This Post Has Nothing to do with #SXSW

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Suster (@msuster), a 2x entrepreneur, now VC at GRP Partners. Read more about Suster at Bothsidesofthetable

For the next four days if you’re in the tech industry you’re going to hear a non-stop stream of information about SXSW. It’s the time of year when many new startups are struggling to rise above all the noise and be heard. And when everybody is shouting it becomes overwhelming.

I’m actually in Austin at the moment. It turns out this is “the year of group messaging” and since I’m a shareholder in the largest player in the space, TextPlus (7.7m monthly actives), I thought I should come here to represent.

But … that’s all I have to say about that.

With all these companies vying for attention & others just here to soak up the vibe I thought I’d write a much broader piece on how startups can make the most of their attendance at any conference or event.

1. Be very targeted in which events you attend
Plan out your most important events to attend. You may choose some where your customers aggregate, others where you hope to find biz dev partners & still others where you want to meet investors. Many startups get caught up in the conference circuit. They have fun & meet tons of interesting people and they confuse this with the need to do be at every major tech event. I call them “conference ho’s” – don’t be one. While conferences can be intoxicating they can also be very unfocused, narcissistic and hurt your team back in the office.

Choose wisely. Don’t worry about all the folks bragging on Twitter, Instagram or FourSquare about being at the latest event. Feel good in knowing that while they’re at the latest conference, you can be back home stealing all their customers!

2. Do leg work before you get to the event
The most impact you’ll have at conferences is when you plan meetings before you go. I know it sounds obvious but trust me most people don’t do this. It’s very easy to get a sense of who will be attending an event before you go. Don’t assume that you’ll fortuitously run into potential customers or biz dev partners. Write them in advance and request meetings.

The most experienced conference goers (bigger company ones) often book suites in hotels and plan meetings rather than attending any actual sessions. The single most important thing about a conference in my opinion is the fact that all of your important contacts are in one physical location. Don’t leave it to chance. Book ’em.

3. If you sit on a panel, make sure you don’t suck
I’m not a big fan of panels. But not everybody has yet earned the right to do keynotes and the truth is that there are some good benefits of sitting on the right panels. I wrote a full post on how to be effective on a panel. Educate your audience on a topic, don’t be a blowhard overly promoting your company. You’ll get way more from an audience respecting your insights and contributions. They’ll want to meet you later. Remember that most panels are painfully boring & those panelists who entertain people will be the most remembered.

Have a dialog with your fellow panelists. Don’t be afraid of some friendly controversy – it adds spice. Just be polite about it. And don’t be a panel hog – you might get to say more to the audience but if you care about your fellow panelists you’ll piss them off. I actually think one of the most misunderstood reasons to be on a panel is actually getting to know the other panelists rather than just talking to the audience. You have a certain bond after you’ve sat on a panel together.  So don’t piss them off by hogging minutes for an audience that won’t remember you 5 minutes after you’re done. Grab business cards of the other panelists and follow up after the show.

4. Focus more on Lobby Conf than watching panels
Speaking of panels, don’t sit through them all. If you have a few topics you really want to hear – plan them in advance. But the truth is that nothing truly interesting is really ever said on a panel. People are too guarded – they know they’re under the spotlight. So you won’t REALLY learn anything new.

I spend 90+% of my time at conferences in the lobby and I always have. Yes, it’s partly due to ADHD. But really you want to be building connections with people. While the conference is going on there are always people outside the rooms in the lobby. That’s your best chance to get people that would ordinarily be really difficult to get a meeting with.

5. Consider staying out late, sleeping in
I’ve been to many of the TechCrunch 50, Disrupt and many similar events over the years. The most valuable time for me personally was at the W Hotel after the event. I showed up around 10pm and hung out with a bunch of people I hardly ever get to spend time with. There was no artificial table between us, we weren’t scurrying between one meeting to the next. We didn’t have any documents due that night. We just hung. And when you’re out socially with other people you form a tighter bond. Just is.

If you gave me a choice between the late night cocktail and the morning keynote I’d be sipping martinis every time.

6. Schedule dinners
The other secret conference trick that is orchestrated by the true zen masters is to schedule a dinner and invite other people. It’s a great way to get to know people intimately. Start by booking a few easy-to-land friends who are interesting. Work hard to bag a “brand name” person who others will want to meet. All it takes is one. Then the rest of your invites can mention that person’s name on the guest list (name others, too … obviously) and you will be able to draw in some other people you’d like to meet.

Another similar strategy is with customers. If you invite 3-4 customers and 3-4 prospects to a dinner with 2-3 employees and some other interesting guests you’ll be doing well. Potential customers always prefer to talk to existing reference customers than to talk to just your sales reps.

Final tip, sometimes a dinner can be too expensive for an early-stage company yet picking a killer venue is one of the best ways to bagsy high-profile people. Everybody loves to eat somewhere hot. So why not go in on the dinner with two other companies. That way you’re all extending your networks and splitting the costs.

Plan dinner early enough that people can still get out afterward and do other events that may be going on.

7. Don’t get too wasted
I’m not being moralistic here. I like a drink as much as the next guy and have had my share of hammerhead nights. But an important conference is not the place to do this (except maybe SXSW from what I hear). For starters you’re obviously bound to do stupid things when you knock too many back. And trust me there’s always the people who don’t drink very much and when you come into contact with them you won’t represent yourself as well as you’d like.

Save the boozy nights for back home. Or save it for the after party with your closest colleagues. But if you want to maximize your conference experience lay off the last few drinks. Oh, and don’t do crazy man dancing at the party. I see that often. It’s embarrassing. Worse than wedding dancing. You know who I’m talking about.

8. Don’t assume everybody remembers you
When you walk up to somebody who you’ve met before always start by re-introducing yourself (unless you know them really well). Of course they’ll probably remember you, but often you forget the context of how you know somebody so without that slight prompt the connection isn’t made. I wrote a detailed post on how to re-intro yourself properly.

9. Get a wing man
Some people are great at schmoozing – even when they don’t know anybody else. You know the type – naturally charming and conversationalists. Well, that’s not most people. I often suggest that people get a wing man. Get somebody that roams around the conference with you. It’s far easier to meet people when there are two of you together (just like it’s easier when you’re at a bar trying to meet people when you’re single).

Don’t confuse this for just talking with your buddy for the whole event. That’s dumb. You’re there to network and connect with new people. Just use them as an effective way to hunt in packs.

10. Close the loop after the show
I’d estimate that less than 10% of people follow up after conferences. And those 10% all probably all sales people. You grabbed all those business cards for a reason. Take the highest priority ones and write them a short note within 3 days of the conference ending. In the email write something that will remind them who you are. Find something unique to say so they’ll remember you. If it’s not too forward you can even try for a follow-on action – perhaps getting together next time you’re in town. Obviously only request this where it seems appropriate. But no follow-up = wasted meeting in the first place. Shame.

Now after all this, don’t you feel better about not being in Austin?