Panels Are A Waste Of Time, But They Don’t Have To Be

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Joey Flores is a co-founder of Earbits, a Y Combinator-backed online radio ad platform for the music industry.

Two years ago, when I first co-founded Earbits, I started frequenting various startup events like so many other first-time founders. Some of them were mixers, others were pitch competitions, and many were topic-focused panels and discussions meant to provide sage advice to budding entrepreneurs. I had reasonable experience on the ground floor of various startups but raising capital was a mystery to me. Naturally, I went to more than a few panel discussions about fundraising in preparation for doing that at my new company.

Every panel I ever went to about fundraising was filled with prominent Angel investors and VC’s telling us about how to put together a good deck, how to get their attention through a warm intro, what kinds of things make a company invest-able, and other very common fundraising advice. After having read all of the same advice on Both Sides of the Table and Venture Hacks, I found that most fundraising panels were a complete waste of time.

Sure, many of the things they said were true, but I always felt like they scratched the surface of the fundraising process and catered to the people who knew the least and were the least likely to raise money. I always felt like they should be talking to the people who were actually in a position to raise venture money, and that those people needed much deeper knowledge. Instead, it’s always the basics. Nothing juicy.

Over the next two years, I would go to panels about marketing music, buying media, and a number of other topics. The panels about marketing music were always made up of owners of music marketing companies. The panels about buying media were always stocked with Vice Presidents of Sales for major media companies.

Last year, I was asked to sit on a panel at a conference for songwriters and musicians to talk about how to get their music on the radio and it couldn’t have been more ironic. To many I might be considered an industry expert but on Earbits, you simply submit your music for consideration and, if it’s radio-ready, you’re in rotation because that’s how we make money. That means that, despite owning an internet radio company, I still know absolutely nothing about how to get your music on FM radio.

The other people on the panel were radio promoters, programming directors and other industry experts telling the audience about all of the normal tactics for trying to get radio airplay, most of which they also admitted don’t work at all.

Every panel I go to is stocked with experts in the industry, and they’re almost always worthless. I leave every panel asking the same frustrated questions. Why do they always tell you so little about the real strategies needed to be good at the things these panels are supposed to teach you? Why is it always so Topic 101?

And I usually blame the moderator for asking rookie questions.

Last year, I was lucky enough to go through Y Combinator’s Winter 2011 session. In addition to having great speakers at the weekly YC dinners, Paul Graham and team put together panels on various topics like fundraising and customer acquisition. Every one of the YC panels is made up of YC alumni who have had particular success at the task at hand, and all of the discussions are off the record. Suddenly, every panel I was going to was mind blowing.

The fundraising panels at YC are chock full of advice that conflicts with nearly everything I had ever heard from Angels and VC’s on other panels. The media buying tips were things that no VP of Sales would ever admit they had done for a startup client with a $5k budget. I have never been a note taker in my entire life, and yet I find myself taking notes constantly at every YC panel. What I came to realize is that almost every panel I have ever seen before was populated with exactly the wrong people for the audience it was intended for.

If you want to put together a panel about fundraising for first-time founders, you don’t stock it with Angels and VC’s. You stock it with people who were recently very effective at raising money as first-time founders. You don’t pick the runaway successes who posted their data online and got a million offers even though those are the exciting names that draw a crowd. You pick founders who slugged it out in the trenches and took a million meetings – people with un-sexy businesses who really had to work for their funding. You pick people who are just like the people who are going to be sitting in the crowd.

A VC on a fundraising panel is going to tell founders how to make a deck that makes their life easier and that they prefer a warm intro because those things benefit them and serve their needs. They’re not going to tell people how to start a bidding war or raise a round without giving up a board seat, and that’s what founders really care about. Even if this reality isn’t a malicious and intentional effort to train people to do what they want, the reality is that most people in business are in denial about what strategies actually work on them. VC’s tell you they invest in great teams solving real problems but the headlines on TechCrunch often say otherwise.

If you want to teach people about media buying, don’t offer up panelists who sell media for a living. The VP of Ad Sales for MSN isn’t going to tell you how to buy remnant inventory or that you can get their inventory cheaper through an ad banner network. If you want to help people buy media, put together a panel of people who have gotten the best deals with the least resources and have built companies on cheap, effective media – people who are the best at the buying side of the negotiating table. And, if you want to teach musicians how to get on the radio, don’t bring in people who sell airtime to anybody with a good recording or throw away most of the press kits they receive, bring in the lucky few artists who, without a label or manager, got into heavy rotation on KROQ against all odds.

Basically, as an advice-seeking student of any kind, you can bet that the best panels aren’t going to be made up of top level players on the “opposing” side of the situation you’re currently in. Those people either have motivation to tell you what they want you to think is the reality, or they simply won’t know how or why they behaved in ways that got their negotiating counterparts a better deal. Further, most experts in the industry haven’t had to be in the shoes of someone slugging it out in a very long time. Simply put, their advice is probably not that relevant for people who really have their work cut out for them and need deep knowledge about the most effective best practices of today.

From now on, if you’re considering going to a panel about a topic you want to learn about, look for a panel of people who are where you want to be in about two or three years. If the panelists look like the people who are going to be sitting across from you in upcoming negotiations, and on most panels of industry experts they will, the odds are it’s going to be a big fat waste of your time.