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When attending big conferences like WebSummit or Mobile World Congress, preparation is essential if you don't want to waste your time (and some bucks too!). Let me tell you how I do it!
Startups and companies in their early stages need to attend meetups and big conferences. Some are generic, like WebSummit, Startup Grind or Mobile World Congress, while some are specialised like the IoT Solutions World or the Smart City Congress, both held in Barcelona, just to name a few.
Even though I attend events on a regular basis as part of my business development strategy, they are not for everyone. To stick with the topic of this article, I'm not going to discuss how to choose the right event for you or what kind of person you need to be to make the most out of these events.
I am just going to write about how to prepare properly for big conferences so you get a good ROI from them.
Step #1: Define your goal
Here's a hard truth: You should not go into a conference without a clear goal. Even if you get a free ticket, you're still paying with your time and your attention, something your company might require more urgently instead.
Some valid goals can be to find clients, meet investors, get introduced to startup accelerators, meet the main speaker of the conference or learn from the conference itself, from the organisers standpoint, for example.
In my case, my goal is to build long-term relationships with quality people, always. Since we're a company that thinks long-term and we don't have any urgent needs, we can meet people without appearing needy.
For instance, even though we are always on the lookout for new clients, the truth is that we are booked for several months in advance. Also, we know that our sales cycle can be very long sometimes, so it's good to initiate talks well before the potential customer has a need.
I define quality people as those who can be part of a two-ways value-based long-term relationship. In fact:
- Most of the active clients we've got now have been for several years. We've been working for Naiz for almost five years now.
- Our partners & sponsors at Startup Grind Barcelona have been with us for most of our events. Some have been our sponsor since the very first event (and we're into our 70th now!).
- Similarly, most speakers I interview, I've known for some months already, or even years.
Step #2: Research speakers, sponsors and attendees
One well-known fact in the industry is that conferences are platforms to bring people together. The content - albeit sometimes very good - is just the excuse.
Conferences build communities around them and give them a space and a time to meet every edition. Equally important are the speakers' dinners happening during the conference and what happens in the backstage between speakers, partners and other VIPs.
It is a good practice to research who's attending beforehand. If you're looking to attract speakers to your conference, look at the line-up. If you're looking for sponsors, take a look at the partners & sponsors section of the conference website and so on.
Why is this so important? Because by knowing exactly who is going, you will not leave this up to chance. Maybe you're already connected on LinkedIn and you just need to send them a message. Or maybe you're not yet connected but have friends/connections in common who can provide a warm intro.
Letting people know you're going to a conference (via, for instance, a LinkedIn post) will also allow space for online serendipity: they might tag people in and/or intro you to their contacts via email or social media. It works for me every year, and that's the reason why I always post about going to conferences.
Regarding attendees, it is very rare that conferences publish their attendees' names. At most, some will have a featured attendees section on their platform, or they will provide you with an app, such as the case of WebSummit, through which you can reach out directly to anyone in the conference.
Step #3: Schedule a basic outline of meetings
Next, comes the scheduling!
This is something I see as fundamental when planning to attend big conferences: do not overbook yourself. You should allow space for serendipity (more on this in the next section).
What I mean by "basic outline of meetings" is to define when will you arrive and when will you leave. This part makes more sense in conferences that run over multiple days.
In my case, I always schedule the first meeting of the day to ensure I get to the conference early and I also plan the lunch breaks to avoid eating alone. If there's someone I really want to meet, I also schedule that meeting.
Meetings in conferences tend to be shorter than dedicated meetings because everyone wants to maximise the number of people they meet, so with really busy and high-level profiles, I keep it very short: a ten-minute takeaway coffee will do, in most of the cases. With other people, I'll meet for thirty minutes tops.
Another reason to keep it short it's because conferences do not allow for a lot of privacy or quiet environments, so it's good to sit down in a company's booth or in the cafeteria for 30 min with someone to take a quick catch-up meeting. If you want to do something more formal, I suggest taking them to dedicated meeting rooms (if available) or to a cafeteria/restaurant outside of the premises of the conference.
Step #4: Allow space for serendipity
This is extremely important: if you overbook yourself you will not have time to meet people you didn't plan on meeting or you just don't know yet. These folks might be on your radar or not, but can turn out to be really important. You can meet randomly, or through the introduction of a mutual contact.
For instance, two years ago, the first time I attended WebSummit, I planned to visit the folks at ENISA in their stand. I had been exchanging emails with them for a few weeks but never met them in person, so I dropped by. Turns out, they were chatting to a group of young entrepreneurs from Barcelona and they introduced us. These guys were looking for investment and also for a company to outsource their frontend development.
I stayed chatting with them and a few months later they turned into our customer, and have been so for almost two years now. They're the Polaroo guys.
Serendipity means also to stay at the conference the entire day, if you can afford it, to be able to bump into people you know or to work from a place where you can see people passing. If you spot someone familiar. These 2-3 extra unplanned meetings can help you a good deal. You'll see!
As I mentioned, I am at WebSummit until Friday, so if you want to meet, kindly drop me a line on Twitter!