Hi everyone!

Handmade Seattle prep has officially started again. The venue is booked. November dates are set in stone. Ticket sales start in May. We're expanding to bring back the Hall of Demos. We're also adding job booths⁠—come get hired! Most importantly our hopes for ChocoVine to sponsor us are higher than ever (I'm just kidding...) I hope you're excited for a hybrid event that will be much bigger than the last.

However, this blog post will now focus on its title.

After seeing the impact of Handmade conferences so far, I want to see how far we can go with them while staying 100% indie. I've decided to venture into deeper waters and do this full-time and⁠—to put it bluntly⁠—rely on you to reduce the danger of drowning (more on this later.)

The Pain of Independence

Imagine you're an organizer and your Inbox pings with a message from a CEO:

"Hey! We noticed your conference is growing and bringing in engineering talent. Our company wants to be a part of this. We're prepared to offer a $20k sponsorship. How soon can we nail down the details?"

The effect of that dollar amount is chilling. You look around you. There's other organizers using free sponsorships to grow; after all, booking even a small empty venue can cost you ten-thousand dollars these days. After you pay for professional staff, A/V equipment, tables, booths, insurance, speaking fees, and more you're out tens of thousands of dollars. You're constantly on the edge of your seat because even if you manage to sell all tickets, the leftover profits are minuscule. It doesn't feel worth it. You say to yourself: "Damn. A free bag of money from Microsoft feels necessary."

And you'd be right!

It feels necessary and it is rational to want to shake the money tree. I understand anyone who does it. I am that organizer receiving sponsorship e-mails each year. It's not a huge amount of software companies, but I've had enough invitations to make it painful to reject them (especially now that I won't be gainfully employed.) And yet, I still reject them because Handmade conferences must be funded and executed without corporate influence.

Our Industry Needs Self-Hosted Conferences

The software world faces a crisis: it's giving too much priority to control and profits. It makes products not meant to innovate or serve the end-user, and while I don't claim all companies do this, a significant number of them unfortunately do:

  • Smart TVs lag and become unusable but will make sure to explode your screen with ads before they croak.
  • Operating systems reset your desired settings, inject invasive telemetry, update without consent, and become increasingly gated.
  • There are programs you can never uninstall from your phone.
  • Home appliances stop working when an Amazon server dies.

I was particularly struck by a Hacker News comment posted by user ryandrake, which I will quote in full:

To me, computers used to be fun when you commanded them what to do, they did it, then they prompted you for another command.

Now, more and more, computers are trying to tell us what to do. Notifications, unwanted ads, spam, recommendations, pop ups, accept this, subscribe to that, dark patterns trying to get me to do something... I never commanded my computer to do these things. Some product manager at some company 1000 miles away simply decided my computer should do these things, without even my input. Even my operating system! After booting up, it's running hundreds of programs simultaneously. I did not tell it to run these things! It's doing it all by itself out of the box. I feel less and less in control of my computer and more and more a bystander.

There's a dominant incentive for centralized power at the cost of everything else. Now more than ever conferences need to shine a light on the "everything else," but it is very hard to shine when the hands that feed the conference organizer are the very ones smashing our light-bulbs.

Self-hosted conferences are an antidote. If software is eating the world we have an obligation to our users to gather together and challenge / scrutinize all software. We are to think deeply about software quality. We should encourage reinvention, and we would be wise to celebrate more nonprofits, small shops, and indie hackers. Self-hosted conferences help enable this new reality.

As a self-hosted conference you find ways to survive without "free" sponsors:

  • Embrace being a small business owner.
  • Keep costs low.
  • Lean on ticket sales and small donations from fans. Selling your own merchandise is fine too.
  • Rent booths to companies looking to hire programmers, on the condition they don't impose influence on how your event is organized (this includes not having their logo on your website.)
  • Accept that growth will be slow.

You may also choose to protect your conference goers by:

  • Hosting your own chat server and encrypting private conversations.
  • Processing as much information as you can in-house e.g. instead of TicketMaster you personally consume Stripe / Paypal webhooks to generate people's tickets.

We already do all of these things for Handmade Seattle. I find this antidote powerful enough that I intend to run multiple self-hosted conferences a year (hopefully starting next year. Can you already see a Handmade Austin or Handmade Miami Vice?) As a polyglot I also intend to work with and inspire non-US organizers to self-host technology events of their own.

I am already aware of three other organizations wanting to go self-hosted, one of them HYTRADBOI, who was directly inspired by Handmade's funding model. The other two have not gone public with their intentions yet.

Channeling Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales is not afraid to ask for donations. I am learning to channel my inner Wales to ask you the following now: if you are moved by my strong vision for Handmade conferences, chip in what you can. I'm going on this full-time as an indie organizer, and sacrificing the engineer's salary, because I genuinely believe people will help. I know I will not drown in these new waters and we welcome the adversities ahead.

Closing Thoughts: Terminal Click and Cyan Worlds

When I'm not actively organizing, I'll be working on Terminal Click. It's a terminal emulator I've been developing on-and-off for 2-3 years. I believe it has promise and I look forward to streaming the project next month. Handmade conferences are for systems programmers, and it makes sense for me to stay in touch with systems programming in this way!

I am also thankful to my last employer Cyan Worlds, creators of Myst and other life-changing video games. Thank you for letting me be a senior engineer for a year plus some change and for being supportive of Handmade Seattle.

Now, onward.

-Abner

P.S. This was a serious enough topic that I avoided sprinkling references of Majora's Mask. Expect a helping of falling moons next time.