This Post Has Nothing to do with SXSW

Posted on Mar 13, 2011 | 21 comments

This Post Has Nothing to do with SXSW

This post originally appeared on TechCrunch.

For the next four days if you’re in the tech industry you’re going to hear a non-stop stream of information about SXSW. It’s the time of year when many new startups are struggling to rise above all the noise and be heard.

And when everybody is shouting it becomes overwhelming.

I’m actually in Austin at the moment. It turns out this is “the year of group messaging” and since I’m a shareholder in the largest player in the space, TextPlus (7.7m monthly actives), I thought I should come here to represent.

But … that’s all I have to say about that.

With all these companies vying for attention & others just here to soak up the vibe I thought I’d write a much broader piece on how startups can make the most of their attendance at conferences & events.

1. Be very targeted in which events you attend
Plan out your most important events to attend. You may choose some where your customers aggregate, others where you hope to find biz dev partners & still others where you want to meet investors. Many startups get caught up in the conference circuit. They have fun & meet tons of interesting people and they confuse this with the need to do be at every major tech event. I call them “conference ho’s” – don’t be one. While conferences can be intoxicating they can also be very unfocused, narcissistic and hurt your team back in the office.

Choose wisely. Don’t worry about all the folks bragging on Twitter, Instagram or FourSquare about being at the latest event. Feel good in knowing that while they’re at the latest conference, you can be back home stealing all their customers!

2. Do leg work before you get to the event
The most impact you’ll have at conferences is when you plan meetings before you go. I know it sounds obvious but trust me most people don’t do this. It’s very easy to get a sense of who will be attending an event before you go. Don’t assume that you’ll fortuitously run into potential customers or biz dev partners. Write them in advance and request meetings.

The most experienced conference goers (bigger company ones) often book suites in hotels and plan meetings rather than attending any actual sessions. The single most important thing about a conference in my opinion is the fact that all of your important contacts are in one physical location. Don’t leave it to chance. Book ’em.

3. If you sit on a panel, make sure you don’t suck
I’m not a big fan of panels. But not everybody has yet earned the right to do keynotes and the truth is that there are some good benefits of sitting on the right panels. I wrote a full post on how to be effective on a panel. Educate your audience on a topic, don’t be a blowhard overly promoting your company. You’ll get way more from an audience respecting your insights and contributions. They’ll want to meet you later.  Remember that most panels are painfully boring & those panelists who entertain people will be the most remembered.

Have a dialog with your fellow panelists. Don’t be afraid of some friendly controversy – it adds spice. Just be polite about it. And don’t be a panel hog – you might get to say more to the audience but if you care about your fellow panelists you’ll piss them off. I actually think one of the most misunderstood reasons to be on a panel is actually the fellow panelists. You have a certain bond after you’ve sat on a panel together.  So don’t piss them off by hogging minutes for an audience that won’t remember you 5 minutes after you’re done. Grab business cards of the other panelists and follow up after the show.

4. Focus more on Lobby Conf than watching panels
Speaking of panels, don’t sit through them all. If you have a few topics you really want to hear – plan them in advance. But the truth is that nothing truly interesting is really ever said on a panel. People are too guarded – they know they’re under the spotlight. So you won’t REALLY learn anything new.

I spend 90+% of my time at conferences in the lobby and I always have. Yes, it’s partly due to ADHD. But really you want to be building connections with people. While the conference is going on there are always people outside the rooms in the lobby. That’s your best chance to get people that would ordinarily be really difficult to get a meeting with.

5. Consider staying out late, sleeping in
I’ve been to many of the TechCrunch 50, Disrupt and many similar events over the years. The most valuable time for me personally was at the W Hotel after the event. I showed up around 10pm and hung out with a bunch of people I hardly ever get to spend time with. There was no artificial table between us, we weren’t scurrying between one meeting to the next. We didn’t have any documents due that night. We just hung. And when you’re out socially with other people you form a tighter bond. Just is.

If you gave me a choice between the late night cocktail and the morning keynote I’d be sipping martinis every time.

6. Schedule dinners
The other secret conference trick that is orchestrated by the true zen masters is to schedule a dinner and invite other people. It’s a great way to get to know people intimately. Start by booking a few easy-to-land friends who are interesting. Work hard to bag a “brand name” person who others will want to meet. All it takes is one. Then the rest of your invites can mention that person’s name on the guest list (name others, too … obviously) and you will be able to draw in some other people you’d like to meet.

Another similar strategy is with customers. If you invite 3-4 customers and 3-4 prospects to a dinner with 2-3 employees and some other interesting guests you’ll be doing well. Potential customers always prefer to talk to existing reference customers than to talk to just your sales reps.

Final tip, sometimes a dinner can be too expensive for an early-stage company yet picking a killer venue is one of the best ways to bagsy high-profile people. Everybody loves to eat somewhere hot. So why not go in on the dinner with two other companies. That way you’re all extending your networks and splitting the costs.

Plan dinner early enough that people can still get out afterward and do other events that may be going on.

7. Don’t get too wasted
I’m not being moralistic here. I like a drink as much as the next guy and have had my share of hammerhead nights. But an important conference is not the place to do this (except maybe SXSW from what I hear). For starters you’re obviously bound to do stupid things when you knock too many back. And trust me there’s always the people who don’t drink very much and when you come into contact with them you won’t represent yourself as well as you’d like.

Save the boozy nights for back home. Or save it for the after party with your closest colleagues. But if you want to maximize your conference experience lay off the last few drinks. Oh, and don’t do crazy man dancing at the party. I see that often. It’s embarrassing. Worse than wedding dancing. You know who I’m talking about.

8. Don’t assume everybody remembers you
When you walk up to somebody who you’ve met before always start by re-introducing yourself (unless you know them really well). Of course they’ll probably remember you, but often you forget the context of how you know somebody so without that slight prompt the connection isn’t made. I wrote a detailed post on how to re-intro yourself properly.

9. Get a wing man
Some people are great at schmoozing – even when they don’t know anybody else. You know the type – naturally charming and conversationalists. Well, that’s not most people. I often suggest that people get a wing man. Get somebody that roams around the conference with you. It’s far easier to meet people when there are two of you together (just like it’s easier when you’re at a bar trying to meet people when you’re single).

Don’t confuse this for just talking with your buddy for the whole event. That’s dumb. You’re there to network and connect with new people. Just use them as an effective way to hunt in packs.

10. Close the loop after the show
I’d estimate that less than 10% of people follow up after conferences. And those 10% all probably all sales people. You grabbed all those business cards for a reason. Take the highest priority ones and write them a short note within 3 days of the conference ending. In the email write something that will remind them who you are. Find something unique to say so they’ll remember you. If it’s not too forward you can even try for a follow-on action – perhaps getting together next time you’re in town. Obviously only request this where it seems appropriate. But no follow-up = wasted meeting in the first place. Shame.

Now after all this, don’t you feel better about not being in Austin?

  • Hong Quan

    Good points all. I do all my work in the hallways. In regards to business cards and following up, I would suggest the CardMunch app. It’s one of my favorite apps and makes follow up super simple.


  • Ericlklein

    Great post. Very clear and 100% spot on in planning for a show.

  • Jomzup Link

    It’s a very good post, and Thanks for a tip to find people at a bar when you’re single :)

  • giannii

    This is on point.

  • awaldstein

    Well said…why go if you aren’t going for the connections. If not, simply stay home and watch it live streamed.

    Me, I didn’t go this year. I’m in a sleepy Mexican surfer town and I’ll experience it from afar, through Twitter mostly and friends blogs. For me, this year, a wise choice.

  • Dvasefi

    Great post Mark, this should be required reading for startup founders. I’d also add the financial hard cost of attending conferences. Aside from the conference ticket adding the travel, hotel, and meals/drinks can add up quickly and for a young startup take away valuable dollors – even if funded.

  • Joshen5252

    I just attended my first industry conference last weekend. I was wandering around meeting people and have a good time. But I defiantly could have been much more efficient and productive. During the second day I mapped out where I want to go and who I needed to meet.

    In the end I made my best contact after the conference walking to my car. Go figure?

    Excellent post! I am going to take your advice and carefully plan my next conference.

  • Russell Killgo

    I think this was a great post for conference newbies. Re: #6 — Having been in the restaurant industry for the last several years in Las Vegas, I have been able to observe thousands of dinner meetings. Keeping people engaged is very important. It’s not about talking the most or speaking louder than everyone else, it’s about figuring out what your audience at the table wants to talk about as quickly as possible and then taking that framework and building your discussion around it. Some people want it to be 95% biz discussion and others want more of a 50/50 mix. With a party of 8-10 people, usually you have the CEO/founder, 2 marketing types, 2 sales types, 2-3 current customers, and 2-3 potential customers. Everyone at this table will want to talk about something different. I think the job of the host is to keep everyone engaged at least 70% of the time. If this can be accomplished, everyone will come away from the dinner thinking they had a productive biz dinner. As a host of the dinner, just as you have with being CEO, you have to be generally aware of all the conversations going on. Just add enough to keep it going in the right direction when others are taking the lead, or really push it where it needs to be if things start to drift and you see others at the table beginning to lose interest. It’s amazing to me how many biz dinners fail because the host doesn’t understand his/her roll in the evening. Most dinners are 3 courses… apps/salads, entrees, desserts. If you lose the table’s interest before the entrees come, the dinner was a waste of time. Dessert is fun time. This is the time to talk about who’s going to win the World Series, what shows you might check out while in Vegas, what after parties you should attend, or who you want to try and meet up with. Keep your guests engaged for the first 2 courses and you should come away thinking you had a productive dinner.

    Mark, as always, great stuff. Austin was a regular stomping ground for me growing up in Dallas. Have fun and say hi to all my friends on 6th Street for me.

  • Mike Suprovici

    Great post Mark and very timely. I learned a lot. If you don’t prepare, the event will be a waste of money – which is something that most start-ups can’t afford to do. I try to have specific goals for each event (i.e. meet 5 bloggers, 5 BD relationships etc..) After the event I measure the results against those metrics to determine ROI. That being said, sometimes it just takes 1 good contact to make the conference worthwhile…

  • Dan Voell

    Great points! I usually feel bad attending a conference and not going to the panels, I just need to think about it more strategically. Now I don’t feel so bad about not going to SXSW although I do feel bad I passed up the #StartupBus.

  • MartinEdic

    I’m glad you didn’t cover SXSW- I have yet to see a really compelling story come out of it (4Chan vs. Facebook is not a story, it’s linkbait by the 4chan guy).
    Your advice is spot on. I’d add, and you allude to it, that if you are seeking customers don’t attend peer conferences…
    The other thing that’s geeky but very effective is a readable nametag. Typically the conference passes don’t make it easy to see name and company name. These can be real icebreakers.

  • MartinEdic

    I’m glad you didn’t cover SXSW- I have yet to see a really compelling story come out of it (4Chan vs. Facebook is not a story, it’s linkbait by the 4chan guy).
    Your advice is spot on. I’d add, and you allude to it, that if you are seeking customers don’t attend peer conferences…
    The other thing that’s geeky but very effective is a readable nametag. Typically the conference passes don’t make it easy to see name and company name. These can be real icebreakers.

  • Michael Zaro

    for me #10 has been the most important of all. It seems that if you’re looking for the opportunities you can meet a lot of interesting people in a variety of ways. But if you don’t follow up soon after and continue to build the relationship whatever tools/strategies/schmoozing you pulled off in the first place is essentially wasted. Especially if you meet someone truly interesting. They probably meet a lot of people and if you wait too long to “close the loop” you had better be as cool as Mark if you want them to remember you, otherwise it was probably for naught.

  • William Mougayar

    Yup. It’s all about the networking. New deals and connections are made at conferences that can determine the future of some companies.

  • Anonymous

    I think this is great advice. I agree most of the value comes from the social interactions, and bonding that often occurs at the hotel bar at the end of the night. I absolutely love the wing man idea – I am thinking that might be my next career move.

  • Anonymous

    I like the last point, following up. Seems that’s what I’ve been doing since I left SXSW. Again, Mark, was a pleasure meeting you in person. You personify your writings.

  • petegrif

    good post

    IMHO the biggest weakness of the whole lean startup movement is the lack of a framework for thinking about teams.

    At Goldman in the ‘good old days’ they didn’t look for stars they looked for ‘SWANS.’

    S smart
    W work hard
    A ambitious
    N nice

    The nice part is important. It’s integral to a culture that has a pleasant working environment and takes teamwork seriously.

    Understanding this stuff is a major competitive advantage.

  • petegrif

    wow – that’s wierd. Read the piece on teams on techcrunch. Made fatal error of thinking this was same piece. Sorry.

  • lesa babb

    Couldn’t agree more… although for me, it’s awkward to “hang out.” Granted, I may be the lone female voice here, but… having worked in a big box hotel that’s hosted many a convention, I’d say it’s important for men and CRUCIAL for women to stay this side of sober. Nothing screams unprofessional like stumbling around handing out business cards to total strangers.

  • lesa babb

    Great points here. It is important to know your audience, and… to not be percieved as a one note.

  • Dan Berger

    Hi Mark, we at Social Tables, a startup, put a list of 10 tips for startups looking to maximize their SXSW experience. It’s based on our lessons learned.