Melissa Alam’s name is one that’s quite familiar in the streets of Philly, especially if you ask women that are entrenched in the startup community. Notably recognized for her efforts of launching The Hive, a co-working space for women that regrettably closed down in February, Melissa has continued to push her agenda of female empowerment in the city of Brotherly Love. 2016 marks year two of The Fearless Conference, a two-day event that Melissa started to connect ambitious and creative women in entrepreneurship. The conference features panels and workshops led by some powerful local and national names among the digital strategist’s network, including Daily Worth CEO Amanda Steinberg and the founders of Shark Tank invested company, Piper Wai. In this interview with BAUCE, Melissa shares what it takes to create a memorable conference and how to find success as a young entrepreneur.
What was your inspiration for starting the Fearless Conference?
Melissa: I go to a lot of conferences myself. I think it’s really important to invest in yourself, especially if you’re an entrepreneur. When you’re working from home or working alone it gets kind of stale, so going to workshops or conferences is a great way to meet people and get reinvigorated for yourself and your business. I also wanted to create something of scale on my own in Philadelphia because no one else was doing it here in Philly. I am frequently traveling to conferences in Chicago, L.A. or New York and wanted to build something for Philly that aligns with the brand that I’m building around female entrepreneurship and empowerment.
I also like to test myself — I like to give myself huge goals to see if I can accomplish them and this conference is one of them. So that’s how it all started and now we’re in our second year.
It seems that in the past there was a lack of focus on women in Philly’s startup community. Why do you think a conference like yours never “existed” before?
Melissa: I’m not sure that there hasn’t been one like it, but I know that there hasn’t been one that I’ve been able to relate to — and that’s the key. [When it comes to new ideas], you don’t necessarily have to invent or innovate something brand new. Sometimes, you can just put your own style and twist on something and that’s going to naturally make it different. I think the demographic here is a little older and all of the conferences here that are held in the tech space and the startup community are really male-dominated and that pissed me off. I remember three years ago there was a startup conference and I tweeted “why are there no female speakers?” That was kind of the moment in which I decided to create my own conference to see if I could fill a void and create a solution.
So what is your special “twist” on Fearless? What makes your conference difference from other women-focused conferences out there?
Melissa: I am naturally a very goofy person and I rarely take anything too seriously and I try to emanate that through all of my work and stay completely authentic online. People can see that I like to hustle but I also love to have fun and the conference is a mixture of that. The conference provides quality content for women to learn from, but in a causal environment. I want my attendees to feel like themselves — not like they have to be “someone else” to fit in or be there. I really try to keep everything very relatable.
When it comes to the content we are producing and the overall flow of the event, everything is super casual. Our speakers are also a mixture of people from the community (so a lot of small business owners) as well as some high value leaders in the space. We try to balance out our speakers and panelists with people who our attendees won’t be afraid to talk to after the event. We wanted to cut out that awkward moment at most conferences when someone is talking and someone’s trying to go up and speak to them but they feel super shy because everyone else is trying to speak to the same person!
What lessons did you learn from your first year planning the Fearless conference? What worked and what did you recognize you needed to improve upon for the upcoming year?
Melissa: One thing I changed was the length of the conference. Last year was one day only and I actually expanded the event to two days because I was able to secure two venues and to build out the schedule to provide more content. The first day now includes interactive workshops and a happy hour and the second day is lunch, networking, panels and a keynote. One lesson I learned from last year was to be on time with planning and to stay organized. Last year I started late and one of my friends kept telling me to postpone the conference and I was like no, I can’t keep postponing it. So starting early this year has definitely helped. Staying organized is key and really asking people what they want to hear about and catering the conference content towards those requests has been valuable as well.
A lot of the people who are speaking or hosting a workshop are people I know so reaching out and utilizing my network has been really helpful and is something I plan to continue doing for next year as well.
You mentioned “starting early” as a key component to success when planning a conference. What does this timeline look like for a conference of your size?
Melissa: The conference is in the fall so I got started in March and April with laying out the foundation for the theme of the conference and making the website. The summer has been a bit tough because I started promoting in May and June and it’s been a bit slow with people out-of-town and on vacation. However, we typically aim for ticket sales to pick up towards the end of summer. I also try to spend a few hours a week reaching out to sponsors. Starting early and getting sponsors is important because people’s budgets get used up and companies start reconciling towards the end of their fiscal year. Also, when I’m working to get speakers, I usually send out ten emails a week. You have to set weekly benchmarks so that when you accomplish them you’ll feel good about it and your “big goal” won’t feel so unreachable in the long-run.
How much does it typically cost to run a conference?
Melissa: If you can get sponsorships then that’s awesome and will reduce your overall cost and increase your profit in ticket sales. Last year it cost me about $4,000 and half of that expense was actually the venue. I was able to secure $2,000 in sponsorships. I’m also pretty good with money when it comes to stretching dollars, budgeting, and being smart about purchases. The biggest cost is usually going to be where the event is held.
Sponsorships can be invaluable to building brand awareness and reducing costs as you mentioned. How can someone successfully pitch themselves to secure a sponsor for an event?
Melissa: It’s important to have a deck or some sort of marketing collateral ready for them with your key numbers and a clear explanation of the benefit of the partnership. Also, you must be sure that you’re catering each email to a specific sponsor and not just sending out a generic template. Stay on top of things and respond to your sponsorship emails right away; being timely shows that you are responsive and responsible.
A lot of times people don’t have the financial ability to support you but they are willing to trade services that can support the overall experience for your conference attendees. I would recommend that you be open to non-financial sponsorships as well. It could be anything from someone providing items for your goodie bags or someone offering up their CEO to speak at your conference.
Honestly, it’s tough to ask anyone for money which is why you have to be strategic. One thing I did was make a list of three demographics I wanted to target in terms of sponsors. My first demographic was female-focused businesses, my second was [non-creative] industries, and my third was the startup and freelancer community. I catered my sponsorship requests to match each group and that helped a lot.
Melissa, what would be your advice for someone who is thinking about launching their own conference but is terrified by how much work it takes to pull it off?
Melissa: My advice would be to get rid of self-doubt, stop comparing yourself to others, and hustle your ass off. Everything is going to show in your work. That’s how I built my career. I was not handed the key to the kingdom; I had to create it. It’s truly about the late nights, the working ’til 3 or 4 AM. There’s a difference between going out on a Friday night and staying in and working on a Friday night — you have to figure out what sacrifices you are willing to make for your dreams to come true. Continue learning, investing in yourself and networking. You just have to hustle your ass off.
The Fearless Conference was recently featured on our list of women’s focused conference. Secure your seat at this year’s Fearless Conference and get 20% off your ticket purchase by using the code “bauce” here. You can keep up with Melissa through her personal website and on Twitter and Instagram.