Each year for the past 5 years, I’ve attended no less than 4 conferences in either the background screening industry or the real estate industry. Since my company provides tenant screening, this could range from the National Apartment Association (NAA), National Association of Pro Background Screeners (NAPBS), or local Real Estate Associations.

These conferences can be vastly different in content but they all seem to attract the same attendees and speakers. The attendees are trying their best to look the part, and the speakers are making you well aware they ARE the part. The proverbial “part” of course is a high level of success measured in dollars and cents.

Last week I had the pleasure of stepping outside of the real estate industry and attended Agents of Change (AOC), a Digital Marketing Conference held in Portland, Maine. The experience rocked my world.

A Break From Ego at a Marketing Conference

Stephen White (RentPrep) with Chris Brogan (Human Business Works)
Me with Chris Brogan of Human Business Works. What an awesome and humble guy!

My favorite speaker of AOC had to be Chris Brogan, a New York Times Bestselling Author and hero among modern entrepreneurs. He kicked off his keynote with something I’d never heard before in any conference I’ve been to. He said, “Fall in love with not knowing and don’t be afraid of being dumb”.

The very idea that he was shedding his own ego in front of this massive crowd was enough to knock me out of my seat. After all, most keynotes I’ve seen would start off listing their successes as proof that your time was well spent listening to them. But Chris came out with a message that he was no different than anyone of us listening. A point that he later proved by being totally approachable and staying long after the conference ended to talk with attendees.

Content, Content, Content

So the most obvious difference from real estate conferences could be noticed immediately. There was no sea of vendor tables. No free mini flashlights, pens, or stress balls toting brand names on them. In fact, this was the first conference I’ve ever attended that I didn’t leave with a bag full of swag.

What I did leave with however, was 10 full pages of notes in my new Evernote Smart Notebook (thank god I brought it).

The theme of marketing anywhere these days is about creating quality content. So I guess it should be no surprise that the AOC Conference was focused on just that. No vendors pimping their products and services, and no underlying sales pitch from the speakers. Just quality information with actionable advice. The way it should be.

Community vs Competition

Stephen White (RentPrep) and John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire)
John Lee Dumas stayed after his presentation to not only talk with me but anyone else who had a question(s) or just wanted to meet him!

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this experience was realizing the difference in how people treated each other. In the real estate and background check industries alike, there is a sense of competition. Who has the best success story, the most clients, and the biggest name. If ideas are shared, they’re done so in generalities as to not give away the “secret sauce”.

John Lee Dumas was a speaker at AOC and he recently wrote a perfect article explaining the concept and importance of community in any industry. The real estate industry should take note.

Not only does this man practice what he preaches, he excels. His daily podcast “Entrepreneur on Fire” recently celebrated it’s one year anniversary. And in such short time he’s been able to climb to the top of the charts in iTunes, dominate a market, and earn a mention in Time Magazine. His secret sauce: community.

By all means you might have expected John to walk around the conference with a nose up considering his incredible success. But instead you’d find him engaging anyone and everyone that approached him. Genuinely interested in listening to their stories and offering advice when appropriate. The very same model he uses to build an ever growing community of faithful listeners, appropriately labeled Fire Nation. And yes, I’m a card carrying member.

The Networking Event After Party

AOC After Party With Fire Nation Elite and Chris Brogan
Left to right – Top row: Mike Kawula (Self Employed King), Middle Row: Kate Erickson (Entrepreneur on Fire), Stephen White (me, Rentprep), John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire), Chris (BeaconElearning.com), Ray Pare (Dofähn Pet Supplies), Bottom Row: Chris Brogan (Human Business Works), Sally Newhall (Best photo-bomber ever)

At most conferences, the conclusion begins the networking event. A continuation of the stuffiness and a chance to listen to people tell you why they’re so successful or why you should use their product. Not so at AOC.

The picture above perfectly represents the sense of community that carried well after the conference and into the early morning hours. Yes, that’s THE Chris Brogan photo bombing us! I’m standing behind him with Kate Erickson–Content Manager and genius behind the Entrepreneur on Fire brand. I talked with her for what seemed like hours about marketing strategies and platforms.

Would this have happened after a real estate event? Probably not. At least not the ones I’ve been to. And if I’m missing out, by all means share with me the ones I should be attending!

BONUS: Sword Swallowing!

What a way to kick off a conference by having Professional Sword Swallower Roderick Russell perform:


  1. That is an awesome conference Stephen! Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts. I like Chris’s topic of falling in love with not knowing. It seems like every day I run into some problem and say, I don’t know!
    Wish I could have joined you! I owe all of those great people a drink!

    • Alex you would have been in entrepreneur heaven! To rub elbows with some of the brightest people in the marketing industry was an experience that has left a lasting impression. I’m sure we’ll bump into each other soon enough because I’m hooked on these conferences now. And when we do, the drinks are on me my friend!

  2. Stephen, I had the pleasure of hanging out with you for a while during AOC2013, and I couldn’t agree more: what an amazing experience!
    This is a great post. I especially love your realization that “this was the first conference I’ve ever attended that I didn’t leave with a bag full of swag”. What you do leave with though as you’ve pointed out here – relationships, partnerships, knowledge, insights – is so insanely beyond the value of a million pens and mousepads. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Kate I’d trade every pen and flashlight I ever got from a conference for 10 minutes with you to talk about Infusionsoft or WP! Thank you so much for making the new guy feel so welcome in your community.

  3. Great Article Stephen! Sounds like you had a great time at AOC! I have the recording and can’t wait to listen! Community is HUGE! Sounds like we have a lot of parallels. My main focus is Real Estate as well, and have been to many conferences. I have had a mixed bag and have learned to attend the much better ones. I have yet to attend a online and media marketing conference so it will be fun to compare notes. I will say however that if you get involved with the right group there are absolutely some amazing people in the RE investment industry! I’m really not trying to push my website here but I just posted a great article yesterday on my blog highlighting 20 amazing investors who are all very open to sharing their success and how they have made it. http://houseflippinghq.com/20-top-real-estate-pros-tips-for-success/
    However there is also a lot of peddlers in the industry and hopefully more guys like you will get out there and help change that 😉 I could definitely see how by it’s nature internet marketing community would be very tight knit! Not only have I seen that in the past couple months but I suppose by its very nature you can’t really be successful without the help of others. I think Real Estate can be very similar for people who have an open mind and believe in abundance! Ok sorry for the Novel! Love the post! Love your Blog and Love what you have done with Rent Prep! Keep it up! 😉

    • Justin, first off thank you so much for the thoughtful response!
      I checked out your site and I think you nailed the idea of sharing knowledge and building a community. It’s so refreshing when someone GETS it in the real estate industry. And I completely agree with you that I’ve met some really great investors at conferences and I’m lucky enough to call a lot of them clients. I think the point I was trying to drive home was the idea that the “industry” needs to change. The people who put on the conferences and allow a format that encourages vendors to shove their crap in our pockets and choose presenters based on strategic alliances and monetary contributions.
      A perfect example is a recent event I attended that had a real estate “guru” who actually had some insightful things to share. After the event I mentioned to him that I would like to write an article and share some of hos ideas with my community and his honest to god response was “you can’t use my name because it’s trademarked”. Can you imagine Chris Brogan or John Lee Dumas telling someone that?!

  4. Stephen, thank you for sharing your experience at AOC. Really can sense how valuable AOC was to attend and the type of sincere connections anyone can benefit from. Chris Brogan and John Dumas are so highly respected and great leaders because of their down to earth nature. Thanks again Stephen!

    • Dean you’re exactly right. At the end of the conference (before the after party) I was one of 10 people left in the lecture hall. Among the other 9 were Chris Brogan, John Dumas and Michael Stelzner. They took the time to stick around and chat with anyone that approached them. They are thought leaders because of their understanding of the importance of community. Hope to see you there next year!!

  5. Well said Stephen. So many take-aways. Think about just the time we had not only together brainstorming, learning and having a blast…..but I look at it like I saved over $1000 attending. We got to talk with Chris Brogan for what 2+ hours. Chris charges $500 an hour on clarity. Well Well Well worth the small investment attending in our business. You’re a great man sir and glad to have had the opportunity to get to know you!

    • Too kind Mike! I think it hit me that I was among great leaders when Tom asked what your business experience was and I said “he’s an Inc. 500 entrepreneur!” Hanging out and brainstorming with you was worth the trip alone. Glad to call you a friend and be a part of the tribe.

  6. Hooray for non-boring Conferences!
    If Content is the “one ring to rule them all”, then Community would be a close second. Seems like this conference had them both!

  7. Stephen,
    Thanks so much for this post on AOC! I’m glad you found it so rewarding. Honestly, next year I may not market the event, but just point people towards your blog post!
    It was rewarding for me, too, to hear such kind words about the conference. So many people came together to make this happen, and it was such a lot of fun to put on. (Um, looking back on it. I do remember crawling up into a ball in the corner and crying myself to sleep once or ten times.)
    Hope to see you at #aoc2014!
    P.S. The lady with the crazy long tongue is Sally Newhall, our event planner, who is great if you’re looking for someone.

    • Haha! Rich I’ll be sure to mention the correction for Sally Newhall in Fire Nation as well. As of right now she’s known as “the best photo-bomber ever”.
      And you and your team should be so proud of the magic that happens at this event. It obviously left it’s mark on me and I can truly say I’m better for it. I’m pretty sure I’ve never left a conference so inspired and motivated. And perhaps even better, I’ve got a notebook full of step by step instructions to put that inspiration and motivation to good use 🙂
      It’s safe to say you can count me and my entire office in for #aoc2014

  8. Stephen, thanks for taking the time to post this! Although I’m quite jealous missing this event, I am really looking forward to seeing everyone in January! It looks like you had an awesome time connecting with so many fantastic people! I really will try to make AOC next year. I hope to see you soon Stephen!

    • Thanks John! I had someone ask me if you were as cool in person as you are on your podcast.. I said “even cooler, he told me I smelled good and knew all the words to Africa by Toto”.
      You’re building a community by winning over hearts and minds my man!

  9. Thank you so much for this post! I have not attended any of these types of conferences yet, but you just made me super motivated to plan out my next 12 months.
    Great article. Thanks again!

    • Paul I love it! Your time will be well spent at a marketing conference I promise. I’m sure we’ll run into each other sooner than later because I’m also planning a years worth of upcoming events.

  10. What a great post! I have heard so many times in my Entrepreneurial journey about investing in Conferences to build that community, but having come from the Oil & Gas Industry where their conferences had the same stuffy image and I never really gained much by their attendance.
    It looks like you had a great time and gained some wonderful insight and budding friendships. Definitely has inspired me to attend a few this up coming calendar year myself.

    • Celest I’d love to see you at some conferences! I can’t really compare a marketing conference with any other industry so I’d say it’s well worth the investment as an entrepreneur. Besides, when was the last time you were in a room full of entrepreneurs that shared your same passions, interests and struggles?

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