As I wrote before, the best thing that the founders of an early-stage startup can do is talk to people. Speaking to potential customers in person has an enormous advantage over other forms of marketing in that you are able to immediately receive their verbal and emotional reaction to your pitch, product, and important details that can set your startup apart from the competition. Events can be a phenomenal forum to speak to your target audience, promote your startup, and engage with your customers.

Event marketing is one of the most underutilized forms of promotion, probably due to the discomfort that many of us feel when having to chat with perfect strangers about something that is so dear to us–our startup. Another challenge to founders that are just starting out is that some events like conferences can be relatively expensive. At the same time, events solve a key challenge with respect to finding your target audience since they should draw together like-minded people that are, hopefully, also your ideal customers.

So what events should you be attending? The answer to this question greatly depends on the kind of product you are trying to promote. For example, if you have created a revolutionary social media platform for sharing photos, your team might hand out at events that draw together artistic types such as art collectors, interior designers, and antique hunters. If your product helps e-commerce retailers better engage shoppers by capturing how much shoppers are willing to pay for items, you will be well-served to spend time at events that bring together e-commerce marketers. Below is a list of some popular events that your team can consider attendeding:

  • Small, local gatherings and meetups (free, low cost)
  • Pitch competitions (free, low cost)
  • Expert talks and speeches (free, low cost)
  • Industry conferences (expensive)
  • Trade shows (expensive)
  • Startup and tech conferences (expensive)

Some of the events on the above list are free or low-cost, so those are probably more attractive targets for most early-stage startups. Beyond being suitable for your budget, events such as local meetups and talks are much more intimate than huge conferences numbering in the thousands of attendees. I always found it much easier to make meaningful connections at smaller, more targeted events. Keep in mind that the goal in the earliest stages of your enterprise is not to get the most customers possible but to get the most fanatical ones.

With regard to larger events such as conferences and summits, the ideal is to get a display or a sponsorship spot, but these goals often cost thousands of dollars, which many early-stage startups can’t afford. Moreover, attendance can easily run over a thousand dollars, which can be quite a gamble for a cash-constrained startup. The question is whether you can produce more in sales than the cost of attendance. However, there are ways to avoid the high costs associated with admission and displaying your startup.

One tactic is to volunteer at the event. Conferences take an army to run, and organizers are always looking for folks to help out. Another way to gain access without paying high admission fees is to find tickets for free or at a reduced cost through nonprofit of government organizations. In particular, organizations that seek to promote diversity in tech sometimes get a set of complimentary tickets which they offer to their members and affiliated persons. Finally, it never hurts to ask the event organizers if your fledging startup can receive access at a reduced rate, particularly if you haven’t yet received much investment. And if all else fails, you can do what the extremely clever folks in the picture below did–show up in a public space near the event and draw attention to yourself. Well played!

The founders of StoryCap at the Startup Grind 2019 event.

Sometimes, few events exist where you can find your ideal customer. Imagine, for example, that you have just created an app that helps dog owners find sitters for their pets while they are away. There might not be any dog owner meetups or conferences in your area, so what do you do? Create one! You can create a meetup for local dog owners, or organize a hike. You might even partner with local pet stores, dog shelters, or veterinary clinics to bring in a speaker or celebrity dog trainer.

However and wherever you show up is not as important as speaking to people that fit the profile of your ideal customer. Your job is to both learn about their needs and get feedback on your product. Although it would be great if you can hold a huge launch event attended by thousands of prospective customers, getting a handful of really fanatical customers is just as valuable if not more so. Now get out there and talk to prospective customers!