Big tech and industry events are designed to help innovators meet their potential clients, partners, and investors. With the right approach, these opportunities can help founders achieve their goals in fundraising, sales, and marketing. However, participating in these events can be a heavy burden on an early-stage startup’s budget, so it’s crucially important to invest in them wisely.
Quite often industry events can be quite a hit and miss: while some of the most popular events may not result in closed deals, an accidental encounter in a cafeteria at a small niche conference can help bring in a million-dollar lead. Nevertheless, some practical steps can be taken to maximise the effect of a startup’s presence without spending excessive budgets on exhibiting.
As Head of Communications in our Netherlands-based HealthTech startup MediXSpace, I have been in charge of overseeing our presence at several big industry events picked by the founders. Throughout this journey, we’ve learned from some of our mistakes the hard way, but also made a handful of useful discoveries that helped us compensate for the losses.
Having spent over $80K on exhibiting and speaking at a variety of regional and global events for innovators, we have accumulated some advice on improving the ratio between the money spent and the results achieved.
There are hundreds (if not thousands!) of events out there that could be beneficial to your startup. Choosing the ones that are really worth your time and effort may be a challenge, so here are a few ways to narrow down your list and prioritise it – prepare your Excel sheet (or other planning software of your choice) and do the following:
✅ Start with a generic Google search to get some idea of the must-attend events: look up the biggest tech and startups events of the year, and don’t forget industry-specific events (HealthTech, CleanTech, Cyber Security, etc). Once you’re done looking through tech events, research non-tech events that are still related to your field. For example, if you develop a HealthTech solution, consider researching medical events and see if there are opportunities to exhibit with a tech product.
✅ Explore Eventbrite and similar platforms: sometimes you can find some interesting events that are not always featured in popular ratings. What you will most likely find there is some niche startup pitching and networking events – those are small gems that can help you make valuable connections for much less money (sometimes even for free!)
✅ Record these events in your spreadsheet including the most important details such as dates, locations, participation fees, and attending audience
✅ Mark the ones that look most interesting to you (e.g. if there’s the largest exposure to your target clients)
✅ Mark the ones that are happening in your region and therefore might be the easiest to attend
In our case, we allocated most of our budgets to the two biggest events in HealthTech and cancer care (HiMSS 2022 and ASCO 2022) and the largest global startup conference – Web Summit. We also took advantage of a few smaller startup pitching events and healthtech conferences as individual attendees.
Remember that no free event is actually 100% free: it always requires your time at the least. So invest it wisely.
Before signing up for any events, you can always look up what other fellow innovators have written about them. Big startup conferences such as Web Summit or Slush often get reviewed by tech enthusiasts who have given it a go. Certainly, it’s always important that these experiences can be very unique to their authors, so it’s best to read a few reports and compare before drawing any conclusions. Such research also helps get a better idea of what the events are like and learn a few strategies to maximise the practical results of your presence. In our case, we found whole Twitter threads with tips on making connections, preparing and even dressing for the events!
Don’t forget to check if the event outcomes covered in such reviews match your goals. If you are looking for industry clients, an event targeted at startup fundraising may not quite be worth your time – however brilliant it may seem from the feedback. Look for specific points addressing the general attendance, the audience and its geography, and other factors that matter to your agenda.
While startup events may naturally be expected to offer discounted exhibitor packages for early-stage startups, it’s not always obvious that bigger industry events may be offering such options, too. Investing in a full-scale booth at a trade show can cost a fortune (think $10.000+ for the booth space only, and at least just as much for furnishing it!), but quite often these shows have a special startup area with kiosks offered at a much more budget-friendly price ($5000+ for a fully furnished option). If you only need a small desk and a screen for showcasing your technology to potential clients, there’s really no need to splash the cash on a fancy booth – spare these budgets on more events and marketing activities.
Moreover, if you are specifically looking for investors, and you know the event is likely to be attended by a few, there’s a much higher chance to encounter them in a startup area than anywhere else. If you are looking to partner up with big companies in your sector or even get acquired, it’s also easier to be spotted in a designated area where they will be specifically looking for young innovations.
We made a huge mistake by trying to come across as a mature digital technology provider at HiMSS and going for a proper 10x20 booth: the total budget for our participation in the event – including the logistics – exceeded $65K, with over $35K spent on the booth and its refurbishment only. We could have spent approximately ⅓ of that budget on a startup park package and still gained relevant, startup-oriented leads.
Sometimes you don’t need a booth at all. As long as you’re at the event actively making connections and engaging in dialogues, your presentation of your startup may be even more effective than a whole booth with tired team members with a smile glued to their faces. There are many big tech events that can be 100% free to attend (like London Tech Week or Arab Health in Dubai) – so why not make use of them without any organisational commitment?
This strategy will serve you well if you are really good at networking, or you’ve got someone who is onboard. You will have to walk around and initiate the dialogue with people. A lot of people. But the good news is – conversations are free.
This is just a friendly reminder that the quicker you decide on your participation in the selected events, the more likely you are to benefit from the early bird rates. Not just for exhibiting, but for the housing and transportation as well – and these expenses tend to be the heftiest. Subscribe to your favourite event pages months in advance, so you don’t receive any newsletters with discount codes and sales kickoff news.
Experienced tech enthusiasts often say that the most important deals are sealed in the bars and cafes around the convention centres rather than at the events themselves. Believe it or not, what’s true is that every big conference has multiple networking activities going on alongside. These events offer a great opportunity to connect with the right people in a more informal environment – particularly those that can only be accessed by invitation. Here are some ways to find them:
✅ Once again, browse through Eventbrite to see if there is anything related happening during the days of the conference
✅ Do the same with Facebook (search by the conference name and see what comes up)
✅ Ask other fellow entrepreneurs that are also going
✅ Be sociable and friendly at the conference and keep your schedule flexible – you might get invited to closed parties for selected guests (e.g. top executives and investors) if you are genuinely interesting and nice to people around!
Bonus point: if you haven’t found any specific events, observe the locations around and see where everybody’s hanging out. Join the crowd and enjoy networking for free as much as you like.
When you connect with valuable leads at the event, it’s always best to reach out immediately before they forget who you are. Be prepared to fire your pitch deck into their mailbox a few hours after you’ve met – so you’d want to make sure it’s on point!
A brief checklist to have at hand for efficient networking purposes:
✅ A short blurb about your startup (a paragraph describing what your company does)
✅ A short description of each of your products
✅ An up-to-date pitch deck (for investors)
✅ A detailed product presentation (for clients)
And remember: send your follow-up emails fast. You might even consider having a couple of generic email drafts to edit and send out quickly as needed.
It’s true that at some events you might be able to catch the keynote speakers after their sessions. But the more prestigious the conference, the higher the profile of the speaker, the more likely you will be competing with many more guests. Instead, start building your relationship with the key contacts you need far ahead of the event. Add them on LinkedIn and/or Twitter and engage with their posts. Make sure you post relevant industry content with your thoughts and insights on your page, so you build your reputation in their eyes as someone genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject rather than yet another wannabe entrepreneur trying to solve irrelevant problems with an irrelevant product (and they indeed do get a lot of inquiries from such characters!).
The same goes for investors: the worst thing you can do is stalk them near the investor lounge to talk about your startup. A bit of neutral friendly interaction on professional social media before intruding into their inbox and private space will make them much more open to further dialogue. Such measures will help you get in touch with the desired contacts and fill your calendar with useful meetings long before you hit the exhibition floor, making your commitment to visit the event already worth it.
Staying clung to your booth in a naive hope that you’ll have visitors flocking to see your solutions is highly unproductive. Ideally, you should have a colleague accompany you, and take turns in staying at your location and walking around to explore other booths and interacting with guests. Research the list of exhibitors in advance and make a list of those whom you want to visit: those might be your potential clients, partners, and… Competitors. Industry events are a great way to get first-hand knowledge of your competitors’ solutions and even see a demo – so take advantage of it!
Don’t be afraid to talk to people in every environment. Initiate small talk in cafeteria queues, come and talk to people at their booths, ask strangers about their companies (which are usually typed on their badges) – all these people are here to make connections, just as you are. You never know where your next conversation will take you!
If initiating contacts is not quite your thing (introverts can surely relate!), there are a couple of tricks to provoke them: for example, you can wear branded merchandise that can cause people’s curiosity – with unusual design (e.g. glowing LED backpacks with your logo), catchy slogans or something as simple as “Ask me about… [insert the problem you are solving or just your product’s name]”. Another way is to engage in different activities like prize draws, games, round tables and so on – wherever you see a crowd doing something, join in and use your chance to meet new people.