Startup diary: Running a conference can be great for your new business – but you absolutely have to get it right

When you see to other businesses, as we do, a good question to ask is: what is the best way to promote your online product? This naturally generates an equally valid and far more interesting question: what is the worst way?

By best and worst, I mean what activity gives you the most cost-effective way to get new customers (that is, makes money, fast!) and what is the worst (that is, loses money, fast!).

As it happens, in the work of software-as-a-service offerings, both questions have the same answer: run your own conference.

There is a reason all the big companies do it. Salesforce has the Dreamforce conference. Hubspot has the Inbound conference. Shopify has the Unite conference. And so on all the way down to the newest startups… like Voxgig.

It seems like an easy win. You throw a big party, show your community a good time and generate lots of feelgood press. Since we’re an event software company, it’s not at all surprising for me to advocate for more technology industry events.

I’ll try to keep the hyperbole to a minimum but it’s fair to say that well-executed events really do work – they make money for you. Not, strictly speaking, from the event itself but from its aftermath.

People do it because they can get their customers and users in place. They can get their true fans on stage to advocate for their product vision. They can invite key clients and prospects and get to know them better. They will make an impact and appear to be a dynamic company moving forward.

They can recruit – this benefit is sometimes forgotten, but it’s a big one. What better way to get to know potential colleagues? Finding people who fit is not just about formal interviews (which are not that great for hiring anyway, but that’s a topic for another article).

You should not do a conference if you cannot afford it. They are expensive and you will have to make financial commitments far ahead of time. We’re planning a conference (as you’ve probably guessed by now) for next April. We’re calling it EventProfs Connect. Even now, half a year in advance, we’ve already had to invest in staff, venues and branding – and that was months ago. Planning needs to start a year in advance.

And this is why, despite all the great things that can result from running your own conference, it can also be the worst thing you do. It is very, very easy to lose a lot of money.

In my last company, we ran our first conference on a shoestring. It was a great success, but I mostly remember the sheer terror of shelling out cash all the time.

And then you make mistakes. I ended up booking 10 – yes, 10 – extra hotel rooms that we did not need. For three nights. In Dublin city centre. Luckily, it was all sorted out with a bit of humble pie, but I still get nightmares. There is a reason event management is a profession – it’s a tough job.

If you are thinking of doing a conference, then one very clear piece of advice is to make a specific person responsible for delivery. It could be a co-founder. It could be an employee. It could even be a temporary hire. But you absolutely must have one person who runs everything.

You may have developed a good collaborative style in your startup, and now that everyone knows each other you feel you can get along just fine with your normal working style. This will not work.

Events are supremely stressful because they have an absolutely hard deadline and because they are very public displays of competence. There are no excuses, and you’ll be all over social media if you mess up. A lot of people, especially startups, avoid running big events for exactly this reason.

But because the benefits are so great and can move your business forward so quickly, conferences are worth doing. You just have to understand that they are not like most business projects – there is no leeway, and you can’t make up for lost time.

Here’s one example of how things go wrong. If you fail to promote your conference, and fail to focus on ticket sales, you’ll end up having sold, say, 25pc of your tickets. People have already booked flights and set up travel plans. You really do have to deliver the event – cancelling would be very bad for your brand. But so would empty auditoriums. So you start giving away tickets. Now you’re going to have to eat the cost of running the thing at almost full numbers, and you’re not going to get half the benefit from your target audience – because they’re not there.

It’s great to build your brand with students and junior staffers but you really needed the decision-makers. And it all started to go wrong many months before the opening talk. Ouch.

So run a conference. It will change your business. But do so very, very carefully.

It’s like a business in miniature, and all the more intense for it.

Metrics: this week we have 81 open issues, and 171 closed issues.

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