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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.
The Glue Conference is happening again this year on May 23rd and May 24th in Boulder, CO. This is the awesome conference that Eric Norlin puts on around our Glue theme. 500+ people obsessed about mobile app development, cloud computing, and big data are going to be there this year.
As part of the conference, Eric provides 15 early-stage startups with FREE exhibit space. Did I say FREE? Yes FREE! Alcatel-Lucent acts as the Community Underwriter for Gluecon and funds this activity.
The demo pods are designed specifically for the event that have lit signage included, hard wired internet drops included, space for your laptop (to demo) included, passes to the event itself included — basically everything you need to come show your early wares to developers, customers and venture capitalists. All you have to do is get to Boulder, which I’ve discovered through experience isn’t very difficult.
I’ll be there both days as will be my partners at Foundry Group. If you are an early-sage startup (pre-funding or seed funding) in mobile app development, cloud computing or big data, this is a great way to get some face time with us.
Did I say the demo pods were free? Apply now – the deadline is Friday.
Last week we announced our investment in Awe.sm. It’s squarely in our Glue and Protocol themes and is similar to investments we’ve made in SendGrid (for transactional email infrastructure) and Urban Airship (for push notification infrastructure). Oh – and the founders – Jonathan Strauss and Laurie Voss are – well – awesome.
We love things that wire the web together and believe Awe.sm is the company to do that for the construct of “sharing.” Specifically, Awe.sm’s goal is to become the key infrastructure provider powering quantitative performance marketing across the social sharing channel.
If you are a developer of a web app, take a look at how Awe.sm’s platform can help you.
Eric Norlin is a conference master organizer. The original conference we helped Eric create – Defrag – is happening for the fourth time in ten days in Boulder (11/17-11/18). I know of several major announcements that are happening around the conference along with a long list of amazing people that are attending that I’ll get to hang out with for two days.
In the run up to Defrag, something awesome happened last week as Eric continues to work on the two other conferences he runs – Glue and Blur. Alcatel-Lucent signed on to be the Community Underwriter and Partner Sponsor of Gluecon 2011.
Before I explain why that’s exciting, let me describe Glue in Eric’s words:
Glue is aimed aimed at developers, The topics are far technical and because Glue isn’t defined as “a cloud computing” conference, it’s not caught in the echo chamber of “defining” this, that and the other thing. Glue seeks to explore the connective “tissue” of the web and IT infrastructure. That connective tissue can be called a lot of things: service oriented architecture, web services, APIs, cloud computing, etc. But call it what you will, developers know that it’s not the name that counts, it’s the building of the application, and the underlying infrastructure that supports it.
His goal is simple: make Glue the gathering place for developers in the API/Cloud space. Alcatel-Lucent has agreed to underwrite 15 companies to have free demo space at Gluecon (i.e., the demo pod includes passes to the show, signage, internet — everything you need; just show up with a laptop).
The companies will be selected by merit by the following group of people.
- Eric Norlin
- Chris Shipley (Guidewire Group)
- Mathew Ingram (of MESH and GigaOm)
- John Musser (Programmable Web)
- Laura Merling (Alcatel-Lucent)
- Alex Williams (ReadWriteWeb)
- Jeff Lawson (Twilio)
- Jeff Hammond (Forrester)
- Ian Glazer (Gartner)
- Ben Kepes (Diversity.net)
- Vinod Kurpad (Best Buy)
- Seth Levine (Foundry Group)
The process will be simple: Eric will accept applications for the 15 spots, every person on the selection committee gets one vote, and the top 15 vote getters have a demo pod.
Eric is trying to change the game with this one. If you take away the company specific conferences (Google i/o, Twitter, F8), there really just aren’t that many national-level gathering spots for developers in the cloud/API space. The key word here is “developers.”
Eric’s goal (with Alcatel-Lucent’s sponsorship) is to make it easy for 15 new and exciting companies to show up and participate. If you are one of those companies, apply now for the Alcatel-Lucent Demo Pavilion at Glue.
In March I wrote about Standing Cloud‘s public launch of a free service to test drive open source applications. As reported today in TechCrunch, Standing Cloud has now launched it’s Business Edition, a service that enables users to also host applications on any of four cloud providers. As with the free edition, they have made it remarkably easy to get started: you register (including providing payment information), select your cloud provider and application, and go. Currently, the easiest setup is with Rackspace, where Standing Cloud can automatically assign a billing account to you; this easy setup is coming soon for GoGrid and Amazon EC2.
In the Business Edition launch, the Standing Cloud service provides fast and simple installation, automated regular and manual backups and simple application monitoring. Importantly, the backups can be restored to any cloud service, not just the one where you started. You can also easily reboot the application if it seems troubled, upload text files (including templates or other customizations), and if you are so inclined, access the server command line through a terminal window that operates within your browser. Through September 30, the only fees Standing Cloud is charging is for the server time and bandwidth usage; after that it will cost an additional $19.95/month for their service – which by then will include a number of additional features.
There are now more than fifty open source applications available in Standing Cloud – so they’ve organized them in a searchable list format. There is also no technical limitation requiring that the applications be open source, so if you are looking to promote or enable users to host your commercial application, send me an email and I’ll connect you with the right person at Standing Cloud.