Co-founder of NewCo gives behind-the-scenes look at the whys and hows of the conference

NewCo returns on July 21, putting Cincinnati on an international stage with other host cities, including Istanbul, London, New York, San Francisco and Shanghai.
The inside-out conference began in 2012 in San Francisco when John Battelle and Brian Monahan convinced businesses to open their doors and invite the public into their offices to see processes and products.
“NewCo came from a frustration with the typical conference format where you get interesting speakers up on stage in a ballroom in front of 1,000 people, with half the audience engrossed in Instagram,” Battelle says. “The companies that we were the most interested in and connected to were the ones we had visited. You learn ten times more from that than from a person on stage. So we thought, 'wouldn’t it be cool if we did an artist-style, open studio with those companies?'”
Unlike most conferences, NewCo doesn’t have a keynote speaker or a central subject addressed by each of the presenters. Instead, it seeks to showcase innovation in companies both large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, private and government.
“There was something different about a certain set of companies that made them remarkable,” Battelle says. “They weren’t just new companies — they were new kinds of companies. At their core, they had an open approach to business. They liked the idea of opening their doors and letting people in. They had an open plan in their architecture. They were open to collaboration and partnership, and many were built on open-source software.”
Trying to organize a non-traditional conference presented Battelle with a challenge. But, like many of the new kinds of companies he wanted to explore, Battelle found inspiration in an unlikely source: music festivals.
Big music festivals feature around sixty bands over several days, with multiple bands performing on multiple stages at the same time. That idea provided a foundation for the format of NewCo. In one day, dozens of businesses can share their stories in their offices in overlapping sessions. NewCo eschews the conference label, branding itself as a festival.
“It creates intentionality with the audience,” Battelle says. “The audience is choosing who to see and who to miss. People aren’t interested in every speaker. If you give them a choice, they’ll have a more engaged experience because they’re going to choose the companies that they want to go see.”
Response to the first NewCo was not only positive, but generated great interest in expanding the program to other cities. In 2016, NewCo events will be held in Austin, Barcelona, Boston, Boulder, Cincinnati, Detroit, Istanbul, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, the Netherlands, New York, Portland, San Francisco, Shanghai and Toronto.
The mix of first- and second-tier cities hosting NewCo festivals is intentional.
“The New Yorks and Londons have had their ups and downs, but never lost their luster,” Battelle says. “Cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cincinnati went through a prolonged decline, but their earlier vibrancy established strong institutions, research universities and arts organizations. Those institutions are exactly what is needed for the shift in our economy that is taking place."
Like other festivals, NewCo is constantly changing and trying new things.
“We’re adding a center stage format to the San Francisco event this year,” Battelle says. “It will be a place people can gather, or pop in and out, to hear from speakers throughout the day. NewCo is evolving while staying true to its core.”
NewCo is also focusing on generating media around the changing economy, as well as the cities and companies that are triggering and shaping that shift. The NewCo media platform, Shift, launched earlier this year and is continuing to grow. A new series of dialogues will feature conversations with the people behind the new types of companies promoted through NewCo events.
“We’re going to continue to hone the model and start expanding a little more intentionally,” Battelle says. “We’re learning how to manage and support our partners. Last year, we reached out to a lot of cities, and in a few of them we had partners that were super enthusiastic, but not necessarily the right organizations to pull off the logistics, so a few festivals didn’t happen. Next year will be a ‘put lessons to work year,’ where we purposefully reach out to the right cities and look for the right partners.
“Those right partners look like Cintrifuse here in Cincinnati. The alignment of their mission and goals with ours is one to one. They are really motivated to put on a good event. They have a good team, not just one or two overwhelmed people trying to do everything. And they have relationships with the businesses that are critical for an event like this.”
Each NewCo festival follows the same basic format, but cities may implement the program differently. Shanghai has organized their NewCo event around tours to try and manage the challenging transportation issues in a city of 24 million people sprawled across 2,400 square miles.
The Cincinnati NewCo will feature 95 host companies. To help participants plan their day, registration is organized by geographic clusters as well as themed tracks. Attendees can view sessions in Central or East Cincinnati, Downtown, North of Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky or Over-the-Rhine. The sessions are also broken up by theme: Accelerators and Incubators; Breweries and Distilleries; Creative, Diversity and Inclusion; Economic Development; Makers; Nonprofit; and for the people who don’t want to change locations, the Union Hall track features a number of sessions in Startup Cincy headquarters.
"Today, you can start a tech company in Cincinnati without having to move to Silicon Valley," Battelle says. "The gravitational forces that have been pulling talent out of smaller cities aren’t there anymore. It’s enabling a renaissance of cities, and Cincinnati is the signal case. The number of new organizations and the support of the city leaders and boosters makes it clear that Cincinnati has a certain 'set your teeth and get it done attitude' that is endearing and is paying off. It’s a city that others will look to for an example.”

Tickets for NewCo are $20, which is kept low to encourage participation, since attendees can register for one or all six sessions. Tickets are still available for the July 21 Cincinnati NewCo event, but spaces for some sessions may be limited.
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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.