How I Hacked The Startup Launch Conference Circuit

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How I Hacked The Startup Launch Conference Circuit

 

The following is a guest post by Nathan Beckord.  Nathan is founder/CEO of Foundersuite which provides software and templates for founders.

We launched my startup Foundersuite in June of 2013 with nearly 800 startups on our platform, several strategic partnerships, and press coverage by VentureBeat.

Nearly all this traction came from hustling, pitching, and “launching” at 5 different startup events, at a total out-of-pocket cost of $883.

Here’s how we did it. You can do some of this too.nathan small

Event #1: Startup Exits Conference, January 17

What it is: Startup Exits is an event I produce two or three times a year focused on “hacking the exit process.” We run it at Rocketspace, and it draws a crowd of about 150 entrepreneurs and VCs looking to connect with corporate acquirers.

What I did: Since this event is my baby, I had the liberty of inserting a 2-minute preview of Foundersuite into the mix. To ensure the maximum number of eyeballs, I staged my demo right before the segment with John O’Farrell of Andreessen Horowitz, who I knew would be a big draw.

To avoid the risk of an embarrassing crash or bug, I mainly showed screen shots of the product instead of an actual demo. I also framed it as something coming down the pipe, vs. any kind of actual “launch”-- a very, very soft sell.

Result: By giving a “sneak peek” we were able to get initial feedback on our product (this was the first time anyone outside the company had seen Foundersuite.) The overall reaction was good, which provided a boost to morale. This event also served as a “deadline” to hit, which rallied the dev team and got us focused.

What I could've done better: We had a registration page to collect beta users, but it wasn’t fully baked-- 10% of those who tried to register got spit out of the system. Also, we had no structured way to collect feedback, which is so critical to do early and often.

Cost: Nothing. In fact I made a small profit on the event, which went straight back into development. :)

Takeaway: Of course, I had the inside advantage here. It takes some effort, but putting on events is surprisingly easy-- and it gives you a captive audience to pitch whatever you’re hustling. And no, I'm not suggesting you host events just to peddle your stuff.  The event should need to exist and focus on delivering value to the audience.

Event #2: SFBeta “DeveloperWeek Edition,” February 4

What it is: SF Beta is a bi-monthly mixer held at 111 Minna, a bar-cum-art gallery in the SOMA area of SF. Roughly a dozen startups set up demo tables, and it draws about 150 attendees. This event was held to coincide with Developer Week, and it focused on platforms and APIs.

What I did: I printed up two Foundersuite t-shirts from Zazzle-- one for me, and one for my product guy, Victor. Huzzah! We were official! I also printed up stickers and business cards, and I brought along a 27” Apple monitor. At the event, we put out a cardboard box and offered free beer for developers in exchange for their business card, and we ran demos of the product all night.

Result: This event served as a good catalyst to finally get our “game face” on and produce some marketing collateral. It also forced us to polish and tighten our pitch. In the end, we got about 40 new beta users to sign up. In addition, we made friends with a few external developers, and got their perspective on the product vision-- useful, since we eventually plan on opening up an API.

What I could've done better: Realistically, it was too early for us to start courting developers; although there was interest in building on Foundersuite, there’s nothing for them to do (yet). It might be tough to re-engage later.

Cost: $250 for the demo table, $88 for shirts, and $100 for stickers and cards. Also about $60 for follow-up beers with a couple engineers.

Takeaway: Find a small or low-key event for your first “coming out” party; use it as a shakedown cruise to tighten the screws and hone your messaging.

Event #3: VatorSplash, February 13

What it is: VatorSplash is an evening event of about 400 attendees that includes an on-stage startup pitch competition, a keynote, and VC panel discussions. There is also a demo pit for 30 companies. It’s held about 3 or 4 times a year in SF, LA and New York.

What I did: Because Vator was held only a week after SFBeta, I basically recycled the demo table setup. For extra visibility, I printed a large foam board placard at Kinkos and duct-taped it to the wall behind the table.

Result: The demo pit was somewhat empty, except during intermissions. Nonetheless, we had a strong run of investors stop by and check out our software. These visits led to a couple great follow-up meetings with guys like Mike Walsh and George Babu, both of whom provided some awesome feedback. We also signed on about 40 new beta users.

What I could’ve done better: I should have hired someone to run the booth, as the action was really in the main ballroom. Also, the event had an after party featuring the BSD-heavy band, Coverflow-- think VCs and ex-Facebook execs. If I’d been really ambitious, I would’ve rallied for some additional networking fun.

Cost: Zero. My friend Russ Bertuccelli was one of the sponsors and hooked me up with a free table, and we used the collateral left over from SF Beta.

Takeaway: Don’t be discouraged if a demo event is slow or mellow; it's the quality of the interactions that matters, not the quantity.

Event #4: Launch.co Festival, March 4, 5, 6

What it is: Along with TechCrunch Disrupt and DEMO, the Launch Festival is one of the largest startup events of the year. It’s put on by consummate hustler and promoter Jason Calcanis, and is held at the cavernous Design Center.

This thing was massive-- 50 companies demo’d their wares on stage over the course of three long, grueling days. The organizers claim 6,000 people registered, and I’d estimate that at peak times, close to 4,000 were actually there. The list of VC judges and sponsors reads like a startup founder’s dream. In short, this was showtime.

What I did: First let me start off with what I didn’t do-- I didn’t land a spot on stage, though not for lack of trying. I used LinkedIn to see how I was connected to Jason, and then worked every connection, avenue and back-channel to get intros and endorsements. He was responsive, but no stage time for me; however, I did get a free demo table out of these efforts.

Since this was such a large show, we pulled out all the guns. I brought along Victor and also hired my charismatic friend Rebecca Harris to run the booth with me, and that was money well spent. Not only did she master our pitch in about 15 minutes, but it allowed me to get out and wander the halls, which led to some great strategic partner discussions.

We also ran a “mildly guerrilla” marketing campaign at the show; for example, we changed our tagline from the plain “Startup Management Software” to the more provocative “Tools To Get Startup Sh*t Done” and plastered this slogan on our t-shirts, materials, and signage. Right before each lunch break, I would fan a dozen Foundersuite stickers on the lunch tables, which surprisingly, drove a number of people to our booth, while Rebecca did the same at the coffee stations.

Result: This show set in motion several things that, four months later, are still paying dividends. For example, we did a deal with Hack Reactor to use their students for a few projects. We also landed a free Ruby engineer for the summer via a deal with Innovation Norway. I met the folks from Draper University, which led to a speaking gig to their entire student class, and we struck marketing partnerships with two incubators. In addition, we gained about 150 new users and collected an absurd amount of feedback and new product ideas from the hundreds of folks who stopped by our booth.

What I could’ve done better: I still ruminate on how we could have better hacked the application process to land a spot on stage; we were probably dinged a few points when we temporarily took down the beta wall, as Jason saw it and called us on it (this conference is aimed at startups in stealth, who are making their first real debut).

Having a dubstep-blasting rainbow bubble machine (or at least a full-size banner display tower) might have helped, as the level of professionalism WRT booth accessories was a notch higher here-- our neighbor had a futuristic police car with a siren and flashing lights, while we were still using our cardboard box with the “Drop Your Card, Win Free Beer” call to action written on the side in red marker.

Cost: Parking was $15 per day x 3 days = $45. Rebecca cut me a deal and charged $240 for two days of demo help. New T-shirts and other collateral was about $100.

Takeaway: If you pay for-- or get selected into-- one of the large demo events, don’t hold back; such events can “make” your fledgling company.

Event #5: SFNewTech, April 24

What it is: SFNewTech is one of the longest running demo events around. Once a month, six new startups take the stage for an efficient format: 5 minutes of live product demos, followed by 5 minutes of audience Q&A. It’s a fun and casual vibe, held at a nightclub.

What I did: I got a slot as the third speaker to take the stage. Since Foundersuite has a lot of moving parts-- e.g., we have 4 separate software modules as well as template collections-- it was a challenge to demo it all in under 5 minutes. Thus, I gave a super-quick, high-level summary of everything, then drilled into one module, Investor CRM, to show the user flow.

During the demo, I focused mainly on the value proposition for the founder-rich audience. I also spent roughly 20 seconds of the opening explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing-- our mission-- and about 20 seconds at the end showing where we’re going next, which was a nice way to “bracket” the core content of the demo.

Result: This event generated about 55 new users, some great social media activity, and we got a cool video out of it. Also, a writer for Venture Beat was in the audience; he followed up afterwards, and we gave him the exclusive on our launch coverage.

What I could’ve done better: I wish I’d lost about ten pounds and got a decent night’s sleep before going on stage. :)

Cost: Free; the ringleader, Myles Weissleider, is a friend.

Takeaway: Getting stage time in front of a large audience of target customers is extremely efficient marketing.

...and that’s how we successfully hacked our launch. Net-net, our results by the numbers:

5 pitch events

~5000 relevant people exposed to our product

~300 new users of our product + an additional ~500 new users via viral loops

2 partner deals

1 speaking gig

3 interns, all technical

1 major media placement (and several smaller ones)

Lots of fun and new friends

---------------------

Total cost: $883

...a pretty decent ROI, IMO.  But remember, your mileage will vary (I had some inside connections which kept costs relatively low)

Nathan  @foundersuite @startupventures

Want more? For the extended mix, I now present “Key Tips & Lessons Learned”:

Use the novelty of being the “new new thing.” The period between your private beta and your public launch is a special time, when interest levels and curiosity about your startup run unusually high; you basically have a brief window where you can leverage the lure of the “sneak peek” to effectively generate buzz, get feedback, and make friends. Use it to your advantage.

Be an all-consuming, feedback-eating machine. Events are Customer Development on steroids-- so figure out a structured, efficient way to collect and process the avalanche of feedback and ideas you will get. To be honest, we didn’t do a great job of this-- I’m still finding business cards and scraps of paper with user comments scribbled on the back. But the feedback we were able to process has been priceless.

 

Play to the motivations of the event producers. Almost all of the event organizers I worked with were cool people, genuinely motivated to see startups succeed. But they are also building their brands, and / or trying to turn a profit on their productions. They are looking for interesting companies that people will talk about, and in doing so, create a halo effect around their event. Be that interesting company. Make it memorable for their audience.

Pay it forward. You may have noticed that I was “hooked up” for free at nearly every event; this wasn’t by accident. In most cases, when someone set me up with a demo table or pass, it was 10% because I’m a nice guy, and 90% because I’d helped him or her out on some previous initiative. No one’s keeping score; but when you’ve been paying it forward long enough, it’s amazing how receptive your network is to helping out when it’s your turn to ride the startup roller coaster.

 

Being cheap increases your ROI. Demo events are fun a great way to engage potential users and investors in a casual, low-risk way. But they take a lot of time and energy; in the case of the bigger ones like Launch Festival, they suck up the better part of a week. They can also be expensive-- TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Alley will set you back $1995. Work your network for the free booth hookup, or ask the producers for the “pre-funded startup” rate. Volunteer to work the door in the morning, or offer to promote the event to your network for a free pass. (Related note: It helps to have built a network that folks are interested in leveraging).

Start the SEO clock ticking. Many startup founders repeatedly delay their launch because they’re not “ready,” and I definitely get the desire to avoid putting out a bunch of crap too soon, as public scrutiny can be brutal. But as Paul Graham eloquently writes, startups need to release early and often; in addition to getting user feedback, there’s a ton of value in making some noise and laying down an online presence early in the game. For example, it helps you to establish your social media voice (something we did way too late). Also, getting your logo on a few high-traffic sites will help boost your SEO; both the Launch Festival and SFNewTech events are still driving a steady flow of organic traffic.

 

Still here? Color me impressed. I’ll leave you with a few tips for hacking your onstage pitch and demo booth:

Make your demo short and sweet. Get your product demo to < 3 minutes (5 minutes max). Keep it high level-- skip all the tiny product features and nuances that are important to you, but often turn into a confusing rat hole for people seeing your product for the first-time. With a shorter demo, not only will you be able to talk to more people over the course of the show, but you’ll have better attention and retention of what you’re offering.

End with a call to action. What do you want people to do after they’ve listened to your demo? Do you want them to register on your site? Introduce you to users? Give you feedback? Invest in you? The CTA may differ depending on who’s listening; for example, at the SFBeta event, we printed two giveaway cards, one for developers and one for users. Each had a specific call to action of what we wanted to happen next. Bottom line: if you don’t have an “ask” connected to your demo, then you’re just expelling warm air and sound.

WIIFT? For on-stage demos, build your pitch story line using the “what’s in it for them” framework (them being the audience). In other words, don’t show what your product does; rather, explain how it benefits your users, who ideally-- if you’ve picked your event right-- are also the folks listening to you onstage. If you can’t use the WIIFT approach, at least explain why you’ve built what you built. People love origin stories and mission-driven companies.

Staff appropriately. Always have at least two people giving demos-- crowds come in waves, and a solo founder won’t be able to efficiently process the queue. But never have more than three booth staffers out front-- that just makes for a crowded booth and will scare people off.

Usher along the salesmen. One of the annoying parts about having a table or booth is that you’re “captive prey”, and inevitably, you’ll get booth visitors who feign interest in what you’re doing, but who are really trying to sell you something-- banking, insurance, HR services, etc. Without being an ass, quickly end the conversation by asking for their card, saying, “awesome-- thanks for stopping by” and shaking their hand. Remember why you’re there: to talk to as many interested, relevant parties as possible. Keep the pipeline flowing.

Be polite (ish) to competitors. Another annoying element of the demo table is when competitors come sniffing around. A key identifier is when a person has obviously intentionally turned their name badge around, or tucked it under their sport jacket. I don’t suggest you worry too much about this-- most attractive markets are plenty big enough for multiple firms. But one way of heading this off is by asking them where they work before launching into your demo-- then if it’s clearly a competitor (or an investor in a competitor), give the abridged demo version without the secret sauce.

Have fun with it. You’re living the dream, pitching and hustling your startup baby. ‘Nuff said.

<END. Really.>

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jul 15, 2013

COMMENTS

Probably the most practical, fact-specific advice that has been published here in quite some time. Thank you, thank you and thank you again.

posted on Monday, July 15, 2013 at 1:14 PM by Andrew Ellis


Nathan, great post and so cool you have shared exactly how you went about it. This is the Lean Start Up method fulfilled perfectly and for under $1,000, that is impressive!

posted on Monday, July 15, 2013 at 1:48 PM by Brian Allman


Great advice, thanks for compiling this into such a nice package. As you've demonstrated, one of the best ROI tools is to "Pay it forward". You'll build your network and save money at the same time.

posted on Monday, July 15, 2013 at 4:03 PM by Jonathan Chizick


A few awesome quotes in here. 
"release early and often" after being in a start up for a while I couldn't agree more. 
Thanks

posted on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 10:08 AM by Peter Richards


Nathan, I read a lot but have only made comments on two other posts on any site. I am rightly impressed by your post. Very well organized, very well written and most important very good information that is helpful to fellow startups. I give you the equivalent of a standing ovation in an Opera . . . Bravo!

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