Startups, you don’t have time, money, or credibility to waste at events. But industry events can provide a huge boost to business growth and international development when mastered. And if your plans include a trip to SXSW in the coming days, then this is your last chance to learn how to get the most out of these opportunities.
I took part in more than 50 professional events, not to mention meetups and hackathons, during my five years organizing international conferences. I attended everything: mega conferences like SXSW, Web Summit, and Slush; trade shows in Cannes, Barcelona, and other cities in Europe; and premium summits like DLD and LeWeb.
I’ve seen firsthand why startups struggle and what they need to do to successfully navigate this crowded and complex game. Nine times out of 10, founders don’t know what to expect from a specific event, where to find interesting people in the venue, or how the unofficial information is being traded between influencers like investors or journalists.
If you’re working at a startup, you’re supposed to be good at coding and (hopefully) at pitching. But do you know how to introduce yourself in conversational settings without using an elevator pitch? How do you follow up when you’re not selling? What’s the easiest way to get value out of serendipitous networking?
These five tips will let you hack events like SXSW, even if you’re a first-time entrepreneur. They are tricks that I’ve tested and validated with event organizers. Actually, those organizers even taught me some of them.
1. Find the right wristband
Just like at music festivals, tech event organizers distribute wristbands of different colors to control the flow of participants: yellow for speakers, green for the press, purple for sponsors, black for the staff, orange for the opening ceremony, rainbow for the VIP zone of the closing party, and so on. Each event has its own color code, and the code changes every year.
Getting the right wristband is like playing capture the flag. You have to be prepared for the battle and lay down a proper strategy. You must approach with determination and clear objectives in mind. Are you ready to challenge your moral compass?
Here are three possible techniques: First, if you’re an experienced festival-goer and prone to thievery, you can simply steal a wristband during badge collection. Second, sponsors nearly always receive extra wristbands with their booths. You might seduce them into giving you one. Third, if a wristband is needed to get into a VIP event, then there’s always a PR person controlling the access who is completely overwhelmed with wristband distribution. It’s quite easy to convince that poor soul to give you one by claiming that you should be on the guest list. You can also swipe wristbands while this gatekeeper attends to another participant.
– Check if there’s a printed list of wristband colors next to the backstage area; it will be easier to spot the most useful ones afterwards.
– Wait near the VIP exit and kindly ask a speaker to give you their wristband. Cut it by the fastener and gently stick the whole thing back together around your wrist.
– Wristbands come and go; don’t wear them too tight. You may want to share yours with a cofounder or friend. They’ll owe you a huge favor.
2. Squat VIP areas
Tech events usually have restricted access areas: Speaker Lounge, VIP Club, Media Village, Green Room, Backstage, and the like. Those exclusive locations are full of influential personalities who could take your business to the next level. Your goal? Get in and squat those spaces.
Follow an accredited person and claim you have an appointment with them. This is the easiest way to get in. If you don’t find anyone to follow, check to see that there’s actually someone guarding the entrance – sometimes there’s no one around. If there is indeed someone checking wristbands, try to buddy up to them and ask them to let you in as a favor. Or, ask a friend to distract the guard. This works especially well with volunteers. If the guard doesn’t fall for it, then wait for the next shift and try again.
– Once you’re in the VIP area, don’t move until you’re part of the landscape. Talk to lonely people who pretend they’re busy, working on their laptops. Enjoy good Wi-Fi and the free buffet. Act like you belong.
– When the influential person arrives, you’ll be ready to pounce.
3. Get the mic
Even if you’re not a speaker, it’s still possible to get the microphone. If you succeed, make sure your CMO is around to capture this moment on Instagram.
Most conferences let their audience take the mic, usually during Q&A at the end of panels. Organizers might also offer last-minute pitching opportunities on social media. Some free slots are made available when a speaker cancels, especially with matchmaking formats that require mentors and experts. Be ready to take the opportunity.
– To get everything to go right during a Q&A session, sit near the stage or the aisle so you can grab the mic easily. Of course, you must be ready with a question that will let you introduce yourself while still highlighting the speaker on stage.
– Don’t forget to give the audience a simple way to find you afterwards. Giving your name and job title is not enough, mention your contact details clearly and wait near the stage at the end of the panel.
4. Solve the business card dilemma
When you’re specialized in hunting speakers, you’re constantly interrupting important people with the ultimate goal of collecting their contact details. Normally they don’t want to hear about you, much less get bothered with your emails. Their usual answer is: “Sorry, I don’t have business cards anymore.”
If you think that offering your card will be enough and that they will actually write to you afterwards, you still have a lot to learn about B2B networking. Instead, you should start with: “Let’s connect on LinkedIn,” then “What’s your email?” and finish with the phone number. Write this information down immediately.
– The event speakers are probably geeks like you and love to discover new apps. Use your smartphone to automatically send contact details and spark their interest. Sadly, NoBizCard is not available anymore, but you can use Contact Info or Swapcard. It’s a gimmick that should continue to work for a year or two.
5. Rock the follow-up
Creating business opportunities with people you meet during an event is a science, and follow-ups are an area where many beginners stumble.
Time your follow-up well if you want to increase your chances of getting a reply. There are three levels of follow-up that every startup should master:
First, LinkedIn and Twitter, within 24 hours
Second, standard email, between 3 and 5 days after the event. Explain when you met, what you do, enclose your Pitch Deck, and kindly ask for feedback. If you don’t get any answer, follow up a week later.
Third, ultra-personalized email, at the latest within two weeks. Detail what you expect from your contact, why he or she is so important in your industry and what you see as the next steps.
– Organize your follow-ups in email folders and tag them so it is easy to find them and continue a correspondence, even months after.
– You’re more likely to get a reply than if you start a new thread.
The more familiar you are with tech events, the easier it becomes to break their rules. Meanwhile, be patient — B2B networking is a marathon, not a sprint.
Don’t forget that collaboration is everything in the startup world. Get ready to help the people you meet. (Hack yourself first if you’re too selfish.) Listen carefully and give a hand when you can, without expecting anything back in return. A good place to start is by seeking out and helping event organizers. They won’t forget the help, and they just might reward you with a VIP wristband.