Maker Faires around the world attract over a million visitors each year. When Maker-in-chief Sherry Huss co-created the first Maker Faire in 2005, she’d already been organising tech and media events for nine years. Now she’s run 12 years of Maker Faires, managing a worldwide team while carrying on several side projects. She gave us an extensive look at her work habits, her management techniques, and the process of launching and running each Faire.
Location: Occidental, CA (West Sonoma County)
Current Gig: Independent Study (taking it all in, getting out and talking to the community while taking a break from being maker-in-chief and co-creator of Maker Faire)
Current mobile device: iPhone 7 plus
Current computer: MacBook Pro 15" and Apple 27" Thunderbolt Display
One word that best describes how you work: Focused
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
It’s an interesting journey and one that I would have never imagined, yet it is one that I wouldn’t change for anything.
I grew up in Northern Ohio (Elyria, Ohio, just west of Cleveland) and went to university at Ohio State University. I graduated with a degree in business, specialising in marketing and international business. After graduation I moved to the US west coast and ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. My first job was with Addison Wesley/Benjamin-Cummings as a university textbook sales rep.
I fell in love with tech and followed a path of software publishing and then eventually electronic publishing. In the mid-90s I landed a gig as Director of Electronic Publishing at Ziff-Davis Consumer Media Group (Computer Life, FamilyPC and Computer Gaming World magazines) focusing on building electronic communities.
This was in the height of the multimedia boom in San Francisco, with Wired magazine and so much more coming out of Multimedia Gulch. I spent a lot of time working on building and developing online communities, yet the platforms were so basic (Prodigy, AOL, Compuserve) and we kept getting caught up in CD-ROM delivery issues (Mac vs. PC).
I jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the event division of the company, ZD Events. My first event ever was launching JavaOne back in 1996 (write once, run anywhere — the promise of solving the PC vs. Mac delivery issue). I finally could use all that I learned about communities, real time, in an event format.
I loved the instant feedback, the real time deadlines and a chance to make it better the next time. I was so hooked on live events that I spent the next 20+ years continuing to get better and taking more risks with concepts and execution.
With the success of JavaOne, other tech companies wanted the same type of industry event (with all the special touches we added: Live music, entertainment, better food, and an atmosphere for developers to connect) and before I knew it, I was heading up the leading agency for global developer events, ZD Studios.
My event agency team created and delivered developer events for all the big names in the industry: Intel, Sun, Oracle, Microsoft, Cisco, Netscape and RealNetworks. We were on a roll, and kept delivering these events around the world, until everything changed after 11 September 2001. It wasn’t as easy to travel, and everything just got hard.
My next event, a bit outside the developer space, was Web 2.0. I met Dale Dougherty through my work in the developer conference world. Dale, a co-founder of O’Reilly Media, had an idea about the next generation of the web, and had an idea for an event called Web 2.0.
We worked together and formed a joint venture around the brand and launched the first Web 2.0 in October 2004. (Interesting fact, Web 2.0 is the millionth word in the English language and is credited to Dale Dougherty).
In 2005 I found myself working on the launches of two new events, Maker Faire and Dwell on Design. I made the decision to stay with Maker Faire as I loved the energy and the opportunity to build and grow it into a global brand and really liked the concept of open source (with a collaborative, participatory audience and focus).
The rest is history. Thirteen years later, a global brand is flourishing and through a network of global producers, there are over 250 Maker Faires around the world in 45 countries. 7.5 million people have attended a Maker Faire since we launched in 2006, with 1.6 million attending in 2017.
One of my friends recently told me, “your influence is seen in language everywhere,” referencing the proliferation of Makerspaces and the usage of the term maker in many industries these days.
Take us through a recent workday.
No two workdays are alike, and workdays tend to get more intense depending on how close to a Maker Faire we are. At 20 weeks out, things start to get moving and by 12 weeks out, they are full on pulsating.
My role is to make sure that my team has the tools that they need to do their job. That includes many tech tools (Asana, Slack, Google Apps, Eventbrite, Hootsuite, Lucidchart, Freshdesk, Shiftboard, Zoho, Dropbox, internal tools and databases).
We all stay connected, which happens a lot through Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Facebook Messenger is used as a way to cut through all of the clutter of email and text messages. When travelling abroad, Facebook Messenger is the one reliable tool that works just about everywhere (except China), as well as a good plan for communicating time-sensitive information between team members.
Days consist of meeting with all of my team leads:
- Marketing: Are we on track? Do we have our messaging out there? Are ticket sales tracking? Do we have our partners identified and informed? Is our messaging on point and resonating with the media?
- Operations: Working through all of the details, which change daily if not hourly: Everything from permits, to layouts, to tents, parking, to food vendors, to maker acceptances and more.
- Content and Maker Relations: Have the applications gone out? How much space do we have? How are the application reviews coming? What are the obstacles and who are we missing? Generally, are we on track?
- Partnerships: Calls and pitches to prospective partners, teaching them about Maker Faire and providing suggestions on how best they can meet their overall objectives at Maker Faire and more.
- Corporate: Are we on budget? What needs to be shared with other divisions in the company, and other corporate priorities.
I try to approach each day with my top three objectives and stay focused on getting them accomplished. As soon as one item is off the list, another one gets added.
The event business is constant problem solving, managing a crazy amount of details, and being able to work well under deadlines and adverse conditions. I thrive on the fast-paced environment and am always in problem solving mode. Decisions need to be made, and teams need this information to do their job. I also need to stay ahead of my team and make sure that they are taken care of and can handle the pace.
Managing all of this is a bit art, science, intuition and some luck. All are needed to keep the engine going and well maintained. And I make the “care and feeding” of my team a priority. I want them to be supported and in turn, to deliver exceptional results. My role in this is process is critical, and I am constantly listening, watching, observing, directing, and driving the team towards results.
It’s hard work, but we have fun and feel satisfied when we deliver.
What are some of the logistical issues that you have to solve at the Maker Faire?
In the beginning, the biggest difficulty was raising awareness for the event and creating the building blocks for a real community.
We started Maker Faire as a celebration of makers, an annual festival to bring communities together and then have them stay together and connected throughout the year. It quickly went from 20,000 to 80,000 attendees with the help of Facebook Events and has now grown over 250 events in 45 countries with 1.6 million attendees.
When you have that many people involved at various levels, the logistics can become quite tricky, and of course we have many audiences that we are trying to serve: Makers, attendees, media, sponsors, partners, city and local officials, and vendors.
Each of these groups needs to be communicated with (from basic logistics, to their onsite setup or responsibilities and messages that they can share with their audiences) and directed. My team have become experts in how to treat each of these groups. The biggest challenges have been in the areas of parking, transportation and moving people.
One logistical area that we have taken on, and continue to go above and beyond, is sustainability. We want to make sure that we are as eco-conscious as possible. That includes recycling, reusing, and alternative transportation to the event. We feel that it is our responsibility to set a good example and since we are a family and community event, we need to take a lead on setting the standard.
To do this we maintain a “Green Traveller” team, which brings on zero-waste experts to teach young makers the way to preserve our environmental resources and remind all to think before they throw by teaching people to identify compostable/recyclable/non-recyclable items at waste stations located throughout the Faire. We use our Maker Faire Facebook page to actively recruit and showcase our efforts here.
What are your favourite tools and gadgets that have been featured at the Maker Faire?
My favourites at Maker Faire tend to be the makers themselves. They bring their passion and a unique perspective that is intoxicating and, given the right environment (which we provide), they shine and attract and recruit others to get on board.
And this includes all makers (young and old) that make food, or robots, or rockets, or perform, present or showcase what they do, be it a fire-breathing dragon sculpture or a seven-foot-tall musical Tesla coil.
As part of a way to acknowledge all makers, and to get my team out and talking to Makers at Maker Faire and learning more about their projects, I came up with a “Maker of Merit” blue ribbon to give out. Each team member receives ribbons to share with makers who have made something that moves, inspires or delights. This has been one of the most rewarding programs for makers and my team.
That said, here are a few of my favourites. Each of these is a “Maker of Merit” Blue Ribbon recipient:
Pancake Bot (computer controlled pancake maker): Developed by Miguel Valenzuela, an American maker living in Norway, for his two young daughters, Lily and Maia. The Pancake Bot is a LEGO Pancake CNC that lets you make pancakes in any shape you’d like. It is made out of 99 per cent LEGO and one per cent tomato sauce bottle.
The Pancake Bot was showcased at the White House Maker Faire in 2014, and there is a commercial version available for sale now. Guaranteed to capture your attention and your palate!
Samson (drummer in a suitcase): Developed by Joe Szuecs, a maker and guitar player (and my husband), as a portable drummer to accompany him on his gigs. Samson is an Arduino-driven percussion ensemble in a suitcase controlled via Bluetooth MIDI from an iPad.
SKRYF – Sandwriter (Autonomous sand poetry writer): Developed by Gijs Van Bon from Eindoven, The Netherlands, SKRYF leaves behind a stream of sand letters in public spaces. An almost irrelevant pile of sand creates the magic of the word. Humans and time are responsible for the disintegration of the word, sometimes quick and sometimes very slow.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
I need my phone, my Maker Notebook, Post-it notes and a favourite pen to get me through the day! I am constantly on my phone checking emails and social media accounts, especially Facebook which has become a great tool to bring the global Maker community together. I love waking up to see posts from friends and makers all over the world.
Our partners in Italy (the Maker Faire Rome team and the Future Food Institute team) connect with me all the time using Facebook, and it also gives me a chance to keep up with all of their programs and posts. Without Facebook I would be lost.
What’s your workspace setup like?
My office workspace is set up pretty traditionally: A large monitor, mouse, keyboard, desk lamp, and stacks and stacks of materials (I still need paper to visualise event layouts, marketing designs, and more), pens, Post-it notes, notepads, tape, scissors, rulers, staplers and more. I like office supplies and it shows! And I like objects, and I tend to collect stickers and other items that makers give me.
I use plastic folders (with tie closures) to group all papers and materials around an event, and can pretty much pull whatever I need from my stacks when I need it. I love pens (specifically fountain pens, which aren’t that great for everyday work, as I tend to lose them). My favourite go to pens are the Varsity Pilot Disposable Fountain Pen with purple ink and Stablio pointVisco pens in all colours.
And of course notebooks! My go-to favourite is the Maker Notebook, with gridded paper, and a back pocket. I go through so many of these notebooks. Each one holds all my connections, thoughts, people info and so much more, and I save each one of them. They tend to be decorated with stickers from people that I meet during the life of each notebook.
During the day, or in the middle of a project, I will have lots of papers around on my desk, but at night (unless we are full-on in-production mode), I clean my desk so that I can start fresh the next day.
On the road I work out of my carry-on bag (which now happens to be a Strawfoot waxed canvas tote bag), and it contains all that I need, including a bag of cords and an extra power supply.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
When I need a creative pick me up, I reach for my Oblique Strategies card deck and pull one. It takes me out of where I am, makes me smile, and gets me centred. It’s the little things! There is an Oblique Strategies app too, and I have used it in a pinch when I am travelling and on the road, but I prefer the physical deck of cards.
Take us through an interesting or unusual process you have in place at work.
I conduct a weekly update meeting starting 12 weeks out from each Maker Faire. In the past I had everyone send me their updates and I would integrate them in to a master agenda. (I am a big believer in agendas, and documented outcomes from meetings. Without an agenda, there really shouldn’t be a meeting.) Of course, team members were always sending me their agenda items at the last minute and I had to manage getting them integrated and then distributed before the meeting.
Now I have a process in place using Google Docs. We’ve created a web page and a section for meeting agendas where team members can update their own status reports. It’s part of an overall production website. I just need to share the link with the team, and everyone else is responsible for updating his or her area. It has saved me hours, and has given ownership to each team member—and of course, they can make edits in real time, so everything is current.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My core team members are the folks that make it happen. They dream with me and they put up with my big ideas, and we work together to make it happen. A lot of creative thinking and unique approaches come in to play, supported by a deep network (friends, makers and professionals) to make great things happen.
My two go-to people are Louise Glasgow, executive producer (Chispa Productions) and Bridgette Vanderlaan, marketing and PR executive. The three of us have worked together for 20 years and are up for any challenge. Our first big gig was Oracle World Tour in 1999 and 2000. We took Oracle’s iDevelop Developer Conference around the world (delivering 24 two-day developer conferences around the world in eight months in 2000). After that we worked on Dwell on Design and Maker Faire. The rest is history!
How do you recharge or take a break?
I recharge by being home and hosting dinner parties and other functions with my friends. Cooking and food are important in my life, as is hanging out with my friends. We’ve started a Cookbook Club that meets every month, and we use Facebook Groups to organise and coordinate our meet ups.
Living in Sonoma County we have access to the best food and beverages (fresh vegetables, meat, seafood, wine, beer, shrubs, cider and more) and whenever there is downtime, I make it a priority to get friends together and connect over a meal. Many, many good ideas come from these culinary sessions.
What’s your favourite side project?
Right now I am helping my friend Gerard Nebesky of Gerard’s Paella open a flagship restaurant in Santa Rosa, CA. Gerard has been with me since the beginning and has been making paellas for the Maker Dinners at Maker Faires since 2007. We take him on the road with us, and he is very much a part of the team.
He figured out how to feed 3000 makers in 90 minutes, with a satisfying, diet-accessible paella (works for gluten-free folks, vegans and vegetarians), and I am thrilled to be helping him with his new venture.
Also, we are working on creating a Paella and Wine Festival/Cook-off (although it might be expanded to Paella and Pies, or Paella and Pot or Paella and Beer — we keep getting lots of input from our Sonoma County friends) to bring the spirit of making and cooking to our local community.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I’ve just picked up Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday. It’s a page turner, a guilty pleasure, and a strategic insight if you are reading carefully.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Take control of your mornings. You can always determine the time that you start your day, but in the event world, it is hard to control when your day stops. It is great advice, and I live by it!
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
What do I want to be when I grow up! There are just so many great things to do and projects to tackle. As I grow older, trying to identify what is important to me, and working with creative people who complement my skill set, take precedent.
Right now I am trying to focus locally, using all of my Maker connections. The Sonoma County fires hit our area hard last year and I want to see how I can make a difference right here in Sonoma County.
I love working with people, and there are just so many things to learn, to see and to do... just not enough time in this life to do it all. I guess that is why I am so passionate about whatever it is that I am doing. If you are going to do something, do it well, with everything that you have!
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