The Tough Call on Startup Conferences

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A great dialog recently broke out on Twitter after this tweet from Debbie Landa calling out Alberta and Quebec startups to step up and have a presence at the upcoming GROW conference in Vancouver. Having my home in Alberta I immediately put the call out to a number of the great startups currently in the province. The consensus reply I got back was ‘too busy building and getting customers!’

We all know those entrepreneurs and investors (probably the worst offenders!) who find a conference to attend every week. I often wonder how they actually build a company when they devote so much time to the conference circuit. Even in my own life I have recently been making attempts to limit the number of conferences and events I attend as they can really get in the way of work and family. However, there are some that you just can’t miss. I would definitely put GROW into that bucket, but should startups as well?

GROW is unique as it has quickly become the top startup conference in Canada and almost half of attendees are from the US. This provides a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect, learn and move their companies forward. So why are some startups not taking advantage of this opportunity? Probably not a single answer to this question, but I want to share a few theories.

First, lets quickly review why an entrepreneur should attend a conference:

  • Customers! Obviously if there is a conference that brings together the majority of your target customers you need to be there.
  • Fundraising. Don’t expect to go to a conference, meet an investor and get a check. However, it is an opportunity to gain visibility for your company, initiate relationships with potential investors (or better yet, with the entrepreneurs they have invested in) and show them why they need to follow-up.
  • Recruitment. Startup conferences attract a lot of talent and it can be a great opportunity for your company to gain visibility for the purpose of recruiting.
  • Partnerships. Many conferences attract execs and corp dev people from large tech companies. This provides a great opportunity to meet with them and pursue that partnership that can take your company to the next level.
  • Influencers. I have already mentioned the visibility a conference can give to your company. To compound this, there will likely be many bloggers, journalists and influencers present that may write about your company after the event.
  • Learnings. Technically this isn’t a real word, but I love using it. Good conferences will have thought leaders speaking that will challenge your understanding of the market, technology and building a company. These experiences can be priceless.
  • Community. There is nothing quite like the energy and camaraderie that an entrepreneur can experience at a great conference. Entrepreneurship is hard, can be depressive and often lonely. Being surrounded by peers rallying around defying the odds and building a successful company is sometimes needed to push through the hard times.
  • What have I missed?!?

For a more general conference like GROW that are not focused on a particular industry – compare this to Debbie’s other hugely successful conference, Under the Radar, that focuses on the enterprise and attracts many top CIOs and CMOs – it is hard to justify attending to connect with customers unless you are a consumer company. If you fall into this category then you need to attend conferences like GROW to reach the influencers that can provide social proof for your product and provide quality feedback.

So, back to the original question. Why wouldn’t a company attend GROW?  If you are a seed company it may be a financial issue. Debbie pointed this out as well. If you have raised a Series A finances should not be the issue. Travel time may be though. Canada is a big place. Coming from Quebec would require two additional days to travel plus the time for the conference. This is the similar challenge New York startups face in attending conferences in the Silicon Valley.

I believe a key factor in all this is the vertically-focused nature of many Canadian startups. I have long been of the belief that there are certain companies you just can’t build anywhere other than the Silicon Valley. They may start somewhere else, but need to end up there. Case in point, Pinterest, which started in Kansas City, but quickly moved to San Francisco. In Canada, it is a great place to build SaaS companies, specifically vertical SaaS companies. This includes great companies like Wave, Shopify, Clio, Hootsuite, Jobber, Top Hat, Freshbooks, TribeHR, Unbounce and the list goes on.

Lets quickly fly through my above list in the context of many of these SaaS companies:

  • Customers. Very unlikely that Clio will find lawyers or Jobber find landscapers at GROW.
  • Fundraising. These companies all have great investors behind them already.
  • Recruitment. For local Vancouver companies this item makes a lot of sense. Tough for startups anywhere else in Canada though.
  • Partnerships. Vertically-focused SaaS companies need to partner with industry specific organizations and companies (legal, accounting, transportation, etc.). Unlikely they will be attending a startup conference.
  • Influencers. Unlikely that a big blog hit from Robert Scoble is going to reach SMB owners.
  • Learnings. This is valuable, but not just for the CEO. My suggestion to the CEOs with companies farther along is to send someone from your management team if you can’t attend.
  • Community. Definitely still a factor, but if you are a Series A company or beyond you may not be able to prioritize for this as much.

In conclusion, it appears that a vertically-focused SaaS company from outside of Vancouver would have to work harder to prioritize attending a conference like GROW. Personally, I think that there is a balance here and if these companies are going to attend at least one conference for the learnings and community it should be GROW. Or, as I mentioned above, at least send someone from your company.

Selfishly, I am a fan of what Debbie has built in GROW and it would be great to see every startup across the country there in addition to the many from the Pacific Northwest and California that attend. However, founders are faced with tough prioritization items everyday and I don’t feel it is my place to push them if they feel their time is better spent heads-down with their team building the company. What do you think the balance is?

Regardless, GROW is going to be a great event with a ton of top entrepreneurs, investors and startup people!

[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Kevin's Once A Beekeeper blog on June 30, 2013]

FREE…It May Cost You Your Startup

First, a quick quiz…For this quiz, time is important as we want your gut instinct so you only have five seconds to answer before the submit button goes away. It’s multiple choice, there are only two options and you simply need to select one.

When you’re ready, go take the quiz and make sure to return here…

Pricing, Business Models and Virtual Goods

The topic of free and freemium pricing models is a regular one in startup land.While I’m sure it comes up on occasion in more traditional businesses, I have a feeling it’s much less the case. I don’t recall Mark pondering the option of offering free drinks and meals for the first six months at OX Restaurant. Or Beth considering just giving sweatshop free clothes away for the first three months at Grey Rock Clothing.

“When something is FREE! we forget the downside….we just can’t resist the gravitational pull of FREE!”

Over in startup land, it’s almost universal that first time founders plan to launch their product initially for free. While the free excuse list is almost infinite, a few samples include….

  • We really want to get people in and using it, get them hooked on the app before we start charging.
  • Because this is such a new innovative way of doing things, we can’t charge them, they just won’t pay until they use it.
  • Once we have enough users, we’ll start monetizing through ads but we can’t sell ads until we have the users.

A FREE image!

To be clear I’m not advocating against free or freemium models. In some cases they make great sense, however those cases are rare. What I am advocating is that you make that decision explicitly and can back up your reasoning. I have yet to speak with a new founder who plans on offering free initially AND has a good reason for it. Someone who’s explicitly thought it through and has clear, sound reasoning why they’re starting with free.

Making an Economic Choice

In new product development, what is much more important than free users are the hard no’s. What’s a hard no?

“Here’s a pink stuffed animal I made, do you like it?”

“Yes, it looks awesome, you’re a lovely human being, let me hug you…”

“Will you buy this pink stuffed animal from me? Will you please give me 20 of your hard earned dollars for this pink stuffed animal I made?”

“You want me to give you 20 bucks for this crappy stuffy you stitched together? Are you mad?”

There, that’s a hard no. It’s someone saying no, I don’t see enough value in this exchange for me. Hard no’s are money in the bank for startups, if you leverage them. You have to chase down every hard no and ask why, why, why? Why don’t you love me anymore? Why doesn’t my value proposition work for you? Would you pay $10? What if I included a lifetime warranty? What if it was $5 plus a lifetime warranty?

Starting with free removes your ability to get to those valuable hard no’s almost entirely. Now rewind the above conversation…..

“You want me to give you 20 bucks for this crappy stuffy you stitched together? Are you mad?”

“I’m just kidding, we’re giving them away for free as part of launching our new company, here it’s yours!”

“Thank you! I love you again, that was a close one”

See the difference? Few people can resist the power of free. You feel great about your pink stuffed animal, love is in the air, everybody happy, happy, happy.

What happens to the pink stuffed animal? The same thing that happens to most free software apps, it’s neglected and dies a slow quiet death in a dusty basement. Dad never says “hey, why aren’t you loving that pink stuffed animal? I paid $20 for that you know?!”

Here’s the thing you must realize, free is a reality distortion field of it’s own. We can’t control ourselves around free. Remember the quiz at the top of this post? I’m quite confident that greater than 75% of you chose the free option even though it’s not a rational choice. A $30 giftcard for $5 offers you $25 in value. A free $20 giftcard offers $20. That doesn’t matter since we go bonkers around free!

“Zero is not just another discount. Zero is a different place. The difference between two cents and one cent is small. But the difference between one cent and zero is huge!”

Clearly the rational choice is the $30 giftcard but free messes with our minds. In the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, the author Dan Ariely digs into the details of how we tend to apply either market norms or social norms in these situations.  Free confuses your customer into applying social norms instead of market norms. This will certainly increase your user count but if you’re building a business you need to iterate to a value proposition that works when customer’s apply market norms to them.

If it makes good sense, free it up! Just be aware how powerful free can be. Depending on how you use it, it can help or hinder you. Offering free prevents your customers from applying market norms to your offering. Having customers applying social norms can distort your offering in ways you may never recover from. Good luck selling those $20 pink stuffed animals six months from now!

Ontario Place @GrowConf

We’re heading to Grow Conference in Vancouver. You should join us at the Portside Pub on August 14, 2013.

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The Portside Pub

With our friends at Communitech, we are hosting Ontario Startup House during Grow Conference. The goals is to build a “house party” that highlights the amazing things that are going on in Ontario.

The details are starting to shape up, but here is the plan as it stands. We’re aiming to bring all things that are amazing and Ontario with us to Vancouver. We’ll be brining amazing startups, amazing founders, and amazing investors with us. We’ve managed to secure an amazing venue, The Portside Pub  Google+, in Gastown.

“On August 14, we’re taking over the hottest bars and restaurants in the historic Gastown area, home to Vancouver’s tech scene, and inviting you to host your very own “House Party” to show off the very best your technology community has to offer. All Houses will be within walking distance so attendees can easily move from House-to-House. Who doesn’t love a good house party?”

We are looking for startups and sponsors. We have great partners in Communitech, OMERS Ventures and we are actively looking for others that want to participate.We have the biggest and best venue for startups and founders to congregate during GrowConf. We’re aiming to bring the best startups, the best founders, the best beer, the best band, the best crowd to celebrate in Vancouver.

The event is open. We’ll have amazing startups, founders and investors hanging out – guarranteed. We’re planning a few surprises that should make for an exciting night.

Details

When: August 14, 2013
Where: Portside Pub, 7 Alexander Street, Vancouver, BC V6A 1E9
What: House party featuring the best startups in Ontario at GrowConf

You can stay in touch  or head to GrowHouse and sign up for details.

We’re looking for startups, sponsors and others to join us to celebrate startups at GrowConf.