Last month I ran the first conference booth (cough, conference cocktail table) and I just wanted to share a few bits and pieces from the experience in the hope it's helpful for other early stage founders to do the same.
Doing a booth at this stage of the company's life wasn't really on my roadmap, but the very kind John Allsopp emailed me out of the blue with an offer I couldn't refuse — to be part of the Web Directions Summit devtools showcase.
I also mooched some free accommodation from the Buildkite team, staying in a kind of creepy children's brass framed single bed in the weird attic of the AirBnB they booked for the conference. Big thanks to Tim & co for the pleasant company and keeping the budget under control. Remind me to be that kind when Hecate's making good money too.
I figured that to get a benefit out of the event I needed to get (in priority order): new customers, new leads to turn into customers later, and product feedback. Having been to enough conferences myself I knew the common ways to gather the first two are through handouts with coupon codes and some kind of giveaway in exchange for email addresses - my challenge was to figure out how to do it on the cheap.
Here's how it looked in the end.
There were two main reasons I wanted to use coupon (or promo) codes at the event: for motivation and for attribution.
The stickers I normally hand out don't have any pointer back to the company website at all, so while they're a nice kind of brand artifact to have floating around, they're not great at nudging someone rummaging through their swag bag into a signup. By having flyers with coupon codes, those who are interested in signing up see that there's a discount available, and will stuff one in their bag and then are more likely to be prompted to sign up when they get home.
The other problem with offline marketing is having no idea if it has a positive return on investment. Having unique codes per event means I can draw a clean line from a particular customer signup back to how they found out about Hecate. In theory at least. In practice people forget to use the codes, or don't care too much, or share the codes. It's a far from perfect measure, but it's far better than nothing.
Full credit needs to go to the Stripe Billing team for how easy it was to setup the backend infrastructure to support coupons. I think it took me a few hours to get the front-end code into a decent shape but most of that was in UI polish.
I spent far longer figuring out how to make the fliers. 2018 may have been the year of Linux on the desktop for me, but it turns out that's only really true within the narrow fields of software development and web browsing, and definitely not for desktop publishing.
I first tried to sidestep the issue by going using the "photocopied zine" style and doing it by hand. Unfortunately my handwriting is so awful that instead of looking edgy and cute the first version came out looking like a dogs breakfast. In the end I settled on doing the design in Canva which looked alright, but I had no end of troubles trying to make an A4 page print two A5 versions on the same page. I feel pretty guilty but in the end all I could wrangle was A5ish with a big empty bit of paper at the bottom, which I cut off an put in the recycle bin.
The bog standard way to collect contact details for potential customers seems to be to run a raffle giving away some piece of fancy tech. Lately I've been seeing either some kind of fancy drone or a Nintendo Switch.
I don't love those kinds of generic, high value prizes because while they might maximise the raw number of emails collected, those emails are not going to be very well qualified. Also, they're expensive, and I'm trying to do this on the cheap.
Instead, I picked three of my current favourite books to recommend to tech leaders off my shelf at home, and made them (well, brand new copies I would buy later) the prize. I figure anyone interested in learning more about tech leadership is a fairly well qualified lead. Even if they're not managers themselves yet, they've got a better than average chance of becoming one later.
They also proved to be an excellent conversation starter. "Why those books?", or "I haven't heard of that one" were the common questions that lead very naturally into discussions about management approach and then ultimately into management tools where I could soft pitch Hecate.
Why those three?
First of all, I wanted some deep cuts so there was a pretty good chance any interested person didn't already own all the books. That ruled out my usual top recommendation of High Output Management.
The Manager's Path is a fresh classic and I recommend it to practically everyone even thinking about a tech management job. I think it'll end up on most tech leader's shelves within a few years so its value as a giveaway prize will diminish pretty quickly.
Making Things Happen is arguably a project management book, which is probably what keeps it off the average tech focused leader's shelf but I love recommending it to new leaders largely because it's a pragmatic and realistic guide to getting people to collaborate. The chapter on handling politics is really tactical and super helpful for new managers.
The Halo Effect isn't really tech focused at all, but it's the number one book I wish that people who read business books would read first. It identifies the common cognitive biases and rhetorical problems endemic to most business writing and give the reader an excellent framework for how to assess the books that they read for whether they actually have anything to teach.
To actually collect the email addresses I wanted something a little classier than a clipboard with a form - not least to save me the transcription effort when I got home.
For the collection device, I used the cheapest tablet I could find at my local electronics store, which ended up being a Lenovo 7 inch android tablet that cost me $99. I figured even if I didn't want to keep doing conferences, I'd have a kid's netflix device on hand for my toddler to destroy instead of my phone.
I then used SignUpAnywhere to generate a custom email collection form which worked pretty nicely and I would use it again. I paired that with some generic app that could lock down the tablet into Kiosk mode that I already can't remember the name of.
I was happy with how the giveaway performed and will definitely run it again at a future conference.
So the unexpected benefit of being in the trade hall is the networking between vendors. With hindsight this sounds super obvious. Having been a conference attendee and speaker I knew that those different roles lead to very different networking styles and opportunities, so I shouldn't have been surprised that being there as a vendor would be different again.
There's a lot of camaraderie between vendors developed in the downtime while all the attendees are in the talks. It's pretty grueling standing in the one place for a couple of days talking to stranger after stranger, so it's good to have other people around you going through it too.
It also presents a great opportunity to learn from the other vendors who are more experienced at this kind of thing, to see what they do, and to help set your expectations of what good and bad levels of interest look like. A lot of the other people running booths are professional devrel types and are super-connectors who love connecting people with tech products, and being on their radar is handy for word of mouth.
I'd definitely recommend getting a conference or two under your belt in the early days of your startup. While I didn't get to a positive ROI on sales alone out of the exercise I'm still glad I did it and will probably try and do another one or two in the pre-product/market fit phase of the business.
I hope that braindump helps you figure out your own conference strategy for your startup!