Leading conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt are like heaven for entrepreneurs. However, the $1,995-2,995 price tag plus travel are a lot less divine, and can be hard to justify, especially when it comes to ROI for startups with limited resources.
The startup ecosystem is already saturated, making it hard to attract the attention of the media, investors and potential partners through normal channels, but standing out from the crowd becomes even trickier when you place thousands of eager competitors from a range of industries under the same roof at the same time. Bumping into Steve Wozniak or making eye contact with Elon Musk are cool stories which will provoke green eyed envy amongst fellow tech-heads, but they are not going to help you scale your business, or make you more appealing to VCs.
While rubbing shoulders with industry leaders opens the door to potentially profitable chance encounters, other less flashy options like accelerators, smaller networking events and startup competitions offer the same -- if not more -- access to resources, with less competition and for a fraction of the price. That’s not to say that startups can’t benefit from conferences.
I spoke to Leo Lax, founder of SAAS accelerator L-Spark and Dave Tyldesley, co-founder of Cube Business Media, joint-organizers of the SAAS NORTH conference in Ottawa, about how to create a conference which really offers value and ROI to startups.
1. Go niche
What smaller events may be lacking in brand and reputation, they tend to make up in relevance for attendees. While a quick browse of booths at a globally-renowned conference will reveal an Aladdin’s cave of mind-boggling new technology and innovation catering to whatever weird and wonderful use cases you can imagine, opening your eyes to the seemingly infinite limits of the human imagination, the value to a startup’s growth, product or business model will be minimal.
Industry specific events allow startups to showcase their products or services to people who really understand their context, receive inspiration (or motivation) from what competitors are doing and meet valuable contacts. Rather than just acting as a "show and tell" event, founders should be able to walk away with a better idea of the market fit for their product, what consumers and investors are really looking for and what they are doing better or worse than other players.
VCs and angel investors often focus on specific industries. It goes without saying that, the chances of you meeting someone who is interested in writing about, partnering with, buying from or investing in a startup like yours is much higher at a conference which only caters to that specific industry.
2. Choose your location wisely
If you decide to hold your conference in San Francisco, New York or another global tech hub the chances are you will be able to fill seats, but you also put yourself up against the hundreds of other events taking place in that city that year.
Choosing a location which is off the beaten track reduces competition, improves your chances of engaging the local startup community, media, investors and local sponsors, but it also allows you to craft a more inclusive conference experience. While you don’t want to go too far -- placing your event in the Amazon rainforest or Greenland -- a change of scene can motivate people to immerse themselves in all of the event, not just the main speakers, and offers an attractive and interesting location which can sway people towards investing the time and resources to attend.
“Basing our conference in Ottawa allowed us to motivate the local tech community but also attract a large audience from out of town. When people are forced to leave their nest, they naturally get more involved in events and social meetups because they don’t have the pressure of shooting back to the office in-between presentations, or having to cut off early to get home to their families,” said Tyldesley.
By placing your conference in a smaller city, with more limited options for accommodation than the tens of thousands of options available in a bustling metropolis, you also improve the chances that attendees will book hotels which are close to the event and mingle outside of the conference organically, rather than just at organized networking or social events when they need to compete with hundreds of other attendees. This adds a social element, as people connect and build relationships not only in the conference, but also in the hotel lobby or bar.
Tyldesley states that forcing people to leave their usual work environment creates a sort of "holiday camp" psychological effect by which people meet interesting new contacts from around the globe, but are naturally drawn to people from their own cities or states.
“When someone meets another founder or investor from Vancouver in Vancouver it’s an everyday occurrence, but if they both meet at a conference in Ottawa they seem to make a stronger bond and go back and do business,” says Tyldesley. “When they arrive back home they realise how much value they got from being continuously involved in the conference, and make a point of following up with people they met.”
3. Put content first
For startups with their eyes firmly set on scaling as quickly as possible, it is easy to look at conferences as "catwalks" where they can strut their stuff in front of the right people and shake the right hands. While sales and marketing are obviously key concerns for businesses of all sizes, it is important to listen as much as you talk at events, and try to take away as much as possible. There are always things to be learned from other entrepreneurs’ experiences.
Launching an industry-specific event allows organizers to target specific groups of experts and provide concrete takeaways for startups operating in the same field.
“Accelerators and big tech conferences always focus on networking, but we didn’t try and replicate the same thing. We tried to make content the focus, and offer insights into every aspect of the SAAS industry, from product design to alternative funding,” said Lax. “Shareability is a big concern for us, we are going to put all of the content online, release all of the videos, try to push all of the material as far as possible to educate the next generation of startups.”
Big names might grab headlines, but a conference which really adds value will offer startups presentations and workshops from experts covering all stages of the startup process. Try to invite VCs, alternative funders, CEOs, marketing experts, PR and media representatives and add a wide variety of topics and themes, all linked to the same industry.
“A conference shouldn’t just focus on showcasing products. If you look behind the scenes at successful businesses it’s about teams, infrastructure, governance, funding, to name a few,” said Lax. “We wanted to have a mechanism where we could educate startups about of these and attract a more varied and widespread network of attendees, not just SAAS techies.”
It is also important to make your speaker list as inclusive as possible. The tech world is dominated by white males, but encouraging experienced female experts and contributors from other ethnic backgrounds to get involved offers a positive and inspirational example to attendees. Promoting equality in the tech and conference industries requires a culture change from within, by which people feel empowered to apply to events, based on their experience and expertise, not their role in a company, gender or ethnicity.
4. Use tech to maximize engagement and free up time for learning
Networking is an important element for startups during conferences, a chance to showcase their product, meet potential new clients, investors and industry partners. However, while networking offers the chance of direct ROI from attending a conference, it can also take up all of people’s time and limit the amount of presentations and workshops someone can attend.
While the hustle factor of being able to work a room, and target specific experts who can push your business forward is undoubtedly important, conference organizers can streamline the process of networking using technology, allowing attendees to use some of their time learning and contributing at the event, too.
For instance, the SAAS NORTH app featured a networking tool which included all of the attendees and speakers profiles, with a photo, basic contact information and a direct messaging tool. This allowed attendees to reach out to people they wanted to connect with, and also to follow up with people they might have met or spoken to at a previous event or during a social activity.
The profiles should also include a byline for their company, a link to their website, and social media handles. Social media allows attendees to connect on the spot via Twitter or LinkedIn rather than collecting piles of business cards which will probably just sit in their pocket until the next conference.
By making it a part of the signup process, and an essential tool for navigating internal events organizers can nudge users in the right direction. If there are no paper maps and timetables available, people will quickly download the app out of necessity.
Planning a successful event that makes a profit is different from organizing an event which adds real value to its attendees. A flash line-up of tech superstars will sell tickets, and allow people to network with other like-minded and interesting entrepreneurs, but events should be about learning and growing, as much as mingling and pitching. For startups with limited resources every expenditure needs to come down to the ROI for their company, so aim to create an environment which brings together all of the important social and networking aspects, while also providing education and mentorship which can continue making a difference once the conference curtains close.