How I Built a 2,500-Person Event on a Shoestring Budget
It's possible to create a great event without a lot of money.
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Creating Startup Boston was tricky. Going into it, I was a 25-year-old with zero connections, no money in the bank and a full-time job co-founding martech startup nDash.co. I knew I wanted to create an even "for startups, by startups," but my resources and "free time" were extremely limited. It's a situation many event marketers and startup founders can probably relate to.
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Now I'm not going to say that I'm the event or startup guru -- I'm far from it and have much more to learn. But, I will say that I learned valuable lessons from planning Startup Boston. And when all was said and done, I was able to create an event that drew over 125 speakers and 2,500 attendees in year one.
Here's what I learned from the experience.
Build a community.
No matter what you do or where you're based, there are groups in your region that share a mission statement similar to your own. These are the guys that want your mission to succeed just as much as you do. You can start finding these relationships within local organizations, colleges and Meetup groups.
At Startup Boston, we were looking to connect Boston's startup community for a week of 50-plus events. We found our community in accelerators, coworking spaces, entrepreneurship departments at colleges and dozens of organizations that also supported the Boston startup community. HubSpot has found success taking a similar community-centric approach with INBOUND, Partner Days and its global HUG events.
If you want to be successful, pinpoint your community and make your endeavor community-driven. This can -- and should -- start happening months before the event or company launch even occurs. Your community is going to be your support network for getting the word out.
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Find your righthand counterpart.
I've never been great at asking for help. I struggled with the complex of thinking that I know everything (it was a steep learning curve, but rest-assured, I'm much better now). But, in my world of creating Startup Boston, I realized quickly that I could not, by any means, get this event off the ground by myself.
My counterpart was Jay Neely. Truly the best co-organizer any event could have. Why? Not only did he understand the Boston startup scene inside and out, but while I like to move quickly and break things along the way, he liked to think things through and was more methodic in his decision-making. We work incredibly well together.
Look at the great companies out there -- Microsoft (Paul Allen and Bill Gates), Apple (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) and Intel (Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce). It's pivotal to find someone that's reliable, complements your skill set and believes in what you want to create as much as you do. Not just to share some of the workload, but to hold you accountable and to push back on decisions that, well, may not be as great as you think.
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Know your MVP.
Minimum viable product (MVP) is a concept I'm sure was invented to curtail tinkering entrepreneurs. The idea is to keep dreaming big, but also know the essentials that you truly need to get off the ground.
I often say that we took the bootstrapped approach to year one of Startup Boston. In our case, that wasn't just referring to the budget (or lack thereof), but also to what we really needed for year one. Our list looked something like this:
- A website
That's it. Those were the essentials.
It may seem like dreaming small, but take a look at other successes. Amazon started as an online bookstore run out of Jeff Bezos' garage. SXSW started as a showcase of 177 artists and 15 panels in 1987, and now hosts more than 75,000 attendees, 5,000 speakers and 2,000 sessions. Can I say #GOALS?
Know exactly where you see your venture in five years, but understand that you can't accomplish it all in year one. Boil it down to the essentials, especially if you're not sure where the money is coming from.
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Network your ass off.
Going into year one I knew some people within the Boston startup scene, but it wasn't by any means enough to get the event off the ground. So, how did I go about finding these speakers and reaching out to those community organizations I wanted the support of?
Surprisingly simply -- by putting myself out there. Send LinkedIn requests with a personalized note that includes your ask. Find and engage connections on Twitter. Send a cold email with a direct (and non-spammy) subject line. Go to an event that you know potential connections will attend. Work your way up to an individual person by first finding your "in" with her company. These "loose" connections can be more valuable than you realize.
I could go on, but none of this is groundbreaking. The "secret" is that that these tactics truly do work. It can be a bit awkward to do cold outreach, but even if you have to go through 100 "no's" for one "yes," it's worth it.
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Build quality and they will come.
I remember 15 minutes before the first event of Startup Boston, I was worried that no one was going to show up -- because no one was there. And I gave Neely a panicked call: "Let's say no one shows up?"
But, people did show up. There were about 20 for that first event and the majority of the rest of the week's events were at capacity (overflowing, actually).
As it turns out, it's more important to build something amazing, even if it's for the smallest audience, than it is to build a crappy product for a big audience that will never want to come back again. Focus on creating something incredible -- even without a budget -- and the community you want to attract will come.