How a man with no events experience beat all the odds to launch a huge tech conference

1 Dec, 2016

At the start of May this year, half of Manchester’s tech community was excited about a big new conference about to happen in the city. The other half was bracing itself to watch the whole thing collapse in an embarrassing mess before it even took place.

There was a lot riding on Business Rocks. Manchester is becoming increasingly confident as a tech hub, and a big event with speakers like Apple co-founder Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak and games industry giant Ian Livingstone, plus a startup competition with a £50,000 cash prize could be a jewel in the city’s crown.

Yet the conference had come out of nowhere, skipping the usual growth stages organisers take before holding an event aiming to attract thousands of people. It was run by man with no events experience and it seemed to be hedging everything on Wozniak’s name. It would have been a big setback for the city if it had failed. And it nearly did, but Business Rocks’ founder Jonny Cadden (above, left) made it work and is now gearing up for a bigger and better event in 2017.

Cadden says that fighting through all the community’s scepticism to pull the first Business Rocks event off was “a miracle.” Indeed, without a six-figure investment from local tech industry figure Scott Fletcher three weeks beforehand, the event simply wouldn’t have gone ahead.

Me and Business Rocks

The scepticism around Business Rocks was understandable. I first met Cadden in a coffee shop in Manchester’s Northern Quarter a couple of years ago. He was clearly very enthusiastic about helping the city reach its potential as a home for tech, and he wanted it to host a conference that could rival the world’s biggest – the likes of the Web Summit and SXSW. But my confidence in his ambition was tempered by the fact that he had built his entrepreneurial career in recruitment rather than events.

He seemed to believe that holding a small half-day launch event, attended by a couple of hundred people, would be enough events experience to warm up for the main thing, for which he had booked Manchester Central, one of the largest venues in the city.

Speakers and staff at Business Rocks 2016. Image credit: Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media
Speakers and staff at Business Rocks 2016. Image credit: Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media

So I looked on and supported Business Rocks when I could, like taking part onstage in the small launch event at UK Fast’s HQ in May 2015. But I couldn’t help but hold back on wholeheartedly endorsing it – just in case. I’d seen how three lads from Ireland had built the Web Summit into an world famous brand, but they did it over a few years – not a big bang out of nowhere. They went from a small gathering in pub, to gradually taking over the Dublin’s RDS venue, and then to this year’s stadium-sized event in Lisbon. Business Rocks was skipping steps, and it made me worry for my home city’s reputation.

It’s worth noting that my then future colleagues here at Tech North (I happened to join just after Business Rocks this year) were confident enough of the event’s success to give the event their backing.

“The pain has made me”

“A year ago, I had no skills, I had no right to put it on. People in Manchester thought ‘who the hell are you?’,” Cadden admits. “I knew what I wanted to do but didn’t know how it all worked. I went through immense pain but wouldn’t change that – the pain has made me.”

Cadden thought he could continue to run his recruitment firm while readying Business Rocks, but he didn’t realise quite what he was getting into. “When Woz accepted I didn’t realise enormity of project, so I stepped down from Fluid. Business Rocks consumed me, swallowed me up and spat me out the other side.”

To his credit Business Rocks went ahead, and while the venue wasn’t quite full to the brim of attendees, keynote talks from the likes of Wozniak drew huge crowds and there was solid support from the UK tech community. Sky News even filmed an episode of its tech news show at the event.

Cadden says that there were real moments of “magic” in this year’s event, and some serious outcomes. He says he’s heard about a startup investment deal and a company that opened an office at Media City UK, both as a result of meetings at this year’s event. The Big Issue ended up investing in the winning project in a homelessness-themed hackathon that took place during Business Rocks, too.

One lesson Cadden has learned from this year is that data capture is important for measuring the impact of an event. There may well have been more success stories, so in 2017 he’ll be tracking these outcomes more carefully.

Into 2017

For 2017, Cadden has big plans, and he’s learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. For example, the Innov8 startup competition featured 100 companies pitching over two days this year. That was far too many. Next year, there will be more pre-vetting to trim down the number of pitches, although the prize is being increased to £100,000.

Business Rocks - Day Two - Image ©Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media For bookings contact - or +447821755904
WeFarm won the Business Rocks startup competition in 2016. Image credit: Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media

After accusations that this year’s event hinged too much on one megastar speaker, Cadden says he wants 2017’s lineup to focus on providing value to the tech ecosystem. Speakers who have already been announced include Blockchain president Nicholas Cary, Revolution Software CEO Charles Cecil, and a number of Snapchat storytelling experts.

Online content often goes hand in hand with conferences. Publications like Recode and The Next Web make conferences key parts of their business models. Indeed, The Next Web was a conference before it got into media. Early 2017 will see BR Hub launch as a website that Cadden hopes will expand the Business Rocks brand globally via multimedia output that provides value to the tech community throughout the year.

Cadden has an image of Business Rocks evolving into a “lovechild of SXSW and the Web Summit.” Live music across the city centre is an important part of the longterm plan (his dream would be for Oasis to reform to play at a future event), and he wants children in the city to benefit from the conference as well as adults.

With Business Rocks 2017, Cadden is aiming for 5,000 attendees, but he wants to ultimately make the conference far bigger than that. He notes that the cloakroom alone at this year’s Web Summit was as big as Manchester Central.

It’s been great to see Cadden evolve with Business Rocks over the past couple of years. He says the close scrapes and bruised knees of developing the conference have made him better as a business person.

And after all – maybe only someone with no events experience could have put on an event of Business Rocks’ scale in year one. Sometimes the craziest bets pay off. 2017’s edition looks set to do Manchester proud.

Featured image credit: Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media

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