Why You Shouldn’t Launch Your Startup at a Major Tech Event

Posted on Feb 2, 2013 | 24 comments


It’s February now. That means a slew of companies will be preparing to launch their new products or announcing their companies at the annual SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.

I get asked often how to best launch at SXSW. What strategies to use, how to get attention, how to become “hot.” I get asked many PR questions which is why I started this stream of posts on PR at Startups.

So this post is about how to best craft a strategy to launch at SXSW but you could substitute most major conferences like CES if you want.

Exec Summary
Don’t bother.

The Details
To be clear. I’m not advocating that you shouldn’t present at tech startup events like Launch, TechCrunch 50, DEMO or similar. These are tech launch events designed to see new startups unveiled. I’m talking about big, garden-variety, industry-wide, schmooze fests.

SXSW is where Twitter broke out in 2007. It’s where FourSquare first broke out. And ever since then every year we are subjected to the tech press corps writing the annual, “What will the hot company at SXSW be?” followed by the compulsory post-show “Who won at SXSW?”

Trust me these articles are coming. Why? Because to write stories every journalist needs an “angle” meaning a storyline or narrative that they form their story around. The most obvious narrative leading into an event that launched two smashing tech darlings is, “what will be the next big thing?”

And then subsequently many well intentioned but young, naive and impressionable startups will blow thousands of dollars wastefully trying to recreate the magic. They will fail.

To be clear I’m not saying don’t attend SXSW, just not to blow your marketing budget trying to stand out. In fact, I’m a very big proponent of SXSW as I wrote about here.

Why It’s a Waste
There will be tens of thousands of people there. They will be there mostly to network, go to parties and hang out. They are not there to “discover the next cool SXSW app.” You are a shitty little startup. You have $10,000 to spend. Actually, you don’t. But you’re planning to do so anyways.

Your great idea – suggested by your PR firm – is to book out some dive bar and invite guests, rent a room at the Four Seasons and throw a party, take over a grilled cheese stand across from the main venue. None of this matters. Don’t do it.

Your crappy $10,000 will pale in comparison to the budgets of the big tech & media companies. So anything you do will feel small in comparison. Your efforts to corral your tight-knit tech followers will work for 5 minutes but even they will feel the pull to be at the really cool tech party where “everybody will be” that starts at midnight.

In short, there’s too much noise, no signal. You can’t stand out. You’re shouting in a crowd. It is the peak moment of ADD for everybody in the tech industry and the tech press. It is “Spring Break for Geeks.”

So go. Be a part of the fun. Attend the cocktail parties. Meet your favorite tech entrepreneurs, bloggers, VCs or whoever that will be hanging out and talking to randoms at 3am at a taco stand or more likely a fried chicken waffle stand. Network. Be loose. Save your time, energy & budget for building relationships with people with whom you can follow up later. If you’re trying to launch your company or your next new product you won’t achieve any of these things.

Why Twitter & FourSquare Succeeded
Ok, Suster. You think you know it all? Then why did Twitter & FourSquare break out? Surely we should try to emulate their spectacular rise.

No, you shouldn’t.

Twitter was launched in “a moment.” Prior to Twitter there was no easy, public way to ask which party was the best at SXSW or where were your friends? Before Twitter there was no easy way to “conference brag” or “travel brag” or share food porn. So it filled a gap. A need. A moment in time. The iPhone will still fairly new and smart phones were just coming to the fore.

So SXSW needed Twitter. And Twitter needed SXSW. And all of the attendees needed the validation that they were the cool kids at the cool party and to tell the world of non-SXSW people that they were missing out.

And in the wake of that spectacular success FourSquare repeated the magic. How? Because by the next year Twitter had gotten really noisy. The masses were now on. It wasn’t an efficient tool for telling people which bar you were at or where you were eating lunch. And FourSquare was. It was the first “check-in app” that allowed you to know exact location. And it was purpose built for that so it wasn’t mixed up with random other messages / Tweets.

But public broadcasting and location activation are done.

And so, too, is that SXSW moment.

If you were at TechCrunch 40 in the early days and you won: Mint, Yammer, RedBeacon – you were an instant darling. I challenge you to tell me who won the last three years. TechCrunch 25/40/50 was a moment, too.

How to Best do SXSW
So how should you take advantage of this wonderful show? How should you get the most bang for the buck?

I wrote this in a post so my best suggestion is just to read How to Get the Most out of SXSW, which is really about how to get the most out of any major event. For those not interested in linking through – here are the summary titles without the details of that post.

1. Be very targeted in which events you attend
2. Do the leg work before the event
3. If you sit on a panel, make sure you don’t suck
4. Focus more on networking at events than attending presentations
5. Stay out late, sleep in
6. Schedule dinners
7. Don’t get too wasted
8. Don’t assume people remember you
9. Have a “wing man”
10. Follow up with people right after the event

  • http://www.spindows.com/ Clay Hebert

    Great post, Mark. Agree 100%. This is the resource I’ll point people to who plan to launch their startups at SXSW.

    Another good example to make your point. Highlight was supposed to be the big app last year. They got more buzz than most startups could hope for. And in the end…buzz was all they got. Batteries were drained, notifications weren’t relevant enough, people got frustrated and uninstalled the app.

    Time is better spent making sure your startup is awesome, relevant and something people want to use instead of launching at an ever-noisier and busier SXSW.

  • MHSzymczyk

    SXSW Interactive was relevant from 2005-2009 and the Interactive portion was informative and focused. There weren’t 10,000 panels, hundreds of agencies ‘attendees’ looking to party and so on. Twitter and Foursquare got their start there but that was before the conference ‘jumped the shark’, ‘nuked the fridge’, whatever you want to call it. Whenever your attendee base is 50% or more agency people, that is a great indicator that the event is on the decline – especially for startups that want true networking opportunities…

    I personally think the conference is a waste of time now – especially for startups. Too crowded, too much noise and too much hype. Only worth attending if you’re looking to network with agencies (a waste of time in itself) or to attend a party where you can expect to spend most of your time waiting in line…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2419735 Paul Knegten

    Love it- and agree that it applies to huge conferences in general. For smaller startups, it makes so much more sense to optimize marketing for getting attention the 51 other weeks of the year instead of the one week everybody else is trying to shout over the noise. It’s easy to think you have to be all over these conferences but unless it’s conspicuious that you’re not there (say you’re Google or Microsoft or something), budget is better spent creating your own events anyway.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The problem with hyping Highlight is that it probably wasn’t ready for it and when the hype doesn’t live up to the reality it’s hard to rebuild enthusiasm

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    not sure. I went in 2011 and really enjoyed it. I haven’t been since. If people still go then it might still be useful for networking. but with increases in crowds it’s obviously harder

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ” it makes so much more sense to optimize marketing for getting attention the 51 other weeks of the year instead of the one week everybody else is trying to shout over the noise.” – you said it better than I could have

  • robkischuk

    I went for the first time in 2012. If people are going hoping for an intimate conversation with a VC or certain startup founders, it’s statistically less likely.

    There are marketers. Lots of them. My startup’s in the direction of social marketing automation, so a density of marketers is a good thing. There are lots of consumers and early adopters, so that’s a good fit for many startups too.

    I think the complaints come from people who wish SXSW was one long string of serendipitous meetings with “important” people. For most startups, the people you meet at SXSW can still be important, you just probably haven’t heard of them before, and that’s okay.

  • Brian Zuercher

    Good post. I also suggest we eliminate the word ‘launch’. That implies it has a rocket and guaranteed lift off. We use ‘release’ and assume its like an untrained puppy that we are going to try to chase around trying to teach it things. In addition, from a CEO’s perspective, these ‘launches’ build way too much hype for your team. They expect all these great signups and results that don’t come. We do our releases with a customer who is using our product so that the team and PR make a great use case story.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great point about team expectations

  • Roman Giverts

    I very strongly agree with this post. I believe the prioritization of these events is part of an enormous misconception among aspiring entrepreneurs that launch parties, and pr in general, are distribution strategies. They are not.

    When I was first starting my company, the best VCs and mentors I knew would immediately ask, what is your distribution strategy? Or simply put, how are you going to get users?

    A good distribution strategy is something that is repeatable, that you are capable of executing, and that will lead to relatively predictable results. For some companies it’s SEO and SEM, for others it’s users uploading email lists (path), in the extreme case you can open your own stores (apple).

    The worst answer that I hear so often from nascent companies is, “we’re gonna launch at DEMO, then raise some money and get techcrunch to write about it, then launch a new feature and get another article, etc.”

    This is not a distribution strategy even though all of these things may temporarily lead to new users. I would argue that it may be best for young start ups to avoid these things altogether, so that you don’t lie to yourself and think your artificial PR driven growth is real growth that you can sustain.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    well said

  • http://twitter.com/projectkim Terry Kim

    Thanks Mark for the great insight and tips. Me and my co-founder are new to the start-up scene and will be attending SXSW for the very first time and your posts will definitely be helpful in planning our trip.

    Will you be attending this year or sitting on any panels?

    PS: On another note… thank you so much for your posts on “Entrepreneur DNA”. It inspired me to quit my six figure job at Cisco just recently and take the “leap of faith” sooner rather than later. :)

  • jamesoliverjr

    Thanks for this, Mark. I am 4 weeks into a 12 week accelerator (gener8tor) w/my startup and I was just wondering about this topic.

    Another great post. Please keep ‘em coming.

    Cheers!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Terry, I think I won’t be at SXSW this year – only because I’m a bit busier this year than most. But it’s a great event. Enjoy. And congrats on the leap – I hope it goes well.

  • Justbefriends

    Each Sunday morning, I settle in with my coffee to read a plethora of blogs. I know you may hear this all the time but they are truly a calm, reasonable voice in the chaos of start up and entrepreneur “you need to know, do, achieve such and such right now BS”. Everybody seems to have an opinion rarely that does equate to great insight which are different. Thank you again for the wonderful insight.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    best exec summary ever

  • http://pop-pr.blogspot.com Jeremy Pepper

    I’d add to both points that too many start-ups focus on the launch, and don’t think about longer term media plans. That initial buzz does some good, but it’s the longer, sustained campaign finding the right audiences that matter. And that seems to be too rare nowadays.

  • http://www.fundingcommunity.com/ Alex Binkley

    Great post Mark. I was thinking last year at SXSW how it seemed crazy for anyone to try to get more than 1% of anyone’s attention span, given the insanity there. I’m interested in your thoughts on the other conferences though, those “tech startup events”. You say you’re not talking about them, but it sounds like you still don’t think they’re super worthwhile (“TechCrunch 25/40/50 was a moment, too”)

  • H.a.w.k P.h.i.l

    I have a question to ask everyone. Is it possible to go to SXSW as an attendee and wear my startup t-shirt to hang out flyers or goodies at the entrance? I am wondering if that is not against any rules. I’m just trying to save few bucks because from my previous experience at the booth, I didn’t get much more traffic than a door standing person.

  • http://www.startupsandiego.co/ Eric Otterson

    The answer to the question “is SXSW worth it any more?” lies within you, your extended network, and how hard you are willing to work to tap into it.

    I share the following in hopes that it helps others be inspired to do what it takes to make SXSW successful.

    I attended SXSW in 2012; Frankly, I should have followed more of your advice – not enough preparation on my part. I was lucky, I was still able to leverage opportunities ‘on the go’, but I could have made it so much more.

    In preparation this year, and inspired by your post, here is how I am “doing the legwork before the event”:

    A: I am contacting all my friends (corporate, VC, and emerging company service providers – like banks, lawyers and marketers) that went last year or hosted a party last year to find out the ‘scoop’ for this year and to get on ‘the list.’

    B: I’m looking through the speaker list to see if there are other friends that I was unaware of who are attending this year, and reaching out to them.

    C: I’ve made reservations for dinner and have built a schedule for pre-dinner cocktails each day so that I have scheduled events I can pre-invite a core group to, and a place/event to add spontaneous ‘meets’ from SXSW to join me/us.

    D: I have my wing-woman/wing team. We are all working our network to gain savvy as to which events we should attend.

    Forgive my boldness, but here is a suggested strategic re-ordering of items mentioned in the “Get The Most” blog. If you aren’t willing to do the preceding numbered item, don’t proceed to the next:

    1. Follow up with people right after the event [If you don’t do this, why go?]
    2. Do the leg work before the event
    While #2 will determine the ‘success’ of going to SXSW, #1 will determine your ROI

    What to do while there:
    3. Schedule dinners [Requires #2]
    4. Be very targeted in which events you attend
    5. Focus more on networking at events than attending presentations
    6. Stay out late, sleep in

    How to do it:
    7. Don’t assume people remember you [Be polite – how do you want to be remembered?]
    8. Don’t get too wasted [Have manners – ditto]
    9. Have a “wing man”
    10. If you sit on a panel, make sure you don’t suck [This is higher up for the lucky few who get to do panels!]

    If, in doing #1 you find that your clients, target prospects and service provider friends are not going this year…then you have answered the question as to if it is worth it to you.

  • Craig Watson

    Great advice, cheers Mark. These lines certainly resonated with us – “Network. Be loose. Save your time, energy & budget for building relationships with people with whom you can follow up later. ”

    Like any start-up, our marketing budget is tight at the best of times but thankfully it seems like the days of the hard launch are a thing of the past (for all but the most seasoned tech companies anyway).

    Instead, it seems that building communities, finding and nurturing product/brand evangelists and developing mutually beneficial relationships with influential bloggers, journalists etc is far more important. It worked for Instagram anyway and they set the bar in recent times for “pre-launch” hype and lead generation as far as we’re concerned!

    Our app is currently in private beta but we will be attending SXSW for the first time this year to seed (not launch) our product in the US. Your separate post on getting the most out of the event has been incredibly helpful on this.

    In short, we’re flying in from Dublin a couple of days before. Renting an RV and setting up shop at the event. ‘Staying’ on site in Austin (K-Mart is as good a spot as any right!?). Having spent the last few weeks lining up meetings, the plan is then relatively simple. Network like it’s 1999!

    We’re prepared to follow up on any leads by literally driving in our RV to LA, SF etc after the event (we’ve given oursleves a week post SXSW to do this). Total spend should be <$5k. The overall value will come down to our ability to hustle.

  • gabrielshepherd

    good read… Our tech scene decided to pool its resources and market collectively under #VegasTech

  • gabrielshepherd
  • Michael Anderson

    So, we have decided to avoid these big events, but are planning on not really releasing, but just having a booth at an industry specific conference. Smaller footprint, smaller cost, targeted customers. We are just trying to get exposure to the gaming public, and figured that a conference would put is in the path of press and other folks we wouldn’t otherwise get here in Nashville.

    Is that a valid use of our time/money? We are still in beta, but need to get the word out as best as possible. Just hoping we don’t get lost in the noise…