Techstars NYC Week 4 - Conference Tips

The Power of In-Person

I spent most of Week 4 in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, attending the NBAA Schedulers & Dispatchers conference which happens once every year.  In theory, these are exactly the people we want to be talking to, learning from, and eventually helping, so it was a great opportunity.

It’s been a while since I’ve attended a conference.  Last time, we had a booth, and it was a different company.  And last time it didn’t turn into much in the way of opportunities.

But this time I was reminded just how good these conferences can be.  And the reasons why it’s a good fit for some industries, and not for others.

Why Conferences & Tradeshows?

Conferences are expensive.  My ticket was over $1000, plus we had to pay for flights and hotel/Airbnb (I would definitely recommend Airbnb vs. hotels).  That’s a big expense for a startup when money is a (very) limited resource.  We have yet to find out whether the conference will translate into deals or not, but I believe it was absolutely worth it.  Here’s why:

Large Deals & Small Industries

First, the industry we are operating in is relatively small and tight-knit, and as a result, much of the business is a result of the relationships and trust you have with others in the industry.  The deals are relatively large – this is enterprise sales, after all – so it makes sense.  But it also makes it very difficult to enter as a startup without those relationships.

Thankfully, I’d put some effort into meeting some people beforehand, and had chatted with a couple great people who were enthusiastic about what we were doing.  This made a huge difference – they warmly introduced me to others, and brought lots more trust and opportunity than would have otherwise existed had I gone into the conference cold.

When I left the conference, I had about ten people who I had spent quite a lot of time with, and who were interested in what we were doing.

Use Conferences to Learn

Second, these conferences are a great way to learn.  I don’t have a background in the business aviation industry, so while I was aware of the general problems they faced, and what our product could potentially do for them, I didn’t fully understand the specifics and subtleties of how different companies operate.  I didn’t effectively know the jobs-to-be-done of our customers.

All the major vendors attend these conferences, so not only was I able to ask most of the top 30 companies in the industry about how they do scheduling, which tools they use, and where they have problems and see opportunities, but I was also able to get demos from all the major software providers, ask them questions, and really get a great understanding of how they worked – it was a great opportunity for learning.

Evaluate Your ROI Realistically

Third, it helps to put conferences in the context of the deals you’re making – if you’re selling subscriptions that are $20/month, it’s going to be very tough to meet and onboard enough people in a couple days to make a conference worthwhile. 

However, if you’re doing relatively large enterprise-style deals, if you get one deal every couple, or even every few conferences, depending on your deal size, they will be paying for themselves extremely quickly.

In summary:

  • If you’re an enterprise-oriented business, the cost of a conference can easily be offset by one or multiple deals.
  • If your industry is small, or relies on trust and relationships for deals, you need to establish yourself and build relationships, and there’s no better place to do that than at conferences.
  • If you can find a way to establish some relationships beforehand, it will help immensely in getting warm introductions to others.

More Conference Tips

  • If you want to talk to speakers, email them ahead of time and schedule coffee/etc. Use their speaking engagement as a warm way to reach out.
  • Don’t bother getting a booth unless you have a very specific reason for doing so. Otherwise, just getting a pass is usually enough, far cheaper, and much more flexible (don’t forget you must staff a booth).
  • Take a bunch of business cards – way more than you think you’ll need.
  • If you have some warm intros in the first day or two, push deals as far as possible while at the conference – things will slow down once the conference is over.
  • Take notes – there is no way you’ll remember details and follow-ups without them. I do it quickly on my phone after I talk with anyone.
  • Have a plan – I made a list of the top companies I wanted to talk to, found out their booth numbers, and worked my way down the list. It’s far more productive than just wandering around – you’ll be surprised how much you’ll miss if you don’t do this.
  • Attend the events in the early days – eventually, when you’re established, you can skip these and just schedule meetings instead. But don’t underestimate the power of a fun event and a few drinks to build some relationships (and have some good stories!).

Now go make a list of conferences relevant for your business!

You can read about last week (Week 3) here, and Week 5 here.

Want to get my latest book notes? Subscribe to my newsletter to get one email a week with new book notes, blog posts, and favorite articles.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.