Originally published at https://medium.com/@dilyan/-dd4fad919db6#.8rez2tsik
Looking at the date of the draft, I figured I’ve put my first notes for this post back in the end of 2014 — as I remember now, just after HowToWeb. It was about the end of the conference season that year, and as I was torn between attending events and working in the office, I realized the same is valid for founders — they had to choose between going to events and working on their startups. As I was not sure everybody realized there is a trade-off here, I felt like sharing a word of advice with our startup founders at Eleven. Here are my random thoughts about conferences.
Do you know what you want?
If you are going to a startup conference to learn new things, you are doing it wrong. All this information is available on the web and on YouTube, so you should not waste your time sitting in a dark room listening to someone speak. You can do the same thing much cheaper and easier in your living room.
So, if not about learning, it must be about meeting people then. But do you know what and which people do you want to meet? Is it someone in particular, or do you want to just network and hang out? Are you looking for your next business partner, an investor, or an employee? Once you know what you want to achieve, you can figure out if a conference is a good fit or not — just check who else will be there (check the list of speakers, check the attendees if there is a conference app, see who else is going on Eventbrite — there are many ways to do that). Keep in mind, that even if the conference is happening in your city, it will take precious time you could use to build your business, so don’t just go without agenda.
The size of a conference (measured by the number of visitors) is key to figuring out which ones to look at and which — not so much. Small conferences (of up to a few hundred participants) are usually focused on the local community, so probably there is an easier way to reach anyone who would be there (Spark.me being somewhat of an exception here). Large ones (Pioneers, Web Summit, etc.), with thousands and thousands of people, attract good crowd — investors, potential partners, etc., but those have their own agendas and are rarely available for a meeting. So aim for mid-sized events — couple thousand people, where you can meet great people, but will not get lost in the crowd, or go for the big ones but be very well prepared (see below).
Do your homework
Whatever the event, if you want to make good use of these several days, you need to spend a few weeks in preparation. Get introductions to the people you want to meet, hustle on Twitter and LinkedIn schedule meetings upfront, and make sure that your agenda is full before you book your ticket.
Don’t worry if someone does not respond — find them in the crowd and don’t be shy to approach them and say “Hi, I am that guy that emailed you about (something memorable) a week ago.”
On many large events, there are closed side events happening in parallel in a much smaller circle and with fewer distractions around. This may be a specialized meet-up, a roundtable, or workshop, but whatever it is, if the topic is of interest to you, chances are you’d want to meet the people there. As these are usually invite-only, try to find your way into some of them, and you will probably do more work in that hour or two than at the entire conference.
Startup events go hand-in-hand with a lot of parties and drinking. And although someone may brag the day after that he bonded with this really cool investor at the party, that investor probably does not remember a thing, simply because that is not what he was there for. Conference parties’ networking potential is hugely overrated — they are just parties.
Two tricks that actually work
Don’t try to book your most important meetings during conference hours — people are too preoccupied to actually pay attention. Ideally, check in at the same hotel and try to catch them for breakfast, maybe dinner, or a few drinks at the lobby. This way you get a distraction-free time that counts.
International speakers are usually the hardest to get at any event. So if it is happening in your city, a good trick is to offer to pick them up from the airport and give them a lift to their hotel. For them, it is much nicer than a shuttle bus, and you get their undivided attention (make sure you wash your car, though).
Let me have your thoughts on startup events, and which ones (particularly in Europe) do you consider worth the time.