What a startup should do to prepare for their first conference: AcademyOcean’s experience

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Six months had gone by since the first version of AcademyOcean was released, and we decided to fully take part in a conference. By “fully” I mean not just buying tickets, but actually doing some serious preparation. We wanted to be noticed, and we wanted people to be interested in us. At the very least we needed a booth, but we didn’t stop there. In this article, I’ll tell you about what we accomplished and learned.

This is an article in three sections:

  • Before the conference
  • At the conference
  • After the conference

There will be a list of takeaways at the end. Let’s get started!

Each year, more and more interesting events pop up for different target audiences. It’s often tricky to choose the ones that are truly important to attend.

In this case, we lucked out and knew just where to go: we chose the SaaS Nation conference, which is a Kiev-based event in its second year, where the majority of attendees are SaaS companies. Those are just the people we need to be meeting. : ) There was no question about our decision to attend.

Before the conference

The majority of conferences have different partnership levels. Partners’ logos are displayed on conference websites and promotional materials. Depending on the size of the conference, companies can either pay to become partners, or they can offer reciprocal publicity. We didn’t have the money to pay for partner status, so I decided to write to the organizers of the conference and ask them if we could help out with anything they might need taken care of ahead of the event.

As it turns out, they were actually looking for a tool they could use to share presentations and recordings from previous conferences, so I suggested that they use AcademyOcean. Although this isn’t how our product is typically used, it nevertheless worked well for the conference organizers.

Now all conference attendees can use the SaaS Nation Academy to return to the information they learned in presentations.

So we shared our product with the organizers, and they shared partner status with us. In this slightly unconventional way, we got our logo on the conference’s website and promotional materials.

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AcademyOcean among the partners of the conference

There were only five spots allotted for booths for the 350 planned attendees. It was very important that our booth really represent us and be noticeable.

We brainstormed and came up with a visual where all the elements (lighthouse, yachts, island, etc.) stood for something. We redrew the picture three times to try to get everything to fit on one roll-up banner. Eventually we got the mockup done, and we sent it off to be printed as soon as it was done, on a Friday.

The following Monday, we sat down to design our business cards (more about that in the next section). Suddenly we realized that in our haste to get our banner printed we’d let something slip by in the design that we didn’t want there. On the mockup we sent to be printed, there were sharks symbolizing our clients’ competitors drawn near the yacht.

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This wasn’t a good comparison to make. We called the printing shop right away to have the job canceled.

As it turns out, the printing shop was getting ready to call us at that very moment to apologize for not being able to print our banner before the deadline we’d agreed on. We were saved! : ) We heaved a sigh of relief and asked if we could change the order.

The takeaway here is that if time permits, you should wait until all your materials are ready and send them to be printed in one batch. If you have time to wait until Monday, don’t rush to get something printed on Friday.

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Part of our booth, and our “happy” designer, who managed to survive all the revisions

The conference organizers invited all attendees to private Facebook and Telegram groups. They also created an Attendify account (the app granted access to the conference schedule, a list of attendees, and the program of presentations, and we could write private messages to other attendees). Each new member in the group introduced themselves and explained a little bit about what they do and how it’s useful. This set everyone off on the right foot and let us get to know each other before the conference.

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You could use the app to get a list of speakers, see the schedule, and even write private messages to other attendees.

I don’t care much for conventional business cards — although I’m really into cards with unconventional designs that use unconventional materials — so from the very start I intended to make an unusual multi-page “business card,” like a booklet. Moreover, I wanted our booklet to tell a story. It would be similar to an academy in this way, only much more simplified.
Planning and creating this booklet took us several evenings of work.

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A miniature version of our booth that you can take to home with you : )
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Everyone we spoke to at the conference got a booklet. Some people even came over specifically to see it, since I mentioned it beforehand in the group.

It struck me how important this is while at the conference, but I wish I’d thought of it beforehand.

What I did do before the conference was write about ten messages to customers and potential customers. I invited them to meet up at the conference so we could get to know each other. I should have made arrangements with way more than ten people, though.

If you have a list of conference attendees ahead of time, you can familiarize yourself with what they do and, if you can be of use to them, write to them and suggest getting to know each other. It would be 2–3 hours well spent.

At the conference

The day of the conference was upon us. We got there early to arrange our booth and make sure everything was okay. We’d practiced putting together our booth the day before, using a timer to figure out how much time we needed. It took us exactly seven minutes : )

In addition to the excellent presentations, the organizers decided to have two meetups — one for marketing and one for sales. The meetups consisted of roundtables, during which several attendees shared their experiences and others asked questions.

I promptly applied to tell the story of how we used academies for lead generation (even back before we founded AcademyOcean) and how other SaaS companies can also use this new content-marketing tool. I described this case in detail here.

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Lots of people showed up for the meetups. On the right is the sales meetup, and on the left is the marketing meetup.

If representatives from accelerators or other venture capital funds are planning to attend the conference, get in touch with them beforehand and request a meet-up. For example, Cristobal and Egita from Startup Wise Guys were at SaaS Nation, and we reserved a thirty-minute slot with them ahead of time. Meetings are also a great way to get feedback and hear interesting questions from people who have spoken to hundreds of companies before you.

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Startup Wise Guys

Something you’ll have to do is meet with current clients. If you’ve never met in person before, this is a great way to finally do so. If you have met before, this is an opportunity to find out what they’ve been up to.
A few days before the conference, we had released an important update, which we hadn’t announced yet. The clients we spoke to at the conference got to find out long before the rest.

Finally, we come to the constant interactions at the conference itself. You may find yourself spending more time networking than you do listening to presentations.
By the way, my note-taking system isn’t sufficient for all the conversations I had. Do you know of any apps that help organize these kinds of notes so it’s easy to remember everything later?

After the conference

After the conference, it’s very important to remember all the conversations you had (especially where promises were made). Theoretically, you should write brief follow-up messages to all the people you spoke to, describing your agreements and plans.

Like I already said, I appreciate quality graphic design. I know that without fail when I get back from a conference I will study the materials I got from other companies. I’m interested in these companies’ marketing messages as well as their physical embodiments.

If you’re like me and hardly spend any time at the presentations, then I strongly recommend that after the conference you go through at least a couple of the best ones. The organizers of SaaS Nation usually poll attendees to see which presentations they thought were best. The three presentations with the most votes are definite must-sees.

Incidentally, while I was writing this article a short overview video was posted about the conference:

And even if at the time of writing this article it’s too early to say what monetary effect going to the conference had (we have a long sales cycle and right now we’re in communication with several potential clients), I can say with certainty that this was a great experience for us. Let me give some final takeaways:

Takeaways

  • It’s very important to choose the right conference. Think about where the highest concentration of your target audience will be.
  • If you have already decided to attend a conference, then it makes sense to prepare properly, thinking of your branding and little details.
  • Think about whether or not you have something to offer the organizers, and write to them beforehand. Maybe like us you’ll be able to agree on some sort of interesting conditions.
  • Be active at all times. That’s how you’ll be able to meet as many people as possible.
  • You must meet with current clients if they will be at the conference. These are always very candid and interesting conversations.
  • You need to put a lot of thought into how to remember and systematize information from all the conversations you have at the conference. You can maybe take notes or find an app to do this.
  • Remember that the work doesn’t end when the conference is over. Write follow-up messages, keep in touch with people you met, and familiarize yourself with conference materials.

Stay tuned!

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Written by

Founder & CEO of AcademyOcean.com. Automated onboarding and interactive training.

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