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Why Launching Your Startup at a Conference Could be a Big Mistake

By Rudi Davis 18 April, 2016

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There’s no denying that conferences are full of opportunities for early stage startups. They are excellent vehicles for attracting interest from investors and clients, getting media coverage, and for networking. However, experience has shown me that launching your startup at a conference is a bad decision. In this article, I’ll explain why, touch upon some exceptions, and also look at what the solution might be if you are thinking of launching your business soon.

What makes launching at a conference such a bad idea?

When you launch your company you want to create a splash. Your aim is to meet as many journalists as possible and get as much media coverage as you can.

Although it can cost a lot of money to exhibit at a conference, you might convince yourself that the exposure you will receive will bring great return on investment. Indeed, what else could be better to invest in than a conference that opens up new markets and brings in support from both investors and new businesses?

In your preparation for the event, you will focus on coming up with a great pitch and some sleek marketing materials, and imagine yourself talking to reporters, networking with potential collaborators and clients, and getting noticed in a big way. I can really understand the temptation.

However, that is often a far cry from the reality – and is often a big and potentially costly mistake. The truth is, at conference time, journalists are overwhelmed. Conferences in particular are growing every year, and some say they are too big already.

The excellent Web Summit, for example, is one of the biggest around – with 30,000 attendees, 1000 speakers and 21 summits – making it almost impossible for the average person to keep track of everything going on and even more for the journalists to cover.

Ask yourself this: how do you decide what you are going to see? Which speakers do you choose to watch, and which stands to stop by? Because there is only so much you can squeeze into your itinerary, you will likely choose to attend the presentations of speakers you’ve already heard of, and the exhibits you’ve wanted to see all year, rather than ones you’re not familiar with. Of course, there are some amazing networking and learning opportunities out there, but it’s increasingly more difficult to make yourself heard above the din.

Now imagine being a journalist. The fact is, with strict deadlines and hundreds of emails a day, they have too much to juggle. They also have an editorial mandate to talk to a number of specific companies to get insight and background for stories. Let’s face it – if you haven’t launched before the conference, there’s no way you are on their hit list.

If you do get lucky and end up talking to a reporter, they are coming at you cold and have no previous knowledge or background on your company. Even if your pitch is spot on, they are unlikely to write about you because it takes a lot more work to research something from scratch than it does to write about an established company, and there are plenty of these at the average conference.

The exception to the rule

The one exception is when a conference specifically launches a program to help startups that have not yet launched. TechCrunch’s business Battlefield is a great example. Startups can get some great coverage, like Agriyst did in TechCrunch. However, most startups who aim to launch at these conferences are not a part of these programs, and do not get that type of coverage.

So how should you launch?

Make people aware of your existence before the party starts. That way, they’re not coming at you cold.

The ideal solution is to launch ahead of the conference. Send out a press release and go live a few weeks ahead of time. It’s also a good idea to contact journalists interested in your area ahead of time to let them know you’ll be there.

Remember, though, it’s no good asking a financial journalist to write about your new micro-computer. Take your time to research the stories they’ve previously covered. If they’ve covered similar companies, there’s more chance they’ll take you seriously.

When you’re at the conference, invite as many people to try your new product or service as possible. Create a buzz by making a competition or game surrounding your product. You’re far more likely to get coverage when people are excited about you and you stand out from the crowd.

So take a breath, and think about your pre-conference strategy carefully. If you turn up unannounced, you could be in for a disappointing time. But if you do it right, the rewards can be even better than you imagined.