What do Webshaped, Tampere Goes Agile, and AgileJkl have in common? They are/were volunteer run developer conferences in Finland. I participated in the latter two as a participant and I even gave one of my first public technical presentations at AgileJkl in my home town. The conferences were successes in terms of experience but not sustainable as they relied on volunteer effort.
Although organizing a conference might feel like a simple task — get a space, speakers, catering, marketing, and go — it’s far from easy as plenty of coordination and planning is required.
By bringing people to a single place, you are compressing time and especially the conference days can be tough for organizers as you work to make sure the attendees don’t see the fires and have a good experience. It’s during the conference when all the preparation pays off.
History of React Finland#
React Finland started against this background. Samuli Hakoniemi initiated the first edition of React Finland by getting in touch with me and several other Finnish developers. We wanted to give back to the local community as we felt there was need for an event that would help us unity the locals with the global React community.
For me, it was natural to join the effort as I have good developer contacts due to my past involvement in the international development scene. After we had the initial speakers and space, there was no turning back.
The first React Finland was a success and it inspired us to run GraphQL Finland later in the same year (2018). This year (2019) we repeated React Finland in a larger space while refining the format and next year we’ll do the same.
Which business entity to use for a conference in Finland?#
To run a conference and handle money, you need a business entity. In Finland we have many to choose from and we decided to begin with a non-profit association. It fit our ideological background and helped us to bootstrap the first events successfully.
The situation changed this year (2019) as the tax authorities decreed that our operations don’t fulfil the definition of a non-profit and we’ll be taxed accordingly. In addition, we cannot compensate the organizers due to restrictions put on associations.
Given many of us spend significant amount of time and energy running the events, we felt continuing on this path would doom the events over longer term as it did for so many non-profit conferences before. In order to sustain the effort, we should run in such way that lets the organizers participate in more than volunteer basis.
The dilemma let us to an administrative change and we decided to begin running the events through a co-operative instead of using the association as before.
What’s the point of establishing a co-operative?#
A co-operative is a business entity which may be formed by a group of individuals or companies with a common goal. For us, it’s about organizing technical conferences in Finland and serving the community.
Compared to a limited, co-operative is more ideological in sense that you cannot purchase or sell it. It’s more about what you do together than the value of the company itself. A co-operative can have assets but the focus is more on the action than holding value.
A co-operative cannot grow in value unlike a limited leading to different incentives. Rather than growing the value of the business, we are rewarded if we run our events well.
Why co-operative is the right choice for us?#
In our case, co-operative allows us to organize and budget around a conference in such way that in addition to making sure the event runs well, we’ll be able to pay ourselves for the effort.
The point is not to make anyone rich. But we don’t feel it’s morally wrong to try to support organizers and give them a certain degree of sustenance for their efforts. By doing this, we guarantee longevity of the conferences we organize.
Who are behind React Finland?#
React Finland isn’t backed by a single corporate entity. All organizers work at different companies and we are not paid by those companies to run the conferences. Especially the ones running our own businesses, the conference work can provide supplemental income allowing us to focus more on organizing while not jeopardizing livelihood.
While we accept sponsorships, we look for collaborations that improve the conference experience for everyone. Our focus is always to make a great conference for speakers and attendees. Incidentally the focus gives also our sponsors value!
For-profit doesn’t mean maximizing profit#
Even though for-profit has a different connotation than non-profit, it doesn’t mean we’ll maximize our profits. To stand behind the words and the spirit of transparency, we’ll publish financials per conference from now on up to a point it’s legally possible.
Giving back to the speakers#
We want to experiment in paying our speakers. We already pay accommodation and travel expenses, including extra days beyond the conference, for all speakers and workshop instructors. In addition, we split workshop revenue 50/50 with the hosts.
We want to extend this further. One option is to allocate a percentage of profit per conference and share this between the speakers as they helped it to become a success.
It’s the fair thing to do and as a speaker I would appreciate the gesture given it would allow me to dedicate more time to preparation. Often in tech, especially freelancing speakers have to cover this cost from their own pocket.
Moving to a co-operative opens a new chapter for our organization and I think the future is exciting. I hope the move allows us to foster the good spirit of Finnish developer community and help it grow further as we do our best with our conferences.
Our core is still oriented towards serving the Finnish developer community and I feel moving to a co-operative was the right long term move for us.