Quitting the events bandwagon

Summer of 2015.

We were riding on a train following the border of Switzerland’s beautiful Lac Léman. I was scotched to the window, soaking in the scenery, agape. The view was astonishing, to say the least.

Paris was our next stop; we had to host a booth at a big tech event there. Georges, our product manager and co-founder, wore a drabber expression than mine. Something was bothering him:

“Franck, we gotta slow down with all these events. I know they’re fun and all, but right now, I think we’re not being smart about it.”

I frowned at first. Not because I thought he was wrong; but more because I loved traveling, pitching, and presenting. Deep inside, however, I knew he was right. And I had known it for a while.

Note: This post was originally published on the official Snipcart Blog and shared on our monthly newsletter.

Now that you’ve read both the title and the intro, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that in 2016, we’re (really) slowing down on startup events and competitions. This post will try to deconstruct the big why behind this decision. During the last few months, we had been on the fence about the relevance for Snipcart to be attending such events. We’ve made up our mind now.

Few things you should know about us before you go on:

In the last two years, we attended more than a dozen startup events. Some huge ones, big ones, and small ones:

  • Web Summit — Dublin, Ireland
  • Techweek — New York, USA
  • Web2Day — Nantes, France
  • Futur en Seine — Paris, France
  • International Startup Festivals ’14 & ’15 — Montréal, Canada
  • Web à Québec — Québec City, Canada
  • Boomerang Experience — Montréal, Canada
  • JS Montreal Meetup — Montréal, Canada
  • New Tech Colorado Springs Pitch Night — Colorado Springs, USA
  • New Tech Denver Pitch Night — Denver, USA
  • 1 Million Cups (Colorado Springs & Fort Collins) — Colorado, USA

For most of these events, we either pitched our startup, presented our business philosophy and tech on stage, or held public booths.

Hopping on the cool, shiny bandwagon

So why did we make events an active component in our overall marketing strategy? Well, first, I’m humble enough to admit we got sucked in the cool big time. Because, yes, startup events are cool: lots of interesting conferences, big industry players, famous entrepreneurs and investors, loads of new startups, passionate individuals, prizes, legit parties, etc. So without asking ourselves many questions, we hopped on this cool, shiny bandwagon filled with promises of visibility, fun, learning, and success.

And after attending a few of them, it kind of gets to your head. You pitched there, you were on that stage, you were selected for this competition. You tell everyone around you and on social media about it. You start to feel like you’ve made it in the startup world, or at least like you’re about to make it.

I’m guessing that’s a bit part of the plan for events organizers. Because let’s not lie to ourselves here: most of the bright people running those events are damn good at marketing. As a matter of fact, as businesses, we could learn a lesson or two from them when it comes to creating buzz, managing social media, leveraging ambassadors, onboarding users, and converting leads (Web Summit, I see you).

However, I’m not writing this to criticize these events. I’m writing this to analyze our own subjective experience with them. So let’s do it.

What we did like about startup events

There’s a ton of stuff I enjoyed both personally and professionally at these events. I tried to narrow it down to positive points that most of them shared:

  1. You can meet great people.

If you’re willing to chat a little and shake a few hands, you’ll most likely end up meeting great people at these events. Whether it’s mentors, co-founders, clients or investors you’re looking for, you might just find them if you put your heart into it.

2. It fosters team spirit and camaraderie.

You end up sharing a lot of stuff with your colleagues: the stage, drinks, party nights, brainstorms, plane/train seats, apartments, hotel rooms, deep talks and more. It strengthens friendship bonds and improves overall work relationships and synergy. For small startups such as ours, this aspect is crucial, especially when you’re starting out.

3. It’s a good place to meet investors and get funding.

Since we’re not necessarily looking for funding, we didn’t quite experience this positive point ourselves. But we did notice the impressive number of investors in these events and the numerous opportunities there were to connect directly with them.

4. It teaches you how and what to pitch.

Whether you’re pitching yourself or simply watching others pitch, you’ll learn a lot about how to deliver great pitches. The qualified judges that ask important questions to pitchers and the qualified pitchers who know where their businesses are going will teach you a whole lot. For us, events were the place where we learned the importance and difference between pitching a product and a business.

What we didn’t like about startup events

Now for the things we didn’t quite enjoy:

  1. There’s too much noise.

And I mean audible noise in the physical spaces as much as online noise on social media. It’s hard to get your points across when you’re just one voice amidst hundreds of other voices all wanting to be heard. The impact of your messages and communications is way less likely to have a significant impact on your business in such a saturated communicational context.

2. The crowds are too “general” for us.

The startup world has experienced an ever lowering entry-barrier in the last years. In many ways, I believe this to be good. But for us, as a revenue-generating B2D startup, it meant trying to connect with crowds that were sometimes filled with wantrepreneurs and non-tech savvy people. I believe we’re to blame here: we willingly attended those events even if we knew we weren’t reaching our “niche”, the developers. We did attend a limited number of events targeting developers, but I think we didn’t put enough energy into them (more on that later).

3. It’s hard to measure ROI.

At Snipcart, our geek tendencies command us to calculate and analyze the hard numbers behind our marketing activities. We love proven, measurable results. Unfortunately, events rarely allow you to track with precision the return on investments you’re making. While visibility, connexions, introductions, and inspiration are all valuable, they’re also hard to measure.

4. It’s time and money consuming.

Preparing, traveling, lodging, and partying all cost a lot of time and money to our startup. And since we preach and practice the bootstrap approach, such expenses quickly become risky, especially when their ROI are hard to measure. We need to be spending our time and money on what matters and pays the most for us at this stage.

5. It messes with the team’s focus.

We’re a small team, so every member’s efforts heavily matter in our startup’s progression. When I’m preparing and practicing pitches, for instance, I’m not creating valuable content for our potential and active users. And we know for a fact that content has been what’s paid the most for our startup until now. Events steal some of our focus on important stuff such as client acquisition and product development before, during, and after they happen.

Takeaways: why we’re jumping off the bandwagon

So let’s take both positives and negatives into account now and explain why exactly we’re slowing down on events.

More often than not, the relationships we built online were more fruitful than the ones built offline.

Sure, events allow you to meet great people. But you know the content collaborators, power users, and product ambassadors that mean so much to our business? Well, we “met” all of them online. Turns out email, social media and video calls are great, less noisy communication channels for parties with aligned interests.

Right now, events aren’t a cost-effective way for us to generate revenue and acquire users.

Like we said; we’re bootstrapped. Which is just a cool way to say we’re strapped for cash, really. Which in turn means our marketing efforts have to bring in results on a short to mid term. We did the math and realized we were much better off spending on online marketing (content, optimization, SEO) than on fancy trips and events.

Most startups attending those events follow the typical “startup path”. We don’t.

Most startups we met in events were either selling to consumers (B2C) or businesses (B2B). We’re selling to developers (B2D). Most startups we met in events were actively looking for funding, and their business model depended on that influx of money. Ours doesn’t. Most startups we met in events wanted to revolutionize their industry and change the world. We only want to make a dent in ours.

We began to wonder: if most startups aren’t like us at all, maybe we’re not a “startup”? We’d much rather build a successful business, even if it means avoiding altogether the now classic “startup path”. But that’ll be for another post. :)

Lesson (now) learned

I think our own goals for startup events were wrong from the beginning.

I think we should’ve learned from our online marketing efforts: focus on community, bring value to developers, offer solid support, and business results will follow. So like other B2D businesses before us (Twilio, Stripe), we’ll fly towards hackathons and developer-first gatherings the next time we put time and money into events.

But hey, it doesn’t mean we won’t attend one or two startup events next year. After all, we do love team building and partying!

So, now that I’m done with this post, allow me to:

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