248: How to Use Conferences to Grow Your Startup
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In today’s episode, Steli and Hiten list the ways in which you can use conferences to grow your startups. In the entrepreneurial world today, there are conferences popping up left, right and center—it’s hard to know which ones will benefit you the MOST. Steli and Hiten discuss how you should choose your conference, how to MAXIMIZE the value of that conference and the importance of making in-person connections with those that attend. Tune-in to get the MOST out of your next conference.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
- 00:26 – Today’s topic is about using conferences to grow your business
- 00:43 – Steli wants to talk about this topic because both him and Hiten always get invited to speak at conferences
- 01:14 – Steli thinks that the majority of conferences are a waste of time and 10% of them can be worthwhile and valuable
- 01:52 – Be selective about which conferences to attend
- 02:20 – Look at the focus of the conference
- 03:06 – Ask yourself whether the audience attending the conference could be potential customers for your business
- 04:11 – Reasons NOT to go should include raising a financing round, getting press publicity, and to learn about interesting topics
- 05:08 – If you’re interested in the content and not in networking, learn from home instead
- 05:54 – Hiten used to be part-owner of a conference company
- 06:38 – At some point, conferences turn into money-making events
- 08:23 – Steli doesn’t know of any conference he’s attended that have actually gotten better
- 08:48 – Majority of conferences make money from sponsorships
- 09:17 – The conferences are designed around the sponsors and not the attendees
- 10:06 – Steli believes that networking makes conferences valuable
- 10:16 – The reality is 99% of attendees don’t actually network while at the conference
- 10:38 – Most people go to conferences with people they know and spend the majority of their time with them
- 11:45 – One of the most powerful things about a conference is get to know people and be in their physical space
- 12:45 – You don’t need to meet ALL the people at a conference, just make a list of people who are potential customers
- 13:39 – Steli finds it rare that people are purposeful and make it a point to meet specific people at a conference
- 14:37 – “A conference is the starting point of a relationship, if you want to network”
- 15:57 – Steli attended 5 to 10 conferences this past year
- 16:33 – Steli mentions a story about a listener of the podcast who tweets from his company’s branded account
- 17:06 – The person emailed Steli asking if he needed a ride from the Dublin airport to his hotel and he accepted
- 17:37 – In the 3 minutes of driving together, Steli realized he was actually glad he said “yes” to the offer
- 18:01 – Steli describes this guy to be a genuine and honest person
- 19:24 – In-person connection really makes a difference
- 19:41 – If this person keeps in touch, Steli is willing to go out of his way to help him
- 20:50 – Help those people that you want to connect with
- 21:42 – End of the podcast
3 Key Points:
- You have to be selective about the conference you’re attending to gain the most value.
- Unfortunately, most conferences are planned around the sponsors.
- At the end of the day, personal connections are still better than connections made online.
Hey, everybody, this is Steli Efti
This is Hiten Shah.
In today’s episode of the startup chat, we want to talk about startup conferences. You know, when should you attend conferences, how do you make sure to actually turn a conference into something that converts into business, growth, or whatever the goal is that you have versus just having it be a huge distraction, a waste of your time. The reason why I wanted to talk about that with you, Heaton, is we both speak a lot of conferences. I just came back from a conference in Europe and saw a lot of things you should do and things you shouldn’t do, so I thought it might be fun to go back and forth and enlighten some people on this.
Awesome. Yeah, I actually have been to less conferences this year than I have ever been to I guess in the last, I don’t know, five or 10 years. I think this is a really interesting topic, especially in reference to tech conferences, so I’m curious what your take is.
Yeah. So let’s just jump right into it. I do think that 90% of the time … I think the majority of conferences are probably a waste of your time. Just to come right out of the bet with my thoughts of this, I think that 10% of the conferences that could be really worthwhile and could be super valuable can only be valuable if you approach them in the right way. I think the majority of participants at conferences aren’t. Let’s talk about that. What conference to go versus not to go and when you go how to make sure you create value during that conference versus just wasting time. On the what conferences to attend, I would be very selective on that. I think there is more conferences today than ever before. I don’t have any data to back that up, but it definitely feels like that to me. There’s a shit ton of conferences out there, especially tech and startup conferences since it’s such a hot topic around the world and in business. I do think that there is a big difference. Many of these conferences, if you actually look at the people behind the conference, if you look at the how focused the theme or topic of the conference is, right? Is it super niche, is it very, very specific in terms of what is the topic, what is the industry, what is the people that are going to gather there together? The broader the scope of the conference, the broader the audience, usually the less likely it’s going to be really worth your time. I would look at does this conference have a very strong focus on its audience, its niche? Does it understand who is the ideal customer profile, or who is their audience? Bring together an audience that can actually benefit from each other. I think that would be my first homework assignment to decide which one to attend or not. That question that I would ask as a startup going to a conference is really asking myself, “Is the audience that are going to go there, are they likely to be my users or customers?” If the answer is no, I would typically say don’t go, right? If you can’t turn … If this is not going to be a place where you’re going to be surrounded and enveloped by people that could be your customers buying your product, using your product, more likely than not it’s going to be a waste of time. That would be my number one criteria. Now, there are a few that are nice to ask, right? “Hey, are there companies there that I can learn from or people I want to have relationships with because they’re a year or two ahead of me and I come to just learn from their mistakes, learn from their experiences,” that’s a nice to have. Could there be some kind of a change maker, either investor or thought leader or person who’s very prominent, again, to my audience, to my customers, to the people I want to reach, and could I get a chance to build a relationship with that person? That’s a nice to have, but the most important one would be are there potential customers at that conference? Are there many of them? That will be my number one reason to go. Reasons not to go would include the hope that you’re going to raise a financing round because you’re attending a conference. Oh, lots of investors are going to be at this conference, so if we go there we might get our funding round. Not that that has never happened, but it’s usually not a good reason to go. Many really great investors are not going to tons of conferences, and when they go they’re really just go on stage and they’ll leave 20 minutes afterwards. They’re not hanging around meeting lots of people. Again, there’s exceptions to this, but that’s the general rule. Getting press or publicity those are usually not really good reasons. The worst reason to go is just to say, “Oh, there’s a lot of interesting topics that are going to be discussed . I just want to go there to learn.” Today the web is full of information and data. Most likely all the content that is going to be discussed on stage is going to be published on blogs and videos, or even going to be live streamed. If you’re just interested in the content and not in the connections, not in the networking, not in the people physically that are there, you could just do that from home and pick and choose the stuff you want versus wasting days and days of time just to sit there silently in an audience and listening to content on stage. That would be my rough model on even what conferences to pick to go to before going into strategies, what to do once you’re there.
Yeah, conferences. There’s a lot of them.
There’s just a lot of them. There’s even, you know, speaker circuits, right, of very much the same speakers going to them. Hopefully not saying the same things, but sometimes saying the same things too. I’m going to start by saying I used to be a part owner in a conference company.
I also know it from the inside. It’s terrible business, you know? This is-
-why even companies are doing conferences. Literally it’s funny you were talking about conferences. I’m going to a conference next week, and I’m the moderator. I’m the moderator on a panel. It’s in Boston. It’s called Hyper Growth. My favorite conferences, Scully, are like year one, year two, year three conferences. After that, they get bigger and they turn into … Usually. There’s exceptions to this. I think business or software, which I’ve never been to, but what I’ve heard is an exception to my rule that I’m just going to say, that at some point the conference turns into either some kind of formulaic thing, a money making machine to some extent, because they add workshops or they add … I’ve run those. I’ve done workshops at conferences, so this is not to say any of this is terrible or anything. It’s just like the value changes over time. For me, in the early stages of a conference I’m really excited to go to this one. My friends at Price Intelligently have a conference too. They’re in Boston as well, like Boston Day or something for me I guess. They have one. I’m going to go to that one later this year, but it’s like their second conference. I went to MicroCon, which is another conference that’s pretty popular now, for the first five or six years. Then, this year I didn’t go. My first year I didn’t go. Maybe even longer than five or six. I don’t remember anymore. It’s not that anything is wrong. It’s just they split it up into two tracks. They have an early stage one and a growth one. It just turns into something else over time as the organizers want to make more money, you know, and the brand is grown. Taking that lens, which I think many people are probably not thinking about these conferences, it’s like in the beginning I think the curation of the content in the conferences is a lot better. You can actually learn by listening to the presenter a lot more than as conferences start getting older and older.
I love that. That’s actually an unfortunately true … I’ve just be scanning through my mind all the conferences that I’ve been to repeatedly. I can’t think of a single example where they’ve gotten better over time. I think the outliers are those that stay somewhat close to the original years, but I don’t know a single one that’s getting better. It’s either getting a little worse, which is pretty good, as they grow, or getting a lot worse over time, and it’s usually because of the pressures of they want to make more money so they want to grow in attendance. To grow in attendance typically you’ll make the topics more broader. You want to make more money with sponsorships and stuff like that. To do that … Oh, go ahead.
I was going to tell everybody a secret that might not be obvious to them. The majority of conferences make the most money on the sponsorships.
Yeah, not on the tickets.
The attendees ae just … No, not on the ticket sales. People don’t realize that. If you just think about it as a conference grows, they want to charge more and more to sponsors, and this is conferences that are not run by a company, meaning a sales force’s conference or something like that. Even though they make money on sponsors, but we’re just talking about conferences that are not oriented to a company that a company’s throwing. In those cases, the conferences are all designed around making the sponsors happy, right? The attendees over time fall to the wayside. I will say that MicroCon is definitely one that didn’t do that. It feels a lot more like the content is quality and all that. Although I agree with you. I don’t think it’s getting better every year necessarily. It’s probably stayed pretty good since the beginning. Now they split it up, and that really threw me off to be honest. Not because of anything wrong. It’s just I realized they’re growing and it might not be a place for me anymore. It’s interesting that you want to talk about this, but I think the value in the conferences … I’m curious what you say about this, because I don’t really have much of an opinion on this one, but what about the idea that these conferences, like you should be going for networking. How do you view that, Scully?
I think that’s really the one thing that you can turn a conference into something incredibly valuable, but the reality is that 99% of people that go to a conference are even not doing that at all but doing a really poor job of that. Here’s why. Networking is hard. Networking is very uncomfortable. It’s a weird thing, like you’re in a room full of strangers and now your job is to kind of converse with as many of them as possible. Here’s what most people do. Most people go to a conference, they don’t go alone, they go with one or two people they know or from their team or their friends. Then, they attend a bunch of sessions. They spend the majority of time with the people they know, or they get really excited when they see somebody at the conference they already had met before. They go and talk with the people and hang out with the people they already know. They sit in a few sessions, listen, get inspired, get informed, getting bored, whatever they do. They grab some drinks. They might do some sightseeing. They might go to an after party. They’re drunk. Again, with the people they know, and they go back home and they’ve met zero people or they’ve met a few people randomly that were not really that useful. That’s what most people do. This is the craziest thing. You go to a conference and you spent … You’re in a corner with the three people you already know, you knew before coming to this event. It’s the biggest waste of time and energy possible. I do think … I’m not a huge networking fan. This might surprise some people, but I also don’t enjoy being in a room full of strangers and just randomly walking up to all of them to just hopefully meet somebody interesting. I do believe that a powerful thing in a conference is you’re bringing a big group of people to get a physically in space so you can make personal connections with people and get to know them and let them get to know you. The people that get the most out of a conference most of the time are the people that really think of a conference as a big opportunity to make new friends. They’re a little deliberate about it. They look through the attendee list or they look through the list of speakers and companies sponsoring and attending. They tweet before the conference happening to try to establish who is going. Then, they make a list of who are the people that I want to meet? Who are the people I want to know better? Who are the people I want to get feedback from about my ideal, my business, or my MVP? Who are the people that might know a solution to my problem that I can approach personally? Then, they are very deliberate in trying to set up meetings and to connect with a list of people that is going to be physically at a place and a given time. They don’t just randomly walk up to everybody that’s there, but they’re trying to be deliberate and thoughtful unlike, “I’m going to meet these x amount of people.” Ideally, and this is what I said earlier, you’re going to a conference where a lot of the people who are going to be there could be your customers, could be people that would buy your product, use your product so you can get as much in person feedback and interaction as possible in the shortest period of time in a way that’s hard to replicate on your own. You can always create customer meetups. You can always do customer visits and we’ve talked about the importance of that, but having the big conference full of potential customers can be a really good opportunity to close deals, make business happen, or connect with people in the way that will be difficult to replicate, not impossible, but difficult to replicate purely by cold calling them or sending them an email or a tweet, although I think a lot of that you could do beyond the conference. Yeah, it’s so rare that I see somebody really hustling at a conference, really being purposeful, meeting with you, starting a relationship, investing in them, and then I’ll add this to the networking piece. It’s useless. All the work, all the energy, all the time you’re going to put into a conference is almost useless if you don’t have a really strong follow up game and follow up plan in place, right? You know how many people meet me at a conference? They want to start a relationship, they ask me all kinds of questions, and I tell them, “Hey, here’s my basic answers to this. Yes, I’m always happy to help you.” They want whatever me to become a mentor, an advisor or something like that, and I always tell them the same thing. “Hey, just stay in touch. Let me know how things go, make me part of the journey, and over time we’ll see where this goes.” Then, I never hear from them again, or I’ll get an email from them right after the conference, which is exciting, but that’s the last time I hear from them, right, until I see them again two, three years down the line somewhere else. A conference is the starting point of a relationship if you go there to network. It’s not the end of it. You have to break through the noise and realize that people will meet with lots of people at a conference. It’s a fairly noisy place, and they will get a lot of follow up emails right after it, but if you want to win that race, that relationship race, a networking race, the way to do that is to stay in touch, be consistent and persistent, and keep getting in touch with me every month once letting me know how things go, letting me know what kind of help you need, and two, three, four, six months down the line now we have a relationship. Now I care about you. Now I know what your journey has looked like, and that initial meeting in person can grow into something more meaningful versus just you know, that business networking one night stand thing that’s happening at conferences where we meet and you spend all this time to meet me at that conference and we’re laughing, getting along and there’s a personal connection and then I never hear from you again or hear from you once and never again.
Yeah, yeah. I think you crushed that feedback. You answered my question. What could I say. You’re the expert really. How many have you gone to this year?
How many conferences? That’s a good question. I don’t know. If I had to guess I would guess probably like five to 10.
Yeah, something .
That’s pretty solid. I’ve probably been to three. It’ll be five by the end of the year.
I’ve been definitely to more conferences than you, but again, I don’t go consistently every month. I usually it’s a cluster of things that happen. I’ll be at three conferences in two weeks or something like that.
Yeah, I’m still going to lots more than you, and this is what I realizing, here’s a recent example maybe to wrap the episode up. There’s been a listener of our podcast. I’m not going to name the name of the company, but he’s been tweeting our podcast pretty consistently, but he’s been always tweeting from his company’s branded account, so I never knew the person behind it, and I knew this person’s just listening to our podcast, or I knew this person’s tweeting about our podcast. I really didn’t know if this person’s listening. Then, he pinged me and said, “Hey,” again, I love all of you for offering me for rides from the airport to the hotel. This is a consistent theme that’s been going on forever, so he emailed me and said, “Hey, do you still need a ride from Dublin airport to your hotel,” because I was in Dublin a few days ago. I told him, “Hey, somebody already has offered to drive me to the hotel, but I don’t have a ride back to the airport, so he offered that, and I agreed to it. Honestly, the morning after was like, “Ugh, why did I agree to it?” I’d rather have a silent taxi ride to the airport right now than having to give advice to somebody for 20 minutes. I was pretty spended, exhausted from the conference. Then, I go down and I meet this person, and within three minutes of driving together I have this realization of thinking I’m actually really glad I said yes, because getting to know him he’s just a super sweet person. Getting to spend 20 minutes with him in a car, and he had all his questions written on his hand so he doesn’t forget the questions-
-to ask me. He was just a super genuine, honest, cool, sweet person that’s working so hard to make his dream come true and has been listening to our podcast. He was telling me that he’s been listening from the get go, but he’s listening in spurts where he’ll listen to 20 episodes in a week. Then, he’ll take a break.
He’ll take a break for a month or two and he’ll come back and listen again in spurts. He was saying funny some of the episodes about hiring and recruiting and all that were totally relevant because he was a one man band. Now that he hired a few people he went back and all of this was super relevant to him in his life. Man, so I gave some advice. We talked, we connected, but I can’t tell you the difference, like I was always seeing his company’s logo tweeting things about our podcast, and he meant nothing to me. I didn’t know this was automated. I didn’t know anything about it. I had very little emotional connection with that person, although I’ve been seeing this logo for a year now. Driving with him for 20 minutes, at the end I wanted to hug him, right? I was like, “You’re an awesome human being. I like you, and I want to help you. I want to see you succeed. I care now about you,” right? Now what I see … This morning I saw his logo tweeting something. I was like, “Wow, I feel totally different about this now.” I’ve met him now. I spent some time with him. I think that is the difference that in person connections can make if they’re done right, if they are done smartly. He offered value. He had a chance to spend 20 minutes with me in person. He was also the type of person I like, so there’s something to that. Some people I don’t connect with and others I connect more with. If he keeps in touch with me now, if he asks me for favors I’m much more willing to go and help him and go out of my way to offer him help because I personally really like him and I feel like I know him and I feel like this is the type of person I really want to see succeed versus if he had emailed me a few questions and then just kept in touch with me seeing his tweets through his company account, I have no connection to that. I didn’t really care about that. I didn’t know who the story was behind that. I think that’s somebody who used a conference to his advantage. He didn’t even pay the money to go to the conference to meet me, right? He just was smart about knowing that I was there physically available and he offered something of value and he spent the time building a relationship with me. Maybe it’s going to be useless long term. Maybe I cannot help, but if I can I’m going to do more than I would do for a usual person because I’m personally invested now emotionally.
I like that. That’s smart to do things around conferences when you know people are going to be in town.
Yeah. Help them with the problems they have. Usually getting to the hotel, to the airport, coordinating things around the conference are the things that are complex for somebody who’s new in town or who’s only going to be in town for a few hours. Offering, “Hey, instead of calling an Uber to the founder’s dinner, to some party, or to the airport, I’m going to drive you. We could use that 10 minutes to get to know each other.” I think that can be incredibly valuable. There’s probably other ideas around it, but just making a personal connection I think can be really powerful, but you have to make sure you do that. 90% of people that go to conferences, they don’t really make personal connections, and when they do they make it randomly with some person that may or may not have anything to offer or they can’t help or is not relevant at all to what they’re trying to do. It’s really incredibly wasteful, so please don’t do that. I think with that we’ll wrap this episode up. We’ll hear you very, very soon.
Later, happy conferencing.