Startup conference “advice” is almost always wrong. But sometimes it's genius.
Myself and my new startup Zenlike.me were invited to attend AccelerateAB, a technology startup conference in Calgary happening later this summer. To be honest, we were a bit torn about taking a full day to attend. It’s a full day away from building, measuring, and talking with customers completely. Time is the truest currency of any early stage startup, so attending is expensive.
But despite the negatives, we find ourselves very excited to attend AccelerateAB in July.
So as someone who’s attended several conferences as both a speaker, mentor, and general participant, I thought I’d write about what I feel is wrong with conferences, what's right, and how to get the most out of them.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH CONFERENCES?
Simply put, most startup advice is wrong. Conferences often optimize on doling out this advice whether in speeches or panel discussions. The funny thing is that the people giving the advice are usually the first to admit that it should be taken with a grain of salt.
Why is the advice usually wrong?
1. No two scenarios are ever the same. Startup advice tends to be generalized. But the thing about startups is that they’re unbelievably unique. The uncertainty and risk is what makes startups a startup.
I’m a bit of a hater for distributed teams. I’ve advised startups against them on several occasions since I’ve come to believe they simply won’t work for anyone. But I’m wrong. It’s worked for plenty of companies. And it might work for yours (though I doubt it).
2. Everyone is guessing. Even Paul Graham, one of the most well known technology minds of today, is wrong most of the time. And it’s hard for entrepreneurs, especially star struck Canadian first timers, to remember this. Instead, all too many treat advice like gospel, rushing home and implementing every idea they heard at a conference.
3. The advice you’re getting is usually from someone who’s known you for less than 30 minutes. No matter how smart someone is, no matter how many patterns they’ve seen, it’s damn hard for them to understand your business and challenges in less than 30 seconds. That makes giving actionable advice really difficult.
WHAT'S RIGHT WITH CONFERENCES?
Two main things.
1. Business, whether you like it or not, is often built on relationships. And conferences are a great place to continue to reconnect and strengthen your network.
2. While most startup advice is usually wrong, occasionally it's genius. I’ve had conversations with people who’ve amazed me in their ability to come up to speed with my startup in an insanely short amount of time.
These people have usually spent a lot of time in the business witnessing teams and ideas succeed and fail. As a result, they have disproportionate abilities to advise with awesome insights and advice.
A good conference insists on bringing in these type of people to help mentor and engage in 1:1 conversations. It just takes one of these conversations or connections to completely change the trajectory of your startup for the better. But remember that not all conversations are created equal.
HOW TO OPTIMIZE YOUR STARTUP CONFERENCE EXPERIENCE
So how do you get the most out of a startup conference? In the face of obvious irony, I’ll share my top list of advice to startups attending a conference like AccelerateAB.
• Practice filtering advice. All the inundating advice, whether "right" or "wrong," is actually really valuable. Your job as an entrepreneur is to filter through as much feedback as possible.
Whether it’s product feedback from customers or strategic feedback from advisors, the best entrepreneurs are awesome at filtering through mountains of feedback and coming out with the few nuggets that are relevant to them and that resonate.
• Use talking with people to practice the 5-30-60-600 second rule. I like to think you have five seconds to capture someone’s attention. Succeed and you have another 30 seconds. This pattern continues until you're having a good 10 minute conversation about your startup. You’ll have a lot of opportunities to practice.
• Seek out criticism. Often the best advice for startups is criticism. Startup veterans attending conferences tend to be more critical. So seek them out and embrace any criticism.
Whether they're right or wrong, you'll have to overcome the concern with the million others that undoubtedly share the concern.
• Don’t expect to meet your VC at a conference. I’m not sure any investor’s ever done a deal with someone they’ve met at a conference. Conferences are awesome for building existing relationships but not for meeting your future VC. So set a reasonable expectation.
• Don’t be a douche. Yes, we’re always pitching our startups. But don’t be obnoxious.
Please don’t be the one spamming the conference hashtag with your silly marketing ploys. Real relationships are based on a connection beyond sales pitches and PR stunts. Be genuine.
• Don’t be rigid. You’ll hear people suggest to go to a conference with a very specific set of questions you want to ask. Yes, you definitely want to have a general set of questions, but let the conversation flow.
• Do your homework. Not only know who’s speaking, or who’s advising at your roundtable, but know what other startups are attending. The best introductions to VC’s for example, come from their portfolio companies. Try to build a relationship with these startups.
• Plan for the long haul. Pitch someone hard on your startup, and you’ll probably get help for 20 minutes. Manage to connect about your favourite sports team, band, or hobby, and you’ll probably have their help for years.
• Remember that startups are all about connecting dots. Steve Jobs talked at length about this. Innovation doesn’t happen by creating something out of nothing. Innovation happens when awesome entrepreneurs connect two seemingly unrelated ideas to form something new.
The inspiration of the MacBook's clean and simple lines came from looking at a Cuisinart food processor. There’s always something to learn.
• Take advantage of social events. If you meet just a couple friends that can help push each others businesses along, then the event was a success.