Just read a wonderful post on how to pick conferences to attend and what you should do when you get there. I’m going to add my $0.02, but change the tack toward how to decide when you should take your team of 3-30 to a conference. In my personal opinion (which is redundant to say since this is my blog), most startups participate in conferences prematurely. To be clear, by “participate” I mean take an active, notable role – speak, sponsor, demo, etc.
I’m going to make the statement here that this probably won’t apply if you are uber-famous or have raised a billion dollars to foolishly sell groceries online 5 years prematurely. My recommendations are based on “the average startup” and probably relate more to consumer-focused ventures, I am not much of an enterprise services kind of guy.
“Early Development” aka “I have a dream”: If you are in this super-early phase of a company, the only things you want to do with a conference is attend, learn&listen, and network. Unless you are a “known entity” in your respective tech community, or unless you are trying to pull some uber-stealth-buzz-marketing move (proceed with caution), there’s virtually nothing to gain by being a sponsor or panelist. A good stealthy company should be trying to fly under the radar as much as possible.
“Basic Demo” aka “Stealth Mode”: OK, the engineers (or possibly just you) made something work, it’s a good proof of concept but probably pretty ugly. Your friends think it’s a sure thing, the next Google in fact. My advice to you – stay stealthy right now. Most of your friends won’t tell you the haircut isn’t so great, but you should probably let it grow in a little before getting out in front of too many strangers.
“Need Funding” aka “Wookin Pa Nub”: Let’s assume that by looking for funding you’ve got a nice demo (or powerpoint) and you are comfortable with some press happening should the occasion arise. At this stage, I’d definitely pick out conferences that have decent VC attendance (easy tip: look for ones with VCs as sponsors) and try to get on a panel. I’d consider doing a Demo/Under The Radar/TC20-style event, but probably recommend avoiding spending too much (anything over 5 figures) as you’re effectively rolling the dice on an extreme crapshoot.
“Launching Soon” aka “Tummy Full O Butterflies”: So now you’re in some kind of private beta test, almost ready to show the world. People, this is your time to shine. Get out there, and get the buzz going. Again, I’d caution against spending too much money, but I’d probably have people in your team tracking all of Scoble’s favorite events and sending one or more to as many as possible. Get your message out there.
“Launch” aka “Launch”: Now is where my advice will take a bit of a controversial turn. I’m going to have to divide you up into different companies based on the interestingness of your company. This is tricky, since everyone likes to think they have a super-duper interesting company. Unfortunately, this is not true, and the more sober, koolaid-free look at yourself you can make, the better you’ll do (in general).
- Extremely Interesting: You sure? Okay then – my advice to you – do not launch at a conference unless it is either the D: All Things Digital event or a mega-trade-show like CES or NAB. Why? You have so little to gain, and so much to lose. If you are super-interesting, then all you are doing is creating an environment at which you are more likely to fail than succeed. Demoing in 6 minutes in front of a wide group instead of taking 20 minutes one-on-one just doesn’t compare. And if you really are that interesting, all you need is someone with a half-decent rolodex and good interpersonal skills to set up all the meetings you can use. Everybody wants a hot story, why shoot all your ammo at once when you can spread it out at your leisure?
- Somewhat Interesting: This is, realistically, most companies. If you’ve got something decent-to-good, but not over-the-top wow, and not a snoozefest, then I’d recommend leveraging an event that has a lot of press congregated together. The caveat is this: you run the risk of using up all your marketing karma in one shot, and missing the mark a little. A bad demo or someone else there with a killer story, and you are instantly below the fold on Techmeme. Proceed, but like you would in any good war, do as much recon as you can beforehand!
- Not-so-interesting: First of all, my applause for being humble enough to read this. There’s plenty of great startups with great technology that just aren’t all that exciting, but still viable to become profitable or get acquired. My basic advice to you is to avoid any show-and-tell scenarios, and get on as many panels as you can. You want to create perception of knowledge and expertise, but don’t want some random group of “judges” who don’t quite get it barking at you for having a yawner demo.
“Post-Launch” aka “We’re out there, and we’re loving it!”: At this point, there’s no clear-cut answer. I tend to focus on analyzing attendee and press lists, and seeing how an event fills a gap in my current programs. Also, there’s a certain amount of a pulse you want to keep going – staying visible and keeping momentum up is important. That said, try not to be that company that attends, sponsors, and demos at every single event in a season – a little good judgment is not only cheaper, but more impactful. It shows you put a little thought behind the money, not just money behind the money.
Hope this is helpful!