Shawn Pucknell is the founder of FITC , a company that produces international design and technology conferences focused on Future, Innovation, Technology, and Creativity. Since 2002, he has organized 85 events in 22 cities, including Toronto, Amsterdam, Tokyo, San Francisco, Chicago, Seoul, New York and Los Angeles. You may have joined either a conference or workshop focused on creativity or entrepreneurship – but, have you ever practiced it? Shawn shares his experience and the valuable knowledge he has gained from both his business ventures, as well as the voyage of life. This is not just a fancy story, but the story based on reality and truth. It will encourage you to not only think, but take action.
1. Why did you start FITC ?
Back in 1999-2000 I was a Flash developer and I didn’t know many people using the software. I felt like I was working in a vacuum, not really connected with others to talk shop. Sure, there were a few online forums at the time, but it’s not the same as face to face. Around that time, I was asked to speak on a panel at an event in San Francisco called ‘Flash Forward’, the first-ever Flash conference. It changed my life. There were 2500 people from around the world. I met a ton of amazing people who were just as passionate and interested in this new area as I was. So when I came back home to Toronto, I wanted to continue that feeling, and I started inviting anyone I could out for drinks once a month. I spammed online forums, emailed people I didn’t know, and a few I did, and these monthly ‘gatherings’ as we called them, took off like wild fire. We went from 10 people to 30, to 50, to over 100, all in the span of a few short months. It seemed that I wasn’t the only one interested in getting together to talk shop and meet others. It was during this developing community that a number of us talked about having a festival, a conference, about Flash, in Toronto. So I took it upon myself to lead it, and ‘Flash in the Can’ (FITC) was born.
2. Why did you decide to focus on Future, Innovation, Technology, and Creativity? Why are those important to you?
We started as a Flash conference. I was attracted to it as it was one of the only pieces of software at the time that allowed either designers, or developers, to create something amazing. Most other tools and platforms were for one or the other, but there was always a unique creativity and vibe from allowing these two sides into the same area. Coming from an advertising background, the ‘tech’ and the ‘creative’ were always different departments, and it was frustrating personally and professionally as I always felt I was neither. I was a bit of a hybrid, interested and skilled a bit in both, but advertising companies weren’t really set up for people like me.
As the industry matured, we started to see other technology and interesting people that we wanted to include at the events, but they weren’t ‘Flash’, so we started to expand what we showcased at the event. Processing, After Effects, HTML, hardware, motion graphics, creativity, art, film, it was all cool stuff that we wanted to include. So we started calling it FITC instead of ‘Flash in the Can’ as it wasn’t just about Flash anymore. Then, after the decline in interest and public support of Flash, we decided it was time to rebrand what those letters stood for, and set out to break down what we had evolved into, what our focus was, and the new ‘Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity‘ FITC name and logo was launched.
3. What was the first step you took to make FITC  happen? Did you plan, build a strategy or have a mentor?
I had a bit of background starting companies, including a nightclub and a Flash development company, so I had a bit of background in starting things. But I had no idea how to run a conference, I just learned as I went. There was not a great master plan or a long term strategy, I just felt it would work, and that I could do it, and that it was something that was needed. I think that’s the key to its success…there was a need for it, an audience, a community to support it. I’ve seen other events come and go over the years and that’s the main flaw I’ve seen with some of them. As for FITC, it was key to have the support and help from others in the community, I had a lot of help with those first events, both from friends, associates, and local companies, all coming together to do what they could to help it happen and be successful.
4. It seems that a conference focused on “Creativity” was not popular when you started it. Was their difficulty at the beginning?
Creativity was always a part of it. We were bringing in well-known Flash designers like Joshua Davis, Brendan Dawes, and Erik Natzke for the very first event. But it is true that the majority of the presentations were technically focused. I think one of the reasons for this was that it was simply easier to have and find someone to present on the tech side… i.e. how to do this in Flash, how to program this, etc. Creative presenters were harder to find, partly due to the industry still being in its infancy. And also, it was probably an easier sell to get your boss to send you to a technology conference rather than a creativity event.
5. What was the biggest failure in the past and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest failures was our FITC San Francisco event. We just couldn’t sell tickets to it, and still to this day I have no idea why. It was one of the strongest line-up of speakers we had ever put together, but tickets were not selling anywhere near where we had projected. It’s a very expensive city to do events, so we ended up losing a ton of money. Running events is a hard way to make a living, it’s an incredibly volatile and unpredictable industry. Anything can happen, and we’ve had a lot of crazy things happen that we didn’t see coming and had to deal with, but it also keeps it exciting and us on our toes!
We’ve done 85 events now, in 22 cities, across 13 years. I feel that our biggest success is simply that we’re still around and doing events!
6. How did you get enough amounts of people together and how did you raise the capital to invite speakers at the beginning?
We hustled everyone we knew to either buy a ticket or help spread the word. We worked the phones, pounded the pavement, emailed everyone, we were hungry, we were excited, and we did everything we could think of to get the word out about the event, and it paid off…we were sold out that first year.
As for financing it, my mother had past away the previous year, and I had a small amount of money from her life insurance. I was planning on using it for a down payment on a house with my fiancé and our daughters, but I instead invested it in that first event. Luckily it paid off, and I got almost all of it back.
7. When you select speakers, what are criteria? What are the important factors?
It starts with the work. What have they created, that is either technically or creatively amazing, ground-breaking or pushes the industry. After that, we look at what do they have to say? It’s one thing to be able to create something, it’s another to be able to speak about it, specifically something that has value for attendees and is not just a slideshow of your work. What is your message? The best presenters we’ve had are the ones that allow themselves to be vulnerable, to really open up to an audience and talk about it all, the good, the bad, the ugly, the failures, and the successes. It’s a lot to ask, and not all people can do it.
Lastly, and one of the hardest to master, is can you speak comfortably in front of a crowd. This is hard to judge with a potential speaker if we’ve not worked with them before. But luckily, we have a pretty good track record of picking amazing people to be part of FITC events over the years. We also look at how you are at the event itself. Do you talk to the attendees after your talk, do you watch other presentations, are you part of the event? Its all part of a vibe we strive to create; one of openness and sharing and having the brightest and best people a part of it.
8. What was the turning point in the course of expanding the conference around the world?
After the second year, we started to get interest from people in other cities that asked about having an FITC event in their city. It started with Hollywood, then Seoul, then Amsterdam, then Tokyo, and then many others. Once we were doing a couple events a year, I realized that not only did I really love doing it, but also that I could focus all my energy on it and turn it into a full time job for myself and a small team.
9. Why do you focus on the live conference instead of other means such as publishing books and broadcasting the conference online?
I’ve always enjoyed in person stuff more than anything else. There is nothing that will fully replace a face-to-face meeting. I think there is value in books and videos and other things, but it’s not the same value as a live event. There’s an energy and an excitement that comes with bringing passionate people from around the world together for a united purpose, that can’t be replicated yet by any technology. As for video, we’re continuing to explore how we can leverage that with FITC.
10. What are the key success factors to organize the conference do you think?
I think it’s a few things:
We focus on the experience of each of our stakeholders, from start to finish. Attendees, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, even the staff, we look at their experience. From the first contact, to leading up to the event, to the event itself and then after, what is their experience like, and how can we make it as positive as possible.
There is a team of people that actually make the events happen. Working with passionate, dedicated people has allowed FITC to be successful.
We spend a lot of time on very small details. Things that most people won’t notice, but things that make everything run super smooth. As they say, ‘the devil is in the detail’.
We spend a LOT of time looking at potential speakers. Not only finding them, reviewing them, but also finding the right balance and mix for each of our events.
11. What is your future vision and how do you plan to develop FITC?
We are always working on new initiatives, but unfortunately nothing I can share just yet! What I love about what we do is that it’s always changing. New speakers, new technologies, new cities, it doesn’t get stale.
12. If you can send a message to when you were 20 years old, what do you want to tell to yourself?
When I was younger, I struggled with what I would do when I grew up. I didn’t have a clear vision, or a specific job that I was attracted to, so I wandered and did a lot of different things. So far, I’ve had 27 actual jobs, and I’ve started 8 companies. So my message to myself would be this:
“It’s not the destination as much as the journey. Don’t sweat it too much, you’ll find your way.”
13. What are your priority and the most important value in your life?
I find it interesting to see how my values and priorities have shifted over the years, its an evolution for me. Right now, my priorities are to continue to pursue the areas that interest me, and to continue to offer value to people. I’m also focused on continuing to evolve both my business and the areas we cover.
As for values, I believe that people should treat others as they wish to be treated, and I have no patience for rudeness, arrogance, or intolerance.
14. Do you have a message to young people who dream of being an entrepreneur?
• Follow your passion. Find it. Nurture it. Embrace it. Own it. It is yours.
• Don’t waste your time with people who don’t help you move your ideas forward. Focus on finding and spending time with people who have passion. People who have skills and experiences that you don’t.
• Talk to as many people as you can about your ideas, and be open and honest as much as possible.
• Don’t work with assholes. Life is too short to waste your time with them.
• Be flexible, be adaptable, be nimble.
• There is value in the journey. It is not just about the destination.