TEDx: When you're thinking big
Every year, the TED conference brings together an elite group of inventors, educators, musicians, writers and more in Long Beach, Calif., to tackle global issues via short talks and demos on a wide range of topics. It's pretty much off-limits to up-and-comers, but its organizers have wisely licensed the concept and created TEDx--local, independently organized TED-like events that can be put on by schools, businesses, communities or anyone else who wants to follow the format. The events provide an accessible stage for idea sharing and can be found in nearly every major U.S. city. (Fees vary from city to city.) Upcoming locations include Houston (June 12), Charlotte, N.C., (Sept. 24) and Honolulu (Nov. 4).
Ignite: Speed Enlightenment
Ignite is a smaller, cheaper and less intense version of TEDx, but it is more likely to produce commercial ideas and expose new talent on a regional or local level. Presenters get five minutes and 20 slides to share their ideas. Some presentations, such as "Cupcakes and Dating," are fluffy, but others have practical and commercial applications. Bre Pettis and O'Reilly Media's Brady Forrest started Ignite in 2006, and more than 200 events are now held nationally and internationally. And guess what? Many of them are free.
FundingPost: Pitch and network
Attendees at FundingPost's pitching sessions are a nice mix of angel investors, CEOs, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Yes, the one-to-two-minute elevator pitches are important for startups, but the pitching sessions are most recognized as valuable networking opportunities. And unlike many city-specific venture capital events, FundingPost has a national footprint, with events in 19 cities--including Las Vegas, Boston and Seattle. All in, FundingPost pitching sessions cost $350.
Vator Splash: From screen to stage
Vator.tv, which gives entrepreneurs and innovators the opportunity to pitch business ideas via video and connect with venture capitalists online, recently stepped outside of the ether to launch its Vator Splash competition. Ten companies (selected by viewers and vetted by judges) get the chance to present their pitches onstage in front of potential investors and other entrepreneurs. They also get a $250 credit to oDesk.com and membership to PR Newswire. The next Vator Splash event is targeted for July 29 in San Francisco.
TechCrunch Disrupt: Be a bracket-buster
This three-day conference run by the blog TechCrunch features insight from the leaders of the tech and media sectors, along with a competition called Startup Battlefield. Presenters advance through the process tournament-style, and the last startup standing takes home $50,000. TechCrunch Disrupt costs $2,995 to attend, but it provides good exposure for all participants. The next Disrupt event is Sept. 13-15 in San Francisco.
When You Go. . .
Relax. These events are a great way for venture capitalists to scope out new talent without being pressed to make an immediate commitment. Take advantage of the casual atmosphere and don't be pushy. This is an opportunity for them to come to you.
Slough the shell. Many startups have no clue how to get their ideas out of their offices, let alone their states. Many of these events hit nearly every city, giving entrepreneurs ample opportunities to introduce their products on a national scale.
Get free advertising. Winner or not, startups get plenty of free advertising at these events. Many of them are covered by national publications, bloggers, live feeds and video.
Look for access to funds. The casual atmosphere often keeps entrepreneurs from knowing exactly who is in the crowd. Even though they may not win a competition, they may end up being noticed by a watchful attendee. "We've found that the companies really value the press attention far more than the $50,000," says Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, "because anyone who has won got tons of financing offers right away."