At this point I’m literally getting invited to a conference a day. I’ve never enjoyed going to conferences so I pick them carefully and am particular about the kind of things I go to. I regularly get asked how I choose which conferences to go to and I rarely have a good answer. So, after getting asked for the 4,317th time, I sent an email to Eric Norlin, who puts on three conferences that we have helped create and participate in (Defrag, Glue, and Blur) how he thinks about it. Eric’s thoughtful analysis – aimed at startups (and the entrepreneurs at startups) follows.
One of the natural consequences that comes with being in an “up” part of the tech boom/bust cycle is that there are an almost overwhelming amount of tech conferences, trade shows, and events that a startup could attend. These events offer opportunities to network with potential business partners, users, venture capitalists and customers, but they can also place a huge demand on a startup’s always scarce resources of time and money. So, the natural question is: which events should you attend and/or sponsor?
First, let’s understand the landscape (hat tip to Phil Becker for discussing this bit at length with me back in 2005): Imagine the entire range of tech trade shows and conferences on a spectrum. On the left hand side of the spectrum is the pure “expo/tradeshow” – you know the type — held at Moscone or in Las Vegas, hundreds of exhibitors on a concrete floor – think CES or Dreamforce. Sure, there’s often content at a “pure expo/trade show,” but normally the “expo floor” is something you can walk on to for free or very cheap ($100 bucks – usually less if you snag a discount code). The easiest way to identify an expo is to ask: who is the event organizer’s customers? If you’re walking around for free or nearly free, then it sure isn’t you (the “attendee”) — it’s the exhibitors. That’s important to note.
On the far right end of the spectrum is the “pure conference.” The purest conference format I’ve ever seen (and, unfortunately, it doesn’t exist anymore) was PC Forum. PC Forum was Esther Dyson’s legendary event. 500 people, ZERO sponsors (and zero sponsor dollars), one room full of keynotes — and at it’s height, you had to have an invite. And – oh yea – every single attendee paid. PC Forum was not cheap. But, the model was very clear: Esther didn’t want any sponsor dollars involved, and thus, the attendees were the only customer.
Between those far, end points of the spectrum, you get a mix of stuff. The three shows that we run (Defrag, Glue, and Blur) are at various points along the spectrum. And in truth, most shows are a blend these days. But the spectrum is useful because it can help a young startup understand what *kinds* of shows to think about attending.
So, with that in mind, what do you attend?
Let’s start with your “industry.” Are you a big data infrastructure company? Then write down all of the big data events. From this list, I’d begin with your goals. Are you seeking funding? Customers? Brand awareness? Business partnerships? Press? It’s really hard to find all of these in one event, so you’re probably going to have to pick and choose.
Next consider the type of interaction you’ll need to accomplish your goals. Example: if you’re a very early startup (seed/Series A), and you’re in enterprise software, then you’re most likely going to need more “hands-on” time with a customer prospect, as your product won’t be developed to the point where you can simply have people walking themselves through demos at a kiosk. That is to say that, in this case, quality of interaction outweighs quantity of leads. You’ll then seek out events that offer you intimacy of atmosphere over the sheer bone crushing flow of attendees on an expo floor. As you grow, you may find this dynamic changing, and thus you’ll change the type of shows you attend. (Sidenote: I run Gluecon – which is a smaller, more intimate show when compared against expos. I’m in no way suggesting that you shouldn’t attend expos – they absolutely have their place. It’s simply a matter of where your startup is in its lifecycle.) On the other hand, if you’re a consumer facing app that’s trying to make a splash ala Twitter, then you may forgo the smaller event in favor of trying your luck as SXSW.
Once you’ve a) created a list of events in your niche; b) considered the goals that you’re trying to accomplish with your event attendance; and c) considered the *type* of interaction you need to accomplish those goals, your list of events should be down to – say – 15-20 possibles.
So, how do you choose? First, ask around. Who do you know that’s been to what? What’s the reputation? Second, give yourself some geographic “spread.” If you have 12 events on your list and none of them are outside of Silicon Valley — well, maybe take a look at something in New York, or Boston. Third, break your list down into quarters — as a startup you have to balance how much time you spend on events versus on building your company. In the early days, you just won’t have the resources. I’d argue that a seed stage startup should be doing no more than 1 or 2 events per quarter (not including local meetups, hackdays , etc) MAX.
Checklist: Industry, Goals, Interaction, Reputation, Geography, No more than 1 or 2 per quarter (for Seed Stage; 1 per month for A/B round) — and you’re down to roughly 4-6 events for a seed stage company and roughly 10-12 events for an A/B round company.
“But aren’t there some conferences that I should just avoid?” you ask. Rather than speak badly about my competitors, I’d rather turn it around and say “which conferences should you always consider?”
I have always found the gang over at O’Reilly to be “straight-shooters” that put on awesome events. Start there. Throw in the company-run events that are specific to your case (Google I/O, Dreamforce, Microsoft’s events, Oracle OpenWorld, Adobe, etc), and then add in some independently run events (BigOmaha, Glue/Defrag, 360 Conference events). If applicable, add the monster shows (CES, SXSW) and the networking/startup shows (Launch, Disrupt). And, if you want an international flair, toss in LeWeb for good measure. There’s your starting point.
“Should we sponsor?” This is a tough question. If you have the resources and can make a clear case, then it can be very beneficial. If you do sponsor, avoid the larger expo events, you won’t have the dollars to throw at it to get noticed (attend those and take people out for drinks instead.) Stick with smaller venues where you can be seen and truly interact. And seek out conference organizers that will customize their packages for you (discounting, creating speciality packages, etc) — you shouldn’t simply be buying off of an inventory list like you’re shopping at Wal-mart.
That’s the beginning primer on picking conferences to attend if you’re a startup. Maximizing the value of attending or sponsoring is a whole other post for a whole other day.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of Defrag.
What started as a blog post (and email exchange with Eric Norlin) I did about “intelligence amplification” in 2006 has morphed into a conference about the larger topics of social and big data and is now a wide-ranging conversation about technology and what’s over the horizon.
If you check out this year’s agenda, you’ll find everything from mobile to cloud computing to tech policy in DC to my own keynote on Resistance Is Futile.
Defrag has become one of the cannot-miss events of the tech conference world. Every year it increasingly feels like a family gathering, as more than 300 people journey to Boulder to basically hang out and expand their thinking for two days. This year, Eric decided to cap attendance at 325 to make sure that the quality of interaction stays high.
You simply will not find a better forum for making in-depth connections that will change your business and career in technology. There are still about 25 seats left – sign up before they are gone. Use the discount code “brad12” for $200 off the price.
The list of confirmed keynote speakers includes:
Paul Kedrosky, Kauffman Foundation
Roger Ehrenberg, IA Ventures
James Altucher, The Altucher Confidential
Robert Stephens, CTO, Best Buy
Adrian Cockcroft, Cloud Architect, Netflix
Tim Bray, Google
Phil Weiser, Dean, CU Law School
Hal Stern, CTO’s Office, Juniper Networks
Lili Cheng, Microsoft R&D
Jeff Lawson, Twilio
Wendy Lea, Get Satisfaction
Dave Gutelius, Chief Scientist, Jive Software
Tim Young, Socialcast
TA McCann, Gist
Duncan Watts, Author, “Everything is Obvious *Once You Know The Answer”
Sam Arbeson, Kauffman Foundation
and I know that Eric is still adding more surprises on a weekly basis.
Our friends at Dorsey & Whitney are hosting me and Jason Mendelson this Thursday, October 20th from 4pm to 6pm to drink beer together and discuss “what really matters” in a venture deal. While the event requires registration, I’ve been told that copies of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist will be given to whomever shows up (until they run out) and that the beer will be a collection of yummy local microbrews provided by Devil’s Canyon Brewery Company in Belmont.
Jason and I will sign any copy of our book that appears at the event. We’ll also drink a few beers with you. Plus, who could resist a title of an event sponsored by a law firm that says “What The $@%@$” in the title.
4pm – 6pm
Dorsey & Whitney
305 Lytton Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301
I’ve been getting at least one invitation a day to speak on at a conference or on a panel. My general rule is to only say yes when it intersects with my travel, if it is for an organization I’m already involved in or a person I want to support, or if it’s in a place I’m interested in visiting. When invited, I typically end up getting asked to give a keynote, be interviewed on stage, or be part of a panel. I enjoy the first two and hate the last one.
Fred Wilson and I were both on an email thread today from a good friend of ours asking us to be on a panel with him at an event in November. Based on my rules above, I said “yes, if it’s really important to you.” Fred had a better answer:
“i have a no panels rule.
i am trying like hell to enforce it.
panels are awful and should be eliminated from planet earth.”
Fred is so correct on this. Whenever I’m in the audience listening to a panel, I’m almost always bored. Every now and then someone on the panel captivates me, but the vast majority are dull, vapid, generic, stupid, non-controversial, politically correct, or just plain boring. And a conference of panels? “E#kl;asdfpoi#0c90k;@$Q”.
When I give a keynote, I usually do a 15 minute rant on whatever topic I think is relevant to the audience and then do Q&A for whatever my allotted time is. I’ve generally stopped “telling my story” since I find myself incredibly boring to listen to when I’m recounting my history. Every now and then I fall into this trap of an extended introduction and always am annoyed with myself. Whenever I do this (and I did it a few weeks ago in front a class of undergrads) I hit myself in the forehead afterwards and say out loud “don’t do that again.”
I’ve never been a particularly obedient panelist. I’ve been told numerous times that my body language gives away my response to whomever is talking, especially if I don’t agree with them or think what they are saying is wrong. While I try to let people finish their thoughts, I’m not bashful about cutting in and I’d guess that I usually end up taking more than my calculated ratio of air time (e.g. if four panelist, I talk more than 25% of the time.)
While I’m not going to adopt Fred’s no panel rule, I’ve decided that I’m going to have a much higher bar going forward for agreeing to be on panels. And, when I do, the panel inviter should beware that I’m going to be even more assertive about my perspective, especially if I’m bored while sitting on the panel. Maybe that’ll filter out all the panel inviters that want a nice peaceful panel.
And – if you are a conference organizer, consider eliminating the panels altogether. As Fred says, “panels are awful and should be eliminated from planet earth.”
If you are an entrepreneur working on something HCI related, you are also missing out if you don’t come to Blur. I’ll be there as will my three partners at Foundry Group. We will be fully engaged for two days in one of our favorite themes that has spawned investments like Oblong, Fitbit, Organic Motion, Sifteo and Orbotix.
In case you wonder how a conference like Blur can impact the trajectory of a young company, just take a look at the backstory of how we (Foundry Group) ended up meeting and investing in Gist. TA McCann, Gist’s CEO, came to Defrag (another conference like Blur that Eric Norlin runs and we participate in), hunted me down, and took me for a few runs. TA got me hooked on the product and a few months later we lead the Series A financing with Vulcan. This particular story has a very happy ending as RIM acquired Gist yesterday for an amount that put big smiles on everyone’s faces.
The agenda at Blur is awesome. Eric Norlin is an absolute master at putting on highly relevant conferences around a theme (his other two are Defrag and Glue.) Once again my friends at the Kauffman Foundation have provided some great scholarships for Blur and – like all of Eric’s conferences – there will be lots of time for people to spent together talking about and playing with the great stuff they are working on.
Oh – and for anyone tired of winter, it’s in Orlando. Sign up and come hang out with me, my partners, and a bunch of amazing HCI stuff for two days next week.
The next Eric Norlin conference is Blur and is happening in Orlando, Florida (yay – warm) on February 22 and 23. I’ll be there along with my three Foundry Group partners Seth, Ryan, and Jason exploring the future of human computer interaction.
If you are a entrepreneur working in the area of HCI, this inaugural Blur Conference will be a special event. Eric has done an amazing job of curating two other conferences: Defrag (just finished its fourth year) and Glue (about to have its third year). I’ve been to every one and they are amazing experiences.
While the full conference price is $1,495, early bird registration lasts through February 4th and is $995. Plus Eric just gave me a 10% off discount code – if you are a reader of this blog use “brad12” to get another 10% off. And, if you are student or in a Pre-Series A startup, there are still a few Kauffman Scholarships for Blur left.
Finally, since I’ll be there with Seth, Ryan, and Jason and all four of us will be fully engaged the whole time, it’s a perfect chance to pull us into a corner somewhere and show us your latest HCI ideas.
After a two-fer of deeply annoying arrogance demonstrated by two different VCs on the first business day of 2011 that I’m still pondering (a mix of conflict avoidance behavior and passive aggressive behavior) I’m really looking forward to CES.
Several years ago, my partners and I started going to CES together. Jason and Ryan had being going for a while. I’m not a trade show guy although I diligently went to Comdex for several years in the 1990’s as part of Softbank (which owned Comdex at the time.) Generally, I’m completely overwhelmed by the people and the stuff and the idea of spending a few days in Las Vegas playing trade show monkey makes me tired just thinking about it.
But there’s something deliciously seductive to me about CES. When combined with an attitude change (rather than fighting the crowds, I just roll with it and pretend like I’m in the ocean, swimming around, not really noticing all the dirt and animals), I’m really enamored with wandering around, looking at, and playing with all the new stuff on display. Rather than target specific stuff, I just spend two days looking at everything.
It helps that we have two really fun dinners with a bunch of friends (it’s my year to organize – actually, that means Kelly has done all the work – thanks Kelly). An early morning run, followed by eight hours of walking around playing with technology, followed by three hours hanging out with good friends and colleagues at a great Las Vegas restaurant. Ok – that’s a good day.
In the past we’ve discovered new investments (such as Cloud Engines) and seen lots of companies we are investors in make good progress (e.g. this year I expect both Sifteo and Orbotix to get a lot of airplay based on what they are announcing.)
I’m heading out a day early for a BigDoor board meeting. It seems appropriate that we’d kick of our 2011 gamification of the universe with a meeting in Las Vegas. So make that three great dinners with friends.
As 2011 kicks off, I think we are in for a ton of innovative software and Internet stuff this year. Yeah, some of it will be “just like everything else but different.” However, of the areas we invest heavily in – human computer interaction – has an incredible amount of activity going on. I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas this week so I expect to have a dose of nerd-eye-candy (e.g. the latest TV sets) along with a bunch of cool / amazing / clever / intriguing new HCI things.
I expect CES will be a classic case of “a mile wide and an inch deep.” If you want to go really deep with HCI, consider joining me at the Blur Conference in Orlando on 2/22 and 2/23 especially if any of the following topics appeal to you.
- markerless motion capture
- phone controlled robotic gaming devices
- augmented reality apps
- alternative input mechanisms
- neuro-physiological measurements
- all kinds of Kinect hacks
- 3D/digital sculptures
- social robotics
- multi-touch interfaces
- speech recognition
- human instrumentation
- natural user interfaces
I’ve accepted the reality that the computers are going to take over during my lifetime. I just want to help be involved in writing some of the code to hedge my bets. Register now to come join me in my quest.
Periodically I promote the conferences we helped create with Eric Norlin – Defrag, Glue, and most recently Blur. If you’ve been to any of these conferences, you know why I get so excited about them – it’s a chance for me and my partners to spend two days immersed in a theme we are investing in while surrounded with some of the smartest people working in that area.
Blur is all about human computer interaction (HCI). We’ve done a bunch of HCI investments, including Orbotix, Fitbit, Sifteo, Oblong, and Organic Motion and we’ve spent a bunch of time exploring HCI as we believe the way we will use and interact with computers will be radically different in 20 years than it is today. As a hedge, we believe that if the robots are really going to take over, we at least want a hand in creating some of their software to improve the odds that they’ll be nice to us.
When Eric and I started talking about Blur, he said he wanted it to be a deeply hands on experience. The HCI stuff we invest and play around with is some of the funnest and most interesting tech. The conference should line be equally fun while giving a bunch of smart thought leaders around HCI a chance to collaborate on what each of them is working on.
For example, Kinect Hacks? Yup – a bunch will be there (the hackers and the hacks.) The history and evolution of multi-touch – did you know it was invented in 1982 the USPTO rulings not-withstanding? Want to play with personal robots? Do you know what neuroergonomics means or why it matters?
As with Defrag, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has stepped up with a major sponsorship for up to 15 people who are either founders of pre-Series A startups or students doing research around HCI.
Blur is happening in Orlando, Florida on February 22nd and 23rd. Early-bird registration runs through January 14th at which point registration is only available at the full price. Come play!
Suddenly, browsers are interesting again. Well – in my little corner of the world they’ve been interesting for a while, but suddenly when I look at the dock on my Mac I notice Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Rockmelt. And yes – I use / play around with each of them regularly.
Recently, Wired declared that the Web is dead. Nice cover bait, but whatever. It’s not dead – like everything on the Web, it’s continuing to evolve at a dramatic pace. My friends organizing Add-On-Con 2010 tossed up a nice call to action recently titled Embracing Change Add-On-Con 2010. The short message – there is more opportunity than ever for browser add-ons, but the add-on community needs to rapidly evolve along with the Web especially given the appification of everything.
If you are a leader at a company that makes browser add-ons, this is your conference. It’s on 12/8 and 12/9 in Mountain View and should have a good crowd from all the major browser companies along with a bunch of your peers.