Startup conferences: Are they worth it?

Startups exist to fill in a business need, disrupt an otherwise stale business model or sometimes simply to validate whether an idea is viable. Thus, any exposure, connection or resource would be valuable in helping a startup along. But with tight resources, startup founders would often have to choose their steps wisely.

Given limited resources, for example, founders would often have to weigh their options, in terms of spending time, money and skills whenever an opportunity presents itself. This means not all opportunities may be viable, especially if these require the same resources that a founder may otherwise use for other activities, such as user acquisition, paying wages of developers, business development or even paying for bills.

Therefore, when an opportunity like attending a trade conference comes knocking at your door, should you take it, especially if it comes at a cost? For example, e27‘s annual Echelon conference was held earlier this week, and the company usually invites startups to be part of its “Startup Marketplace” where they can showcase their offerings and network with others in the region’s startup and investor community.

Another major starutp event, Tech in Asia‘s Startup Asia, will run in Tokyo this coming September. Apart from the keynotes and workshops, TiA is also holding investor “speed dating” as well as its own “Bootstrap Alley”.

Costs vs. Benefits

This does not come without costs, though. At Echelon, exhibitor fee is S$500 (about US$400), inclusive of a booth and tickets. Participants would then also have to spend for their own airfare and accommodations, in order to make it to the event. This has been the concern of some startup founders who had been invited as part of the event’s “top 50” startups in the region. At the Startup PH group on Facebook, this was the sentiment of Jeffrey Siy, co-founder at Galleon, a Philippine-based e-commerce platform. Running on a limited budget, Galleon needed to spend its resources wisely. However, the team was shortlisted to be a potential exhibitor due to its earlier participation in a local e27 event.

The short answer here lies in networking and potential partnerships. While attending trade events come with a nominal amount, the returns will usually come in the value of the connections you will make. In the world of startups, it’s not just what you know that gets you success, in terms of funding and investments. Rather, the who is often more important, and this includes the connections that you make in the course of your life as an entrepreneur.

To bring the case of Echelon into highlight, Paul Rivera, co-founder and CEO at Kalibrr, says his startup was able to meet a few of its early angel investors at the event. “We wanted to raise money and Echelon is one of the best events to meet potential investors in the region,” he shared on the Facebook group. Kalibrr, an online talent-management platform for the outsourcing industry, has since been invited by Y Combinator to be part of its Winter 2012 batch, and subsequently raised $1.9 million in December from investors led by Omidyar Network, Siemer Ventures, Learn Capital and Kickstart Ventures.

You don’t even have to be actively running a startup to benefit from conferences and trade shows, if you’re able to get yourself introduced to the right people, who may include future co-founders or investors, should you decide to start up a business of your own.

A digital age?

However, there is the question whether a physical presence will outweigh the cost. “We are living in a digital age anyway so it is easy to reach out,” Siy tells Social News Daily. And it will also depend on whether your startup is actively looking for investors. In the case of Galleon, the startup is currently “focusing on growth,” Siy says, so the team is focusing its time and energy in traction. Perhaps the startup can better grab the attention of potential investors when it has already attained some level of traction and growth.

Some would argue against reaching out solely through digital means. Rivera, for example, said in an earlier interview that his Kalibrr team gained a lot of experience and grew its network at informal get-togethers during their stay in Silicon Valley, as part of Y Combinator. Rivera and team says attending an accelerator program offers a “wealth of experience mentoring and helping startups,” as well as access to the network. “Y-Combinator often acts as a feeder into many VCs so you are introduced to many of the top investors in the Valley that you otherwise would have to access on your own.”

While a startup conference might not necessarily equate to a famed incubation or acceleration program, you will get to rub elbows with the who’s who of the industry.

Are startup conferences worth it? It’s a tradeoff between the dollar value of your tickets (plus travel expenses, if any) and the potential value of the connections you make  — in case these become business partners or investors in the future — and the likelihood of your actually making these connections. So if you have easy access to these events in terms of cost and logistics, consider yourself fortunate and don’t pass up the opportunity.

Image credit: e27

J. Angelo Racoma
J. Angelo Racoma has written extensively about mobile, social media, enterprise apps and startups. Angelo develops business case studies for Microsoft enterprise platforms, and is also co-founder at WorkSmartr, a small outsourcing team that offers digital content and marketing services.


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