“We Threw a Birthday Party for Woz and We Invited Stan Lee” – Interviewing the CEO of Silicon Valley Comic Con

pacman and pacwoman at silicon valley comic con
A couple at Silicon Valley Comic Con

On Tuesday, after a flag raising ceremony at San Jose City Hall involving the hoisting of the official Silicon Valley Comic Con flag up to the glorified heights of the glass civic dome, I had the chance to sit down briefly with Trip Hunter, CEO of Silicon Valley Comic Con, for an interview. We spoke outside the hall, sitting on a simple metal cafe table that was still wet from the earlier morning showers.

I was looking for a peek into the inner workings of the new kid in the academy of comic conventions–Silicon Valley Comic Con. The 2017 SVCC is only the 2nd annual event. Last year’s 2016 inaugural con blew past the organizers’ expectations: 60,000 attendees for a convention center with a 30,000 person capacity limit. The unexpected success came at a cost–complaints of long lines, crowding at restaurants, organizational issues, and more came from some attendees.

Had they learned from those hard lessons? Were they addressing the issues with this year’s event?

I wanted to find out.

Getting the Full Story

Much of the media focus on SVCC has been on the notorious progenitors of the event–Steve Wozniak (Apple co-founder) and Stan Lee. Very little attention has been paid to the other members of SVCC core team. Talking to Trip Hunter, the CEO, and Rick White, another co-founder of SVCC, gave me the feeling of someone who was more involved in the nuts and bolts of actually making SVCC a reality.

Reading articles in Fast Company and Business Insider gave more of a big picture view of the con’s engenderment or they read like a celebrity gossip rag–like only part of the story was being revealed. I wanted something a little more in-depth.

Trip Hunter is part of Silicon Valley proper–his day job is VP of Corporate Marketing at Primary Data, a well funded data center virtualization and mobility technology startup that just completed a $50 million funding round. The company holds other SVCC core team members: Steve Wozniak is chief scientist and Rick White, another SVCC co-founder, is co-founder of Primary Data. With a team so steeped in startup culture and an event location near tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple, it’s no surprise that SVCC has such a heavy focus on technology, science, and futurology this year. Give what the people want–and this science forward con looks to be what the people want in a region where almost 1 in 10 employed workers is an engineer.

Meeting Trip, he appears like a well-adjusted startup professional–smiling, T-shirted, close-cropped hair, and a relaxed disposition–used to working in business teams and speaking with senior executives. His answers are delivered with a practiced acumen and a quick clip, like someone adapted to answering questions everyday. It wouldn’t be amiss to say he seems to have a lot to do and a slight shortage of time. Yet, he converses with you in casual, friendly tones, packing his answers densely with his thoughts on every matter.

Talking to the Boss

Let’s get to the interview. But first, while meeting Trip Hunter, I also got to hear briefly from Rick White, SVCC co-founder, about Steve Wozniak’s choice of San Jose as the host city for Silicon Valley Comic Con. Rick is a thickly built man sporting an impressively fiery beard, an atmosphere of joviality and energy about him as he exuberantly tells us a bit about history of the convention:

Rick:

We looked at a lot of venues, but the Woz absolutely wanted it here [in San Jose]. He was born here, there’s Woz Way [a street in downtown San Jose], and he’s just so loyal to the city. To him it’s never about the size. It’s not about the profit or about being the biggest, it’s about giving back to the community and the engineers he loves.

He said, “It’s so silly that we fly all over the country to go to comic-cons when we’re the biggest fans in the world here. We should just have our own.”

Rick also had an entertaining story about a little missed connection between Steve Wozniak and Leonard Nimoy. Yes, Spock.

Rick:

Here’s the greatest story I have:

So I was there sitting with Woz [Steve Wozniak] and Stan Lee when this crazy brainstorm idea [for the convention] came up, so finally the Woz and I said, “Do it, it looks really fun.” The following week Woz had a speaking engagement that this man was putting on with Leonard Nimoy. And I watched the two of them get down and he was telling Leonard [about SVCC] and Leonard’s like, “I will do that for you Woz. I love it.”, and they start talking.

Woz said to Leonard, “I wanna ask you something that’s kinda weird. I hate to ask you this but about 10 years ago, were you in China walking through the Square?”

Leonard replies “Yeah!”

So Woz says back “I knew it! I was walking down there, it was 2 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep. All of sudden I walk by a guy and think, ‘Oh that looks like Leonard Nimoy.’”

Leonard replies, “Actually Woz–and I’m not kidding–I thought to myself, ‘Is that Steve Wozniak? It couldn’t be.’”

And so they just both passed each other and never said a word, until the first time they officially met at the speaking engagement. Yeah, it was just crazy that they both passed by thinking the same thing, running into each other 10 years before without talking.

In fact, the last time Leonard Nimoy ever spoke was with the Woz, and he was one of the ones who really encouraged him.

Taking a Trip

After that tale, Rick adjourned to another conversation, leaving Trip and I to begin our conversation. We were to go behind the scenes of the Bay Area’s newest and biggest (since the departure of Wondercon) comic convention:

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

So let’s start with the biggest question first: what makes Silicon Valley Comic Con (SVCC) different or unique compared to the bigger cons?

Trip:

So, how the whole thing got started was when we threw a birthday party for Woz [Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder and SVCC co-founder] and we invited Stan Lee. We all worked at a tech company together. Woz and Stan started talking and Stan started out by saying, “We should do a con together!”

Later he explained, “You know I’m not that interested in doing a regular con, but I’d love to do one about technology and pop culture, because those two things have influenced each other all the way back to the beginning.”

For example Star Trek and even before that, but that’s the relationship that he was passionate about. That kind of convention didn’t exist so we looked around and thought, “Well, I guess maybe he’s right so let’s give it a try.” And that’s how we got started.

We approached the San Jose Convention Center and they didn’t have any dates. They were completely sold out. But there was a scheduled comic book show there that was called Big Wow. We approached Big Wow and ended up purchasing Big Wow, and that became the nucleus of our event. We’ve grown around that so the heart of our event is really a comic fest and convention, but we’ve layered all the technology and pop culture into it as well.


Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

That’s an interesting story–very grassroots.

Trip:

Yeah, it really is, it really is. We figured it would work, we thought it would work, but we had no idea just how well it would work. But it makes so much sense with the overlap between technology, science, pop culture, and the audience–especially in Silicon Valley, the people that are designing tech and creating tech are the same people who go to San Diego Comic Con–it’s the same mindset so it worked out for us.  We just didn’t expect 60,000 people to show up.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

You could say that the people here–the culture here–has an influence on the convention you’re throwing.

Trip:

In what sense?

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

In some of your marketing, I noticed you focus more on science and technology.

Trip:

I see. Well yes, I mean, last year we surveyed a whole bunch of people after the event and said, “What do you want more of?” We had come as our first year and we’re throwing ingredients into a pot and we’re asking, “Does this soup taste any good?”

The answers we got back were really clear, “We want more space, we want more VR/AR [Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality].” They were very specific about what they really wanted and most of it tended to fall on tech and science.

This year we started thinking about how we can make good on that promise. And so our theme–because we were really interested in it–is: What is the future of humanity? We’re all thinking about this: Where are we going?

I think if you look at the advent of electric vehicles and the privatization of space, you have this opportunity that’s never existed before where, in the next 10 years, average people can maybe, probably, buy a ticket and go to outer space. It’s pretty cool!

So that became the theme of the event and then NASA jumped on board with that, Virgin Galactic jumped on board with that, and SETI jumped on board with that. It just increased that whole desire that the people expressed about wanting more science and technology.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

That’s always a good thing–more people interested in science.

Trip:

Yeah.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

Going back to how you didn’t expect 60,000 people–did you learn any kind of lessons or have any kind of challenges from that?

Trip:

We had a lot. We maxed out the convention center–that was big. We were talking to people about the lines for restaurants, so on the compliance side they had no idea this event was coming and the Super Bowl the weekend before was kind of a dud. Then this event they knew nothing about comes the following weekend with so many people.

We’re trying to address that this year–we worked really closely with the mayor’s office and we’ve expanded the event. We have Cesar Chavez Park and we’ve closed off Market and South Market streets. The Cesar Chavez Park is open to the public–it’s free–so if you can come down there we have AR/VR experiences by Sony and Oculus, we have 16 food trucks, we have a stage for movies at night, there are local bands, so that in and of itself will be an entire festival. We’re really excited for that.

We have City Civic across the street. We’ve taken that building. We’ve moved ticketing to the South Hall which is the big blue tent behind the convention center, so we’ve opened up the convention center with more space for panels and won’t have these massive lines in there.

We’re working really hard to address the issues that we weren’t prepared for last year and I think we’re gonna get there.

attendees crowd around the entrance to svcc and the san jose convention center
Attendees around the entrance to Silicon Valley Comic Con – Photo via Erik Peterson

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

About the panels–I noticed an interesting thing–that there were actually several different types of ticket. For the premier panels you have to buy a separate ticket. Is that somewhat of a solution for the lines?

Trip:

Yeah, it is a solution for the lines because the demand for them is so massive that I think we have a $20 ticket or a $10 dollar ticket–something like that. It just helps since as long you’re a ticket holder then you get in. Otherwise, we’re going to have 25,000 people lined up for a panel. So it’s just a way to control some of the traffic.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

Yeah, it’s definitely a lot different from San Diego Comic Con or New York Comic Con, where one ticket gets you into everything.

Trip:

Yeah, and I think we only have 2 panels that do that. It’s not our desire to have a whole bunch of extra charges. Say, if you buy a car and you have to pay for seats and tires–that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to manage because we do have limited space.

jeremy renner onstage at a panel at svcc 2016
Jeremy Renner onstage at a SVCC 2016 panel – Via Sidewalks Entertainment

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

Another kind of difference I noticed between SVCC and SDCC/NYCC, you know the company or organization behind the convention–Comic Con is CCI, New York is ReedPOP. When I was trying to do some research, it was kind of hard to figure out the exact organization behind SVCC.

Trip:

So Rick, the guy you just met, he’s one of the owners. I’m one of the owners. Steve Wozniak is one of the owners and there are three other people.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

That’s the core team?

Trip:

That’s it, ha! We’re privately funded. We have no outside money coming in and for Woz, his very clear vision when he started this was, “I’m not trying to build the biggest con. That’s not my interest, my desire is to build the best con.”

We’re not looking to grow this anymore. It’s just last year we realized we’re bigger than the resources that we currently have so how can we expand a little bit and make that comfortable. We’re not trying to grow anymore than where we are right now. But yeah, we’re just a privately funded company trying to put together a really fun show.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

I’m guessing you have a lot of volunteers then?

Trip:

We do. I think last year we probably had 250 and this year I think we have close to 500. So a lot more volunteers, a lot more help. That was another learning point, that we didn’t have enough volunteers, but we had no way to manage that. I hope that this year we now have enough staff to really smooth out the infrastructure.

Sunny, Destroy the Comics:

Last question. I wanted to end by asking if you had any future plans for growth?

Trip:

Yeah, our future plans are probably to keep the footprint that we have expanded into this year. We looked at the California Theater, but they were booked with the opera so we couldn’t get that. If we can get one other panel location that would be wonderful. That would give us all the content that we would need, but our future plans are probably to stay right where we are. Keep the size, stay here, and that’s it.

Interview questions and answers edited for clarity.

Sunny Mui

Sunny Mui

An SF Bay Area native with a decade of Comic Con experience. Reader of books, comics, and more. He also writes short stories and poetry once in a while, when he's feeling to the task. Designer, developer, and marketer by trade, but professional fun person by night.
Sunny Mui

Post Author: Sunny Mui

An SF Bay Area native with a decade of Comic Con experience. Reader of books, comics, and more. He also writes short stories and poetry once in a while, when he's feeling to the task. Designer, developer, and marketer by trade, but professional fun person by night.