Startup Founders’ Guide to Hustling a Conference

March 4th, 2015   |    By: Dan Martell    |    Tags: Networking

Here is’s list of the top conferences for entrepreneurs in North America. These events are the ideal venues to gain exposure, make connections, and get inspired.

But we know that the decision to invest your precious time and money into attending a conference, or any event, is not one that many entrepreneurs take lightly. So, to help you make the most out of your trip, we’ve put together a list of some of the things that you should consider before, during, and after the event.

A True Hustler Prepares

The real conference hustling begins weeks before you arrive at the event. Conferences are a whirlwind of activity often compressed into a few short days, meaning that to make the most out of your stay, you need to come prepared. Here are four things to consider when preparing for a conference:

1. Set your ‘metrics’
As a founder, it is your responsibility to carefully manage your startup’s resources, and invest your time and money in areas where you will see the highest return. This means that your decision to spend $1,500 on a three-day conference should be based on expected returns, not just a decision made on a whim.

In order to do an effective post-mortem on the return on the conference, set aside some time before the event to determine your metrics for success, and use these as benchmarks to hold yourself accountable throughout the conference. For example, often times entrepreneurs attend events to meet new people, expand their network and get introduced to specific people. Make a clear list of the those you want to meet at the event and make sure you get the proper introduction. Other metrics for conference success could include recruiting, learning, discovering new innovations/ideas, or chatting about what you are working on.

“I am extremely selective about the conferences and events I attend because you could literally fill every waking hour with meetups, fireside chats and seminars,” says Eric Koester, Founder of Zaarly. “I look for conversation density: the number of high quality, impactful conversations with the “right” people in a given period. It’s not just that an event had big shots on stage but are they the right big shots for my business and goals AND are they going to be accessible to me?”

Tip: If you have more than one person attending the conference with you, have a meeting before you leave to discuss your metrics to make sure you don’t get carried away in the bustle and energy of the event.

2. Pack your calendar
Maximize your ‘spend’ of both time and money by scheduling meetings with clients, partners, and investors around your trip. Make arrangements to meet these people as far ahead of time as possible. Be sure to reach out to any existing professional connections that you have in the city that you’re travelling to. Let them know when you’ll be in town, and ask them to suggest people for you to meet with – a warm introduction to a mutual connection typically goes a long way.

When it comes to SXSW in particular, Danielle Morrill has this advice to share about prepping your calendar and scheduling every last minute: “Don’t fucking do it.” Instead, “RSVP to everything” but don’t commit. At least this way, you can decide which parties or panels to attend without stressing about getting in.

Tip: Over time your list will get smarter. Categorize your contacts based on city/location. The next time you are in town ping those people, invite them out to a startup dinner and ask them to invite someone new. Also, use your new contacts to determine which panel, discussion, etc to attend before you arrive.

3. Do some light stalking
Do your research. By the time you walk up to the registration table, you should be able to identify the names and faces of the conference hosts, speakers, and any attendees that you want to connect with. While you can’t underestimate the significance of serendipitous encounters, taking the time to determine who you need to talk to will prevent you from wasting precious time. Be sure to follow the event hashtag on Twitter in the week leading up to the conference; it’s a great way to find out who’s going to be there, and who you want to meet.

Tip: Create a private Twitter list of those people you have identified as attending the event and pay close attention to their whereabouts. Tastefully make your way to where they are, or tweetroduce yourself for a stronger connection.

4. Don’t leave your team stranded
In order to make the most of the conference, you need to be 100% present while you’re there. You can’t be invested in making new connections and trying to reach your event goals if you are constantly being distracted by emails from your team back at home. Make sure that your team has plenty of notice that you’ll be away, and sit down as a group to discuss any major meetings or events that will take place while you’re away. Be sure to provide everyone with anything they need before you leave, and set expectations about your level of communication while you’re gone.

Tip: Set an email autoresponder that you are travelling and have limited email access. Let people know where you will be and when you will return. Who knows, maybe someone who is urgently trying to reach you will be sitting next to you at the event. Makes for a great introduction/catch up.

The 007 Approach

James Bond’s legendary cool, calm and collected demeanor sets a great example for entrepreneurs in the throes of a chaotic conference. In order to make the most out of your short window of opportunity, take your cues from Britain’s finest.

1. Never leave home unprepared
Have you ever noticed that James bond is always prepared for whatever gets thrown his way when he’s on the go? Be sure to arm yourself with all the tools that you need for the day when you step out of your hotel room each morning. On top of a detailed schedule and a spare charger, you need to be prepared for whatever professional encounters the day brings. That means having plenty of business cards, and having information about your company (including your pitch deck) available on hand, at a moment’s notice.

Tip: If you meet a great lead, don’t let it go cold by waiting until the conference is over to follow up. If you can’t make the time to follow up while you’re away, delegate the task to your team back home – but be sure to provide them with plenty of context about your encounter.

2. Keep your shit together
In a nutshell, this means get your sleep, make time for exercise and eat properly. You need to be well-rested and alert in order to absorb information and inspiration, and make the best possible impression on the folks you meet. Speaking of impressions – don’t party too hard, either. Not only will a hangover mean losing an entire day of valuable networking and learning, but you risk tarnishing yours and your company’s reputation.

Tip: Karaoke is best experienced sober, unless you are the Prima Donna. Either way, consume alcohol moderately and never allow drinks to get ahead of you.

3. Be the life of the party
As an entrepreneur attending a conference, your job is to make sure that more people know about (and have something positive to say about) your startup after the event than before it began. This is your opportunity to gain exposure, meet potential clients and partners, and make valuable connections. But you can’t make that happen if you don’t get out there and talk to people. Take any (appropriate) opportunity you can to talk about yourself and what you do, and don’t make hasty assumptions about whether or not someone is worth talking to – you never know what kind of connections they have. Ask thoughtful questions of panelists and contribute to Twitter discussions around the event.

Make an effort to meet at least 20 new people every day. Be sure to collect people’s names and contact information. If you have a hard time keeping track of names and faces, there are some great apps like Evernote Hello, CardMunch, and NameCatcher that will help you keep a record of the people you meet.

Tip: If you’re attending a large conference and want to get the attention of a high-profile host or speaker, reach out on Twitter by either congratulating them on their presentation, or asking a thoughtful follow-up question to their talk. Another option is to write a blog post either previewing, or recapping the day’s events, linking to the guests you hope to meet and tagging them when you share the post on Twitter.

Relationships > Casual Encounters

Your lasting impression is just as, if not more important than, your first.

Over time, casual networking can net you hundreds of acquaintances, while deliberate relationship-building will result in powerful connections that withstand the test of time. The difference between the two? Consistent, thoughtful follow-up.

Use your travel time on the way home as dedicated follow-up time. Be sure to send emails to all the people that you hope to stay in touch with. If you promised to make any introductions or share information, be sure to do so within 24 hours of the conference ending. It’s also a nice touch to send an email to the conference organizers to thank them for hosting the event.

Tip: Keep the networking alive back home after the conference by reaching out to attendees from your city and offering to create a g+ hangout, or a bi-monthly get together. And, the winner, aside from saying ‘nice to meet you’ – ALWAYS offer to help them out somehow.

Whether you’re attending a small event for the first time, or you’re hustling SXSW for a fifth straight year, these tips will help you generate maximum return on your investment.

About the Author

Dan Martell

Dan Martell is the Founder and former CEO Clarity, Angel Investor, and Speaker. Dan Martell is an award-winning Canadian entrepreneur who previously co-founded Flowtown, which was eventually acquired by Demandforce in 2011. In 2012 he was named Canada's top angel investor having completed over 33 investments with companies like Udemy, Intercom and Unbounce. He believes "you can only keep what you give away" and is heavily involved in many charitable organizations & community events.

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