The Future of Nine Worlds

Nine Worlds is beginning a process of reconstitution. This means that the current ownership will be dissolved, and the assets, liabilities and necessary data transferred to a new entity. The purpose of this is to a) ensure that its continued existence is sustainable and rewarding for those involved in it, and b) allow me (Dan) and the other shareholders to step away from the company and our responsibilities to it.

If you would like to be involved in creating, running, or staffing the new Nine Worlds, please complete the form that's linked below by 9th September. I will then begin a consultation period to assist people in getting together, understanding the present status of the company and event, and putting together plans that address the concerns and requirements outlined below. While this doesn't have a set end point, I'd hope that something comes together and can be announced before the end of the year.


Why is this happening, and why now?

The current organising model is not sustainable for those on the organising side of it. A lot of people gain a lot from the event, but certain roles reliably cause harm to the people performing them or exploit them, and there's a treadmill effect that leads to organisers carrying on until they burn out and / or do something that can't be reconciled with continued involvement. I include myself in that: I've been working without choice and without pay for over two years now.

Additionally, the mix of cultures and people involved has embedded tensions that may benefit from a more concretely agreed purpose and identity. This has been causing issues from the event's beginning, and while the intent to create a big platform that still kept high expectations of behaviour and support was positive, I'm not sure that the event will be able to meet a standard that's acceptable to all those who attend and take part in organising, without being clearer who it's for, what it stands for, and what people should expect, and letting people choose whether to engage in that knowledge.

And finally, I've invested a huge amount of time, money and my heart in Nine Worlds, but I've done so as a job, often working all the time for months at a time. My 'employer' hasn't paid me in years and imposes working conditions that would be illegal in any volunteering or employment context, and I've been wanting to move on for some time.

The reason I'm doing it right now is that I couldn't do it two years ago, as an attempt to change the organisation in a different way three years ago failed hard, and necessitated an intervening two years of steady steering.

2016 put Nine Worlds Ltd far enough in debt that I couldn't guarantee the end result of any process to reconstitute. We were reliant on future sales to cover the running cost of the current convention, and failure to transition (or attempting to close down) would result in the business failing and being unable to repay the future event sales to ticket holders.

I now have enough money to cover the shortfall without opening future ticket sales, and the event's financial position has also improved, so I can start this process without trying to sell tickets for an undetermined event with unknown leadership to cover the gap.

What does this mean for attendees?

Hang on and wait for updates, mainly. Your attendance and your enthusiasm have carried Nine Worlds a long way, but it needs some time for self-care. I believe there's enough of a desire for the event to continue, and enough willingness to find answers to the challenges it faces, that it will find a good way of going forward. While we currently have a hold for the Novotel next year, taking that up will be dependent both on agreement by the hotel and by the new organisation, and I can't guarantee in advance what the outcome of that will be.

I will keep you updated on progress, via occasional mailout, and Twitter and Facebook. We'll also be handling closedown of 2018 for a while yet, with a coverage page, photo gallery and the like.

I'm not going to put out the usual feedback form at this stage. While we have used the information you've given to inform future development previously, the questions we need to answer at this point are going to be very different. I may ask for input to inform decisions on the future at some point, via the above routes, but that will depend on how the process develops. In the meantime, thank you so much for your support over the years. I hope we've shown you a good time, and I trust that the new Nine Worlds will continue to do so.

What does this mean for existing volunteers?

It will probably depend on what you want to do. I'll be focused on assisting people in putting together a realistic plan for the future, but they will be the ones making decisions about how they want to run things.

For existing organisers who organise things pre-event

You should throw your hat in the ring and fill out the form above if you want to be involved in building the new Nine Worlds. I think you're all brilliant, and that your involvement will be key to the success of the new Nine Worlds. I can't guarantee that everything will stay the same, because I won't be the new Nine Worlds and I think any consultation process needs to take account of the structural issues with existing organising that I've mentioned above, but I do think you should stay involved in this, if you would like to be.

For at-con volunteers

Please fill out the form and tick the 'at-event staff' option, plus any others you'd be interested in working on. I would be sceptical of any plan which doesn't take advantage of the existing expertise, experience, culture and team bond of our regular ops or tech volunteers, and I don't think any sensible plan will seek to replace those. Additionally, I'll likely mail out to 2018 staff to introduce them to the 2019 organisation once it's in place, and encourage people to put themselves up for stuff again.

A brief history of the business

When Nine Worlds was originally being set up, in late 2012, the idea was to build a large, residential convention covering lots of different interests, with inclusivity baked in from the start.

The first event was chaotic, taxing, but very exciting for most of the people involved. It was also pretty scary in places, as it relied largely on the good will of those involved and would have collapsed without it. It also lost money, and that set the tone for future years.

Three years ago, following the departure of the other two co-founders, it looked like a good idea to move to a more professional board structure. 2016 was an attempt to trial this out, with the aim of formally moving to this model once there was more money available.

The staffing for that structure largely collapsed mid-organising, but there was no way of backing out, financially. That compelled a somewhat extreme rescue process, helped hugely by Kate Keen, who became deputy director following this event. Despite this, attendees largely reported a positive convention and were happy with the new venue. The event lost a lot of money, and became heavily reliant on future sales, making extreme changes largely impossible.

Last year and this year were steady-as-they-go affairs, with a gradually improving financial position, but still with issues of volunteer burn-out.

Questions to consider

  • What is the purpose of Nine Worlds?
  • Who is Nine Worlds for?
  • What should the organisation look like?
  • How should the organisation be governed
  • What form should the event take?
  • What kind of content should the event include?

Risks to bear in mind

  • Underselling
  • Loss of key staff mid-stream, including ones who drop out gradually
  • Learning afresh each year
  • How to make people accountable when they're in voluntary roles
  • The boundary between talking openly about the event, and maintaining privacy and safety of organisers and attendees
  • Gradual burn-out
  • Inward focus, i.e. prioritising organiser wants above those of attendees
  • Getting trapped in debt
  • Loss of attendee / organiser community

Criteria for agreeing a future entity

These are the things I expect a new Nine Worlds to be able to do, so that it can work for everyone involved.

Ability to refund ticket holders in case of non-delivery

This is probably the biggest single challenge in putting together a new Nine Worlds. Putting on an event with a year's lead time means taking a bet that there will be enough sales to cover costs, and that the event will actually be deliverable as promised. If either of those things goes wrong, then any money that's already been spent can't be refunded. Plus, insurance only covers a few of the reasons this can happen.

When the original Nine Worlds was conceived, one of the co-founders was prepared to take on a loss of up to £25,000 if something went wrong. It also became apparent over time that we could operate with a (small) deficit by selling tickets a year in advance. Relying on advance sales to cover a deficit is profoundly dangerous, and being unable to fail gracefully can lead to organisers being trapped in role and having to work far beyond their healthy capacity. This has happened previously with Nine Worlds, and I would not want it to happen again.

My initial estimate is that this may be in excess of £50,000. This will however be discussed as part of the overall planning. The point is that new Nine Worlds needs to be able to cope with the risks that any event can face, without either failing and leaving attendees out of pocket, or forcing organisers into an unwilling position to avoid that possibility.

Capacity to actually deliver a well organised event

Any event needs to have enough people, with the right skills and capabilities, an effective organisational structure, and a deliverable plan. This is that. I'm confident there will be enough people stepping forward, but the structure and responsibilities would still need to be agreed, and people would need to agree common goals and decision making to ensure stability. New organisations are fragile, and being explicit at this stage will help a lot later on.

Not exploiting owners / organisers / participants / attendees

Nine Worlds as-is relies primarily on unpaid labour, with coverage of certain expenses. Many of the people involved find the deal being made to be rewarding and worthwhile, and actually enjoy the work they put in. This is not true for all roles or all people, and even when it is, there's an ethical concern that some people are carrying out work that should be paid for. This links strongly to the sustainability point below, but addresses the cause rather than the outcome.

Separately, some participants in Nine Worlds are engaging with the event because they wish to gain something back, and Nine Worlds doesn't always provide that. It may be sensible to be more explicit about the process and rewards, and also to consider the guest model generally.

Finally, attendees are paying a lot of money to attend the event, and usually buy tickets before it's clear what the content, participants, or even location will be. There are also a few people who can't make the actual event each time, sometimes because of the further associated costs with attending.

Sustainability in the longer term

As mentioned previously, Nine Worlds has a serious problem with burn-out. The original model of the same team, year after year, is not inherently broken. However, that, coupled with a lack of graceful exit routes from roles, and especially with the failure to find more people for organising roles, has led to existing organisers taking on more and more responsibilities, and feeling unable to leave because there are no replacements.

Additionally, this means that the event needs to be able to cover its costs, at a minimum, and ideally to put aside enough money to handle bigger risks over time.

Well-enforced code of conduct, including on organisers

Nine Worlds started with a well developed anti-harassment policy, but its enforcement relied primarily on informal intervention, steering of situations, and general social management, except in extreme cases.

This has gradually moved to a more formal model, with an explicit exclusion policy, reporting process, code of conduct enforcement teams for individual instances, and more. We also recently received external advice on a number of aspects of our approach, that I would add to the discussion of the new Nine Worlds. I would look for an explicit Code of Conduct enforcement team to form part of a new Nine Worlds, with appropriate representation of the diversity of attendees, and people not in line management to deal with matters affecting those who are.

Paying the old Nine Worlds' debts

This is the least of the concerns, and I frankly don't expect it to be met in full. Nine Worlds Ltd will require a ~£5000 directors loan from me to keep the bank account in the black after this year's event, i.e. it will be £5,000 underwater. I would hope that any incoming organisation would be able to repay that, and it would raise questions about the organisation's overall financial capability if it couldn't take that on, but it's not a requirement.

Secondarily, Nine Worlds informally owes me for several years of full time work at this point, and owes several shareholders for their own investments of time and labour. If a new Nine Worlds wants to recognise that in some way, it would be welcome, but I really don't expect this to happen.

Impacts of changing the legal entity running Nine Worlds

Be aware that changes in status would require professional advice to enact. I'm agnostic on the final legal status of Nine Worlds, as my own experience is that the leadership, structure and market environment (i.e. what ticket buyers want) are far more important in determining how an organisation works. I can see the following impacts:

  • We have a hold on the Novotel for 9-11 August 2019. Taking advantage of this hold is not mandatory, and would require negotiation and agreement of a contract with the hotel. If the new Nine Worlds is a new legal entity, they would also need to agree to deal with that organisation.
  • Nine Worlds Ltd is VAT-registered, on flat rate VAT, as its annual income is slightly above the threshold.
  • Charities have financial strictures that would affect the business model and capital requirements. Many charities also have trading subsidiaries that handle commercial activities as a way of managing tax and VAT liabilities.
  • A new legal entity would likely have no financial history and its goodwill would be reduced, so it would potentially face a harder time with credit rating, insurance, and perceived reliability when negotiating. This could increase costs or requirement for up-front payment. However, some suppliers offer substantial charity discounts.
  • A charity would likely entail a non-executive governance structure. Something similar or some kind of advisory group may in any case be wise for non-charities.