ProductCamp Best Practices

By Paul Young, John Milburn
August 24, 2011

The ProductCamp phenomenon is taking the world by storm. If you haven’t participated in a ProductCamp, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. If you have participated in one, you already know!

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ProductCamp

How did ProductCamps originate?

ProductCamps are based on the concept of BarCamps, the first of which was held in Palo Alto, California in 2005. It’s a reference to the hacker slang term, foobar. BarCamp arose as a tongue-in-cheek spin-off of Foo Camp, an annual invitation-only, participant-driven conference hosted by open source publishing luminary Tim O'Reilly. Where FooCamp was by invitation only, BarCamp would be democratic and open to all. BarCamps have been held in over 350 cities around the world, and even virtually over the Internet.

The first ProductCamp (aka P-CAMP) was held on March 15, 2008 in Mountain View, California. Word-of-mouth spread fast about this “unconference” (no registration fee, no agenda, no selling) and about 170 people showed up on a Saturday to discuss topics of interest to product managers, product marketers and a host of related roles.

Following this event, many participants commented via blogs, wikis, and tweets. The idea went viral, and several other cities started ProductCamps of their own. Austin was first out of the gate with others following over subsequent months in 2008, 2009 and into 2010.

Given the proliferation of ProductCamps, we thought it would be useful to summarize some best practices and hopefully these guidelines will help you organize or participate in an unconference in your local area.

Why Attend ProductCamp?

Has your travel budget been cut? Do you want to learn from peers outside your company? Are you looking for informal ways to "meet-and-greet" others? Do you presenting or leading roundtable discussions on timely industry topics? Are you unemployed or under-employed, and want to increase your network? Do you want to meet others who are passionate about product management and marketing? If the answer is “yes” to any of these, you should participate in ProductCamp.

Why organize a ProductCamp?

Have you ever attended an industry conference or company event and felt like you could have done it much better? Do you feel industry conferences have become too "sterile" or dominated by big vendors? Are there a lot of knowledgeable product management and marketing professionals in your area, but no good forum to get together? Would you like recognition in your community as someone that "gets things done"? Dozens of your peers around the world are planning ProductCamps for these reasons.

Since ProductCamp is free to attend and typically held on a Saturday, it’s a low-risk way to expand your skills and your personal network. Plus, since it is "user-sponsored", it will not be a thinly veiled sales event – participants are strongly discouraged from selling or promoting products.

ProductCamp guidelines

Several common themes have emerged from ProductCamps held to date, though the flow and tenor may change from city to city. Since it's an unconference, there are very few rules. The general guidelines (adapted from BarCamp) are:

  • ProductCamps are free, but there is a "cost" to attend. There are no passive “attendees”. Instead, everyone is referred to as a “participant” and expected to contribute in some way: presenting a session, coordinating sponsors, managing the venue, volunteering for setup and tear-down, or sitting on a discussion panel - there are many ways for people to participate.
  • Information sharing is expected and encouraged. Everyone is urged to share information and experiences, both live and after the fact, via blogging, photo sharing, social bookmarking, tweeting, and wiki-ing. This open encouragement is in deliberate contrast to the "off-the-record" and "no recording" rules at many conferences.
  • The “2-foot” rule applies: ProductCamp there are typically features concurrent sessions. If you feel you'll get more out of a different session, use your own "two feet" to move – no one should feel tied down.
  • Networking is good! Because ProductCamps are held on a weekend and go all day, so participating is a commitment. The sacrifice in time and energy means only those who are really interested attend.

Venues typically provide basic services. Free internet access and WiFi are crucial. Sponsors provide funding for "nice to haves" such as t-shirts, meals/snacks, signage, lanyards, etc. Attendance is free for the attendees and usually restricted only by the capacity of the venue. Due to the popularity of these events (and to assist in planning for meals, t-shirts, etc.) advance registration is often required.

ProductCamps have been held at university-donated buildings, professional learning centers, and corporate offices.

Atypical day begins with attendee registration and breakfast. Then participants are led to a "main-tent" session that explains the format, rules, and introduction of ProductCamp planners - bust more importantly, the opening session sets the tone that ProductCamp is by and for attendees, open and discussion-oriented, and most importantly, fun.

Open Grid from P-CAMP Silicon Valley 2009ProductCamps use an "Open Grid" to set the agenda. Presenters and roundtable facilitators submit topics prior to the event, or sometimes even on the morning before the event starts. A final agenda is created real-time, by and for the attendees. Session leaders are sometimes given 30 seconds in the welcome session to introduce themselves and their topic. Then it's time to vote! One popular technique is to give each participant 3 sticky notes when they arrive. Volunteers post the session topics in a central area and ask everyone to place the sticky notes under their top three choices. Sessions receiving the most votes are plotted on an "agenda sheet" in such a way to minimize topic conflicts. Based on interest level and available time slots, some e-topics may not make the agenda. It’s open, it's participant driven, and it really works!

Sessions usually run 45-50 minutes with a break for lunch and plenty of “slack time” for informal networking. Most ProductCamps reserve a few meeting rooms for parallel sessions and list four to six time slots. The best ProductCamp sessions are the facilitated roundtable discussions – leveraging participant knowledge Notes, videos, photos are posted or linked to the ProductCamp website.

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About the Authors

  • Paul Young

    Paul Young has more than a decade of experience in hardware, software, and services product management and marketing. During his career, Paul has launched and managed dozens of products, started his own business, and successfully implemented the Pragmatic Marketing Framework at several companies. He is now a full-time instructor for Pragmatic Marketing, teaching our courses around the world. You can reach Paul at pyoung@pragmaticmarketing.com

  • John Milburn

    John Milburn is a Pragmatic Marketing instructor who has “walked the walk” in technology product management. Throughout his 20-plus-year career, he has managed or delivered more than 40 hardware and software products and implemented the Pragmatic Marketing Framework at many companies. A CSPO, his perspective and experiences from companies such as Lane 15 Software, Dell, IBM, Texas Instruments, Exxon, and Vtel add insight and real-world examples to his teaching. This perspective allows John to connect with product managers and executives from companies of all sizes in a broad range of markets. Contact him at jmilburn@pragmaticmarketing.com.


Categories:  Go-to-Market Roles & Activities


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