Each year at the Office 2.0 conference about Web-based business apps and processes, paid attendees get some cool gadget pre-loaded with information relevant to the conference. In 2006--the first year of the show--the gadget was an iPod Nano with the conference schedule built in. In 2007, attendees got an iPhone with links to the conference information and the show's social-networking apps pre-loaded. This year, the giveaway is an HP 2133 Mini-Note PC (the Linux version, not Windows). Given that the cost of attending the conference ($1,495--but read to the end for a discount code) is half that of two other conferences popular with the Web 2.0 crowd, Demo and TechCrunch50, one has to wonder how the organizer of the Office 2.0 is making any money. Especially since the Office 2.0 venue is leagues fancier than those other shows' locales.
Here's the secret: he isn't.
Ismael Ghalimi is doing this conference for the love of it. "I love the workmanship of work, the business of these tools," he told me. "I like interacting with the people who are passionate about this stuff. Somehow it all fits together. We don't have very sophisticated motives. It's just plain fun."
Now, to be clear, both his business and his wife benefit from the conference. Ghalimi's day job is is running Intalio, which provides open-source business process management software, both free versions as well as paid subscriptions for large companies; Intalio has about 400 customers, the newest of which is the Bank of Venezuela. Ismael's wife, May Chang Ghalimi, is CEO of the Monolab Workspace, an office suite rental business designed to be compatible with the needs of Web 2.0 start-ups. Subscriptions even come with their own carbon offsets. Exposure to the Web 2.0 productivity wonks who come to the Office 2.0 conference no doubt help the Ghalimis sell their services.
But I believe Ismael when he says the Office 2.0 conference is, "our collective experiment." If he wanted to turn a profit he could start by not giving away $500+ notebooks (or he could get the giveaway sponsored, which it is not--the conference has to buy them). "We're not in the conference business," he says.
The Office 2.0 experiment is about moving a business--the conference itself--and a community wholly into the Web 2.0 world, and it's about studying which devices can help the most. The Apple devices in previous years were successes, he says. This year's Linux subnotebook giveaway will likely be less used at the conference than the pocketable devices of previous years, but Ghalimi believes that giving people devices that are essentially just Web browsing machines will reinforce that you can in fact get real work done without having much, if any, local software on your laptop. For Ghalimi, that's apparently worth the expense.
Ghalimi tries to run the conference without paper and without traditional software apps. This year he's having better luck than last. There's finally a good Web-delivered accounting system, he says (Intacct), solving one of the last issues he had in going fully 2.0. And like last year, the only paper he has to deal with is the sponsor fees. Many are still submitted by check.
Office 2.0 also experiments with "back channel" concepts: community and social services that reinforce what's happening at the show. A group Twitter feed will be projected on the side walls of the conference during sessions, oriented so both audience and people on stage can see it. Ghalimi is using Jive's Clearspace enterprise collaboration service as the foundation for a communication during and after the show. But, he says, he still needs better tools to help attendees "get better value out of their time."
Most current conference networks, he says, "create a lot of cognitive friction." There are always people he use them, but they're usually the same people: "those social media freaks." Ghalimi believes that, "we need to wait a couple of years until the large players take over the market...until everyone decides that our social graph is going to be on LinkedIn or Facebook," or a similar service that is already working as a de facto business social network.
Recently I've been writing a greater proportion of curmudgeonly posts than I normally do. That's because I've been talking to entrepreneurs about their one-trick and derivative products. Ghalimi is helping to restore my faith in Web 2.0 by illustrating how complex and interesting inter-related Web-based businesses can be. He is involved in three fundamentally different enterprises that nonetheless reinforce each other. It makes his businesses both more interesting and more robust than they would be on their own.The Office 2.0 conference opens September 3 in San Francisco. You can get a small ($100) registration discount by going through this link.