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“Reeling in people as they pass the stand”

“Lot of people just walk past the booth […] everyone is in a rush to see speakers and forgets about the startups”

“We prearranged some meetings with investors but not with the media – we realized we should have done that when we got here.”

The quotes belong to some of the startups who had gotten booths amongst 2,141 startups exhibiting and fighting for a attention at the recent Web Summit in Dublin. Now that the conference season is coming to its end without the traditional LeWeb magic this year, make sure your startup makes the most out of TechCrunch Disrupt London coming up next week, Dec 7-8.

Here are my top three advice on how to avoid becoming a left over on an endless aisle of booths, including how to choose wisely between startup and Internet industry conference.

Have an agenda. Be a person. Hustle.

If you’re thinking of attending a conference without a plan, you might as well not go. First, the ground rules:

  • Have an agenda. Pre-book meetings. See matrix below.
  • Practice your pitch and A/B test it:  Both your one liner for the coffee line chats, and the 3 – 5 minutes on stage.
  • Have a content strategy! Don’t miss out on a great inbound marketing opportunity. Announce your attendance prior your attendance, so people can connect and book meetings with you. Share relevant info during the event, i.e. add value, don’t spam! Summarize your newly gained experiences and knowledge in blog posts by embracing and showcasing others. See 3. Hustle.
  • Follow up with people. Asap. Prepare drafts, but personalize (not only by changing the name!) every email prior sending.

1. Have An Agenda, God Damn It!

Your company agenda should define the type of conference you attend. Don’t surrender to FOMO.

Conferences and competitions are great way to launch your product, get your message out, get feedback on your product, practice your pitch, network and recruit, so how does one pick wisely to not kill focus from building product?

Rule Of Thumb: Internet industry conferences have most value to early stage startups when you have a working product.

I’ve put together a very simple matrix to roughly illustrate the differences between attending a startup versus an Internet industry conference in terms of getting most value depending on your company agenda. ( Startup conference = The more main stage time and program space startups get.)

Startup vs Internet Industry Conferences

Media Attention and Coverage: Unlike startup conferences where startups are the main act, Internet industry conferences serve you as a side dish to a wide ranging agenda. The bigger the conference, the bigger the attention on the main stage attractions. Media outlets have tough job to prioritize, thus rarely have time for ad-hoc meetings in their pre-booked schedules, resulting only the winners and finalists getting coverage.

Networking Facilities: Internet industry conferences have become better at catering to startups needs, but make sure your pitching stage is not in the dark back room without enough seating, or wifi, the networking areas are not just for media and investors, and that your booths are not squeezed in and overshadowed by the large sponsor booths.

Fundraising and Ad-hoc Meetings:

“Meeting only with reporters and fellow venture capitalists at the conference – Philippe Botteri, Accel Partners”

Again. Pre-book meetings with potential investors and business partners. VCs not only invest in people and teams they know and trust, they also co-invest with people they know and trust. Investors and business executives alike are usually invited as speakers, organize their own private parties and dinners, and seldom attend the official conference parties. They may not show up at the conference apart from the time of their scheduled appearance, and head back to the office afterwards in case they are locals. Naturally, most of the investors are there to meet with startups, and I really like how Martin Mignot of Index Ventures rolls. He revealed his conference strategy at #SLUSH14:

“Half planning, half serendipity. I set up lot of meetings and keep half the time free. That’s how I find interesting things. Real networking happens at the parties.”- Martin Mignot, Index Ventures

Bonus: Few words from Brian Daly of Techstars Berlin on how to hustle your way into the “Invite Only” parties at conferences.

Product Launch: A T-shirt and some stickers won’t cut it. Apply to a startup competition, get a seat in a panel, give a talk, or do a workshop! At conferences, regardless of the vertical, everyone’s needy and fighting for attention. Be thoughtful – Celebrate your service and all your hard work with a great launch.

Customer Acquisition and Product Feedback: Internet industry conferences serve to a wider audience, meaning that you get to interact with civilians, i.e. people not from the technology industry. Even if you’re a pure technology play, it’s an excellent reality check of the current market: How far have businesses come with digitalization? What are their thoughts and worries? Misconceptions? Current topics and trends being discussed? Highly useful information for us techies who tend to live ahead of our time solving problems civilians don’t yet know exist. Make sure you have something to show, just don’t shove it into people’s faces without engaging with them first.

Branding / Awareness: As an early stage startup, you’re likely too early to do pure branding and awareness (usually requires stage time or cough up sponsor money), thus weigh in carefully the alternative cost of money and time spent. Funny costumes going viral may not necessarily convert into any KPI you should be focusing on.

Hiring: You’re always hiring. See next.

2. Be A Person. Sell yourself, Not Your Business!

You’re always selling, and always hiring, even when you find yourself at an Internet industry conference, but are only looking for developers at the moment. The person standing next to you waiting for a coffee might just know your next developer, be your next sales or marketing person, business partner, or investor (!) Be a person, have a conversation, and always close up with:

  • Asking how you can be helpful.
  • Things you’re looking for.

People will, first and foremost, remember how you were as a person and how you made them feel, hopefully making them comfortable enough to take a meeting or make a referral. Always sell yourself first, not your business.

3. Hustle – Rise Above The Noise.

You don’t have to dress up as a clown to get noticed. The best way to rise above the noise is to add value to the conference and attendees themselves. Few of my favorite hustling examples come from #LeWeb10:

Alexander Ljung, Founder and CEO of SoundCloud, worked the crowd by interviewing 36 industry hot shots to create buzz around its newly released iPhone app with recording and sharing feature.


Image CC: Paula Marttila

Azeem Azhar, then CEO PeerIndex, now Director of Product Management, Schibsted Marketplaces, kept sticking PeerIndex scores to every single person he could find, and they would proudly wear them.


Image CC: Paula Marttila

Or, you can park a VW bus by the entrance delivering freshly pressed orange juice to the arriving attendees. Great way to get visibility instead of a tiny unnoticeable booth next to sponsors’ monster booths inside.

People love to share their experiences. Make sure you create shareable and positive experiences.


Hassle Media

Just like interacting with investors, be a person, not a leech. Best advice on how to deal with media and get noticed by our very own Mike Butcher. Goes without saying, being a human being also means, that you don’t pitch to Mike, or any media representative, while in the loo.

Bad-mouth a fellow startup

True story: Instead of taking the opportunity to talk about its product and receive feedback, a startup competition company kept bad-mouthing a fellow competitor. Please don’t ever do that, especially to someone you meet at the very first time in a conference. In speakers lounge. With a media badge. They were also looking to recruit… guess I didn’t have any leads.

Ready? Have a super conference!

Startups, need help? Pick My Brain!

More Recommended Reading on Go-To-Market Strategy and Customer Acquisition

Paula is Digital Product Advisor and Top 100 Women in Tech in Europe, focusing on Product, Go-to-market, and Internationalization strategies. Rated as one of the very best startup mentors in Europe, she has to date mentored over 150 digital technology companies on product, marketing and growth. Pick My Brain! is her fixed price service tailored to early stage startups, gender wage gap adjusted for female founders. Contact Paula for digital strategy work or book her as keynote speaker about #Startups #WomenInTech #GenderEquality #Entrepreneurship. Read more about her work and connect @Twitter, @LinkedIn. “You never learn anything when you speak, only when you listen”Roelof Botha / Douglas Leone, Sequoia Capital