How to do well at your first industry conference as an entrepreneur

Last week I went to my first conference as an entrepreneur – HRTech, in Las Vegas.  I went in with little understanding of what to expect at a 10,000 person expo full of vendors, customers, investors, and others.  Nor did I really know how to best use my time.

We had a booth in the “startup pavillon” which was regrettably on the outskirts of the conference, but had decent traffic since it was close to the bathroom.  It was only large enough for 1-2 people to stand at, but was cheap :).

Here are a few of the things I learned for people who will one day attend their first conference as an entrepreneur/salesperson.

1) Make notes on cards, you aren’t going to remember.

When you talk to someone, especially a potential customer, you’re thinking “there’s no way I’ll ever forget this conversation!”  Luckily I still wrote down notes on ever single business card I got, and sent myself a quick email for those contacts I couldn’t get business cards from.  You will NOT remember 80% of conversations after you recover from your red eye back home.  This makes for most customized email follow ups post conference.

2) Get sleep before/during/after.

Lack of sleep and cognitive functioning are highly related, same with energy levels.  Why would someone trust/remeber you if you can’t articulate what you’re selling?  Don’t think going out until 2 am is a good idea just because it’s Vegas.  Get some rest and make the most of your time, as well as the money you spent getting there.

3) Do pushups/burpees/situps/squats (in your hotel room).

The endorphins released during exercise will make you feel happier during the conference which makes you a better sales person.  They’ll also increase your cognitive functioning.  See #2 above.

4) No one will visit your booth.

Unfortunately, the only people who want to come to your booth are the intellectually curious (and generally not relevant), or people trying to sell you.  That means you have to be aggressive in getting people to your booth.  The following tips help you do that.

5) Smile, hold something social proofy, and don’t be desperate.

If you smile and say “hi” some people will smile back, or at least nod.  If you hold something like a cup of coffee or a nice shiny pen, this communicates you’re legit in some small way.  And, if you can control your voice to sound full of confidence (which you will be anyways because you’re crushing demos left and right), they may even turn and look at you.

5A) Wear casual clothing.

Don’t feel like you need to rock a suit or a blazer simply because it’s a professional conference.  It’s preferred to wear something more casual to make yourself approachable.  Trust me, I A/B tested it.

6) Ask qualifying questions.

Just like in sales, you don’t want to spend lots of time with people who aren’t relevant to your goals.  Ask something like “Are you in employee benefits?”  If no, then “have a great conference” and you both feel good.  If yes, then “Great, I’d love to show you my product.”  It’d be weird if they just walked away after agreeing it’s relevant, right?

7) Discover.

You wouldn’t have the same conversation with a prospect vs a competitor vs a collaborator vs an investor right?  Ask them what their role is.  Try to figure out if you can use jargon, or if you’ll have to explain the various pieces of your product in more simple terms.  Craft your conversation accordingly.

8) Get sick swag.

Get something cool.  We almost bought pens, thank god my co-founder thought of these credit card sized bottle openers instead.  Much less likely to be thrown away.

9) Stay cheap.

This is especially true for startups.  Have your friends take you to free parties.  Make sure the cabs don’t charge extra for using credit cards (they charge $3 extra in Vegas, what’s up with that???).  Stay off the strip in a reasonable hotel…you’re just sleeping there.

10) Enjoy yourself.

There is a lot to feel overwhelmed by.  But, make sure to take time out to enjoy the experience of your first conference.  Make new friends.  See cool technology.  And have a beer.