Wednesday 17 October 2018

Startup diary: A 'meetup' over beer and pizza can work wonders for your new company

Community events in a casual setting can work wonders for your newly launched company's chances of success, explains the voxgig founder

It is much easier to chat to people in a casual setting over beer and pizza than at a stuffy official networking event. Stock image
It is much easier to chat to people in a casual setting over beer and pizza than at a stuffy official networking event. Stock image

Richard Rodger

If you think startup life is hard before you launch your website, you should try living with the consequences afterward. Last week was the first full week of proper sales meetings. As in, persuade someone to let you talk to them for an hour, put on nice clothes (no more startup hoodies!), get your sales deck out, and try to make strangers give you money.

One thing I learned pretty quickly in my last company, nearForm, was that sales meetings go much easier if people already have some idea who you are, and you have built up some level of credibility in the industry. It took us about two years to get to that point in nearForm, and we did it by actively supporting the Node.js developer community (Node.js was our technology platform speciality), by hosting meetups, and running conferences.

With our new startup, voxgig, we're back to square one. That was painfully obvious coming out of our sales meetings. These meetings were not even with strangers. They were with people who already knew us from previous professional encounters. Each industry really is it's own little world, and you always have to start at square one. Luckily our team already has some credibility, and a large pool of contacts. That means that at least we don't have to start with cold calls. At least we can get those initial meetings. In nearForm, we didn't even have that at the start.

But a first meeting is just that: a first meeting. Your contact might be keen to move forward with a deal, but they still have to sell you internally. And that's where external credibility becomes important. This is the next big challenge we have to address. We already have a few strings to our bow. We have the newsletter aimed at technology conference speakers. For that group, we have growing credibility, which will be vital to growing our user base and network. We now have 1,181 subscribers, and an open rate of 20pc. And we're going to be doubling down on growing the subscriber base as a key strategy.

We will also be running some speaker training workshops this year in Dublin and London. This is not a great way to make money, as they are not scalable. But they are great way to help speakers get better at public speaking. At the moment, there's not much out there to help naturally introverted technical types move their careers to the next level using conference speaking. You just have to learn for yourself. It's especially hard for women in technology careers, given the severe imbalances in the industry. So we think this is a vital service for new speakers.

Strategically, we're on track to build good credibility with speakers. But they are only one stakeholder in the industry. Another very important constituency is event organisers. In fact, the proper term is "event professional". Go to twitter and search for the hashtag #eventprofs. You'll find a vibrant world of high-energy professionals who are dedicated to running great events.

Since our team at voxgig, myself included, have quite a bit of experience running events and meetups and conferences, we know that event professionals have their own set of problems and pain points. We want to help them too. And if you bring both speakers and organisers together, you can really help people. But we need to build credibility with event professionals first. They are happy to meet us, as we have seen, but they still need to have a level of comfort that we really care about their issues and their world. One of the best ways to show this is to bring people together and support the event professionals' community.

As it happens, there is no event professionals' meetup in Dublin. We were a little surprised by this, as we were originally planning to sponsor existing meetups. Well, if nobody else is going to do it, we will. So we're launching a new meetup - Eventprofs Dublin - you can find it on meetup.com. Our first event will be in May.

This is no small decision for a startup. You have limited resources and you have to choose where to spend them carefully. If you've ever played the computer games 'SimCity', or 'Civilization', then you've actually been in training to run the operational side of a startup. There's never enough people or money, and there are always barbarians at the gate (not the big companies-other startups that compete with you and are just as fast and motivated).

We could spend all our time and money building software, and then look at 'proper' marketing once we get fully funded. But if you've been following this startup diary, you'll know that's not our style. It is a much more effective strategy to build community, and to show that you really care about the problems that your future customers have.

There is no better way to do that than by supporting community events. Sponsoring meetups, and running them, is a recurrent theme in my advice to the startups I advise. Yes, it does take a lot of time and effort, but I have found that it pays ongoing dividends. In particular it helps to address the credibility issue. I can't tell you how much easier it is to sell to someone who has met you at an event, an event you ran, and that they got value out of. It's just a great way to build trust.

Why does this work? Because it is clearly expensive in time and money to run events that are community focused. The subtlety here is that you must make a big effort to resist the temptation to use the event as an advertising and promotion platform for yourself. This can be hard at times. You'll certainly look at your expenditure on a meetup and question why you are not "selling" more. But that would be a mistake. You are building a credible, visible, expensive commitment to the industry you are part of. You are not just passing through.

How much does it cost to run a meetup? We like to radically open in this diary, so here is the actual budget from a meetup we ran recently. It had 55 attendees on the night. Hotel room (the downside to being a remote-working company is the travel): €95. Beer (the wonderful Metalman craft beer from Waterford): €252.20. Soft drinks, plastic cups, napkins, etc: €171.57 (wholesale). Pizza (an essential for any meetup!): €202. Video: €240 (it's worth getting this done properly - give me a shout - I can recommend a great videographer). That's €960.77 in total for supplies and services. Then you have to add in staff travel costs and time on top of that. You definitely want to get a venue to sponsor (Thank you Gilt Groupe Dublin!). Most of the tech firms in town will be only too happy to help.

These costs are a rounding error for an established firm, but a significant monthly outlay for a startup. And yet this is some of the best money that you will spend.

If you've never done anything like this before, start small. Attend meetups in your space. Get to know the vibe and how they work. Yes, this is the dreaded 'networking' that you're supposed to be doing anyway. But let me tell you that is much easier to chat to people in a casual setting over beer and pizza than at a stuffy official networking event. There's no pressure, and you can leave your business cards at home. It literally is fun, even for us introverts.

Then do some sponsoring. This will be hugely appreciated. You are making a vital contribution to the community. Do not expect to be able to advertise. Do not turn up with big posters, or expect moderators to make product pitches for you. This is not about direct sales. But people will notice, and they will remember.

Once you know the scene, start your own meetup. It's really not that hard. It's exciting and scary (will anyone turn up?), and hard work (where do you find speakers?), but I think any startup that is not actively participating in the meetup scene is really missing a huge trick. It absolutely worked for me the last time round, it's working again, and it will work for you too.

Richard Rodger is the founder of voxgig. He is a former co-founder of NearForm, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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