By Brian Seidman from his FDI / Foreign Direct Ireland blog.

A simple Google search returns numerous articles on “must attend” conferences for entrepreneurs. Why must you attend? Among the more common reasons given are for “inspiration” or to learn about the “future.”

I assume as an entrepreneur you already are inspired, and any number of websites (Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Business Insider) can deliver a daily update on the supposed future to your laptop and phone.[i]

Attending any event, whether a major tech conference, a pitch event, a seminar or a workshop takes time, and may involve (lots of) money.

The key question, even more so than the question of spending many hundreds to attend some events, is whether the event will be useful to you and your business; field trips are fun, everyone likes to go to the zoo to look at the animals, but it is doubtful a trip to the zoo will do anything for your business.

  • Large Conferences. For most entrepreneurs and companies, large conferences are most likely neither worth the time nor the expense for them or their startup – it is analogous to a field trip to the zoo – a hopefully enjoyable day of voyeurism but more likely one of frustration and asking why you’re there.

Large conferences run the gamut in quality and cost. Launch Festival in San Francisco, for example, is a giant event, but not only can provide real opportunity for participation and engagement (see below), it also reserves thousands of free tickets for founders / entrepreneurs. Web Summit (once held in Dublin) in contrast, which I attended as a guest of a US company in 2016, cost at least €495 for a ticket, and to me was chaotic, with no value to an entrepreneur, including my hosts, who thought they would have the opportunity to participate and engage.

A great starting point for any entrepreneur interested in attending a large event is to go on the internet and read reviews from past attendees.

And if those reviews are positive, then the next step is determine if there are identifiable, meaningful benefits that might be gained by your attending – people or companies (clients, partners, service providers, investors, advisors) to meet that might help your project move forward, then large conferences can be worth it. If there are, the key is to set out a plan before arrival regarding who you want to meet and how you will do it during your time at the conference. A conference website is a great place to start to determine whether there are real benefits, because the speakers, panelists, sponsors, attendees, etc., will be listed; and that same list also allows you to reach out and introduce yourself to those attendees you want to meet before the conference and try to set up a meeting, or at least know where you need to be to meet them at the conference.

Large conferences are also worthwhile if you get to be a participant – not as a vendor paying for a spot in a convention center, but as a presenter of you and your startup. Launch Festival in San Francisco for example has its Startup Summits, in which select startups (divided into verticals) are given, among other useful benefits, the opportunity to present on stage to a panel and large audience.  Luck does play a role in life, and certainly does with startups, but you can go a long way to making your own luck in this regard by taking action.[ii]

  • Pitch Events. Pitch events are by definition participatory, and are not only a great way to get noticed by potential clients, partners, service providers, investors, advisors, but also a great opportunity to get meaningful feedback on your business and plans, as well as hone your message and your presentation skills.
  • Seminars. Seminars are almost always worthwhile, as they are typically smaller events focused on a particular subject (e.g., marketing) or issues of interest to a particular vertical (data protection). Most importantly, they typically are participatory, allowing for serious Q & A and interaction between the panel and attendees, not just a few questions asked after the moderator the moderator has finished interviewing the panel.
  • Workshops. Workshops are similar to Seminars, typically smaller events focused on particular subject matter, but with even greater participation and interaction, with the differentiation being that workshops pair you the entrepreneur (or a group of entrepreneurs) with experts on a particular subject, who then advise on questions specific on that subject specific to your business. And like Seminars, are almost always worthwhile. A good example of very useful to entrepreneurs Workshops in Ireland are the legal advisory clinics run by Start-Ed, which provide access to commercial legal advice for startup businesses and entrepreneurs.

A little online research will go a long way towards answering the threshold question of whether there may be of value in an event for you and your startup, and if the answer to that question is yes, then your ability to participate and/or engage will determine whether you realize that value.

[i] If you really need inspiration or motivation as an entrepreneur, rather than going to an event or even listening to a TED talk, you can watch this video, Tim Westergren: Pandora’s Story,  or read this article, The Amazing Story Of Pandora Surviving Over 300 VC Rejections about Pandora’s entrepreneurial journey.

[ii] Some might question the reality of being one of the companies selected to present at one of the Startup Summits. You don’t know if you don’t try, and a good friend of mine, a medical doctor by training who founded a health tech company that recently raised $1.6 million was chosen to be a presenter at Startup Summit a few years ago, and as a result met and began working with some of the leading professional service firms in the entrepreneurial world and gained significant traction.

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