Startup Conference Guide – Get The Most Of The Events You Attend!

Conferences are tricky for a startup. Unless you are an AirBNB or Reddit founder, a hot chick or the organizer, no one is going to look for you there. This is because (hardly) no one knows you. Yeah, that’s sad, I know. Anyway, the point is that it’s your job to get to the people you want to get to and get the most of the event. Here is how to do it right.

During the last two months I visited three major conferences: South by Southwest in Austin, MIPTV (and accompanying MIPCube) in Cannes, and The Next Web in Amsterdam. Each of them was very different, both in size and the type of the attendees. Our objectives were also different for each of those events. We benefited a lot from all of them (even though we did a lot of mistakes at the same time) and the reason for that is simple: we have prepared.
Before each event we asked ourselves a few questions, like why we’re going, what’s our budget and what do we want to achieve with it. Below you’ll find the answers for these three conferences and then some learnings that you can simply scroll down to if you’re lazy.
SXSW Interactive, Austin (Texas)

Who are the attendees? Everyone who has a consumer startup or is a consumer of consumer startups. Or a geek. Or an investor. Or a blogger. Or just a random person interested in technology. Or film. Or music. As it’s not just about IT.
How many people arrived? Approximately 30.000 people.
Our goal(s): Get as many people as possible to test our new TV video discovery app ( and generally learn about Filmaster. As a side goal: meet potential partners (content companies) and clients (cables, IPTV providers)
Our budget: around $20.000 (for trade show, badges, travel, accommodation, food and hiring booth help)

What did we do?

First of all, I spent one full day researching who is coming to SXSW on SXsocial and trying to connect with the people I wanted to meet (here is a good TechCrunch post on pre-SXSW networking). This way I arranged about 20 meetings before even coming to Austin.
Second, as we had a booth at the trade show, we spent our time before the event designing it and making it awesome. SXSW is very noisy and it’s hard to do something original. So, instead of originality we decided to follow the current meme and came up with (actually, my co-founder Pawel did) having Angelina Jolie’s right leg (@angiesrightleg) in our booth. Sounded crazy but after spending a day looking for a place in Austin with female mannequins, we eventually found this warehouse which had them in stock. Here’s Pawel taking a picture of the beautiful booth before the show started:
sxswfilmaster1cropped.jpg (796×466)
Pawel taking a picture of Filmaster booth at SXSW

And here is a gallery of girls (and guys) taking pictures with Angelina’s leg with Filmaster logo on them:
One of such pictures got retweeted by the leg itself:

Of course we also had iPad stands with our Filmaster app, a couch with a remote to the TV app, free popcorn, bookmarks and bottle openers with Filmaster on them. All these made the booth appealing enough for people to stop by.

What about the results?

Out of the 20 arranged meetings, 15 actually took place. I met great people from Google, Vimeo, AMC, AT&T, TV Azteca, Redux, and many other companies and startups. We also met other people we haven’t planned but they approached us in our booth. Some of these meetings might actually turn out to be game changers for Filmaster. We also got featured on Indiewire as one of top film startups of SXSW, and video-interviewed by Geekazine, Production HUB and Socialcam. Finally, our booth was mentioned as one of the coolest 8 on the whole trade floor (which it certainly was)!
In general SXSW was, as usual, very random, but thanks to the preparation, we believe we got the most of it.
MIPTV & MIPCube, Cannes (France)

Who are the attendees? Owners of content (films, tv shows) and representatives of cables, VODs, TV channels looking to buy content and explore the future of TV in between.

How many people arrived? Approximately 12.000 people.

Our goal(s): Meet potential clients (cables, VOD and IPTV providers, set-top box software makers)
Our budget: around $5.000 (for badges, travel, accommodation and food)

What did we do?

Here we were advised to start asking for meetings even a month and a half before the show started. Fortunately MIPTV internal networking system allows you to filter the companies based on their main activity. So what we did is we contacted all the VOD, cable and IPTV providers as well as set-top box software makers asking them for a short meeting to introduce Filmaster’s SaaS video recommendation technology. I contacted more than 200 carefully selected people, some 10 confirmed meetings before the event. Meanwhile we were informed we’ll be on stage for MIPCube Lab contest for most disrupting TV startups. So, a day before the event, I sent reminders to the most important contacts that I haven’t heard back from, mentioning that we’re in MIPCube  Lab.  I did e-mails, twitter mentions, and text messages. It surprised me how effective this turned out. Many actually agreed to meet after getting the reminder.

What about the results?

Eventually, we had our four day schedule filled up with 25 meetings. Most of them turned out to be very inspiring. If I was to name the single biggest benefit from participating in this very domain-centered event was the amount of insights we learned about how this business operates, what the cable and IPTV providers really want and how we can be most helpful.
We followed-up with all of them straight after we got back from France and we’re hoping to do at least two deals with the people we met in Cannes.
By the way, here is our presentation from MIPCube Lab. We did not win but we received a lot of positive feedback and had a few extra meetings with people who spotted us at MIPCube. One of them might actually result in a deal in the near future.
Filmaster pitch at MIPCube Lab

The Next Web, Amsterdam (Netherlands)

Who are the attendees? Startups, investors and tech journalists. Hardly no one else.
How many people arrived? Approximately 1500 people.
Our goal(s): Meet VCs interested in doing a Series A with us
Our budget: around $2.000 (for travel, accommodation and food, we got our badges and startup stand sponsored by HackFwd)

What did we do?

At The Next Web we didn’t look for clients nor users. It’s a very tech-centered conference with very specific audience: mainly tech startups and investors looking around to find another Instagram. We haven’t talked to VCs before and at The Next Web our major goal was to start relationships with a few VCs of choice, that we believe can be a great partner for us in the near future (we’re looking for another round of funding in Q3/Q4 this year). Unfortunately the paydro network used by TNW wasn’t very good in searching for people (no filters other than by name), so what we did is actually we went through all the major European VCs and their associates manually and checked one-by-one who was planning to come to Amsterdam. We narrowed the list to 15 interesting people and messaged them either via e-mail or via the paydro networking tool. We got replies from 10, but managed to arrange only two meetings before the conference and were advised to contact via twitter / text during the event.

What about the results?

It wasn’t easy but we eventually managed to meet 7 VCs during the two days of the conference. We had 10-15 minute talks with each of them and agreed to have a follow-up call with most, in the coming month. I consider it a success as they are very busy people and it would have taken us probably a month to arrange meetings with the same people outside of the conference. Now is the time to prove our B2B traction and impress with results on follow-up calls!

General learnings

You’ve heard our stories from three very different events. We had different goals for each of them but there were some things that are pretty similar in terms of preparation. These can be useful to any of you, startup owners, who want to get the most of the conferences / events you are attending.

  1. Choose the events to go wisely
There are hundreds of great events and unless your name is Alejandro Barrera, you won’t be everywhere. Choose the events wisely so that you only attend those that can give you the maximum benefits. If you are a boring B2B startup, skip SXSW (unless you just want to party a lot for a week with nerds like you) — you’ll be better off attending one of the conferences where you can meet all your potential partners or customers. The bigger the conference, the bigger you have to be to shine there. Sometimes smaller events are where much better networking takes place. European Pirate Summit in Colonge is a good example of such and event – sign up for it!

2. Do your research BEFORE the conference

Like WAY before it starts. At least two weeks. Each conference has its own networking tool. They often suck but it’s still the best way to learn who is coming. Other ways of finding out the attendees include Twitter (conferences have hashtags, search for them) and Plancast (some people use it to broadcast their plans).
Follow and interact with the people you want to meet. If they recognize you (at least from your avatar), they will be more willing to talk to you live.

3. Plan meetings beforehands

When you already have a list of people you want to meet (make it a google spreadsheet and update it daily!), start contacting them. If you find out you have common friends, ask them to make an intro (thanks Natasha for these at TNW!). If not, contact them via e-mail, on twitter or simply using the conference messaging tool (least effective). Remember to personalize your messages and keep them short. The person needs to instantly see that meeting you will be beneficial for both sides. Tell them in your first sentence why you believe you’re gonna add value and only later mention what you want from them.
A lot of people will not answer you or will say something like “catch me at the event”. You need to be persistent and pro-active to make these meetings happen. If you have phone numbers, send text messages with proposed meeting time and place while already at the event. This works incredibly well as it’s often easier for the people you want to meet to make a quick decision when they already know they have a free spot.

4. Know your pitch(es)

This is obvious but: know your pitch by heart. Have a one-liner to make people curious (in my case it’s “TV sucks. We’re fixing that”), a one minute version explaining how you do it and what benefits you bring to your clients / consumers, and finally a longer one for a proper and informative discussion. Also, remember that your pitch can be different when you talk to your consumers, clients or potential investors. Each of them is interested in different things, so adjust your pitch based on who you’re pitching.
When giving a longer pitch, it’s great to have a demo / deck / product pricing PDF / something to show along with your pitch, I recommend to use no matter what types of files you need to convert, soda PDF online file converter is more than just a PDF file converter, it’s the go-to solution for all of your file conversion needs. In my case I had our “vision video” which I was showing along with the 1-minute pitch, synchronizing the pitch with the cartoon:
Filmaster.TV: Social and Personal(ized) TV

5. Follow-up!!!

So you’ve met with those amazing VCs / potential business partners / great customers. Follow up with them right away! Add them on LinkedIn, follow them on twitter, send a follow-up email with a specific date and time of the proposed skype call to talk about the details and next steps. Don’t miss the chance – they already know you and possibly even like what you do. Push it hard and go for the win!
And what are your experiences from the conferences you attended? Disagree with some of the points I made? Tell your story in the comments!

If you liked this post, follow me on Twitter for more: @michuk.