In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike share tips for attending conferences. They discuss things to do before, during, and after a conference in order to get the most out of the event.
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Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about pro tips for attending conferences. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 389.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How are you doing this week, Rob?
Rob: Doing alright. I was just thinking, the subset 389 man, we have 11 more episodes until episode 400.
Mike: That’s insane.
Rob: What kind of cray-cray celebration are we going to do for 400?
Mike: Or what sort of group therapy are we going to have for the people who listen to 400?
Rob: I hope that there is no one out there who’s listened to all 400. That would be catastrophic.
Mike: We should have Sherry come on and just do a group therapy session for Episode 400. I think that’d be prudent.
Rob: I agree. If we just said 30 minutes per episode, that gives us 200 hours, which is 8.33 days straight. Whereas if you stayed up, you could hear the entire journey of this eight years and eight days, wouldn’t that be crazy?
Mike: Yeah. I don’t know if anyone would even attempt that.
Rob: It wouldn’t just be crazy, it would be clinical, you should get committed for trying to do something like that.
Mike: Yeah, definitely, definitely.
Rob: But we do have 595 worldwide iTunes reviews. You know what I’m going to ask you, the listener, to do? Get is to 600. Seriously. In the next couple of days, this comes out on a Tuesday, I would love that by Friday of this week, we’re over 600 reviews. Some of our recent reviews include awesome show, highly recommended from [00:01:52], he says, “Rob and Mike are truly two of the best in the biz at expertly extracting those bits of gold listeners are looking for.” We really appreciate reviews of course, and it does help us spread the word, keep us motivated to do it. Right now, we are accepting five star reviews, five stars reviews only, and look forward to seeing that number tick over to 600 well before our episode count/ticks over the 400. How about you, what’s going on?
Mike: I’m still doing a lot of stuff to prepare for MicroConf but last night I drove into Downtown Boston, into Cambridge and went to Wistia. They had a panel of people discussing how to use video and your marketing efforts, and different ways to use to it, different parts of the funnel that you can address to it. It was very interesting, it was nice to get some perspective from people who are actively doing it a lot as opposed to just reading around certain things. I wouldn’t say that it was a course, but it was definitely a crash briefing on things to pay attention to and edge cases that you might run into. It was cool to meet everybody there as well.
Rob: Oh, that is fun. That’s always nice to get out and go to events like that. I really enjoy those, as long as there’s at least some cool people to meet or some type of cool presentation that’s given out that provides value and gets me thinking about things. I do enjoy hitting up a local event just to see who’s in town in my field every once in a while.
Mike: I did get some laughs when people asked me why it was that I came in for that. I said, “I haven’t left the house all weekend. Figured it was about time.”
Rob: Yeah, totally. Alright, what are we talking about today?
Mike: In preparation for MicroConf, I thought it’d be a good idea to go through some pro tips for attending conferences and I know that we’re probably going to give some advice about attending MicroConf specifically but there’s also a lot of general advice in terms of how to approach going to a conference. This isn’t something that I think we’ve talked about specifically before. We’ve touched on it in a couple of episodes here and there but we never really just sat down and gone through what sorts of things should you do in preparation for going to a conference. Whether it’s a business conference, or a developer conference, or marketing, or what have you. I thought it’d be good to go through that stuff and give our own take on it since we do run a conference.
Rob: Cool. Let’s dive in.
Mike: Some of this is loosely based on an article from Justin Jackson, he specifically talked about MicroConf. We’ll link that up in the show notes. I did want to call that out before we get started into this. The first thing that came to mind when I was putting together this list was making a point to look up what the weather is in advance and plan accordingly. I just think that I remember last year at MicroConf where it was late at night on I forgot how far into the conference we were but we were standing outside and it was freezing. It was not something I had actually thought about doing because I was like, oh, it’s Vegas, it’s a desert, it’s going to be generally warm and I hadn’t realized how much earlier in the year it was and how much of a cold wave was going through the country at that time, I did not dress accordingly for it.
I think that that’s the thing that I would say is pay attention to what the temperature is and actually go look at it, don’t just assume that it’s 70 degrees and it’s sunny because it may not be.
Rob: Yeah. That’s a good point. Especially the desert gets really cold at night. I’m just looking at the forecast for the next week in Vegas and highs are all 80s and 90s but the lows get down 61 and when it’s 61 and it’s dark and there’s no sun and the wind’s blowing, it’s pretty dang cold. Have some type of long sleeve because often aside from just my collared shirts, I don’t tend to think about bringing a long sleeve shirt to Vegas, but of course, in this case, you’re going to want some type of light jacket or windbreaker or something.
Mike: And also because it’s a desert, you have to pay attention a little bit to the climate because it does get cold and because it’s a desert and so dry, you have to bring ChapStick or lip balm or something like that. It’s something that I just happen to keep it in my jacket at all times anyways so I never have to think about it, but if you’re not the type of person who travels a lot or just keeps it around, it’s definitely worth thinking about stuff like that.
Rob: Yup. What I used to do is I used to get to Vegas and then my lips would get all red and chapped and then I would start applying it, and my lips look like Ronald McDonald’s lips because they were red and then they were all glossy. What I do now is bring it with me, from the moment I hit the ground, I start applying it, and that’s worked for the past three or four years. I also drink a ton of water. I bring my water bottle and pretty much a refillable one. From the time I hit the ground, I’m just chugging water constantly.
Mike: The other thing is that there’s also the opposite problem sometimes where if you go someplace and you don’t have gloves, for example, when we went over to FemtoConf in Germany. It was cold enough that it started to snow in certain cases. It’s like you have to just bring the things that you need for that type of weather. Even if you don’t think that you’re going to be outside very much, make sure that you have those things available and consider them before you even walk out the door. I’d say the bulk of the first third of this particular podcast is going to be to all the things that you should do before the conference, before you even get on the plane to go there.
Rob: Another thing you want to think about is spend time in advance to consider your goals for the conference. Think about if there are specific people that you want to meet. You can research attendees, you can look at the speakers, and make it a point that you introduce yourself or try to catch a meal with somebody. Think about the types of relationships you want to establish. Who can you help and who can help you now or in the future because that’s one way to make a conference so much more valuable is to be really deliberate about who you are going to hang around with and who you’re going to surround yourself with while you’re at the conference.
Of course there’s always serendipity, especially at a really focused conference where everyone is doing interesting things. Almost everybody you meet is going to be a fun conversation. But I’ve got to get more value myself out of conferences when I look at the speaker list, look at the attendee list and really pi point who it is that I want to talk to and about what.
Tacking onto that, also I think of two other things, one, are there any questions that you want answered? Are they questions you want to just ask a bunch of people, do you want to ask a specific person, do you want to ask knowledgeable people? I know that Harry and Ted from Moraware Software do a really good job at this. They come each year to MicroConf with a question that they are thinking through, and they get a bunch of knowledgeable opinions on it and I’ve heard it helped shape their decision making.
And then finally, are there any topics that you really are interested in discussing, even though it’s not a question you have but something that you think is going to be relevant to attendees.
Mike: Or if you just want to use somebody as a sounding board because you have a particular thought in mind about hey, there’s a problem that I have, or some sort of challenge that I’m facing. I’d like some external opinions on it. If you’re working at home, or at a remote office, or remote office environment where you go to work and you sit down and you don’t really talk to any co-workers all day except over Slack or email or anything like that, it can be very isolating and you don’t get the benefit of having brainstorm sessions or a lot of external input into your thoughts and thought processes. It’s very helpful to have those topics in mind and written down so that you consider them in advance instead of, “Hey, I want to get other perspectives on this,” and then take them to the conference and hash it out with people, just to hear what they have to say.
Another thing to do is to do some pre conference networking and try to find out who’s going to be there. If there is a conference coordinator that is putting things together, whether they have an online community or something like that that they’re building, or a Slack chat. Anything along those lines, it gives you a sense of who else is going to be at the conference. Try to find out who’s going to be there and reach out in advance of the conference to people that you really want to spend some time and meet.
Whether they are new people that you want to introduce yourselves to, or you’re searching for people who are experts in this particular field or situation, you can always go out to that list or that community and ask them like, “Hey, can we schedule breakfast or lunch or chat for a few minutes?” Even if you just want to put your name on the radar so that they’re actively looking for you and if you happen to be in a conversation, they say, “Oh, I remember I got an email from you or a message from you and you wanted to talk about X.” Just being able to put your name directly in front of them with a message that says, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about this. I’d love to chat about this for X minutes or whatever.” That will help you establish some of those relationships.
Rob: Another thing is to research local travel and potential scams or things that could trip you up. A few years ago, Vegas didn’t allow Lyft and Uber into the airport. I think before that, they didn’t have Lyft and Uber, they didn’t allow it within city limits. And then they eventually allowed in the airport, and now, it’s everywhere. You can take a Lift at the airport. But before then, it was either a shuttle, or you can just grab a cab, and it’s so close to the airport, it was not worth doing a shuttle because it took a lot longer. It’s things like that that can save you a lot of time and a bit of money.
And then another thing is, talking about potential scams or whatever, before we went to Portugal last year, I was reading through the Lonely Planet and they said pick pocketing is really big there. That just made me more aware to have everything zipped up. And then you had mentioned that the cabbies that drives south out of the airport, they go this long way around right on the freeway, it’s a much longer fare because it’s almost right next to the airport.
Mike: Yeah. That was a classy scam several years ago before Lyft and Uber came around because what would happen is that people would get into a cab and the cab would say, “Do you want to take the highway to the hotel or do you want to go north?” They wouldn’t really give you a clear indication that the highway is actually south out of the airport, then you have to go all the way around. They would really just basically scam you because they could.
I remember that specifically happened to Andrew Warner because he wasn’t paying attention back in 2011 and he was telling me about it afterwards. I was like, “You totally got scammed by them.” Which sucks but at the same time, you wouldn’t know that unless you actively looked for that, either behavior or things to watch out for.
Rob: Another thing to do is to install or update the conference app before you leave. Often, conferences will issue a new app each year or you can update it and get the updated content and that’s certainly something that you can think about. You can obviously do that on site too, but I know that before I leave, I’m downloading a bunch of shows for the plane, I’m downloading any new games or anything to play on the plane but that’s less about for the conference and more just about the travel.
Mike: Yeah. But I think it’s important to make sure that if you have a bunch of updates to your apps, or your phone, or your laptop that you get those things taken care of before you hit the road so that you’re not trying download stuff over wifi because you don’t always have a lot of control over what gets downloaded when or what’s updated first or you may not even have a lot of bandwidth to work with. Like oh, I suddenly need to install this app so that I know where to go next, and then all this other stuff is in the way and taking precedence then you have to wait a heck of a lot more time to get it done.
Another thing to make sure you have taken care of is your passport and travel documents of any kind. Make sure that they’re up to date before you leave. I have heard of people who’ve forgotten to get that stuff taken care of before they go for a big trip that they’ve been planning or they planned three months, six months in advance, and they didn’t think about that, and then suddenly the night before or the day of, they realize oh, this stuff is out of date and it’s going to take three weeks to get it taken care of and I can’t go. Be mindful of those types of things as well. Because there’s literally nothing you can do at that point. You can’t argue with TSA agents, for example, if you’re trying to go to another country.
Rob: Yeah, that’s brutal. I’ve heard of few friends who’ve had that where their passport expired or even if it expires within six months or something, and when you’re travelling, it’s pretty crazy. That would be a serious bummer to have to cancel a trip or miss a conference because of that.
Another thing to think about is figure out, potentially even rehearse your answers to common questions like what are you working on, what do you do, what company are you with, what are you hoping to get out of the conference. Just think about that stuff in advance so that it couldn’t come as a shock, you’re going to get asked the same thing over and over.
And, think about what questions you want to ask of people. Often times, I will try not to ask the same questions that everyone else does. Typically, I want to get to what are you working on, what’s really interesting you right now. I’ll often ask people what books they are reading or listening to to try to get more ideas, or what their favorite podcast is. Just because people like to talk about themselves and share their knowledge, and if it’s something new that I haven’t heard, that’s good. I totally want to add it to my content queue if you will. That’s a perfect place to do it because I’m surrounded by people that are similar to us, they’re one of us in essence.
Mike: The opposite of that is also true. Make sure that you have some ways to gracefully exit a conversation whether it’s hey, I need to go get a drink, or use a restroom, or you need to go take a phone call, or make a phone call to somebody, to call your spouse or significant other, or you just see somebody else that you really wanted to meet and you need to step out of the conversation and go talk to them.
This is more about protecting your time and making sure that you get the most out of the time that you are there. Because sometimes there’s a conversation going on and it’s not like you don’t like the people that you’re talking to or you don’t appreciate the things that they have to say but you have other things and other priorities that you need to pay attention to and your time is one of them. Because your time at that event is very limited and it will be over before you know it.
Rob: That’s a big deal. Don’t get cornered and get stuck talking to someone that you don’t have anything in common or the person is just talking too much and it really isn’t providing value. Like you said, you only have a limited amount of time. It’s not all about take, take, take. It’s about giving some value as well. But there are just some conversations that are mutually awesome and you know that’s going somewhere and you know that it’s valuable. Other ones, they just wander and you realize this is just mindless and I don’t really want to do this. Really be mindful and figure out how you’re going to gracefully exit those kinds of conversations.
Mike: Now we’re finished talking about the things that you should do before the conference, let’s talk about the stuff that you should pay attention to at the conference. You already mentioned this, the number one thing I think is to stay hydrated and there’s a corollary there which is to also get enough sleep. But with the hydration, if it’s the type of conference where you’re going to be talking a lot, you’re going to find yourself dehydrated. Make sure that you are drinking enough water to get you through the days.
There are certain environments, like a desert in Las Vegas, that’s going to amplify that. It’s going to make you even more dehydrated, so does alcohol. You have to be careful about that stuff because it’s very easy to go to a conference in Vegas and I’ve had this happen to myself where I didn’t drink anything alcoholic, it was just water, I didn’t drink enough water though. I woke up the next day and I felt hungover even though I hadn’t had anything to drink. That’s just going to impact the rest of your day. You do have to pay attention to how much water you’re drinking.
Rob: Big time. It’s easier said than done to say get enough sleep, but I have really found that I enjoy conferences more when I am at least getting seven hours of sleep and I can feel rested getting into it, otherwise I’m sitting in a ballroom for seven to eight hours, and I’m tired and not listening. You’re not getting a ton of value from things anymore.
It’s easy to hang out especially when you’re at a conference with friends, and colleagues, and relationships that you’ve built and you only see them once or twice a year. I think that making a graceful exit at midnight and getting your solid eight hours. That’s something that we’ve done past couple of years with MicroConf is we moved the start times of all the conferences to 10:00AM, and I actually think that was a really good idea because we’ve gotten positive feedback about it, about how people have time to get breakfast together, especially people who are on later time zones, Central or Eastern time zone. But it also just allows if you do stay up late, it’s just gives you that a little bit more leeway. You could feasibly wake up at 9:00AM and still have a nice breakfast and get to the conference on time.
Mike: What do you mean feasibly? I think we do that, don’t we?
Rob: That is what I do. I was trying not to be too overt about it, but yes. I’m not embarrassed to say, even though I should be on Central time, 9:00AM is like 11:00AM for me. I think last year, I had to set my alarm for 8:30AM and 8:45AM both days. All four days of the conference just to make sure that I didn’t sleep through it.
Mike: One thing that I found to be a little bit less valuable over time is taking notes at a conference. I used to be the type of person who go to a conference and I would take pages and pages of notes. What I realized overtime was that I was writing down stuff but not necessarily paying attention to how important it was or whether it was new to me. I’d have these pages of notes and a lot of it turned out to be irrelevant, but I was writing it down just because I felt like I should because the speaker had said something or commented on it.
I was trying to create almost a transcript of what they were talking about and the reality is if you already know that stuff, don’t bother writing it down. Only write down the stuff that is new, or that you find insightful, or if an idea pops into your head and you find that it’s going to be actionable. Those are the things that you need to write down because you will probably forget them later on. But the stuff that you already know, there’s no need to write that stuff down.
In addition, there’s usually other people who are taking notes or there may even be an official note taker for the conference, a lot of speaker make their slides available for after their talks, definitely write down the URLs for those, or get them from the conference afterwards if they’re collecting them and just distributing them. But don’t feel compelled to write down every little thing that the speakers say. Just write down the stuff that’s important.
Rob: Another thing to consider is to think about asking questions during speaker Q&A. It’s a valuable opportunity to get interesting feedback. Obviously, be respectful of time and whether an answer to your question is generally applicable to other people. You can always follow up with the speaker when they’re off stage.
I do think that part of the beauty of a conference is everybody is in the same room. One way to bring value is to ask interesting questions. That gives you an excuse to then follow up later if you ask a question a speaker answers in general and you can come up and say, “Hey, I actually have this specific thing I want to talk to you about.” But if it is generally applicable, it can be helpful to the whole audience. I think that’s good to give back to community in that way.
Mike: A really nice way to stand out in the minds of the speakers who are presumably leaders in the community is to thank them directly if you found what they were talking about helpful. I would obviously encourage people to put feedback into the conference surveys but I think that for most speakers, it’s really helpful for them and gratifying to hear that somebody got a lot out of their talk. Definitely make it a point to thank them and if you have follow up questions, don’t hesitate to ask them after the talk, especially in situations where if you have a question that you think you might want to ask during the Q&A session but you realized that that question is so very specific to your business, or your particular problem, then save that for a later conversation when you’re not going to be using other people’s time to hear an answer to a question that just has no bearing or relevance on them.
Rob: Another thing to do is to make sure that you are social. It’s easy to go and lock yourself in your hotel room and watch this week’s episode of Walking Dead instead of hanging out. If it’s a good conference, the hallway track is worth almost as much as or more than the actual speaker track.
With that said, I will say know your limits. Get out and meet people. There comes a point where that’s demising returns and you can become so tired or so over stimulated or overwhelmed that you’re no longer having fun and you’re no longer really getting that much value.
I think there’s a balance to be struck here. I do notice that as I get older, and as I go to more conferences, I’m still quite social but I don’t do the 4:00AM nights like the early MicroConfs. Maybe that’s just a factor of sleep but I definitely get my fill of conversation earlier than I did maybe seven or eight years ago.
Mike: Moving on to the last section of this is after the conference is over, take some time to follow up with the people that you met. Whether you exchanged business cards or contact information.
It was funny last night, when I was at the Wistia event, there were a lot of people there who would ask me for business cards, I’m like, “I don’t have business cards.” Certain conferences you go to, that’s the expectation and then there are certain ones where it really isn’t. But if you are exchanging contact information with people because you want to talk to them later, or follow up on a business opportunity, or ask them more questions, definitely make sure that you follow up with them and help maintain those relationships that you started with them and you can maintain those relationships over time. Don’t feel that you can just let those lapse because I think if you let more than a couple of weeks go by once a conference is over, and you’ve met somebody, I think it starts to become more awkward to reintroduce yourself to the person and you feel weird about reaching out to them. The earlier you do that after the conference is over the better.
Rob: Another thing to do after the conference is review your notes to see if you need to fill in any gaps. That’s a great thing to do on the plane. I’m assuming you’re going to take notes locally, you probably have no internet, it’s a great time to sit and think back, are there any takeaways or any people that I met or any things that I want to take away that aren’t in these notes? Because I like my notes to capture the entire event and really be able to refer back to them and refresh everything that came out of it because it can spark new information later when you view it through different eyes if you look at it 6 months or 12 months from now. Be sure that your notes are buttoned up and they don’t have to be super professional, but at least in a format that you feel like you can interpret them in 6-12 months.
Mike: Another thing I’d highly recommend, and this comes from the stance of an event coordinator but make sure that you fill out the conference surveys. I say this not just because it’s a nice thing to do but a conference is not going to get any better if you don’t provide them with helpful feedback or at least with a good sense of where their conference did well and where they didn’t. If you don’t give them an idea of where they stand, then it’s very difficult for them to make decisions that will help improve things moving forward.
Rob: And then finally, I think it’s helpful to reflect, especially if this is the first or second conference you’ve gone to. Reflect on your time there and make a few notes about what you feel worked really well and things that you regret that you did or didn’t do. Let’s just be honest in Vegas, there’s a lot to regret that you did. Use the list. Honestly, use the list to improve your ROI on conferences in the future. Without reflecting and looking at your process figuring out what worked and what didn’t, it’s hard to improve upon that in the future.
Mike: I don’t think that the things that you regret doing or not doing are limited to just being in Vegas. One thing that comes to mind is there has been conferences where I’ve gone to where I stayed up way too late involved in a conversation that really was not of any value to me. I ended up being extremely tired the next day, for no good reason. I felt like I’ll stay up because of the people here and you really have no obligation to other people to stay involved in a conversation if there are other things that you could or should be doing like going to bed and getting some sleep.
Rob: Yep. I’ve done that. I’ve stayed up too late, I have done the wasn’t social enough, didn’t meet enough people, wasn’t deliberate enough about picking up the people in advance that I wanted to meet, a lot of things in this list, I have certainly made those mistakes. With that, go to your next conference, enjoy it, and get the most value that you can, we hope to see you at this MicroConf happening next week or MicroConf in the future. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-96-90 or you can email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As I like to say, voicemails go to the top of the queue.
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