How to run an events company on (almost) completely free tools

I’m just heading back to Prague after a fun weekend catching up with University friends in Edinburgh. The photo above was taken in the BrewDog pub and as a huge fan of the company (and as a shareholder via ‘Equity for Punks’) I’m on a mission to visit all their worldwide bars…so far I’ve been to Hong Kong, London and Edinburgh.

So for this weeks post I wanted to give a quick ‘behind the scenes’ look at a multi-event company, and the software systems we use to manage and promote all our events. I think this information is useful whether you are running one event a year, or 100’s like us.

Three of the co-founders of EvensFrame work at AppsEvents, a ‘Google for Education’ partner who runs over 300 events annually quite literally across the globe….from Peru to Oman to South Korea. When we founded AppsEvents in 2012 we built the business as a globally distributed team (more on that on a future post), and almost completely on free tools. Even though the costs have gone up a bit since then it’s still possible to build a successful multi-events business entirely on free and low-cost online software tools.

As you grow you’ll switch more and more to paid systems, and below I’ll reference the tools we switched to where relevant. I’ll split the post into two categories to cover the two broad areas of an events business:

  1. Tools to run your organization – Operations tools
  2. Tools to promote your organization – Sales tools

1. Tools to run your organization

G Suite

The core of our company is Google G Suite (formerly Google Apps) and the centrepiece is ‘Google Drive’. In the beginning you can hack a free set-up by getting all your team members to set up free personal gmail accounts, which allows you to use all the apps, but eventually as you grow you will switch to full G Suite, which cots $5 user/month for increased collaboration and features. Of course if you are lucky enough to be a school or University it is completely free!

Every document we use is either a Google sheet (like an Excel spreadsheet) or a Google Doc (like a Word doc). With G Suite you can all collaborate real time and I cannot imagine running our business without it. Examples of the docs we use are:

  1. We have one spreadsheet for our overall Profit & Loss (P&L) with a separate tab for each event and a ‘summary’ tab with the totals
  2. We have a ‘Promotional tracker’ spreadsheet where we list all the promotional activities done for each event
  3. We use Google Forms extensively. The two main examples are as a ‘feedback form’ to request feedback on each event (example here) and as a sales tool to help funnel enquiries to host new events (example here)
  4. Until recently we kept all our invoices and finance as Google Docs and sheets too

Other G Suite Apps we use regularly include

  1. Google Hangouts (we have a ‘Core Team’ text chat and we speak throughout the day). A lot of people recommend Slack but we made the decision to keep as many Apps within Google as possible for simplicity.
  2. Google Sites. For the first 4 years of AppsEvents our website was a Google Site and we set up a separate Google site for each event (example here) . As our business has grown we now host our own sites in static html but Google Sites is a great free website builder.

Trello is a free and simple to use project management tool, and our team use it as our core event planning App (see above). We create a ‘Card’ for every event with a checklist of all the tasks that need to be done, and attach all related documents, such as contracts and flyers to the card. The ‘news feed’ allows you to look back over the timeline of what tasks have been done and when.

Many people like more full featured project management systems like Asana but for us it was overkill, and even though Trello doesn’t have every feature our entire team is in there daily updating things, which is what counts.

PayPal

Although not technically a free tool (you pay a % fee per transaction) PayPal is most peoples default payment method, and when we founded AppsEvents we used PayPal to receive payments and just managed our attendees manually in a spreadsheet. It’s time consuming manual process but we did it for over two years so it’s totally doable if you are on a tight budget.

EventsFrame

If you run a small event you can manage initially with just PayPal and manually maintaining a spreadsheet of attendees and this is how we started. Eventually you will need a ‘registration system’ that links to PayPal/Stripe/Braintree and of course we would recommend our own amazing system EventsFrame with its fixed low costs, but check out our competitors of which there are many. Eventbrite is the biggest and we used this as our first registration system before moving to EventsFrame.

There are also several ‘all in one systems’ which have both a registration system and a website builder, but the costs are high and they normally want to lock you into long term contracts so we wouldn’t recommend to consider for a growing company.

2. Tools to promote your organization

It’s possible to grow your business using social media tools completely for free….I know because we did it for our first three years as a business! You just need to be willing to put in the long hours engaging with people online. Eventually you will move to adding paid adverts with all of the services below, and when you do we recommend to test it out slowly, with small budgets and gradually refine your targeting…it’s easy to spend a lot for limited gain on Facebook, Titter or Google ads. In the beginning try to engage organically (and of course continue to do this even