Cracking the code: extracting maximum value from tech conferences

It's conference season so in preparation for next week's Summit, I'm here to offer you some tips on how to get the best experience out of the events you attend.
Cracking the code: extracting maximum value from tech conferences

Conferences are back! It's almost summer, and conferences, expos, trade shows, and summits – like our very own – are back in full force after a year of gradual re-enter post-COVID.

But things have changed. Pre-COVID, I would typically see the conference junkies out in full force with multiple wristbands, jet-lagged eyes, and the pale skin of being in dark, windowless rooms listening to pitching competitions. 

Nowadays, people are a bit more selective. 

Money is tight. Today conferences are more curated – in the past, I often saw the exact same talk offered at multiple conferences in different cities I was visiting.

It's not to say sponsors aren't a thing. They are, and we should all be hugely thankful to them for picking up a lot of the conference costs.

But most of today's conference scheduling is more savvy compared to the days of conferences saturated with sponsors talking about themselves.

Here are some tips for the conference season. Whether you're the kind of extrovert who does nudie runs at lunchtime, or have more than a touch of misanthropic tendencies, don't worry; I got you covered. 

Before You Attend the summit or any other event 

Review the programme and make a list of what talks and sessions you want to attend. Not sure? We've done a stack of articles on interesting speakers. 

Decide who you want to meet and reach out to people beforehand. Sure, many conferences offer an app, but email, WhatsApp or LinkedIn is also good.  

Invite them for coffee during the conference (and follow up, for God's sake).

If they are a speaker, promote their session on Twitter. Attend their sessions, especially if you want to ask them for money or to "pick their brains" for free. You'll appear more genuine. 

Research the people you want to connect with 

Get the basics right, like where they are from.

I get asked at least 20 times a day at conferences where I'm from in London. I'm not; I'm from Melbourne. (That's on the other side of the world in Australia). I've never even lived in London. And someone literally just asked me to lunch in London ten minutes ago — I live in Berlin.

No creepy stalking or adding their family members on social media. That's just weird. 

When you're at the conference 

Take time to walk through the exhibition floor; it's a great way to get a feel for trends and interesting businesses. 

Be really nice to the volunteers. They are on their feet all day dealing with people in tech like you and me. 

Have an abundance of empathy for anyone staffing a booth. Don't block a booth by talking to your friend in front so no one else can talk to them. Don't monopolize their time. Offer to grab them a coffee. 

Network like it's your job 

The advantage of networking at a conference is that pretty much everyone wants to talk. So be open to starting a conversation anytime and anywhere. 

Waiting for beer, in line for a lanyard? Go for it.  

I was chatting to someone at a conference I attended last week about her startup while we were waiting in the taco line, and now we're scheduling an interview. 

Don't stalk people outside the speaker's lounge. 

If you want quiet, private meeting spaces, book those in advance so you have somewhere to chat. No one likes to be pitched whilst they are lining up for the cash machine or toilet in lieu of a meeting.

Want to promote your startup? 

Wear a company T-shirt or at least a badge. 

If you're a bit more introverted, you can still network on the low by being active on social media (usually Twitter) during the conference. Use the right #hashtag; ours is #TechEU23

You can talk about stuff besides tech 

We all love tech. But I award bonus points to anyone who talks about something besides their business. 

If you can't afford a ticket

Ask nicely if anyone has a spare or a discount. 

That said, I often advocate that in lieu of attending a very large annual European tech conference, you opt for a week in town filled with strategic meetings and side events. Done right, you can kill it. 

Side events are key

Never underestimate the power of hosting or attending a good side event. Everyone likes a chance to unwind, and people are more likely to be open to a chat with a beverage in hand. 

Hosting side events on a budget

  • Even if you aren't in an official program, everyone always asks what to do after the conference (or the official after-party). 
  • Find out who the organised people are and ask them to spread the word in their What's App groups. People go to parties when they know other people they know are going. 
  • If everywhere is booked out, be creative. Beer by a lake or a park? Beers on a boat? Your bigger startup friend’s office? Go for it. (Bonus points if there are some drinks besides beer). 
  • If you’re on a budget, a smaller or shorter event is also a great option. Plenty of people will prefer chilled conversation over wild partying. Use words like ‘curated’ and ‘select’. 

General survival tips

At the risk of sounding like a parent (which I’m not unless you count my cat), give yourself plenty of breaks, drink at least as much water as booze, and try get a decent amount of sleep. Being around people can be tiring, even though it's fun. 

Always be charging: laptop, earbuds, phone. 

Bring your kit

Every seasoned conference-goer has a kit of things that make conference season a bit easier. Mine includes earplugs, painkillers, allergy and cold and flu tablets, and hangover remedies. It sucks being sick when you’re travelling, but it happens. Oh, and nail clippers, hang nails are so distracting. 

Oh yeah, bring your hand sanitiser. People are gross. 

Wanna be a speaker?

Be prepared to apply well in advance. Most conferences schedule at least six months prior to the event.

Find out the application process, and don’t bug people who have nothing to do with the decision-making. 

Follow up

You met a tonne of great people. Don’t just add them to LinkedIn or Twitter.  

  • Extend the conversation beyond reminding them how great your startup is. 
  • Send them a movie recommendation if you were talking about movies. 
  • Offer to introduce them to someone they might be interested in meeting. 
  • Invite them to have coffee next time they are in your home town. 
  • See if there are any other events you are both attending — you need to meet someone more than once to build a true rapport.

The last piece of advice is to go with the flow. Lean in, talk to people, eat bad food, and always so yes to karaoke. We have the best job in world. 

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