Every startup CEO needs to sell. Nothing is more important than getting your product out in the market and finding folks to pay real dollars for it. There’s no shortage of sales approaches — emails, cold calls, networking events, catchy banner ads, knocking on doors, etc. They’re all worth a shot.
But I’ve found that for my companies, I get the best ROI from attending conferences, conventions or trade shows. In two days at a conference, you can achieve what could take months sitting at your computer, all in a fun location. I’m writing this surrounded by palm trees in Miami, where it’s 75 degrees.
As with anything else, it pays to prepare for a conference. Based on my experience, I’ve come up with 10 tips to help you get the most out of every conference you attend.
- Plan ahead. Figure out the conferences that work best for your business (hint: they’re rarely the hyped startup conferences like SXSW, although those are a lot of fun). You’ll be amazed by how many associations and trade groups there are in every industry. Get creative. Go where your competitors aren’t. Keep a running list of all the conferences you hear about, and prioritize that list based on two key metrics: Who you will meet and how much it will cost.
- Do your homework. Look through every detail on the conference website. Check out who’s sponsoring, speaking and exhibiting. If that information isn’t available on the website, look at last year’s program. Decide whether it’s a conference worth attending. And once you pull the trigger, plan for specific sessions. Leave plenty of time to walk the exhibit hall floor. I’ve found that the best time to do this is during a keynote speech you don’t mind skipping. The floor is empty, so vendors will spend more time chatting with you.
- Be frugal but smart. Don’t let a limited budget get in your way. Go to a few conferences as an attendee before shelling out the big bucks for an exhibit booth. Find conferences that are close to your home. When traveling, crash with friends or use AirBnB to save on hotels. Conference registration fees aren’t cheap, so always ask for startup discounts. They’re not listed on the websites, but the organizers may just hook you up. Even if they say no, they may offer to walk the floor with you to show you around and make valuable introductions.
- Schedule meetings. Reach out to industry experts, vendors, and conference organizers in advance. Introduce yourself and ask them for a few minutes of their time while you’re at the conference. I’ve found that sending an email and a LinkedIn message at the same time gets the highest response rates. Before sending out cold emails, check LinkedIn for mutual contacts who may be able to introduce you. And write concise messages (five sentences max)!
- Be persistent. You won’t hear back right away from most contacts. Conference speakers and organizers tend to be busy folks. Give it a few days, then send a follow-up note. If they don’t reply before the conference, don’t take it personally.
- Stay organized. I email anywhere from 50 to 200 people per conference. There’s no way to keep track of all those emails without a system. I use Google Docs spreadsheets, where I list all the key information for each contact (name, title, email, status, interesting facts, etc). Use whatever system works best for you to stay organized. And stick to it.
- Know what you’re looking for. On the plane to the conference, write down key objectives and critical questions. Then show up with a laser focus. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the overwhelming number of sessions, exhibit halls full of tchotchkes you’ll never use and free booze. But remember that you are there to learn and establish connections. Ask questions. Sales will come if you approach the conference with patience and humility. Companies want to help you if you’re a startup looking for advice, rather than a nagging salesman.
- Be social (media). You’re probably younger and more social-media savvy than the rest of the attendees. Use that to your advantage. Tweet about the conference using the official hashtags. I did that recently, and on the last day they presented a wrap-up full of attendee’s tweets. Mine kept popping up on the screen, and the presenter thanked my company for its “terrific tweets.” As you can imagine, this was great free publicity for us.
- Be social (-izing). Don’t get stuck on your phone or sitting in conference sessions all day. Networking events are where you’ll strike up those all-important conversations. Even if they cost an extra few bucks, sign up. Remember to bring lots of business cards, and go light on the vodka shots (unless you’re at the U.S. Drinks Conference, in which case the shots may be acceptable). And don’t just limit your socializing to the formal events. The more open you are to striking up conversations, the more doors you’ll open.
- Follow up. If you follow these tips, you’ll collect dozens of business cards at the conference. But that’s just the beginning. On the plane back home, write a personalized email to every contact. Briefly rehash what your company does and why it could be interesting for that contact. Send emails that are friendly, personal and short, and watch the replies fly in.
Happy hunting! Looking forward to seeing you at a conference soon.