Be Careful not to Become a Conference Ho

Posted on Oct 13, 2010 | 68 comments


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.”

Bullshit.

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

  • Francois Vanuffelen

    I am not going to many conferences. But I'm going to DreamForce in Sept. Hope to see you there. ;-)

  • Francois Vanuffelen

    sorry in Dec.

  • http://twitter.com/cliffelam J. Cliff Elam

    Funny, my wife has gotten on some sort of recurring panelist list (last night it was with the head of the Richmond Fed) and she loves it. But every time she comes back she says the same thing: I should have been at work, I have a lot of catching up to do.

    Her first startup, but she's figuring it all out and getting it right.

    -XC

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Bullshit? That's why you bring your team with!

    (Well, if worked for me for about 5 years back in the 90's. Now I rarely ever go to conference anymore. :)

  • http://blog.teamly.com/about Scott Allison

    I thought I'd disagree with this, but no, again you manage to look at – well – both sides of the table and there's nothing much to add.

    I do think though if you end up on stage to promote your business for free in front of hundreds of people – assuming they are in your target market – that is very cost effective promotion. And that's even before you add up the media value of scoring additional reviews or blog posts about your product. But the problem for a startup is that whilst this is also the best opportunistic time to get such free exposure it's also the time you most need to be there leading the biz, and your absence could easily backfire.

    There is also another breed, the pitch competition junkies? Any thoughts on them?

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    There is another side to this table – which is that there is a class of investor conference-ho's. They show up to see the same CEO's speak and talk about the same stuff – hoping to glean some small incremental nugget of information. It is an ecosystem that feeds on itself.

  • http://twitter.com/maxniederhofer maxniederhofer

    I just went through your portfolio to call you out on having invested in one of them ho's but you haven't :) Well done!

  • Freddy

    We may only have a small team in our office, but my goodness this post couldn't resonate anymore. Incredibly accurate.

    Possibly why our small team is also diminishing, and why I'm off to an event tonight (my first event) to meet a potential new employer.

    It is so dangerous to team morale, team productivity and quality of team productivity.

    Often I'll look at myself and set myself a challenge to take more responsibility but I always get back round to the point where I can't actually make final decisions. The CEO can, but he's not in the office to make or even discuss them.

    There's a lot of anger in our team.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    This doesn't just apply to conferences either (which is probably obvious). Prioritising what needs to be done for your fledgling business is incredibly important. I think it's easy to under-estimate how fragile a young startup can be. Conferences, investor-stalking, meet-ups and general networking all fall in the “not real work” category (and, yes, I know the implications of that statement).

    If you're trying to build a business that has a general market customer base, getting well known amongst a bunch of tech entrepreneurs is not going to make you a success. I am personally really poor at the self-publicity thing, so maybe my views are tainted, but I'd rather keep my gob shut an focus on building my business. That's a hard enough thing to do well without the disruptions.

  • http://twitter.com/andyhunn Andy Hunn

    Mark – very true. Think this is a learned skill – I think the shows are very tantalizing to the twenty-something CEO's (zuckerberg aside, who seems to really be 53 inside). In digital media space you see the same young ceo's and agency prognosticators on every panel. Time better spent talking to actual customers.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    So how many is just right? 4 per year? 2 per year?

  • http://markgslater.wordpress.com/ markslater

    Europeans like a good old Jolly mark – you should know that.

  • http://eastagile.com kenberger

    Another issue is that it's self-defeating. The biggest (only?) reason to attend conferences is for the relationships you might make, which build from the follow-ups. You have no time and energy for such follow-ups from the confs you just hit if you're perpetually scrambling to future ones.

  • Geekette

    Hi Mark,

    Good post.

    Typo alert:
    3rd paragraph down “you’re invite to a speakers’ dinner”
    3rd from bottom paragraph “they’d never fund somebody that spend more time in conference halls”

    Cheers

  • http://david.ulevitch.com/ davidu

    I say this all the time to other entrepreneurs and they look at me like I just took the wind out of their sails.

    The goal of a CEO is not to get elite or platinum status, sorry.

  • http://about.me/johnmccarthy johnmccarthy

    Fantastic, really needed to be said.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That is one worth attending. I'll make it if I can. And if I do I'd be happy to meet up with any contingence you have

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It's a hard balance, for sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Bring your team with … so you can all be unproductive! FTW! just kidding. thanks for sharing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Collective conference award wins is the same thing. It's OK to have 1 or 2. But going for every win …. ho. I agree that conferences can be great marketing outlets. Everything in moderation.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    100%. Talking to the echo chamber. I only do one thing at conferences – sit in the halls and catch up with everybody I've been meaning to see.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Too funny! Actually, there was a deal I was specifically asked to invest in by 3-4 people and met the company 2-3 times. The conference ho rational is why I never looked seriously at it. And whenever their existing investors say “take another look” I always have my broken-record excuse.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Wow. Thank you for writing this. I wish more people knew this. I hear it ALL THE TIME from orphaned companies. Even some big ones with big brands. Leadership is leadership. And lack of it is, well … good luck.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good point. But it's also a balancing act. Some entrepreneurs never get out for “general networking” and there is so much lost by not having those extra serendipitous relationships.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And the savvy people who go to 1 out of every 5 of these KNOW that the same young ceo's / agency people are on every panel. and they whisper their names amongst themselves. that's what I'm trying to warn people of. I'm in those corridors. I hear the mutterings. the ceo's are on stage and don't hear it. they don't know.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    No magic number. You go to those that will help your business. each person has to balance.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ah, the boondoggle to Cannes. Yes ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    true

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thank you!

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    I find this to be a hilarious post Mark. I have only been to a single conference (TC:Disrupt NYC) and I already know exactly who you are talking about. I can also see exactly why they get addicted to that, it was such a fun experience for me, but at the same time conferences seem to reek of bullshit more than anything else. I think they work as a great 'pump up' to get you excited to hit the code hard when you return. Obviously, I am thinking of this from a personal perspective and not as a CEO, but I entirely agree with you.

  • sunny

    I think this post is brilliant and Mark is killing it recently with his direct but so true observations. There are too many entreprenurs that love the glitz and glam of the game and not the gritty, building a company up from the ground up.

    In the U.K at least it seems to be the more you are seen out and about, showing how glamarous everything is the more people seem to think you are doing well and you get invited onto more panels and get more awards etc. in a self perpetuating cycle. At the end of the day you cant lie to yourself, you can only live on hot air and some press hype for so long, eventually you will have to deliver and create profits etc.

  • Michael Osterman

    I largely agree, but mobile companies with highly distributed workforces need a different style of management than one that is an office – simply because there is not an office anymore in many companies. Even if you're not traveling, you may still not be physically connected to the people in your company.

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    The first chairman of my first company, a few months after coming on board rebuked me by saying he thought I spent too much time on the “cocktail circuit” –

    I mistakenly thought one had to attend as that's where the business got done. I learnt that wasn't the case. Being relatively introverted the events were doubly painful.

    does the conference ho analogy work online? – Perhaps commenting on every Mark Suster blog post is the online equivalent

  • http://www.jeffgothelf.com Jeff Gothelf

    If you're targeting strictly CEO's in this post and they are regularly absent, then I think you've got a point. However, getting out on “the circuit” for a bit can actually be a boon to your company. You're showing thought leadership, discussing the cool things you're building and making people want to come to work with you. With the latest discussions on the dearth of talent available for startups, getting out and firing up potential employees about your startup, business and ideas can greatly increase your candidate pipeline. Conferences are a good way to get that type of buzz.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    Short and to the point with this one!

    As a startup founder, I try and attend only one conference per year (if you're in tech, try TC Disrupt) and to attend networking events that occur only during the evenings, for no more that 2 hours at a time, and no more than one evening per month. Go into all events with a mission of who to “seek and destroy” – i.e. who at the event you have not met before, need to meet, and have prepare an ask for those that you will meet. Avoid talking to people you already know or those that you can otherwise presume (even if you're wrong) in the first one minute of meeting them will provide little to no value. Get in, connect with the folks you need to meet, and get out. Another general tip that works well for me is that I try and avoid, at all costs, having to sit in a room and be talked to by a panel or a speaker – i.e. for any event you go to, the impact is made in the connections. Skip the lectures, presentations, panels, and pitches and go straight for the networking session. Spend 2 hours at the network session at most and get out. If you must listen to someone speak, catch the online video version on your own time.

  • http://www.privatelabelinteractive.com/trend.html lksugarman

    As I read your post and all the comments, I had more and more thoughts I could write about here. But, I'm kind of in dual start-up mode, so I need to get back to work so I'll have time to go for a training ride later. I'll just share my initial thought – Amen, Brutha!

  • http://www.privatelabelinteractive.com/trend.html lksugarman

    As I read your post and all the comments, I had more and more thoughts I wanted to share. But, I'm in dual start-up mode and need to get back to work so I have time later for a training ride. I'll just close with my initial reaction.

    Amen, Brutha!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ankit.agarwal Ankit Agarwal

    I think there is a distinction between conferences & meetups. At a conference – sit in the hall and meet people. At a meetup – learn something new.

    - Ankit
    Micello

  • http://otherthanthat.com cathybrooks

    So I'll admit to attending my fair share of events – but in the last year have whittled that down solely to those at which I am speaking or at which I have direct and specific client work already engaged. In fact, this is likely to be the first year in I can't recall how many where I won't be at LeWeb nor will I be at CES and have missed most all the Digital Hollywoods. Now to be fair, my business operation isn't a software development one (yet) and my “staff” consists of me, the voices in my head and a series of related contractors who I engage on projects so there's no “hallway” in which to manage. That said, your points about conference attendance are spot … f-ing … on; and having worked at a few placed where the above was the case, I have seen first hand the damage wrought … a great post. Thanks (as always) Mark!

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    I was thinking that very thought. Procrastination takes many forms. I think I'm guilty of commenting here more than I should.

    The differences seems to be three-fold that I can see:
    1. You're likely to glean something useful from this site.
    2. You're only spending 10 minutes, not a whole day.
    3. Your ego isn't likely to take control of your world just through being someone who comments on a blog..

    :)

  • http://twitter.com/eatmedia Ian Alexander

    Mark,

    Can I reprint this post with linkback? Launching a new conference related site and this is right on topic.

    -Ian Alexander

    @eatmedia

  • http://www.ImpactInteractions.com/ Mike Rowland

    “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.”

    Actually, the advice works there as well. I run a company in the social media/online community services business and wonder how some of my competitors get any client work done as they are at every single social media club/event/conference/meeting/etc. In the services business, you cannot bring your clients the best ideas from attending conferences. You must earn your knowledge in order to share it.

    I came from a services company where our CEO was a ho. He attended everything including Davos! Those of us who actually worked with the clients and sold engagements were amazed at how much press he got and the number of conferences he spoke at while working to get on the cover of Forbes…

    So, I would say that whether you are a technology creator or a services business this advice is spot on.

    Mike

  • http://twitter.com/MironLulic MironLulic

    Conferences are a dated and inefficient networking channel. It really is more about the schmoozing than productivity.

  • http://twitter.com/MironLulic MironLulic

    Conferences are a dated and inefficient networking channel. It really is more about the schmoozing than productivity.

  • Rand Fishkin

    Hi Mark – I haven't commented before, but I think I qualify as a conference whore through and through. I do between 12-18 events per year, and am on the road ~80 days a year as a result.

    I believe your post makes some good points, but it's less balanced and caveat-filled than I'd have expected. My experience has been that those events largely built my company not just through those individual relationships or dinners, but because conferences and events are a great way to:

    A) Meet lots of customers and talk to them in person for 10-30 minutes about your product, about competitors, about their needs, etc. At least for me, this has been invaluable, and while we do bring customers to our offices, have calls with folks, run webinars and demos, the in-person environment at a conference is categorically better most of the time.

    B) Meet competitors and other folks in the industry who are running similar/related businesses and hear about their successes and failures.

    C) Create serendipity for the exit. We've only had 2 serious offers in the past few years for acquisitions, but both were the result of having people see me speak, connect with me at multiple events and look more deeply at my company as a result. Maybe lots of exits and offers happen in the void

    D) Go to where the action is. There's constant talk of how Silicon Valley, New York, London, and maybe LA to a certain extent are where “things happen” in the startup world. For those of us living outside those areas, visiting is a great way to meet movers and shakers and get introductions. As an example, I attended several conferences in the Bay Area, met lots of other startup CEOs, went out to dinner, etc. and when I went to raise money last year, those guys provided 90%+ of the intros to VCs. I don't know how I could have gotten those meetings without those connections.

    E) Build brand awareness & positive attention. Over the years, I've gotten to be a pretty good speaker, and as a result, most of the events I attend invite me to speak and many pay for hotel/flights. This means that when I speak on a stage, people walk away with a more positive impression of the company, the work we do, the software we build, etc. – we've been able to show that we get more paying customers from a geographic region from speaking at an event there (granted, it's small, but it's not 0).

    Two more things I'd add:

    1) I think your advice is very sound at the early stages of a company, and becomes less so over time. My impression is that a CEO certainly needs to be around, contributing, etc. but that building a strong leadership team at the company who can run day-to-day effectively is a big priority/obligation. If your company can't afford you on the road 20% of the time, it seems to me you've done something wrong (at least, if you're at the 20+ person startup size with teams, VPs, etc.)

    2) If you're a consulting company OR an enterprise software player (at least in my field), you NEED to be on the road or you're not getting customers and the CEO is often the primary driver of those sales until you reach a high level of maturity.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on these and see if/where we disagree. I don't love being out on the road, but I have seen/felt a lot of positives from doing it and thus have continued. If you think I'm crazy/foolish and I think you're a smart guy who knows his stuff, there's some cognitive dissonance to work through.

  • Rand Fishkin

    Looks like some of my comment got cut off (and Disqus is giving me errors).. doh!

    I wanted to add that with item B) – we've gotten some of our best tips from this (where to advertise for our subscription service, what things worked for conversion rate improvement, how to improve retention and what NOT to do, too).

    On C) I got cut off, but wanted to say that it seems like relationships drive exits and investments and unless the CEO is pounding the pavement, it's very hard to make either happen.

    I was also curious as to whether this post was directed more at consumer startups and conferences than niche software businesses focused on B2B. For example, we sell SEO software, so our customers go to SEO conferences/events and when I can speak on panels or give presentations, the ROI is sizable. It would be quite challenging to pass that responsibility on to someone else in the organization and get the same impact.

  • Roman Giverts

    Mark,
    Well, since I'm definitely a conference ho, I feel the need to opine. I actually agree with almost everything in the post, but i want to point out that there are different types of hos, and different kinds of hoing, that can be worthwhile to a company.

    1. the ceo should never be the conference ho, but it can be productive to have other people in the company be conference hos. For example, Larry and Sergiy may not be at every conference, but there is some other leadership from google at every single conference. And not necessarily always the same person.

    2. If your company is focused in specific verticals, as opposed to more generic things like “social networking,” conferences can be leveraged for sales to a great extent. BD and networking is fluff, but if your conference hos are creating leads and pushing deals forward, thats a different kind of ho! One example would be the healthcare vertical. Trying to get a doctor's attention at his office is all but impossible, but they all go to many conferences throughout the year where they are looking to network. The amount of selling and marketing you can do in a couple days at those conferences pales in comparison to what you can do in a couple days back at your office.

    3. I was the original conference ho at my company and the founder, but as we grew, the number of conferences and amount of travel became overwhelming. So we hired new people to go to conferences as well. For these people we created a methodology for being productive at conferences and we set specific, written down goals for every single conference. This makes it a very different type of ho-ing…. results oriented, as opposed to for general “networking” purposes.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Does it make sense to appoint an official conference whore then?
    i.e. your A-Team's Faceman while you lead

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Incredible quality reply to Mark's statement. As I've seen time and again “there's more than one way to do it” is the only standard in the startup business. You make some great points about why it's important to have a super sales rep at live events. If it's not going to be the CEO, it has to be a face that the rest of world can think of as representing the startup (the Faceman founder).

  • Sloth

    Fantastic and so true.

    I anxiously await the post on “Meeting Hos”. Same effect but without leaving the office!