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Starting Up (Is Hard To Do): Conference Missteps And Lessons Learned

Last week I wrote about some of the benefits that a startup can achieve by having a booth at a conference. In this post, I focus on some of the lessons that my partner and I learned by attending a conference. If you exhibit regularly, you are sure to get a good laugh at our missteps and the lessons learned, but I hope I can help out any newbies exhibiting at a conference.

1. To Be Early Is To Be On Time

You have probably heard the maxim, “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late and to be late is very unwise.” The conference started at 8 a.m., and since we are two technology guys, we simply assumed people would be rolling in late. For that reason, we showed up at 7:55 a.m. — right on time.

The exhibition hall was packed with people when we arrived; people who circle the exhibit hall once and never come back. Even though we thought we were on time, we were late and lost out on a number of person-to-person interactions.

2. Crowds Come In Spurts: Make Hay While The Sun Shines

When we got to the hall at 7:55 a.m. that first morning there were still two things that needed to be done to our booth: hanging our banner and hooking up the computer to the TV for live demos. We both thought that we needed this done, right then and there. This was incredibly shortsighted because people come to the exhibit hall in spurts between sessions.

Looking back, I believe that roughly 40 percent of the total foot traffic we saw throughout this conference came between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. For half of that time we focused on getting our booth “just right” instead of visiting with potential customers, causing us to lose out on many conversations, interactions and contacts. This is the most important lesson: when given a choice, focus on the customer, not on your booth.

3. It’s Not A Pitch, It’s A Conversation

Prior to the conference, I had worked on prepping to pitch our startup for the first time. I assumed that talking to people at the conference would be very similar to pitching – I was wrong. Whereas pitching is a one-way style of communication to an audience, talking to people at a conference booth is very much a two-way conversation.

Having a pitch in your back pocket is important, but you should focus more on asking the person about their needs and draw on your pitch to provide answers. This will ensure a better interaction with a potential client and also give you ideas for new features. When an individual stops by to hear about your product or service, make sure that you don’t dominate the conversation. Stop to listen to them, hear what they do and what their paint points are.

4. Work On A Hook To Reel In The Casual Passerby

There are three types of people who will visit your booth: (1) the enthusiastic learner who wants to be told in detail about your product or service, (2) the person with a bag open taking all your swag and (3) the casual passerby. The casual passerby is that person who walks by at least six feet to eight feet away from your booth. He is somewhat interested, but does not want to be the one to initiate conversation. It is on you to bring them in so you can talk more.

I was terrible at this. Fortunately, there was Fred, an exhibitor next to us who was an old booth pro. I got to watch the master disarm people and bring them into this booth. Whereas I began the day by bumbling through an introduction of myself to the casual passerby, Fred would say “Hello” and call them by their first name, the name he read on their lanyard. Fred had a hook, not necessarily a sales hook, but rather a way to begin conversation that worked really well.

What are some lessons that you have learned from exhibiting at conferences? Be sure to leave them in the comments below!

Starting Up (Is Hard to Do) is a weekly series published every Friday on the Rackspace Blog from a guy who is in the trenches of starting up a business while working a day job. Check out Garrett’s previous post that talked about the benefits of conference booths for startups.

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Garrett Heath.

Garrett Heath is a Racker who works in Rackspace Marketing and has had experience as a technical project manager in the Cloud. He enjoys writing about how the cloud is spurring innovation for startups, small businesses and enterprises. You can read his personal blog for where he likes to eat in San Antonio.


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