorded are some of the Master Class programs — multitrack, 75-minute interactive presentations that go more in-depth for a smaller group of people. Attendees pick one of the sessions — like “Creating a Digital Strategy That Actually Works” or “Using Improv to Embrace Risk & Take Action Quickly” — which were held at various buildings around Lincoln Center this year. Glei expanded the Master Class sessions from three last year to six, all of which take place near the end of the conference’s first day, always on a Thursday.
Earlier on Thursday morning, before the conference even begins, are Studio Sessions, organized at various creative studios around the city. Groups of 50 to 60 attendees gather to learn about topics that range from “User Experience for Non-Designers” to “Branding Your Startup Business,” where the idea is for “people to get to do something sort of cool and learn something and meet people in a smaller setting before they show up at the conference and there’s a larger audience,” Glei said.
Theme and speaker selection aren’t the only innovative elements of the 99U Conference — Glei also takes a targeted approach when it comes to sponsorships. “One of the things that makes 99U so special as a conference is that we really think about every little detail, whether it’s design or the actual flow of the event,” she said. “That extends to the sponsor partnerships.” She tries to come up with solutions that make sense for sponsors but don’t feel like a cookie-cutter approach for attendees.
Creatives often need professional headshots, for example. So this year, through its partnership with Pantone — best known for its series of color swatches regularly used in design and manufacturing — 99U took free headshots at a booth in the hall lobby; huge Pantone chips served as backdrops. “It’s something that provided a cool service that the attendees were excited about and also was really great exposure for the brand,” Glei said. “The conference itself is all about providing some kind of utility, so it fit in with that.”