We have been to quite a few conferences already and quite a few people have asked me what conferences are good. The problem is not that some conferences are bad, its just that some conferences may not be the right venue for your startup. In this (very long) post we are going to share with you what we experienced so far in the tech conference world.
So where should we launch our startup?
At DEMO conference (pros: you are in the spotlight, cons: $$$$)
DEMO is a great venue because its sole focus is to launch companies. Despite the fact that you will be one of over sixty participants, you will be given the stage and attention. The show is very intense, as it takes place in only two days. Each company is given exactly 6 minutes. The stage presentations are mixed with pavilion presentations which are a few hours long.
The DEMO participants fall into three major categories - press, venture capital and the industry crowd. The press list is very, very good. Make sure though, that you get the press list in advance and let them know you will be there. Ideally make an appointment, or even easier, tell them to come by your station for a demo.
The VCs that come to demo are typically more junior. This is not always as case, as some firms send in partners, but in general, majority of VCs send associates. If you are pre-funding please understand that the best outcome of DEMO for you will be an opportunity to make a follow up appointment. That is, there will be no checks given to you :) (Unless of course, you have it all lined up before DEMO and just using it as a venue to launch and announce the funding).
Finally the industry crowd really varies. Because this crowd is diverse the general rule is just tell them your story. Even if they are from the company that does not seem relevant do it anyway. You never know what might happen, and in our experience the best things happen when you least expect them. So make the effort to make a connection.
The most important thing about DEMO is that you have to prepare for it. I do not mean prepare the night before. I mean really prepare at least a month in advance. In the six minutes that you are on stage you need to be smooth and clear. When you are talking to people at the station you need to get your point across quickly. Same goes with media. You also need to really think everything through, align appointments, get equipment, and practice until you are dizzy.
If you do not prepare, DEMO will be a total waste of your money. And speaking of money, DEMO is pricey. Especially if you are an early stage self-funded startup the cost can be prohibitive. We debated for a long time and now have no regrets at all that we went, but just beware that it is far from cheap.
Now what about other launch venues? In principle, you can launch at any conference. This is probably not a good idea though, because your launch might not be powerful enough or may not fit into context. Our recommendation is that you launch at a conference that is exclusively focused on startups and launches. The new TechCrunch Conference looks really good, but we will have to wait for it before we can pass the final judgment.
So which conference should we sponsor?
I went to ETech this year and regretted that we did not sign up for a sponsorship (silver or bronze). The reason is that this conference was a great venue to reach people who matter in tech. Jeff Bezos, Joshua Schachter and Ben Trott are just some of the people I ran into. Also, there are plenty of breaks and not that many companies who sponsor. The food was served right in the center of the exhibit hall, so everyone at some point cycled through the sponsors. The conference went on for three days, which is pretty long, but people stayed around because sessions where interesting. So if you need to get your message out to smart people ETech is a great venue.
I’ve never been to South by South West conference, but what I do know is that everyone who went there was thrilled with it. I also know that it is a fun venue and that a lot of influencers go as well. Based on just a word of mouth this one is a go.
The TechCrunch party was a total blast. A great atmosphere was created by a lot of people who matter in the valley. Overall, I had good demos and good conversations. A word of caution - most people are there to socialize not to look at demos. If you decide to sponsor make sure that you are visible. We spent money on the 32″ monitor and have no regrets. It does not make sense to invest into sponsorship but not to invest in equipment.
I almost want to recommend Web 2.0, but we did not exhibit there and the reason was that it was a big mix of sponsors. From web giants to equipment companies to some social web 2.0 companies it just felt quite unfocused. As a general rule of thumb, lack of focus is a no. On the upside, this is a Web 2.0 expo conference, so if you think of yourself as a web 2.0 company you should consider it.
Web 2.0 Summit is a sister conference of the Expo. The difference is that it is by invitation only, so there are not 17,000 people like Web 2.0 Expo, but only a few hundred. The downside is that the sponsorship is very pricey, even the cheapest one. So between the two, I recommend ETech. However, if you are invited to the Summit, you probably should go and network there.
We signed up to participate in Defrag and Blog World Expo. While both of these are interesting, they are quite specific. If you startup does not work in attention space and does not have tools for bloggers they wont be good venues. However the companies working in these fields and should consider sponsoring these events.
Finally if you are making tools AjaxWorld is the conference you need. This venue draws geeks and technology gurus from all over the world and is likely to be your best bet for reaching both audiences.
So should we not sponsor a conference if it is not on the list above?
Please do not think that. There are plenty of other great conferences, you need to consider a fit. Understand what you are trying to accomplish. Talk to the organizers and make sure that your agenda and their agenda align. Watch out for the conferences where you will be just a dollar filler, but will not get proper attention. Ideally, make sure that startups are going to get a prominent place.
A lot of conferences say that there will be a ton of breaks where people would have a chance to check out your stuff. Thats not good enough. You need to be announced, even better if you have a chance to do 5 minutes on stage and invite people to your booth. Some conferences do not have definitive breaks and just let people float around. This is likely to be bad for you because people naturally do not float towards companies, they float towards drinks and other people. Seriously, beware - lack of structure is likely to be costly for you, as you will get little or no traffic.
Despite all the possible negatives, also think positive. There is always an important conversation that you will have at one of these conferences, no matter how bad they turn out for you. The chance that you do not take is the chance lost and often, even one good conversation can be crucial to your companies future and make the whole conference worth the money.
I close this very lengthy post with a shorter set of pressing questions:
What are the typical sponsorship prices?
They vary a lot, but typically lowest is between 5K - 15K
Can we negotiate prices?
Definitely! We did and saved money.
What equipment should we bring/rent?
The best possible. Whatever it takes to make your product look good. It simply does not make sense to spend money on the sponsorship and try to save on the equipment. Save on the hotel and airfare instead.
Do we need to stay in the same hotel?
Generally no. You can stay anywhere reasonably close. The only thing you’d be missing is hanging with the people at the bar in the evening. That could be useful because drunk people talk more.
How do we network with the right people?
I honestly have no idea.
Should we ran around, grab people and bring them over for a demo?
Some people do it, I am against it. How would you feel if you are grabbed? Well maybe
if the grabber is good looking… You got the point.
Should we bring giveaways?
People llllllove giveaways. I am always amazed to see how techies jump on T-Shirts, pens, notebooks and other stuff as if they’ve never seen it before or if they truly need it. I am generally against it because I think people should remember you and your product, not a shiny pen. The only thing we did during DEMO is give out blue M&M. It was pretty cool, but the side effect was that Andy was eating the left overs for six months. So beware of sweets!
What should we do when wrong people show up?
This is a sensitive topic, but is a really important one. Unfortunately a lot of people at these events are not there to see you, they are there to use you. Consider people who are looking for a job. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to come over and give you a resume. It is not reasonable to take up a lot of your time or to ask a lot about your company. Get their information quickly and tell them you will be in touch.
There are also a lot of people who are trying to pitch you there ideas or sell their products. In my book these are the worst, shameless kind of people. This is completely disrespectful and unacceptable. Do not get sucked into these conversations. Recognize them and stop them quickly, because these people are not only wasting your time, they are wasting your money. Remember, at the conference you paid and you have an agenda - to show your product to the world. So be passionate and relentless about accomplishing your mission just like you are passionate and relentless about your startup.
Should we organize PR around the conference?
Absolutely. Conferences are a great and maybe rare chance to interact with the reporters face-to-face. However, it is not straightforward. The reports are humans and as such they play games. If you approach them head on they will say no for no particular reason. Somehow you need to make them feel special, which is not easy. It is a good idea to get a press list and contact reporters in advance and arrange appointments. This way, you may get a no over the phone, but they might just come by your booth anyway. If this sounds like dating, it is.
Still, conferences give you opportunity to get in front of press and you should not miss it.
Whew, that was a long post and quite a bit of work, so I hope you will find it useful. I have to ask you that for benefit of all startups you comment and add your experiences and recommendations. What conferences did you like and why?
See you at the next great conference :)