There is HUGE value in conferences but not all conferences are equal. Size really matters.

There is HUGE value in conferences but not all conferences are equal. Size really matters.

Why I Still Wear My Web Summit Alpha Bracelet

There is HUGE value in conferences but not all conferences are equal.  Size really matters.

I am old enough to remember when conferences, conventions, seminars and trade shows really had meaning. They were either to meet new clients, new vendors, learn about new products or get cutting edge information that could prove advantageous my your business.  I swore by conferences back then and I still do today.  Why?  Because I met my first million dollar client at a convention two weeks after opening our business (they were still my client 25 years later, generating many millions in revenue).  And I met every single one of my 8 board members, all from Fortune 500 companies, at more intimate and discerning conferences. They were able to influence the quality and quantity of our leads and our strategy.  I also met the mentor of all mentors, who inspired me to take our company from its repetitive four year earnings of $16M to $20M and way beyond by the time we sold the company 25 years later.  With simple guidance on the back of a napkin, over drinks by the pool, this mentor changed our lives, just when we felt burnt out enough to give up. Inspiration and friendships matter!  So to say I love conferences is an understatement,way under.   

Five businesses later, I had the opportunity of going to a modern day disruptive conference, the much hooplaed Web Summit with my new venture, Wordeee.  It was fun and, indeed, I liked Ireland all over again even though I’d been there many times Web Summit, in my opinion, was not a productive experience.  So when I speak, I speak from the position of my perspective, …from old school to disruption.  

At Web Summit, our company Wordeee was chosen as an Alpha Start-up in its category of social enterprise (among only 50 such companies). But low and behold, there were thousands of categories presented, so being one of 50 actually meant nothing in the long run.  From my perspective, it truly was an in-your-face sales gimmick…all perception and no delivery.  No matter, the fancy technology and pre-conference apps we were sent, etc…we returned with zilch.  At the conference in Dublin, there were over 33,000 attendees.  I am still wearing my Alpha wristband, which I refuse to take off until my company secures funding. Seeking funding was the only reason I went to the conference in the first place because I had heard Uber and Airbnb and Instagram hit the jackpot there. So here I am two years later still wearing the wristband and I dare to say, even Uber at Web Summit 2015 would have been lost in translation as much as the rest of us.  

In 2009-2011, when Web Summit began, there were 500 people attending.  It proved to be a winning formula and became dubbed as one of the most productive conferences ever… spawning a few unicorns. Having representation by I-will-do-anything-to-meet VC’s such as Jack Dorsey, Andreessen Horowitz and Elon Musk helped catapult Web Summit’s reputation. Yeah, that Musk, the same one building the 29 minute rail from New York to D.C. I had a mentor who often told me that you can grow out of business and that managing growth was as important as raising capital. Maybe the hay days of Web Summit are behind them as more and more people appear to be expressing their disappointed with the concept of a Megafest Tech Conference that may show very little return for the investment that is required to attend.   

So here is what I know for sure. Today, the word “conference” is far removed from what it used to be. As an attendee, you have to be far more discerning and sensitive regarding your time and money.  AI and many other technology tools have completely commoditized the sacrosanct conferences that used to be the bedrock of aspiring companies. Last year, Web summit had 53,000 people and in 2016 began to franchise the concept that gave us RISE in Hong Kong, Collision in New Orleans, SURGE in Bangalore and MoneyConf in Madrid.  

So are all conferences a waste of time?  You will never get me to say that, but you will get me to say it’s up to you to set your goals and be clear about what you want to accomplish before you decide which conference is best for you. So here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Quit the herd mentality: No matter how cool the event…if it does not fit your business needs…chuck it.  If you are a start-up and you are trying to get an exhibitors booth at Web Summit…forget it….unless you have a MVP…and a clear path to investment…I would suggest, put your money elsewhere.  What you must ask your self is, “Will there be an ROI: A great partner, a joint venture, information or investment. What are the critical success factors for you to experience a win?”  Define  what exactly your expectations are and what your action plan will be when you get there to make it happen.  I once went to a conference in Prague looking for a Tech CEO and met a classic textbook ex-Google employee.  Unfortunately, he lived in Switzerland and didn’t plan to move to the US.  BUT he is in my rolodex (the predecessor to the iPhone contact list)!   
  • Change your perspective, even if you have been to a few bad conferences, not every conference is out to bamboozle you. Find and attend conferences that move your business forward. They are out there for you to find and have your best interest at heart.
  • CE for you.  Most professions have continuing education requirement for re-certification or re-accreditation.  With technology moving as fast as it is…you need to keep up with your industry.  A conference can put you on the cutting edge of what happening in your industry and be well worth your time and money.
  • Define why you are going to any conference and set your expectations about what constitutes a win.  

Here are some of the reasons to attend a conference:.

Connections: Meeting relevant and like minded people increasing your network. Knowing key people can go a long way and pays off in the long term.  Great for start-ups and growth. In my estimation, the conference should be intimate…no more that 250-500 people.

Knowledge Transfer: Knowledge is never wasted.  If you want to stay abreast of current trends and effective strategies and information, then conferences can be a great benefit.  Get a front row seat.  Learning from winners is always inspirational but you also want those winners to be in your corner so size and the length of the conference matters.   

Joint Ventures: I have always believed in collaboration. Back in my day, we called it TEAM. Together everyone achieves more. Millennials are leading the way in what I call the coopetition mentality. They have given rise to the success of collaborative co-working spaces where they get inspired by their fellow entrepreneur and mitigate start-up costs.  You might find your perfect fit at small conferences or even larger conferences; someone who has a part of your puzzle and can move your needle forward.  

Growth:  Your number one goal can come in the form of JV partners.  It could also come in the form of well-heeled mentors willing to put skin in the game with you.  Get them on your board. Remember my story above. I know of a person who will become your CEO for 90 days with a contract to see if your strategy is sound. People like these go to conferences looking for the next superstar. Usually the conferences they attend are smaller and more manageable for them to observe a prospective company.

Time matters: So choose a conference where you can observe your potential mentor, JV partners or investor and they can observe you.

Meeting investors: Here, size really matters. You want to be at an intimate conference where an investor can observe you beyond the 7 minute pitch and get to observe your SWOT. If you are a start-up, quit chasing VC’s, try for the Angels. So obviously, go to conferences where they are. Many Angels cross-pollinate in the VC world, so when you are ready for that they can recommend you…how much better than a cold call! VCs are usually looking to invest $500,000 to millions and if you are a second stage company, chose one with VC’s. Know though, that you might not get to speak to the head man in charge but often more junior people from their firms. There is process here. If you choose a smaller conference your chance of being heard will be greater.

Marketeering, Branding and Meeting reporters: Your company getting featured at a large conference is as unlikely as seeing a lion in Times Square. However, at smaller, potent conferences with good headliners and set up, you may be able to snag a reporter. It may not be a tier 1 publication but there is never bad publicity and you can position it in your marketing to your benefit. I did get interviewed at Websummit and though no one cared, it’ has brand equity in the news section of my website.  Never snigger at brand exposure.

Getting leads and customers: I know a lot of people are skeptical about this. It’s better to go to trade shows to get leads, they will say. I totally disagree. Each person you meet and convert to a lead has the potential to introduce you to nine more people. If leads and customers are your number one goal, chose a bigger conference and one that has a connection site after you leave the conference, such as a closed Facebook link.  Having said that however, don’t discount smaller conferences that have a high probability of creating more friendships and, therefore, more loyalty.  A friend will recommend you more than a stranger who hardly thinks of you

Do your homework: Before signing up for any conference big or small, do your homework!  There’s nothing like preparation. 80% preparation and 20% perspiration.  Are the fundamental goals of the conference aligned with your own?  Is this a bring the mountain to Moses or bring Moses to the mountain concept? The more tickets for sale to go to a conference has a direct relationship to the quality of the experience you will have. If the conference appears to be is just a money making scheme…forget it. As a start-up, keep your cash for payroll.

The Spiel.  If the conference is positioned as a great place for networking, whether you are a VC or a first-time founder, and this match is done successfully, talented, like-minded people will come together and serendipity will definitely be in the air.  My company achieved revenues of $30M from a conference. My first client, you see, was General Motors and then guess what?  Ford, Chrysler, and all their tier one suppliers wanted to be sure they were not missing out on anything so they, too, became clients. Word spread about a good company and the Fortune 500 grapevine was very small. Soon there was Kellogg, Edison, EDS, Lucent Technologies, big hospitals, entire states…you get the picture.

Swag bags and entertainment. Never underestimate the power of a swag bag. Nor should you go to a conference were its all about work and no play or entertainment.  

Here are some final stats that you might find interesting and, hopefully, helpful.

Conference Size:

  • Small Conferences – Audience Size – 100-400 attendees. Start-ups, begin here.
  • Mid Size – Audience Size- 2500-3000 attendees. Second stage companies looking for prospects and growth opportunity through networking and investments should think about this size conference.  Much planning and investigating needed. Make sure there’s a tool to help you connect and make appointment with exactly who you want to see at the conference before you get there.
  • Large Conference – Audience Size-30K – 50K. It better be out of the country so you can at least say you had a nice holiday!.  I really am not sure who this kind of conference is targeting.   Maybe people looking for new products, vendors and joint ventures?

Conference Location: 52% of conferences are in Europe, 38% in the Americas (mostly on the East coast), 6% in Asia, 3% in Australia and New Zealand. None that I know of are in Africa!

Attendee Gender: Gender disparity in the web industry is not a myth. That being said, the percentage of women in content-generating areas is higher than that of men. Women get out and make your voices heard!  

Conclusion: So you can’t say I didn’t give you the 411 on conferences. If you go to another bad conference, it’s all about you.  As a potentially successful entrepreneur, you are expected to be a critical thinker and to be quick about being able to know what you need to move your business forward.  

What is needed is not to do away with conferences but a disruption of these mega conferences that deliver little to their audience as they succumb to the never ending money trail. Conferences are hugely important but not all conferences are created equal. Size does matter!  Make sure you are assessing correctly and, yes,  Swag Bags matter…especially if you are in the wilderness!

In closing, I am truly looking forward to having my purple wristband cut off by my investor, whom I hope to find very soon at a conference near me.

While you are at it, check out a new camp that’s blazing a trail.  Survive and Thrive, a boot camp for passion driven entrepreneurs. Not your ordinary conference but the benefits are clear for a start-up and second stage entrepreneur.

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