Wednesday 16 October 2019

Startup diary: When to run and get value from an event as you focus on marketing

Event horizon: Organising and catering for get-togethers shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of effort and cost and it’s key to remember that the secret of a good meetup is community. Stock image
Event horizon: Organising and catering for get-togethers shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of effort and cost and it’s key to remember that the secret of a good meetup is community. Stock image

Richard Rodger

We're are the start of a growth phase, and thinking about the qualities we'll need for the C-level executives in the company. We'll bring in these experienced executives over the next two years. People who have been through high-velocity growth phase before, and can guide us through this one.

I've covered the CTO role in the last few articles, and we'll soon turn to the role of the CRO - Chief Revenue Officer, which is something that every Software-as-a-Startup company needs. This is an executive that brings together sales, marketing, and customer success and is ultimately responsible for revenue, as the name suggests.

It is vital to recognise how closely related these functions are in a SaaS business - you can't really separate them without messing up your business model.

But that is topic for a series of articles in the near future.

Let's take a break and look at some of our current activities. In particular, events. As a business founded on the idea that events are a great channel for sales and recruiting, we have to abide by our own preaching.

Do events work for Voxgig?

Let's start by looking at the events we run. We run three meetups. These are Dublin Eventprofs, London Eventprofs, and Dublin Microservices. You can find them all on meetup.com with a quick search. Meetups are community events that bring together people who work in a given industry, with a given narrow focus. It's the community aspect, and the narrow focus, that matter.

In the case of our Eventprofs meetups, they are for 'Event Professionals' - people who run events. We lean towards the tech industry, more so in London than Dublin. For the Microservices meetup, this is for software architects and senior developers and focuses on the so-called 'microservices' architecture (so that's pretty specialised).

Running a meeting means having someone who organises the event by co-ordinating with and finding the venue, arrangement for food (beer and pizza, or wine and canapés, according to taste.), finding and managing speakers (typically two a night), getting a video done, making sure the event is promoted on social media, and doing it all again next month.

It's not to be underestimated in terms of effort or cost. Our all-in outlay including staff time is around €1,500 per meetup. Some of that is met by sponsors, and venues that provide free space (thank you), but we make up the shortfall.

Many meetups are run by volunteers who believe in their communities, and these meetups operate on much lower budgets relying on volunteer time. Remember that the next time you are at a meetup and be grateful. This can be hard going on a personal level, which is why it can be useful to have a company, such as Voxgig, behind the scenes, to keep things going in lean months.

The key to a good meetup is community. They are not marketing events for the company that runs them, or even really for the sponsors. They should be seen as signals to the community that you care. This builds much stronger long-term relationships.

Nonetheless, we are a commercial enterprise, so what are the ultimate commercial outcomes?

Events are just one part of our marketing mix, and the whole mix works together. An event manager might listen to one of my podcast interviews, and decide to attend a meetup as a result - this really happens.

A speaker might read our speakers newsletter (our original 'product'), or a conference exhibitor might read our soon-to-be launched exhibitors newsletter, and attend.

At the meetups, which see attendance of between 20-30 people (this is on the low-ish side - it takes time to build a community), you get a self-selected group of people who, by definition, want to be there.

It's not that you have a load of sales prospects to sell to. Try that and you'll destroy the community. But you do have a group that gets to know and support each other, that you can learn from, and that can build a network.

In time, when your product makes sense, adoption is natural and unforced. If it never happens, that's also just fine - a network, just like a party, is always better when there are more people on the dance floor.

Things work the other way too. Attendees end up as subscribers to our marketing content. Of course, we keep that user-focused too, and useful rather just pushing a product. Community is incredibly powerful, and is build on trust, which must never be broken.

The other great outcome is on the recruiting side. You get to know people, they get to know you, and you develop relationships. For a startup, recruiting is always a nightmare, and events make it a lot better.

Now, you might very rightly point out that I have mostly given qualitative arguments for the benefit of events. You're right. Most of this is based on anecdotal evidence. I've seen it work in this company, and my last (NearForm, where we stumbled on all this, almost by accident). It's the very fact that it's hard to measure these outcomes in a systematic way that led me to found Voxgig.

I can't measure them yet, but I'm very focused on building software that can.

Our faith in the power of events, and the results that we've seen so far have given us the confidence to start thinking a little bigger.

We've started to think about doing a small conference in Dublin, for event professionals, towards the end of the year. This decision is not yet made.

In the spirit of this diary, I'll cover our internal thinking as we wrestle with a go/no-go. Running a conference is a really big deal. It can break you, financially and mentally. It's a huge commitment for the team, among many other commercial commitments. For a pre-revenue startup is probably madness. And yet, it just might work.

The nature of this startup diary is to be decision journal - a record of decisions and the reasons for taking them, written down before the outcome is known.

Doing this helps keep us intellectually honest, but also speaks to one of our cultural values - the quality of decision is independent from the outcome. A good analogy is the game of poker. You can make all the right calls, calculate the odds perfectly, and still lose. Another player can win on sheer luck. But if you structure your measurement systems purely on outcomes, the result will be sub-optimal - everyone runs out of luck eventually.

Measuring the quality of decision-making is a lot harder, which is what you have to use techniques like a decision journal. As you follow the journey of our startup, you are also following the meta-journey of our decision making process. And that's enough philosophy for one day - back to work!

Search engine statistics: in our database of technology conferences we have 2,226 conferences, 6,146 speakers, 4,953 exhibitors, and 969 venues. The growth rate in these numbers reflects an on-going low-intensity process, since we have most of the larger conferences in the system already.

Marketing update: speakers newsletter - 5,864 subscribers, open rate 12pc. EventProfs newsletter - 518 subscribers, open rate of 37pc, and the podcast is at 43 downloads.

We're still a small team, and as we start onboarding more early users, we need to provide them with support. That support has to come from somewhere, so we'll have to shift some of our focus from marketing activities to customer support activities. That will affect the growth rates of the marketing numbers over the next few months.

Ultimately, we expect to see users inviting other users onto the system, and for that effect to more than outweigh the reduction in the growth rate from our existing marketing activities. We'll also see, as we always do, if this decision about how we apply effort, measured in terms of user engagement, was the right one.

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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