Why Startup Conferences Are Still Worth It

After five minutes of delivering my best sales pitch, this guy still had not agreed to download my app. He was one of those picky consumers who need every feature to be absolutely perfect in order to use anything. I knew that the esoteric functionality he wanted would never appeal to the population at large.

I sighed and painstakingly tried to convince him one last time, while thinking to myself “I’m pitching a free app we haven’t even monetized yet - what good will this ‘sale’ really do?”

You can find this scene or something like it playing out on the floors of trade shows and conferences the world over. Between the hours spent standing at attention in your booth with nobody to talk to and the frustrating time spent talking with picky customers like the above, it is easy to imagine the thoughts running through the head of any self-respecting entrepreneur or founder.

“Nothing I do here today will really move the needle on my business.”

“I should be at my computer working on my product.”

“Why haven’t we invented a robot to do this yet? Ooh, that’s a good idea - maybe we should pivot.”

Thoughts like these can run through the mind of conference veterans as well, and if they’re an executive, it can spell disaster for that all-expenses-paid company delegation to Austin or New York. Why spend a few thousand companies dollars to get lost in the crowd at a trade show?

Those people don’t get it. Especially for early startups in the product-market fit or growth stages, attending the right industry event could be the single best thing for your business. Done right, it can yield far more leverage than any amount of time spent in front of a computer screen. Here are three reasons:


It is the best place to meet the Influencers.

Not five minutes after the finicky consumer above walked away, an older man in a suit paused in front of my booth, politely listened to my opening spiel, and handed me his business card along with “We work with mobile operators all across Europe and would love to talk to you about this - let’s set up a call.”

Bam! With almost no help from my end, we just connected with someone who can get us a lot more than one free app download. What is more, I have a face and warm connection to put to the name, which starts the relationship off on a healthy note. Who knows where a partnership like that could lead?

Any good conference has power brokers roaming the floor looking for the next big thing, whether they’re media heads, venture capitalists, or enterprise associates. You’ll never know if the people walking by are picky nobodies or the President of North American Operations until you flag them down. The only way to be sure is to sell anyone who will listen and hope for the best. That single free download could matter more than any other convincing you do all day, but it is easily missed.

Be sure to start the conversation off on a high note - do your research on potential dealmakers before the conference starts, and know who you could be talking with. More on how to talk to investors intelligently here.


It is a steady stream of potential Customers and Evangelists.

Your product and marketing need refining, especially in the early stages of a company.  For startups, it is easy to get stuck ‘brainstorming’ with your founder, trading unsubstantiated  generalities. “I think customers will do this”  “No, you’re wrong, they will do THIS!”.

You two can argue all the way up to your competitor’s Series A, but neither of you know what the customers really think. But customers do. And at conferences, there are hundreds of customers ready to talk about what they want streaming by your booth looking for something interesting.

Use this opportunity to experiment with your opening proposition, your slogan, your comparisons, your business plan, and anything else in your presentation. At an industry event, you will get invaluable feedback that you could never get from less tech-savvy pedestrians on the street, and doubly so if you’re a B2B business.

Even for a free consumer app like us at Mailtime, there is value in a receptive audience with domain expertise (like the picky email guy above). They can give you invaluable feedback on your product, marketing, or alert you to a nascent competitor you didn’t know about.

Instead of brainstorming in your ivory tower or pitching a tent downtown to a surly public, you get the best of both customer development worlds on a trade show floor. All startups need to do this.


It is a chance to meet your Competitors and Partners.

The reason why you’ll see power brokers at any good conference is because they’re looking for trends. They’re counting how many new wearable technology startups are at this year’s event and comparing it to last year’s number. They’re listening for nascent buzzwords. They’re making macro analyses about the state of their industry.

While they could do all this by arguing with their partners in the office, the smartest people know that the best way to understand the real pulse of a market is through talking to all the naive ambitious people on the conference floor.

You can do this too. Take some time to walk the floor yourself and see how other companies are presenting themselves, what space they’re in, and whether their product is related to yours. I’m always interested to see other companies in the email or mobile space, and oftentimes their founders are happy to talk to me about how they worked through a specific obstacle or warn me about a looming market change. You’ll probably also find startups with products aimed at startups, which could solve your most recent screaming problem. Now is a great chance to ingratiate yourself with them in person for a discount.


So the next time you find yourself with nobody to talk to on a trade show floor, count your blessings. Assuming you’re prioritizing your product first and networking second, you’re doing the right thing.