A while ago, I wrote that it was time to reinvent the REBarCamp and that I would do more than just kvetch about it. Yesterday, we had a very small, very intimate gathering of likeminded and curious folks at the GoodLife Team‘s offices in Austin, TX. (Thanks so much, once again, Garry and Kristina Wise!) It wasn’t widely advertised on purpose, as I wanted to see how the format would work, whether we’d generate anything useful out of it, and yet, people came and joined in for as long as they could. Given the on-purpose lack of advance notice, I’m extremely happy that we got to test out the concept.
I can speak only for myself when I say that I thought the format worked beautifully for what I intended, and that I hope to do a more formal, more advance-notice, REFooCamp soon. Perhaps in Atlanta next? These are just a few of my observations.
One of my complaints about how the REBarCamp movement had evolved was that there were certain topics that you could predict would be “discussed” (or more accurately, taught) well in advance. It has to be in order to fulfill the now-current goal of most REBarCamps to introduce real estate agents and brokers to the world of technology and social media. I wanted to bring back the really chaotic nature of the “un-conference” that was REBarCamp in its early days with REFooCamp, and made the following rule:
Every session topic must be in the form of “I am currently working on…”
There was to be no general presentation on general tactics, no description of existing products that were already in the marketplace, no boasting about what wonderful things one had accomplished with Facebook, or whatever. Every topic had to be about something that the presenter was working on right then.
As I had hoped, the result was that the topics were as varied as those willing to present. I presented our work in progress at NationalBLS, which led to an incredible give-and-take of comments, questions, pointing out flaws, and practical insight. One attendee started to tell us that he was working on implementing some new internal document management systems for his brokerage office, but that conversation became really about the challenge of managing agent expectations as a broker/manager. Yet another presentation was on some really cutting edge thinking on incorporating the social graph and demographic data into the home search process — and it wasn’t just theorizing, this was something that the person was actually working on, albeit at an early stage.
The sheer unpredictability of the topics was, I felt, thrilling. You didn’t quite know what you were going to hear, and there was no expectation that whoever is presenting has all the answers. It is naturally difficult to have all the answers for something one is currently working on and hasn’t introduced into the market or into an organization.
One very nice bonus: since some of the presenters were brokers, managers, and agents, and what they were working on were real estate business issues, this was the first real estate conference in a long time that I’ve attended where we discussed real estate. Shocking, that, no?
What I would do differently for the next REFooCamp — and would recommend to anyone interested in exploring this format — is to take the time at the start to actually list what the topic is. While it was interesting to find out what the topic was when the presenter opened his or her mouth, a more formal, more organized FooCamp would probably require the sessions board that we’ve become familiar with, and there will be some need to tell attendees what the topic is. But beyond this minor administrative change, I don’t think I would change a thing about requiring that every topic be “What I’m working on right now”. That worked.
What I did realize, however, is that the impromptu presentation doesn’t work quite as well for a “What I’m working on” session. Those could turn into a sort of brainstorming session, which may be valuable to the presenter, but could end up feeling a little bit detached from reality.
For the next REFooCamp I would like to organize, I’d probably ask for submissions in advance, and let the presenters know that they should probably prepare something to actually present what it is that they’re working on. That could be a prototype, that could be charts and diagrams, that could be a powerpoint, it could be drawings on a whiteboard. But the sessions would improve, I believe, with a presenter that could go into some detail about what he’s working on, what he’s done to date, show any work up to that point, and either showcase the coolness, or ask questions and get feedback.
For example, I’d have loved to have put up a projector and said to the group, “Okay, so here’s the last revision of the data dictionary for NationalBLS as it is today” and show them the document. Then we go beyond just discussion into something that feels like actual work, actual participation in creating something together.
The downside, I think, is that REFooCamp might have a higher A/V requirement than a typical REBarCamp. At least a whiteboard/blackboard for each session room/area may be a requirement.
People and Discussion
What I found so interesting about the REFooCamp experience is that when you start talking about a specific project that is in progress, there are no such things as experts and beginners. Even a discussion that could start very technical inevitably has a business dimension that the non-techies in the group can (and does) feel comfortable chiming in on. I’m sure there will be some topics that people just won’t find interesting, or may actually be above their heads (e.g., if someone started putting up blocks of code), but until I see such a session to see how it plays out, I can’t say that there’s no value in hearing from some broker-owner who doesn’t know the first thing about computers, but may have great insight into workflow issues that the software is supposedly trying to address.
I do think REFooCamp requires people who are active participants. A passive listener isn’t likely to get a whole lot out of any session, because the topic is relatively specific: about this project, that this person is working on. There just wasn’t a whole lot of “general lessons to be learned” type of takeaways, at least from my perspective, but there were plenty of specific problems faced by specific people that ended up yielding more insight into some larger issues.
REFooCamp is definitely not for everyone. There’s very little chance of anyone walking away from a REFooCamp feeling like he’s learned practical to-do’s about how to build his Facebook fan page, or how he could improve his SEO. Other conferences, thankfully, such as Xplode (which was the day before REFooCamp), Inman Connect, NAR Conventions, AgentReboot, RETechSouth, and various REBarCamps, fill that gap admirably. Someone who is just interested in learning probably won’t be served all that well by attending one of these things.
However, for those who are more interested in specific challenges faced by real people, and possible practical solutions to those, REFooCamp is amazing. For people who want a window into some of the details of real situations, REFooCamp is ideal. For example, what started out as something that looked like a technology challenge turned out to be a political/strategic challenge, once the participants get through asking questions, commenting from their own bases of expertise, and yet, everyone involved got a peek into those very real issues of personalities, office politics, and business realities.
And of course, anyone who is facing a real burning challenge in her real-life business and can’t figure out what to do about it could present…. Then the floodgates open, and she could walk away with not general theories and best-practices, but specific recommendations on her specific problems. That has to be priceless.
I do hope the other attendees would chime in with their thoughts and recommendations, and I look forward to trying this out again.