How CIOs, Founders and VCs can get the most out of AWS re:Invent (and other Conferences)

Because Costanoa invests in early-stage enterprise startups, I attend a lot of IT conferences like the Goliath of IT Conferences, AWS re:Invent, which starts today. Typically, three types of people — CIOs, VCs, and founders of early-stage startups — show up at an IT conference, all of which have their own objectives and value they can contribute.

Startup CEOs obviously want to make connections, get validation for their approach, and start preliminary sales conversations. CIOs, especially the more innovative ones, want to stay on top of industry trends. VCs try to do two things: make connections between their portfolio companies and CIOs and try to validate the investments they’re making.

Re:Invent is an ecosystem with different people pursuing different objectives. This ecosystem is not coordinated, so it doesn’t work as well as it could. But if people better understood and addressed one another’s needs, they could make these events much more valuable for everyone involved.

For example, a CIO probably doesn’t want to hear a sales pitch from a startup CEO. However, both could benefit from a general discussion about the needs of the CIO’s company and the possibilities in the marketplace for solving them. Looked at long-term, it accomplishes multiple goals. The startup founder gets exposure to a potential customer, while the CIO benefits from hearing from someone steeped in the latest developments in the field.

If each group made these small changes in its approach, the entire conference ecosystem would improve and the value of the event would increase for everyone.

Startup founders should stop trying to sell directly at these events and let sales come organically through relationship-building.

Instead, when they interact with CIOs, they should have a conversation about the CIO’s business and the world he or she lives in. Nearly half of all startups fail because of a poor market fit, so by building an understanding of CIOs real needs, founders would give themselves a better chance for success.

The startup founder can also use the time to recruit an advisory council from the pool of CIOs. In my experience, this is never a hard sell. The time commitment is small, and CIOs, like most people, enjoy giving advice and are usually open to playing a small role in a startup’s success.

CIOs should designate a member of their team who comes to the event solely to look at and evaluate future technology.

Having a person dedicated to emerging trends will ensure the best possible exposure and free up the CIOs to spend on the things that are most interesting to them. Make sure insights get leveraged by the organization at large peers by having observations and insights documented and shared. This dedicated CIO will also have the time to build relationships with founders and can offer to join as an advisor. The duties aren’t onerous, and the exposure to new technologies is worth it. Some world class companies even ask for a write up to be shared with others who can benefit from information gleaned from the conference.

The VC’s first job is to facilitate all of the above.

For example, every year Costanoa hosts a security dinner at Black Hat. We initially let the participants select the topics, but what really happens is that the dinner descends into a general discussion of trends and problems that everyone is trying to solve. That conversation is often as valuable as any session at the conference.

Our second task is due diligence. Too often VCs focus on technology without thinking about the organization that would implement it. We need to determine what’s a hard sell and an easy sell. Is a solution replacing existing tools or is it something new? What organizational changes would need to be made to support it? If we did this at IT conferences, we’d be able to invest in more promising startups and guide them to build solutions that provide real benefits and efficiencies.

The IT conference world right now is filled with people pursuing their own objectives rather than trying to make the event better for all. If everyone could shift focus to making the entire ecosystem work better, we’ll all win and get more out of the experience. This week, I’ll be attending the AWS Re:Invent conference and hosting a CIO Dinner along with our partners OpenView Ventures and Landmark Ventures. Regardless of the role you play — CIO, founder, VC or just attendee — I hope to see you there!


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