Chief Business Officer
If you are starting your own company, work for a startup, or simply don’t have budget to pay for a conference badge, read on. It’s important to attend industry events to meet customers, partners, potential hires, learn best practices, and expand your network. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to meet a lot of people. In one city. At one time. Super efficient. Of course, you want to develop a good intuition about which events are worth the time so you don’t become a conference roadie.
Conferences typically charge thousands of dollars to register. I’ve seen Jason Calcanis astutely point this out on Twitter in reference to some of the large events that prey on startups. Startups are the ones often charged the most to attend relative to their assets. No one at a large company would complain about a $3,000 ticket.
I spent the last 12 years as the 1st employee of a medical device/digital health startup that we grew from 5 to 500+, so I learned some best practices:
1. Don’t assume you need to buy a badge. Let’s face it, conference content can easily be found following along on Twitter or doing a quick Google search. What can’t be replaced are the personal connections. You never know who you will meet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flown to a city to attend an event WITHOUT registering and met great people that made the trip more than worth it.
2. Speak. Do you remember some of the speakers or panels you’ve heard? The bar is low. I’ve found it effective to personally reach out to the event chair or head of content with several topic ideas that would interest their audience and fit into their agenda. Stuff that is memorable and Tweetable. Do the work for them so it’s super easy for them to say yes.
Oh — and generally speakers get a free conference badge.
3. Barter. Think about how can you help the conference and staff instead of the other way around. At my last company, I wanted to attend a high profile event, but we didn’t have the budget to buy a badge. I offered to provide SWAG to the speakers — which I mostly procured for free. Conference entrance arbitrage.
4. “Excuse me, I can’t seem to find the details of the VIP cocktail hour in my e-mail.” Hustle and find out where the end-of-day conference networking is happening. Many times it’s hosted offsite or elsewhere where no badge is required. Score.
5. Just ask. Many conferences want to encourage younger, exciting start-ups to attend and will provide free passes. Sell yourself to the conference organizer. From my experience, many will say yes and only request you won’t tell anyone.
Other tricks of the trade:
6. Beg, borrow, or steal to get a badge (well, don’t steal — it’s just an expression). The more contacts you have in an industry, the more people you can ask nicely for a badge. Exhibitors are often given unlimited or many passes, so get to know those exhibiting. Or just find friends who are attending for only a day and can give you their badge when they leave. People may call you Julie when your name is Sarah, but just tell them the printer messed up.
7. GIVE BACK. When your company gets larger and has a budget, pay to attend (or sponsor) to give back to the ecosystem — as my last company grew to a larger, self-sustaining company, I made sure to pay full price to attend. I also went out of my way to offer my badge to friends doing startups when I left. Paying it forward is essential.
Industry events can be a very efficient way to meet and develop personal relationships with great people. Just don’t be dissuaded by the price tag.
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