A Tale of Two Conferences


This year we didn’t go to SXSW.

Instead Exversion went to NTEN’s Nonprofit Technical Conference in Austin, basically the week before the techies descended and bought out sixth street for their private parties.

It would have been easy to stick around in town for SXSW, several NTEN people did, but in the end I was glad we didn’t. I love SXSW, but this week I was flabbergasted by the quality of leads that came to us through the smaller, more specialized conference. Had we stayed, I would just now be following up on those connections and as a result the momentum might have been lost.

NTEN is basically paying for itself in clients and partners, which really surprised me. I’m more used to the benefits of conferences being more intangible.

Last year we had an extremely productive SXSW, filled with glimmers of that unique SXSW magic the organizers have practically trademarked. I ran into a guy I had been trying to set up a meeting with for three months on line at the Spotify House (he was behind me!) and we ended up having a critical meeting right there on the street. I grabbed beers with some Ushahidi devs and got great free advice on how to structure an open source consultancy. I met one of the cofounders of Infogram on the dance floor. I got frequently– and inexplicably– mistaken for Anna Kendrick (Was she even in town?).

But we didn’t bring in any new clients or new users. The opportunities that came from SXSW came months later, where as the opportunities from NTEN started pouring in almost as soon as we landed back home.

And some people would look at that and say that large conferences like SXSW are not worth the trouble, but really I think the truth is these are two distinctly different types of conferences.

A lot of startup people think they’re going to SXSW to sell something– get new customers, get investors, launch their hot new whatever– but think about this for a minute: who comes to SXSW looking to buy things? Who looks at their business problem and thinks to themselves “I’m sure I can find a vendor with a solution to this at SXSW”?

No one. There may be some investors looking to scout startups, but actual deals are few and far between. If the crowd at SVB’s club house is any indication, most VC firms are sending associates rather than partners.

No, SXSW peddles in influence and novelty. People go hoping to build connections with influential people. And the influential people go looking to build connections with more influential people. People go to taste test the hot new thing, but only if the hot new thing is given to them for free. Nobody is going home with a new contract, a new client, or a big investment. Successful hustlers come home with hundreds of new contacts, maybe one or two of those will turn into something real.

Basically all developer conferences are like this. People come to learn, and to meet people, not to buy things.

NTEN, on the other hand, is a conference that people attend specifically to buy things. Thousands of organizations send representatives to find solutions to their technical problems. One such colleague told me that he had received specific instructions from his boss to come home with either a great product they could buy or a great consultant they could hire.

At the same time, a couple of years ago I attended another conference that peddled in influence. Thought leaders galore! One of the many people I met there was an entrepreneur running a small technical business in the developing world. Nobody was paying him much attention, he wasn’t anyone’s prestige catch.

Today things are completely different: he’s a TED fellow, a VC, and was named to one of those fancy “30 under 30” lists. When Exversion was working on ebola data for the UN this summer, we were able to collaborate. He turned out to be one of those contacts that paid for the conference, but it took years for that connection to bring returns.

The moral of the story is it’s really critical to research conferences before you buy a badge. SXSW and events of that nature can offer fantastic longterm benefits, but if you need immediate results you’ll probably leave feeling like you’ve wasted your money. It’s not difficult to figure out whether a conference will be a buyers conference or an influence builder: look at the speakers, the panel topics, the branding. Ask yourself: who is going to buy a ticket to attend this and what will they hope to get out of it?

And the types of conferences you’re attending really should be strategic. Many people see SXSW as a conference to “launch” … I could not disagree more. SXSW is a valuable conference a year or more before you launch. It will connect you with journalists and hustlers whose networks and resources could be game changing. But in order to get access to those advantages you need to develop the relationship in a natural way, over time.

(image credit: Anthony Quintano)