SearchLove San Francisco - We are sorry but we have failed

“What is your biggest failure?”

I ask that question at every interview I’m involved in. The answer tells me so much about the person sat in front of me. How do they cope under pressure? How comfortable are they taking responsibility? What constitutes a failure in their eyes? Do they shrink into themselves or do their eyes light up as they recount how they turned things around?

If you never put yourself in a position where you can fail then I’d argue you aren’t pushing hard enough. I say exactly that when interviewees tell me they can’t think of a time they have failed.

It’s easy to be flippant about failure. It’s incredibly easy to say you are pushing hard and risking failure. It’s much harder to actually do it, and the hardest thing is stopping and admitting when you have failed.

Unfortunately I have to announce that we have failed and that we are cancelling our SearchLove conference in San Francisco due to lower than expected ticket sales.

We have a phenomenal line up of speakers. I’d argue that it is the strongest line-up we have ever had. I know from experience that putting together a 45 minute presentation is hard work and takes a massive amount of time. I’m simply not happy asking the speakers to spend days writing a presentation and then take time off work to present it without having a full and buzzing auditorium.

We knew running SearchLove in San Francisco was a risk. There are a number of things that we believe contributed to its failure:

  • We have amazing competition - MozCon is scheduled a few weeks after us in Seattle, SMX is a few weeks earlier also in Seattle and SES is running in August in San Francisco. This list is by no means exhaustive.
  • It is the first time we have run a conference on the West Coast. Running a conference in a new location is hard. Will talked about exactly this less than a year ago: pushing flywheels hurts.
  • We thought we’d found an amazing venue, but we’ve been told by a couple of people that hosting the conference in Berkeley will be costing us ticket sales.

I’m sure there are other contributing factors, and I suspect we will never know the true cause. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the combination of the above.

Whatever the cause, I know that the worse failure would be not cancelling the event and running a conference we weren’t incredibly proud of.

The next steps:

We have spoken to everyone involved to explain the situation and have started the process of refunding everyone.
We are looking into running a free meetup in San Francisco in place of the cancelled conference.
We will continue with our #askdistilled series where you can ask questions to our consultants.

As you can imagine this was not an easy decision to make. There are a lot of amazingly talented people who have put a lot of time and effort into making this the best conference possible. Knowing that all their hard work was for nothing is heartbreaking. Distilled thrives on having an endless enthusiasm and energy underpinning everything we do. If we can push that energy into something else I know we will be stronger as a result.

I’m certain we will fail again someday, but I’m determined to ensure that neither this nor any other failure will stop us pushing hard or trying new things. The biggest failure would be to allow this to define what we do or don’t do in the future.

I’ll let Michael Jordan sum things up, I think he does it pretty well:

Duncan Morris

Duncan Morris

Duncan founded Distilled with Will in 2005. He built the, now defunct website CMS from the ground-up, and consulted for some of the company’s first clients. Today Duncan leads the management team and helps to steer...   read more

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  1. Terribly sorry to hear this. I've been going to marketing-related conferences for 10 years and yours standout as the most professional, well-run, and focused conferences I've ever been to. They have produced the best results, both in terms of personal growth and straight ROI.

    Massive respect to you and the entire Distilled for taking the stance of doing it right or not at all. It's rarely seen these days. Thank you for everything.

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  2. Tom Critchlow

    "We need a lot more failures, I think. Failures that don't kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won't work, while opening the door to things that might." - Seth Godin

    I feel a lot of love for Distilled today. It's not easy to admit this kind of failure. But it's the right thing to do and frankly I've never been more excited about what's coming next.

    Fuck yeah Distilled.

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  3. You guys could have eaten the cost and tried to make up losses in vid sales. But you didn't. You placed a premium on everyone's time and total conference experience. Integrity means something. In this case, the integrity you folks display means I'll continue to promote Distilled to literally every marketer I talk to as well as take every opportunity i can to attend Distilled events. You guys rock.

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  4. There are lots of great quotes about this 'show me a man who has never failed, I'll show you a man who has never tried' or similar floats to the front of my mind.

    I think this post deserves a lot of respect. Chins up and carry on gents :)

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  5. I personally don't see this as a failure and that it's something to be disheartened about. You guys are making a perfectly rational and reasonable business decision which makes a lot of sense. I was at searchlove last year in London and thought it was the best conference I have attended so far. I certainly am looking forward to searchlove in London this year too and hope and pray you guys don't cancel that one :D

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  6. Totally classy, guys. This is exactly how to handle it, and future SearchLoves won't suffer one iota.

    Take another crack at it next year!

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  7. Sorry to hear you are cancelling
    . Maybe you could try Kansas City as an alternative? I know it is regarded as a 'fly over' state but KC has a strong tech community. Google fiber is starting here. Maybe you could too. :)

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  8. Massive respect for pulling the plug on this, despite it being the single most ridiculous lineup ever to be assembled for a marketing conference.

    Bottle it up and save some for SearchLove Boston/London ? Literally can't wait for the videos...

    @Tom - Sense a FuckYeahDistilled Tumblr coming along... ;)

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    • I think you made a smart, prudent decision. Props for doing it transparently, not bullshitting about the reason and respecting the time of your speakers, too.

      I have confidence that this event will make future events that much better. Totally agree with the Seth Godin quote Tom posted above.

      Only bit that saddens me is that I know how desperately the Bay Area needs more stuff like this. Hopefully the next round can reach the right audience. As always, we'll throw our support behind whatever you do.

  9. You guys did right by your attendees and your audience at large. Putting together an event in a completely new location is hard and you had an amazing line-up of speakers. No worries, your Boston and London events both rock!

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  10. So sorry about that.
    But I love Distilled! You guys are awesome!

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  11. Refreshingly honest post.

    The definition of success is to experience failure after failure without loss of motivation.

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  12. Thanks for all the positive comments.

    It made going to bed last night far easier than I thought and waking up again this morning was almost a pleasure.

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  13. Way back when I took my first foray into sales I heard a sales training by Jeff Olson. Of the whole 2 hour presentation only 2 bits stuck with me long term and have become founding principles in everything I do. One of those things was "Increase your rate of failure, Increase your rate of success". Im no CRO expert but I now there are 2 ways to do better. Improve your success rate, and increase the rate that you try. Everyone fails. The more often you try the more success racks up in the win column. You guys have had a phenomenal success rate so far. I know the conference I spoke at with you guys I was simply floored with how well it was put together and ran. Shrug off the minor bumps and keep at it. You guys are doing amazing things. Its a tough racket trying to inject a new show in the middle of conference season but dont get scared off. I am confident that if you guys keep at it the "Love" series will become just as much a staple of the conference season as SMX, Mozcon and Pubcon. Cheers.

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  14. Rich Voller

    Sad news but great to see that you still put the overall experience as a priority over the financial gain. I was not going to be able to make it to this conference but I look forward to the next London event and I will be there and hopefully bringing a few colleagues with me.

    The advice you all give is researched, sound and more importantly proven. Distilled is and always will be a role model in this trade and your business model is something to be aspired to. Looking forward to meeting you guys at the next conference and hopefully in time to emulate at least some of your success.

    I do disagree with your title though. Us marketers never fail, we come across methods that don't work so well and do things differently next time :)

    Onwards and Upwards

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  15. Good call guys, shows respect for your speakers and audience. The Searchlove conference is excellent and will go from strength to strength moving forward.

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  16. I heard recently (and forgive me if it was from your site) that an expert was simply someone who had made all the mistakes that were possible in a certain area. Failure is by no means bad, being straight up about it is awesome. Sad news but well dealt with.

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  17. Sorry to hear about you having to cancel but it's great to see that you're being transparent about the cancellation and doing what you can to learn from it.

    I recently watched a really good Ted talk about failure in a really sensitive area - healthcare. Thought it might be of interest.

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  18. Chandni

    We were planning to come for the conference all the way from India, mainly because of the line-up of speakers... & were going to book our tickets shortly :( but don't lose heart, I'm sure you'll have other conferences which will be a smashing success!

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  19. Well presented, love the transparency. Keep up the good work guys. Im more than confident you'll sell out in 2013.

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  20. Rob

    No worries guys. Was looking forward to it, but will wait for the next one in New York City (or wherever).

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  21. Better try and fail than not try at all. The Distilled conferences carry so much value I have no doubt you guys will pull it off there too at some point.

    Good luck.


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  22. I respect the honesty of you guys. Ticket sales are a tough gig.

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