Be Careful not to Become a Conference Ho

Posted on Oct 13, 2010 | 68 comments

Be Careful not to Become a Conference Ho

You know the type.  You see them on Twitter, Facebook or Plancast plotting out their next 12 conference.  You see their Tweets from airports across the globe.  Look at me!  I’m in Spain!  Now I’m in France.  Next week I’m speaking in Cabo San Lucas!  They are professional conference attendees.

They are CEO’s addicted to the schmoozing.

In the industry they’re known as “conference ho’s.”  OK, they’re known as conference “whores” but that sounded too harsh for a blog post.  Inevitably a certain number of entrepreneurs feel compelled to attend every conference.  I think I know the root cause.  It can be magnetic being at conferences especially when you’re on a panel, you’re invited to a speakers’ dinner, you’re getting to meet so many new people and you’re getting so much attention.

And for all of these reasons it’s smart to selectively go to a few events here and there – particularly those that you’re likely to have the highest hit rates of connecting with people who can change your business.  But there has to be a limit.  In the same way you wouldn’t spend all of your day in front of your computer at the expense of customer interaction, there has to be a limit to attending conference.

I’ve heard all of the excuses from these CEOs.  “How else could I get so much BD done?  I work hard on my flights and in my hotel room?  I have a really productive head of products cranking out code.”


When you’re not in your office on a regular basis you’re not showing leadership.  You’re not setting the agenda.  You’re not establishing culture, inspiring people or resolving conflicts.  When you’re on the road all the time you’re not as productive.  You reach diminishing marginal returns of the next person you met in relation to all that you’re sacrificing by not being in the office working.

It’s about you and the relationships you’re building.  It’s about the personal schmoozing and the network that’s going to help you whether you’re current company is successful or not.

So here’s the thing:

1. I often hear the non-CEO management teams from the companies left with no leadership complaining about the lack of leadership.  Leadership abhors a vacuum.  So people step in and fight.  Or stuff doesn’t get resolved.  Or somebody else becomes the “de facto” leader of the company.  If this CEO would stare in the mirror and be honest with him/herself they’d realize this.  It’s not possible to be a conference ho and a leader at the same time.

2. You think that everybody is marveling at your travels, your stories, your airplane layovers, your new friends and your photo from the South of France.  They’re not.  I hear people mumbling about how you’re unfocused and in it for yourself.  I hear investors talking about how they’d never fund somebody that spends more time in conference halls than in their office.  You’re too busy traveling to hear that they’re saying this.  Until it’s too late.

So my message to people who attend every conference has always been, “Do you see Mark Zuckerberg at every conference?  Do you see Ev or Mark Pincus at every conference? Do you see Larry or Sergey at every conference?  Name one, professional conference attendee that has built a successful software business?  If you’re in the services business, looking to sell books or work in sales I get why you might spend more time at conferences.

If you’re a startup CEO – don’t kid yourself.  Get back to work.  There’s a team in the office in need of your guidance.

Photo courtesy of The Cha on Flickr

  • TekTonik Shift

    Start up CEO priority –> Continually drive to optimize the Product-Customer fit.

    How to do that?

    1. Spend time with customers

    2. Develop your team

    3. Develop yourself

    4. Manage your board

    Attending conferences can only a byproduct of the above priority.

    -Tek @TektonikShift

  • Wil Schroter

    Am I the only one who is bored to tears at conferences?

    The panels are almost always lame, the most engaging people you want to meet are swarmed, and the logistics cost a fortune, not to mention the ticket prices. I'm assuming there must be someone who just walks away with an incredibly rewarding experience. I'm certainly not one of them.

  • Ben Rombaoa

    Be Careful not to Become a Conference Ho via @msuster VC PIMP says “conf. ho better have my money!” Good talk @ ETL – MS

  • Net Jacobsson

    Mark, first of all you should have spelled out whores fully. You missed a golden SEO opportunity to drive massive traffic to your blog and totally own – Conferences & Whores…;-)

    Joking aside:

    I totally agree with you on this one. After facebook I took a year off conferences to start working on my own company (you know that). It has been very refreshing. I limited my networking to 1×1 meetings or very small gatherings. And you know what? Nothing bad happened. People didn't think that I died, left the Valley or went to live under a rock.

    It really gave me a ALOT more TIME to focus on what really matters. I didn't loose my network, I didn't loose anything news worthy (with Twitter, FB and the blogs – what else do you need? ). The only thing I lost was a bunch of shallow connections, free drinks and a lot of worthless swag (my wife told me that if I ever bring home more free T-shirts she'll burn them all!)

    I have been saying the same for a long time but I would like to add that. If your real customers are at the conf – then by all means go. Most likely they are not (at least no in the consumer internet space. They same thing goes for sponsoring said conferences. That money is better spend on acquiring users where users hang out. I bet that you can acquire more users by handing out money on the street rather that spending them on sponsoring conferences.

    Anyway, at what conference shall we catch up next time?

  • John

    “Name one, professional conference attendee that has built a successful software business?”

    Hmm…was TechCrunch a software business. Word is that CrunchBase was a major reason for the acquisition.

    That said, blogger is a great way to become a professional conference ho for your job.

    Attending all the conferences is like those startup companies that want coverage from Techcrunch and the likes even though their target market is stay at home moms. Maybe more stay at home moms read those tech blogs than I think…wait…no they don't. It's just vanity at work! Although, let's not downplay how hard it is to resist.

  • Craeg Bennett


    Whilst you should always be important to your companies future, if you didn't hire people who could step in an cover you from day one, you've already made a colossal fuck up. Get precious about how valuable you are to your company, even if it is indeed the fruit of your business loins and you, are screwed. You should retain your position as CEO because you are good at it, if your team doesn't respect you as a leader then you don't belong in the job.

    If you're attending lots of conferences to mine for contacts and useful stuff then sure, be a ho. If you're just searching for the perfect canapé followed by something attractive to take back to your hotel afterwards, then you deserve the mutiny you'll face if you ever get back to the office.

  • Martin Thompson

    The best conference tweeters are @netdocuments, @travelingcoach and @rocketmatter

  • Jake Kaldenbaugh

    Couldn't agree with you more Mark. However, on the “other side of the table”, I hope a smart VC can recognize that having an accomplished Business Development type on the founding team is an asset that allows the CEO to focus. I'm sick of hearing investors talk about how they “hate funding non-coders”.

  • Al-x

    Look at me! I'm in Detroit!

  • Chris Voss

    Great Post Mark – love your stuff.

  • msuster

    Rand, thank you for writing. I always appreciate well written and well thought through rebuttals. It's always a balancing act. I agree with all your points about the benefits of conferences. But there comes a point where the benefits of each incremental conference is outweighed by the problems caused back at the office. And the need for leadership never ends. It's true that you need to be more hands on early in your company. But I know many companies that are mid-to-large and lack leadership. You notice the difference between places that have active management.

    And, yes, I think there are certain types of businesses that tend to be better for frequent conference attendees with services businesses being the primary and obvious ones.

  • Josh Morgan


    I thought I was the only one who felt this way until you wrote this!


  • Josh Morgan


    I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Thanks for this post!


  • Justin Hong

    Thank you, Mark, for giving us your perspective. Prior to reading your post, I was really on the side of attending as many conferences as possible in order to help generate visibility for my company and to meet more people. Thanks to you, I'm going to be much more selective now about which ones to attend.


  • Leonid S. Knyshov

    There are really two types of conferences I go to.

    1. Distribution conference – Disrupt, Paypal X Innovate etc. I go to events where I don't have customers to find some distribution partners. Distribution can be as direct affiliates and as integration partners.
    2. Customers conference – Events where usually there is not a single competitor is in sight. For example, I worked in a booth at National Association of Realtors 2005 global meeting. 25000 realtors in the audience, I helped lots of them in my booth on mobile technology. A smaller event is my local Realtors' association marketing that happens every week and brings about 200 agents in for two hours. I can sponsor that for a month for $200 and speak 5 minutes at a time. Since I target Realtors, these events are extremely valuable to me and there isn't anyone there who competes with me.

    To be honest, TC Disrupt sessions were essentially zero value if I were to sit and watch them live. I skipped all of them and watched many of them later. To me as an entrepreneur they were simply irrelevant at this stage. However, the Hackathon challenge clarified a new product for me and I have several potential distribution partners.

    Recently someone asked me “are you going to the ____ meetup or ____ conference”, and I told them these events were not the best use of my time at the moment.

    It's the same reason why I signed up for a speed-pitch session at Paypal X Innovate. I don't need VC funding, but a couple of those people sit on the boards of companies with which I want to partner. I disclosed that ahead of time, by the way.

    I agree, temptation is great to go to every event, but it's just extremely expensive in terms of time and how much distraction they can be. Disrupt was 5 days. After that, I needed another few days to fully recover as well.

    Go to events for your customers. Wait for them to ask you for your pitch. :) Close.

  • Stacey Kannenberg

    You nailed this one! Yes as a startup CEO you do need to get out and network, share your story, join a few panels and speaking gigs; but everything needs to be done in moderation with an eye on the expense in time and money versus ROI. Never underestimate the value of a virtual event or interview!!

  • Rahul Sonnad

    Yes, there is great advice in here.
    Bus Dev should take the front line on Conference Ho'ing. As they Ho, so shall they reap….

  • Alec Kinnear

    Totally agree, Ken. There has to be time to work. I've been wondering about the importance of presence in the head office. This post has confirmed my suspicions. Recent change of plans is in the right direction.