Friday 24 May 2019

Startup diary: How setting up a mini-conference can really help your startup

 

Out in front: Running a conference can be hugely impactful if you get it right. Stock Image
Out in front: Running a conference can be hugely impactful if you get it right. Stock Image

Richard Rodger - founder Voxgig

Voxgig wouldn't be much of an events software company if we didn't run our own events. We run three monthly meetups. EventProfs Dublin and London are held each month in small venues and target an audience of about 30 people working in the events industry, and specifically in the technology events sector. We also run a purely technology-focused meetup, the Dublin Microservices Meetup.

This is important too, as we have to "eat our own dog food" to really understand our customers' needs. We can only do that by experiencing their problems and challenges.

Meetups are great and I've written previously about using them to sell, recruit, build community, and build trust in your brand.

But the next level up is to run your own conference. So that's what we're going to do. There's lots of talk about, so we'll spend the next few weeks covering the ground on running a conference.

This may seem crazy. Conferences are expensive, often lose money, and are super stressful to run. We are a team of event professionals, and people with a lot of event experience, so that does help. On the other hand, we have a startup to run, and very limited time and budget. Why would we run a conference?

I would recommend that any company think about running an annual conference. It is hugely impactful if you get it right. You can bring together your clients, your sales prospects, your staff, and your potential recruits all in the one place. You get to make some noise and get noticed. If you get great speakers, everybody learns something and gets value from the networking, as well as just having a good time socialising.

This is the 'events channel' in your business, and there are few ways so effective to really connect face-to-face and on a human level with the people in your company's network. Conferences and events are so effective at generating new growth that they often take up at least a quarter or more of the entire marketing budget.

But you have to be practical. You're not going to start with a WebSummit-level event.

A good size for a small 'starter' conference is 200 attendees, 10 sponsors, and five exhibitors. With these numbers, you have many more options for venues and cost control. This is what our conference is going to be sized at. We're aiming for November this year, which is just about enough time. We should have started sooner, but six months' lead time is quite doable.

As always, with this startup diary, you're getting to see decisions in real-time. I'm not writing about a successful conference after the fact, or quietly hiding a failed event. No, you'll get to experience the "what if I threw a party and no-one came" tension as we go through it ourselves.

In order to run a successful mini-conference there are five key tasks you need to get done. Let's walk through them so you can get a feel for what's involved. This week we'll cover Audience and Budget, next week we'll look at Speakers, Planning, and Logistics.

1. Figure out who your target audience is

This is critical. You can't 'just' run a conference. It's an east way to burn a lot of money. Your audience is not just attendees, but also sponsors and exhibitors. It has to make sense for everyone.

A useful exercise is to borrow the idea of a user persona from software design work. Sketch out a few of the people who will attend. Create fake names and job descriptions, backstories and motivations. Think about what they will get out of your event.

Getting your audience focus right is critical - it will determine your event marketing focus and messaging, and who you invite as a speaker. Think of the conference as a mini-product, and develop it in the same way.

One final tip: make sure your audience can afford to buy tickets.

Often attendees need to convince their managers to let them attend. You'll sometimes see conferences providing a detailed 'convince your boss' product sheet - they work.

2. Do your budget

Put in the time and effort to get this right. Conference budgets can expand rapidly out of control. This is boring and detailed work, and this is where someone with events experience really helps. It is vital to get right.

Should you aim to make money? Well, yes, obviously. But how is the more important question. Perhaps you are a consulting company that will make your money back from client deals closed in the year after the conference. In that case, you can afford a loss on the conference - it's just paid marketing and lead generation.

Perhaps you're a Software-as-a-Service startup (like Voxgig). In that case you'll sign up new users, but they'll take time to grow become profitable.

Your conference should at least pay for itself, as a loss will skew your customer acquisition cost to lifetime value metric.

If you're an events company, well then you pretty much better make a profit otherwise you're not coming back next year.

On the cost side, bear in mind that you'll need to put down deposits well in advance for the venue and a few other things. That's an upfront hit. You'll also need to take account of speaker costs. Since many speakers are tasked with promoting their companies, these companies will generally pay for travel and accommodation. But then your conference will not be inclusive, and you'll miss out on all the great independent speakers out there (they can take bigger risks on stage). So you will have to budget for speaker expenses. Keep this well under control, and set expectations well in advance.

On the revenue side, aim for 50pc from ticket sales, and 50pc from sponsors and exhibitors. You'll see a spike in ticket sales when you announce (use lower early bird pricing to get things moving), and a final spike in the last few weeks leading up to the event.

In between is a valley of death when it looks like attendance will be terrible and it will all seem like a big mistake.

Getting sponsors and exhibitors, especially for a new conference, is really hard. This will take a lot of work, but it is vital to keep the finances balanced. You will have to cold call.

In the next article, I'll cover Speakers, Planning and Logistics. I'm afraid it gets worse.

Search engine statistics: 2,257 technology conferences, with 6,174 speakers, 4,961 exhibitors, and 995 venues.

We are currently onboarding new clients, and in this phase we provide a manual data entry service where we add all their data into our system.

We have yet to inject these data streams into our search engine, so we're now undercounting our database numbers.

Separately our development team is upgrading our search engine indexing from client data, so we should be able to combine these counts in the next few weeks.

Yes, this is a silly place to end up, but sometimes in a startup your end up painting yourself into a corner. The fancy term for this is: technical debt (which I may have mentioned before).

Marketing update: speakers newsletter - 6,185 subscribers, open rate 11pc. EventProfs newsletter: 667 subscribers - open rate of 25pc. The podcast is at 108 downloads.

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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