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At this point I’m literally getting invited to a conference a day. I’ve never enjoyed going to conferences so I pick them carefully and am particular about the kind of things I go to. I regularly get asked how I choose which conferences to go to and I rarely have a good answer. So, after getting asked for the 4,317th time, I sent an email to Eric Norlin, who puts on three conferences that we have helped create and participate in (Defrag, Glue, and Blur) how he thinks about it. Eric’s thoughtful analysis – aimed at startups (and the entrepreneurs at startups) follows.
One of the natural consequences that comes with being in an “up” part of the tech boom/bust cycle is that there are an almost overwhelming amount of tech conferences, trade shows, and events that a startup could attend. These events offer opportunities to network with potential business partners, users, venture capitalists and customers, but they can also place a huge demand on a startup’s always scarce resources of time and money. So, the natural question is: which events should you attend and/or sponsor?
First, let’s understand the landscape (hat tip to Phil Becker for discussing this bit at length with me back in 2005): Imagine the entire range of tech trade shows and conferences on a spectrum. On the left hand side of the spectrum is the pure “expo/tradeshow” – you know the type — held at Moscone or in Las Vegas, hundreds of exhibitors on a concrete floor – think CES or Dreamforce. Sure, there’s often content at a “pure expo/trade show,” but normally the “expo floor” is something you can walk on to for free or very cheap ($100 bucks – usually less if you snag a discount code). The easiest way to identify an expo is to ask: who is the event organizer’s customers? If you’re walking around for free or nearly free, then it sure isn’t you (the “attendee”) — it’s the exhibitors. That’s important to note.
On the far right end of the spectrum is the “pure conference.” The purest conference format I’ve ever seen (and, unfortunately, it doesn’t exist anymore) was PC Forum. PC Forum was Esther Dyson’s legendary event. 500 people, ZERO sponsors (and zero sponsor dollars), one room full of keynotes — and at it’s height, you had to have an invite. And – oh yea – every single attendee paid. PC Forum was not cheap. But, the model was very clear: Esther didn’t want any sponsor dollars involved, and thus, the attendees were the only customer.
Between those far, end points of the spectrum, you get a mix of stuff. The three shows that we run (Defrag, Glue, and Blur) are at various points along the spectrum. And in truth, most shows are a blend these days. But the spectrum is useful because it can help a young startup understand what *kinds* of shows to think about attending.
So, with that in mind, what do you attend?
Let’s start with your “industry.” Are you a big data infrastructure company? Then write down all of the big data events. From this list, I’d begin with your goals. Are you seeking funding? Customers? Brand awareness? Business partnerships? Press? It’s really hard to find all of these in one event, so you’re probably going to have to pick and choose.
Next consider the type of interaction you’ll need to accomplish your goals. Example: if you’re a very early startup (seed/Series A), and you’re in enterprise software, then you’re most likely going to need more “hands-on” time with a customer prospect, as your product won’t be developed to the point where you can simply have people walking themselves through demos at a kiosk. That is to say that, in this case, quality of interaction outweighs quantity of leads. You’ll then seek out events that offer you intimacy of atmosphere over the sheer bone crushing flow of attendees on an expo floor. As you grow, you may find this dynamic changing, and thus you’ll change the type of shows you attend. (Sidenote: I run Gluecon – which is a smaller, more intimate show when compared against expos. I’m in no way suggesting that you shouldn’t attend expos – they absolutely have their place. It’s simply a matter of where your startup is in its lifecycle.) On the other hand, if you’re a consumer facing app that’s trying to make a splash ala Twitter, then you may forgo the smaller event in favor of trying your luck as SXSW.
Once you’ve a) created a list of events in your niche; b) considered the goals that you’re trying to accomplish with your event attendance; and c) considered the *type* of interaction you need to accomplish those goals, your list of events should be down to – say – 15-20 possibles.
So, how do you choose? First, ask around. Who do you know that’s been to what? What’s the reputation? Second, give yourself some geographic “spread.” If you have 12 events on your list and none of them are outside of Silicon Valley — well, maybe take a look at something in New York, or Boston. Third, break your list down into quarters — as a startup you have to balance how much time you spend on events versus on building your company. In the early days, you just won’t have the resources. I’d argue that a seed stage startup should be doing no more than 1 or 2 events per quarter (not including local meetups, hackdays , etc) MAX.
Checklist: Industry, Goals, Interaction, Reputation, Geography, No more than 1 or 2 per quarter (for Seed Stage; 1 per month for A/B round) — and you’re down to roughly 4-6 events for a seed stage company and roughly 10-12 events for an A/B round company.
“But aren’t there some conferences that I should just avoid?” you ask. Rather than speak badly about my competitors, I’d rather turn it around and say “which conferences should you always consider?”
I have always found the gang over at O’Reilly to be “straight-shooters” that put on awesome events. Start there. Throw in the company-run events that are specific to your case (Google I/O, Dreamforce, Microsoft’s events, Oracle OpenWorld, Adobe, etc), and then add in some independently run events (BigOmaha, Glue/Defrag, 360 Conference events). If applicable, add the monster shows (CES, SXSW) and the networking/startup shows (Launch, Disrupt). And, if you want an international flair, toss in LeWeb for good measure. There’s your starting point.
“Should we sponsor?” This is a tough question. If you have the resources and can make a clear case, then it can be very beneficial. If you do sponsor, avoid the larger expo events, you won’t have the dollars to throw at it to get noticed (attend those and take people out for drinks instead.) Stick with smaller venues where you can be seen and truly interact. And seek out conference organizers that will customize their packages for you (discounting, creating speciality packages, etc) — you shouldn’t simply be buying off of an inventory list like you’re shopping at Wal-mart.
That’s the beginning primer on picking conferences to attend if you’re a startup. Maximizing the value of attending or sponsoring is a whole other post for a whole other day.
James Altucher is brilliant. Everyone on the planet should buy a copy of his new book I Was Blind But Now I See right now. You’ll likely hate some of it. Other parts will annoy you. Still others will seem simplistic, counterproductive, or just plain odd. But every page will make you think.
I met James for the first time at Defrag this year. Eric Norlin invited him. A few of my friends told me I had to see his talk. It was awesome. Now – a bunch of the Defrag talks were superb but James was early in the first day and he set the tone. I can’t remember whether he was before or after Tim Bray but they were back to back and all I remember after they were both done was exhaling a deep breath and saying to myself “fuck – that was great!”
James’ book was in my Defrag swag bag (legendary – one of the best anywhere) and I finally emptied it out the other day. I’m reading a book a day over the next two weeks and this was my book today.
It was perfect timing. On my 90 minute run today alone (no humans at all) in the mountains behind my house in Keystone, I kept thinking about SOPA. I’ve been incredibly agitated the last few days by SOPA after watching three hours of the House Judicial Committee hearing on Friday. SOPA is such an evil thing at so many levels and the people in the House that want it to happen appear to refuse to listen to facts or logic, and – when they talk about what they are confronted with – claim the facts and logic aren’t actually factual or logical. The noise in my brain about this kept drifting away as I thought to myself “how strange that there is snow only on the left side of the trail” or “I wonder if there will be any good movies next weekend since all the ones this weekend are shit” or “how awesome is it that there are no other humans out here” but then would be interrupted by angry thoughts about the chairman of the house judiciary committee who is the sponsor of this bill, the people on the house judiciary committee that are clearly “the henchman”, the absurd process that is unfolding – and then I’d start thinking about my breathing again and the fact that my heart rate was above 160 and that felt good.
James takes us through his chaotic mind, his successes and failures, his struggles and depressions, as he gets to the point where he very clearly tells us that only one thing really matters – one’s own happiness. He proceeds to describe a series of completely fucked up things that get in the way of it. He prescribes a very simple way to be happy, which includes a number of things I do and often suggest such as don’t watch TV, don’t read newspapers, exercise daily, get plenty of sleep, stretch your mind every day, ignore all the crappy people in the world, don’t worry about things you can’t impact, recognize that many parts of the macro (government, banks, education) are irrelevant to your well being, and don’t roll around in the mud with a pig.
But most of all he reminds us to just be honest all the time about everything. In my experience, this is the most liberating thing of all on the quest for happiness. Anyone who spends time with me knows I try to always do this regardless of the implications.
Be honest. Be happy. We all die eventually.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of Defrag.
What started as a blog post (and email exchange with Eric Norlin) I did about “intelligence amplification” in 2006 has morphed into a conference about the larger topics of social and big data and is now a wide-ranging conversation about technology and what’s over the horizon.
If you check out this year’s agenda, you’ll find everything from mobile to cloud computing to tech policy in DC to my own keynote on Resistance Is Futile.
Defrag has become one of the cannot-miss events of the tech conference world. Every year it increasingly feels like a family gathering, as more than 300 people journey to Boulder to basically hang out and expand their thinking for two days. This year, Eric decided to cap attendance at 325 to make sure that the quality of interaction stays high.
You simply will not find a better forum for making in-depth connections that will change your business and career in technology. There are still about 25 seats left – sign up before they are gone. Use the discount code “brad12″ for $200 off the price.
The list of confirmed keynote speakers includes:
Paul Kedrosky, Kauffman Foundation
Roger Ehrenberg, IA Ventures
James Altucher, The Altucher Confidential
Robert Stephens, CTO, Best Buy
Adrian Cockcroft, Cloud Architect, Netflix
Tim Bray, Google
Phil Weiser, Dean, CU Law School
Hal Stern, CTO’s Office, Juniper Networks
Lili Cheng, Microsoft R&D
Jeff Lawson, Twilio
Wendy Lea, Get Satisfaction
Dave Gutelius, Chief Scientist, Jive Software
Tim Young, Socialcast
TA McCann, Gist
Duncan Watts, Author, “Everything is Obvious *Once You Know The Answer”
Sam Arbeson, Kauffman Foundation
and I know that Eric is still adding more surprises on a weekly basis.
One of my favorite conferences of the year is Defrag happening in Boulder on November 9th and 10th. Eric Norlin is gearing up for it and just announced several scholarships for Defrag, underwritten by the Kauffman Foundation. The Kauffman scholarships are for students and entrepreneurs who can’t afford to attend Defrag, but would receive significant benefit from doing so. Eric is making a concerted effort to get more women to Defrag so he’s allocating 50% of the scholarships to women. For information on applying, take a look at the Defrag scholarship post.
On a completely different note, I love rockets. I’m a boy – I can’t help myself. This video of the launch of Juno on the APOD site gave me chills.
Finally, if you are a video watcher, take a look at ThisWeekIn TechStars. The first episode, hosted by David Cohen with me, Jeff Clavier (SoftTech VC), and Ari Newman (Filtrbox – acquired by Jive) is up.
The Defrag Conference is happening in Boulder on Wednesday November 17th and Thursday November 18th and is looking like it will be the best one yet. If you haven’t yet registered, use the code “foundry2″ to take 15% off of your registration.
The confirmed Keynote Speakers include:
- Alex Wright addressing the “deep history” of Oral Culture and Social Networks
- Stowe Boyd speaking about “social cognition”
- Esther Dyson on Exploration and innovation
- Dion Hinchcliffe on the future of social analytics
- Jeff Ma on Business Lessons from the Blackjack Table
- David Weinberger on the Philosophy of Knowing
- Paul Kedrosky talking about Monkeys, Typewriters and Data
- Jeff Jonas on Organizations Getting Dumber, and IT’s to Blame
- JP Rangaswami on Information as seen through the eyes of a Foodie
And that’s just some of the keynotes. Toss in a bunch of networking, lots of stimulating discussion, and breakouts that cover everything from APIs to shifting to the Cloud to Social Media Analytics to the Social Customer and it’s shaping up to be dynamite.
If you’re from Colorado, I’d urge you not to miss this stage of deep thinkers from around the nation coming to our fair state.
If you’re from outside of Colorado, what could be better than a few days in a resort overlooking some of the nicest mountains you’ll ever see while thinking deep thoughts?
I hope to see you at Defrag.