How we spent $35K in 4 hours. Should startups invest in events?

Beginning of the month we threw a party in Boston. But not just any party: the biggest party we’ve thrown in the six years since Mailjet’s been alive as a company. And, in case you’re wondering, it was this much fun:

GIF Photo Booth MJML by Mailjet.

The total cost of the event was $35K, which, for a startup, is a lot of money (that’s nearly the salary for a newbie fresh out of university). But for a 250-person event… it’s not. These kind of events can easily start at $50K+.

Now back in Paris, the question is no longer about whether it was fun and did everyone drink their cocktails, but rather: did it do anything? And, as anyone working in comms knows, this is a very… very hard question to answer.

Figuring Out How To Celebrate MJML

The idea for the party started as something simple here in Paris: a birthday party with the local email community to celebrate MJML turning one year old. MJML is our open-source markup language that produces responsive email HTML in under half the time. Translation: coding emails that look good on any screen and in any email client (Gmail, Hotmail, etc…) sucks, and MJML makes it suck a lot less and go a lot faster.

Despite having just turned one, MJML was growing up (really) fast, with 180,000+ downloads, 5.5K+ stars on Github, a new API and more. But what was especially cool was that a big part of this growth was coming from the USA, a community that we sometimes struggle a bit to get in touch with, despite having a great crew in New York.

Along Came Litmus Live

Litmus Live is one of the most important events in the email industry, taking place in Boston (signature event), London and San Francisco. Their sponsorship program isn’t traditional. It’s a Patron Program, and to participate you have to do one thing: buy a $1495 ticket to the conference and give it away to a deserving email geek (in our case, Matt designed us a kick-ass MJML template to earn himself the ticket). From there, you are free to do any sort of activation at their event that provides value. And this year, the opening party slot for Boston had yet to be claimed.

This got us thinking: the only thing better than celebrating MJML with people we already know is celebrating MJML with a whole new set of email geeks who we don’t know in the USA. This also got us thinking… we need a lot, lot more unbudgeted money.

Pitching A $35K Party To C-Level

Pitching to your C-Level that you need $35K to make new friends for a product we love, but that doesn’t exactly make money (reminder: it’s Open Source, a.k.a. free) is never the easiest sell.

So I pitched it this way:

  • We have a product — MJML — that’s really skyrocketing in the USA and is actually making a difference in email developers’ lives. This is the time to go all-in.
  • Yes, finding extra budget is difficult. But what’s even more difficult is being able to meet that many cool American email geeks under one roof in the same evening.
  • This is the best market research opportunity we could ask for. And, namely, to ask the community two main questions:
  1. What are you still struggling with when it comes to responsive email?
  2. How do you feel about hearing that there is a brand (Mailjet) behind an Open Source product?
  • We seriously like lobster. Can we, please?

Luckily for me, Mailjet likes taking smart risks. So I got my $35K to put on a 250-person party, and off we went.

Designing a Party For Community Building

We now had the support of Litmus, who would tell their community about the party, but we needed to stretch a tight $35K budget and build an event in a way that would ensure the party was both AWESOME and could achieve our goals: making new email geek friends, plus having quality conversations around MJML and how it can help the community.

[I should also mention that a direct competitor of ours was sponsoring the party for the following night… no pressure.]

So, Where Did The $35K Go?

For anyone who is new to events, where to spend your money can seem a bit fuzzy. So below you can find a total budget breakdown (USD, and still missing expenses). But for anyone else throwing a party on a shoestring that encourages conversation, here are some tips:

Where not to cheap out:

  1. SWAG — we focused on Hand Fidgets. SWAG is worth spending money on because it reflects the personality of your team, it has staying power and also opens up a conversation at the event. For example: “does anyone know how the hell this thing works?
  2. Booze — no real explanation needed. Booze = Better Conversations.
  3. Food — without this, you’ll wish you had cheaped out on point #2.
  4. Sharable activity — not every email geek is going to be able to attend the party. So do something at your event that people want to share with their friends. In our case, the GIF photo booth (see opening image).

Where to cheap out:

  • Decoration — Balloons = yes. At the end of the day, you just want something that adds a touch of your brand colors.
  • Music — it’s not your wedding. A Spotify playlist is fine.
MJML by Mailjet Party budget (USD).

How Was The Night Organised?

We were about to have 250 people in a room who didn’t know each other (yet) and who were just arriving in town for the conference. Which meant that we had to try and come up with ways to help people (hopefully) ease into conversations. So we built an event filled with distractions and things to comment on.

Here’s the agenda (with a couple of last minute additions):

  • 5:45PM: Cue torrential downpour. Deep breath.
  • 6:00PM: Doors Open. Decorations are up, videos are looping, tables are covered with curious SWAG.
  • 6:15PM: Guests start trickling in. Upon entry everyone receives a welcome drink plus copious amounts of drink tickets and is adorned with a classy “Hello My Name Is” name tag (frankly, I didn’t know those still existed).
  • 6:30PM: Food magically appears and is being whirled around the venue.
  • 7:00PM: Entertainment gets really fired up. In our case, the GIF photo booth.
  • 7:30PM: Short talk. Emphasis on ‘short’. This was our chance to tell the personal story about Mailjet and MJML and the entire audience about why we were there, how cool MJML is and how happy we were to be at Litmus and meeting the community.
  • 8:00PM+: Let the magic of alcohol carry the night’s conversations away.
  • 10:00PM: Sadly, push our new friends out the door.
  • 10:30PM: Still cleaning GIF photo booth confetti off the floor…
  • 11:00PM: Mailjet team consumes copious amounts of tequila shots (ok… tater tots).
MJML by Mailjet Party kicking off.

The Results

During the course of 4 hours we got to meet nearly 200 email geeks from all over the US (Kansas City, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington, California) and have good conversations with, especially, email developers who wanted to get their hands on the product.

We got the chance to tell the Mailjet and MJML story in front of an audience of about 100 people (the remaining part of the crowd proudly continued the party).

Not to mention that the community took over 350+ GIFs and we had lots of nice Twitter love:

Why We’ll Do It Again… But Different

I’m not going to lie: did our MJML downloads, Slack Community signups or Twitter following explode after this party? No.

But here’s what we learned:

Pair with a great conference. We were lucky to get to do this with our friends at Litmus for two reasons:

  • By pairing with them we had a partner to co-market the event with and get our name out alongside our much larger competitors whom were also doing activities during the conference.
  • Their US community was exactly who we wanted to talk to. Not only did we get to meet email developers, marketers, agencies, designers, but we got to meet people who are really passionate about the email space.

Choose a party-style wisely:

  • A 200-person, cocktail party style was perfect for meeting a lot of people all at once. If you’re going for awareness, this is a great option.
  • If you are looking for more in-depth convos (like we were) then a smaller party might do the trick better. We had hoped to be able to get more people to actually try MJML and see how it could really make their lives easier first-hand. But with nearly 200 people you can’t have as in-depth of conversations as you’d like to as you’re usually running around putting out mini-fires so that the event keeps running smoothly.

Choose a venue close by:

  • During our party it rained. And not just rained… it POURED. Which meant we probably lost about 50 participants as the venue was a 15min walk from the conference. Nothing you can do about the weather but it’s worth noting that venues as close to the area where most people are staying are the safest options against weather.

So, was it worth $35K in the end? It still remains a hard question to answer. But at the same time, the chance to meet a new audience of seriously cool email geeks and spread the word at large about a product that can actually make a difference in their daily lives… isn’t something you can always put a price on.

Group ❤ @ MJML by Mailjet Party.