To Go or Not: Evaluate Whether Conference Attendance Pays Off for Startups

Partnerships Manager, Cognitive ToyBox

This is the first of a three-part series:1) To Go or Not to Go (pre conference), 2) Surviving the Madness (during), and 3) Maximizing Your ROI (post conference).

To Go or Not to Go?

Startups have a hard time competing for attention with large, well-established companies at large, national conferences. The “big guys” send veritable armies of staffers, and offer fancy giveaways. Should you even try to compete? In our experience, the answer is a resounding NO! 

The first decision—to go or not to go—should be made carefully. We never found large, national conferences to be fruitful and instead focus on smaller regional or statewide events.

Decision-Making Criteria

Carefully consider the following when planning your conference strategy:

  • Put together a list of the conferences you would like to attend. Develop objective criteria and use them to rank your list.
  • Do your buyers attend the conference? If teachers purchase your product, then going to a school board conference isn’t going to get you many sales leads.
  • Do you have a customer who will present and/or take some shifts in your booth? Having current customers available to enthusiastically relate their own experience with your product is the best selling tool.
  • Is sales your goal? Or are you looking for other outcomes? Set clear goals (for example, meet five new curriculum partners) and make sure the characteristics of the conference (size, type of attendee, topics covered), will help you meet those goals.
  • Location! Travel costs add up quickly. Choose local conferences, and ones held in places that are easy (and cheap) to travel to.

Sometimes You Just Gotta Go Conferences can be busy!

There are times when you are conspicuous by your absence. If you have a niche product and there are only one or two premier conferences on your topic each year, you gotta be there. To keep conference costs low, get creative. Here are some of our strategies:

  • Negotiate with conference organizers. Offer something in exchange for a lower vendor fee. For example, volunteer at the conference, take less-desirable booth space, or write a pre-conference promotional blog.
  • Buddy up with another startup. Some conferences will not allow booth-sharing, but there are other ways to help each other out.
    • Two companies can each send one person to the conference and share a third. That third person can rotate between the two booths, providing coverage when the primary attendee has appointments—or needs a lunch break!
    • Share lodging. Instead of paying top dollar to stay at the conference hotel, find an Airbnb, or a less expensive hotel that’s right on a transit line connected to the conference.
    • Attend the conference but don’t exhibit. Don’t even pay for admission. Schedule meetings near the conference center, and hang out in the conference or hotel lobby to unofficially network with attendees.
  • Choose your booth giveaway wisely. Find a clever alternative to blowing lots of cash on bling. When our goal is to collect as many leads as possible, giving away one significant prize in return for contact information is more effective than handing out tchotchkes to anyone who walks by.


Once you’ve decided a conference is a must-attend, then you need to make the most of it. You can’t afford not to!

  • Test your messaging rapid fire. You may have hundreds (or thousands) of conversations, and you have one, maybe two sentences to catch someone’s interest.
  • Don’t over-schedule yourself, but set up at least a few appointments in advance—with potential and current customers, business partners, or service providers.
  • Build an awesome demo or a clear, eye-catching one-page takeaway to hand out.

More Tips?

Let me (and our readers) know if you have more hot conference tips. Thanks!

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Image by flickr user William Murphy, licensed under Creative Commons

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