Startup Camp and Foo Camp

I feel lucky to have been able to attend last week’s Startup Camp and Foo Camp. These are unusual, invitation-only events, with extraordinary collections of people. Getting an invitation requires some mix of accomplishment, connections, and luck.

They are exclusive events not for the sake of exclusivity, but because they only work at a limited size. O’Reilly Media, which hosts the events and foots the bill (there’s no registration fee), gets to pick the attendees from its diverse range of colleagues and contacts.

Startup Camp

This was the first-ever Startup Camp, created by O’Reilly’s venture fund, O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures. OATV set up a two-day program, with a variety of startup veterans to give talks and lead discussions, and invited startups to apply. We were fortunate to be one of the 7 startups accepted — doubly so because getting into Startup Camp provided a much-sought-after invitation to Foo Camp as well.

The companies invited to Startup Camp spanned an incredibly broad range, from custom jewelry for tweens (WhirlyBelle from Replicator) to open-source server management software (Puppet from Reductive Labs) and open-source synthetic biology (Ginkgo BioWorks).

The presenters included Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty (O’Reilly), Bryce Roberts (OATV), Esther Dyson, Evan Williams (Blogger, Twitter), Marc Hedlund (Wesabe), Michael Arrington (TechCrunch), Mark Fletcher (Bloglines), Dave McClure (500 Hats), Howard Morgan (First Round Capital), and Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users).

Since this was an off-the-record session, you won’t see much reporting of the content, and I can’t add much to that either. Keep it in mind next summer if you find yourself leading a new startup and want to apply.

Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates presentation is one talk whose slides have been made public. And the “Entrepreneurial Proverbs” session was inspired by older blog posts by the two presenters, Evan Williams and Marc Hedlund.

Foo Camp

As exciting as Startup Camp was, it was a prelude to the much larger Foo Camp.

Foo Camp was created by Tim O’Reilly and his colleague Sara Winge in 2003, and John Battelle wrote one of the first articles about it. The name nominally stands for Friends Of O’Reilly, and it is also a play on the use of “foo” as a stand-in variable name in programming examples (a practice that, incidentally, dates back to the 1960’s). Tim wrote about why Foo Camp last year.

The business rationale for Foo Camp is that it gives the O’Reilly team the opportunity to talk with hundreds of leading-edge thinkers, as they look for ideas for books and conferences.

There’s actually camping at Foo Camp: while many attendees stay at local hotels, a lot of them camp on the back lawn, and inside the office buildings, at O’Reilly. (For me, it’s only a five-minute drive, since O’Reilly is in my home town of Sebastopol, CA.)

O’Reilly aims to have about 250 people at Foo Camp, which requires turning away a lot of past attendees so they can invite lots of new people each year.

Among the well-known entrepreneurs and technologists attending this year were Jimmy Wales, Joshua Schacter, Steven Souders, Adrian Holovaty, Tom Coates, Scott Berkun, Ze Frank, Dries Buytaert, and Caterina Fake. That’s just a random selection of the better known names. There were dozens of other well-known folks, and dozens more inspired, creative folks who have lower profiles.

Most of O’Reilly’s editors and conference directors were there, as well as many of its authors. OATV’s portfolio companies were also well represented.

Foo Camp popularized the “unconference” format, in which the attendees create the program. The sponsors provide a chart with a grid of rooms and meeting times, and the attendees fill it in as they desire.

The unconference format is best known from the proliferation of Bar Camps, which were inspired by the early Foo Camps. (More geek humor here, as in foobar.)

When this format was new, people were often hesitant to propose sessions, but no longer. The schedule board was 80% full within minutes. There’s so many parallel tracks, and so many fascinating people, that you can only see a fraction of what goes on and meet a scattering of people.

One of my favorite sessions was on The Future of News. Both news, as journalism, and newspapers, as businesses, are in a period of dramatic change and stress. Presenters included Monica Guzman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, John Markoff and Nick Bilton from the New York Times, Steven Levy from NewsWeek, and Carl Malamud.

Other interesting sessions I joined covered topics including ubiquitous computing, curation vs. crowd-sourcing, pragmatic thinking and learning (Andy Hunt), personal genomics (Esther Dyson, 23andMe), and aggregation vs. copyright.

Tim O’Reilly debated Michael Arrington on whether it is important for Microsoft to develop its own search technology, or if getting it from Yahoo is a reasonable strategy. Danny Sullivan moderated. And yes, that is an inflatable elephant.

Here’s the pair of blog posts that inspired this session:


I have no doubt that this event serves O’Reilly well, but it nevertheless is a great contribution to the community. Rarely is such a diverse collection of extraordinary people brought together under such casual, low-pressure surroundings.

Looking back on Foo Camp, there are so many people I wish I had been able to spend time with, and sessions I wish I had attended. I’ll just have to hope for another invitation in years to come.

As someone who spent a decade running conferences, I at first found the unconference format unsettling. The completely self-organizing nature of the event means that its quality is determined entirely by the attendees. But with a crowd like this one, that’s a good thing.

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