A hacker’s guide to throwing a kick-ass party, part 1

“Let’s make sure that the aerialist is cool with remote control sharks flying around during her act,” I typed into my phone. It was forty-eight hours before our fundraising event, and I was a wreck. We still needed liability insurance. We were short six volunteers. And I needed 1,000 party cups with a biohazard symbol printed on them ASAP.

I am not cut out for this sort of thing. I’m a user experience designer, not a party planner.

Yet, last month my cofounders at LIFFFT (a design-centric product studio) and I threw a fundraiser for Charity Water. Not only am I not an event producer, I’m not even a particularly good logistics person. You’re probably not either. But if you run (or work at) a startup, you’re eventually going to organize a product launch or marketing event. And your budget will probably be less than most high school pizza parties spend. This guide contains my best tips, tricks and hard-won lessons from throwing a last-minute party on a shoestring budget.

1. Find the cool kids and get on their calendar

If you’re using Facebook to promote your event, you have to get over that initial hurdle of “200 people invited … 0 attending.” (Facebook at least had the decency to not show the “declined” count on the event page.) Before I sent out a broader invite, I reached out to a few of my influential friends in the startup and design communities and asked them to respond to what was essentially a pre-invite list. Since Facebook doesn’t let you send a message along with an invitation, I added the following statement to the beginning of the event description:

*** You’re on the PRE-INVITE list ***

Why? We want you to attend. But we also want your help promoting.

Here’s how you can help: 

1) RSVP as a “yes” even if you’re not 100% sure you can make it. RVSPs turn into momentum and will bring others on board. 

2) We’re going to make it a public event later this week. When that happens, we’ll send around a link to share, encouraging people to donate to the campaign and register for the party. We’re hoping you can help us share that. 

This was pretty effective. We got about 45 “yes” replies before sending the invitation to everyone else. When the majority of the invitees landed on the event page, they saw a bunch of “yeses” from cool people they know in real life or follow on Twitter. Instant social proof.

2. Eventbrite > Facebook

In hindsight, I screwed up. As the fundraiser grew in scope (and ambition), I began to realize that I should have used Eventbrite instead of Facebook. Unlike Facebook, Eventbrite shows you how many people actually saw the invite. Eventbrite also lets you send formal emails to attendees. When you want to message attendees on Facebook, they receive it as a Facebook message. Based on anecdotal feedback I received, emails communicate more seriousness than Facebook invites — people are more likely to click through, RSVP and ultimately attend.

Facebook does have one advantage over Eventbrite though — it owns your friends list. However, Facebook makes it really difficult to turn that list into a list of email addresses. Here’s a janky but totally workable five-minute solution:

  • Open a Yahoo email account.
  • Use its Facebook contact importer.
  • Go back to Eventbrite and create a new invitation. In the recipients field, click “import your Yahoo contacts.”
  • Voila. You imported your Facebook contacts into Eventbrite.

3. Find real time, collaborative project management tools 

We use Asana for managing tasks at LIFFFT, so adding a Charity Water project was a no-brainer for us. Trello, Orchestra or a Google Doc would’ve worked perfectly fine as well. The important criteria is a central, collaborative workspace where everyone can grab tasks and keep them updated as planning progresses.

If you’re not already using a collaborative task management system, I would suggest trying Trello over Asana. Asana’s mobile app may be the worst app (slow/crippled) ever built by frighteningly smart people  (and that’s saying something considering how bad Facebook’s app is). Since so much event planning happens on the go, a proper mobile client is absolutely critical. Choose carefully.

You’ll also want a group messaging app for everyone on your core team. We use GroupMe, but iMessage or any number of the competitors would work perfectly fine. The key is application reliability and usage throughout the team. When you’re in the heat of vendor negotiations and need info from another team member, the latency on email is just too long.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share my advice on how to best motivate your network to get involved.

P.S. Want to see how the event turned out? Check out the gallery on Flickr.

Donald DeSantis is a user experience designer and partner at LIFFFT, a design-centric product studio focused on disruptive innovation.

Image courtesy of Flickr user thebigo.