Category Archives: Events

Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences

I can’t tell you the number of times, as we were tearing down our booth after having had an epic show, that we overheard the guy next door calling back to corporate saying that the show was a “total waste of time” and that the company shouldn’t do it again next year.  Of course, he didn’t say that he:

  • Staffed the booth only during scheduled breaks and went into the hallway to take calls at other times.
  • Sat inside the booth, safely protected from conference attendees by a desk.
  • Spent most of his time looking down at his phone, even during the breaks when attendees were out and about.
  • Didn’t use his pass to attend a single session.
  • Measured the show solely by qualified leads for his territory, discounting company visibility and leads for other territories to zero.

slack boothDoes this actually happen, you think?  Absolutely

All the time.  (And it makes you think twice when you’re on the other end of that phone call – was the show bad or did we execute it poorly?) 

I’m a huge believer in live events and an even bigger believer that you get back what you put into them.  The difference between a great show and a bad show is often, in a word, execution.  In this post, I’ll offer up 10 tips to ensure you get the best out of the conferences you attend.

Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences and Tradeshows

1. Send the right people.  Send folks who can answer questions at the audience’s level or one level above.  Send folks who are impressive.  Send folks who are either naturally extroverts or who can “game face” it for the duration of the show.  Send folks who want to be there either because they’re true believers who want to evangelize the product or because they believe in karma [1].  Send senior people (e.g., founders, C-level) [2] so they can both continue to refine the message and interact with potential customers discussing it.

2. Speak.  Build your baseline credibility in the space by blogging and speaking at lesser conferences.  Then, do your homework on the target event and what the organizers are looking for, and submit a great speaking proposal.  Then push for it to be accepted.  Once it’s accepted, study the audience hard and then give the speech of your life to ensure you get invited back next year.  There’s nothing like being on the program (or possibly even a keynote) to build credibility for you and your company.  And the best part is that speaking a conference is, unlike most everything else, free.

3. If you can afford a booth/stand, get one.  Don’t get fancy here.  Get the cheapest one and then push hard for good placement [3].  While I included a picture of Slack’s Dreamforce booth, which is very fancy for most early-stage startup situations, imagine what Slack could have spent if they wanted to.  For Slack, at Dreamforce, that’s a pretty barebones booth.  (And that’s good — you’re going to get leads and engage with people in your market, not win a design competition.)

4. Stand in front of your booth, not in it.  Expand like an alfresco restaurant onto the sidewalk in spring.  This effectively doubles your booth space.

5. Think guerilla marketing.  What can make the biggest impact at the lowest cost?  I love stickers for this because a clever sticker can get attention and end up on the outside of someone’s laptop generating ongoing visibility.  At Host Analytics, we had great success with many stickers, including this one, which finance people (our audience) simply loved [4].

I LOVE EBITDA

While I love guerilla marketing, remember my definition:  things that get maximum impact at minimum cost.  Staging fake protests or flying airplanes with banners over the show may impress others in the industry, but they’re both expensive and I don’t think they impress customers who are primarily interested not in vendor politics, but in solving business problems.

6. Work the speakers.  Don’t just work the booth (during and outside of scheduled breaks), go to sessions.  Ask questions that highlight your issues (but not specifically your company).  Talk to speakers after their sessions to tee-up a subsequent follow-up call.  Talk to consultant speakers to try and build partnerships and/or fish to referrals.  Perhaps try to convince the speakers to include parts of your message into their speech [5].

7. Avoid “Free Beer Here” Stunts.  If you give away free beer in your booth you’ll get a huge list of leads from the show.  However, this is dumb marketing because you not only buy free beer for lots of unqualified people but worse yet generate a giant haystack of leads that you need to dig through to find the qualified ones — so you end up paying twice for your mistake.  While it’s tempting to want to leave the show with the most card swipes, always remember you’re there to generate visibility, have great conversations, and leave with the most qualified leads — not, not, not the longest list of names.

8. Host a Birds of a Feather (BoF).  Many conferences use BoFs (or equivalents) as a way for people with common interests to meet informally.  Set up via either an online or old-fashioned cork message board, anyone can organize a BoF by posting a note that says “Attention:  All People Interested in Deploying Kubernetes at Large Scale — Let’s Meet in Room 27 at 3PM.”  If your conference doesn’t have BoFs either ask the organizers to start them, or call a BoF anyway if they have any general messaging facility.

9. Everybody works. If you’re big enough to have an events person or contractor, make sure you define their role properly.  They don’t just set up the booth and go back to their room all day.  Everybody works.  If your events person self-limits him/herself by saying “I don’t do content,” then I’d suggest finding another events person.

10.  No whining.  Whenever two anglers pass along a river and one says “how’s the fishing?” the universal response is “good.”  Not so good that they’re going to ask where you’ve been fishing, and not so bad that they’re going to ask what you’ve been using.  Just good.  Be the same way with conferences.  If asked, how it’s going, say “good.”  Ban all discussion and/or whining about the conference until after the conference.  If it’s not going well, whining about isn’t going to help.  If it is going well, you should be out executing, not talking about how great the conference is.  From curtain-up until curtain-down all you should care about is execution.  Once the curtain’s down, then you can debrief — and do so more intelligently having complete information.

Notes

[1] In the sense that, “if I spend time developing leads that might land in other reps’ territories today, that what goes around comes around tomorrow.”

[2] In order to avoid title intimidation or questions about “why is your CEO working the booth” you can have a technical cofounder say “I’m one of the architects of the system” or your CEO say “I’m on the leadership team.”

[3] Build a relationship with the organizers.  Do favors for them and help them if they need you.  Politely ask if anyone has moved, upgraded, or canceled their space.

[4] Again note where execution matters — if the Host Analytics logo were much larger on the sticker, I doubt it would have been so successful.  It’s the sticker’s payload, so the logo has to be there.  Too small and it’s illegible, but too big and no one puts the sticker on their laptop because it feels like a vendor ad and not a clever sticker.

[5] Not in the sense of a free ad, but as genuine content.  Imagine you work at Splunk back in the day and a speaker just gave a talk on using log files for debugging.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could convince her next time to say, “and while there is clearly a lot of value in using log files for debugging, I should mention there is also a potential goldmine of information in log files for general analytics that basically no one is exploiting, and that certain startups, like Splunk, are starting to explore that new and exciting use case.”

Should Your Startup Have a Quota Club? (And How Much to Spend on It.)

December is when most SaaS startups are closing out the year, trying to finalize next year’s operating plan (hint:  I know a software company that can help with that), starting to get a clear view on which salespeople are going to make their number, and thus beginning the process of figuring out who to invite to the annual “Quota Club” (a.k.a. President’s Club, Achiever’s Club, or Sales Club).

In this post, I’ll discuss why Quota Clubs are so controversial and how I learned to think about them after, frankly, way too much time spent in meetings discussing a topic that I view nearly as difficult as religion or politics.

Quota Club is always highly controversial:

  • It’s exclusionary.  Consider this quote my friend Lance Walter heard years ago (I think at Siebel): “the last thing I want at Quota Club is to be lying on a chaise lounge by the pool, roll over, and see some effing marketing guy next to me.”  Moreover, the sales personality tends not to blend well with other departments, so a well-intentioned attempt to send the top documentation writer on a trip with 30 sales people is as likely to be perceived as punishment as it is reward.
  • It’s expensive.  The bill can easily run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies in the tens of millions of annual recurring revenue (ARR) and in the millions for those above that.  That doesn’t help your customer acquisition cost (CAC) ratio.
  • Even the basics of qualification are somehow complicated.  Now, on the face of it, you might that “making quota” would be sufficient to qualify for Quota Club, but in some people’s minds it’s not:  “no, at this company we expect people to make quota, so Quota Club should only be for those at 120% of quota.”  (The idea that maybe quotas are set too low doesn’t seem to occur to these people.)  That’s not to mention minimum attainment rules required to avoid accidents with ramped quotas (e.g., a new rep who sells $400K on a $200K quota.)  Or the intractable problem in decentralized organizations where Country A runs large numbers of junior reps at low quotas while Country B runs small numbers of senior reps at high quotas — so someone who sells $1.25M in Country A attends club while someone who sells $1.75M in Country B does not.
  • Invitations beyond quota-carrying reps (QCRs) are always controversial.  Do consultants who hit their utilization target get invited?  (No.)  Do sales development reps (SDRs) who hit their opportunity goals? (No.)  On what basis do sales consultants (SCs) get invited?  (Depends on SC model.)  Do CSMs who hit their renewals goals?  (Maybe, depends on your customer success model and how much selling they do.)  What about the executive staff?  What about a regional VP or CRO when he/she didn’t make their number?  Who presents the awards to their people?  And this isn’t to mention companies that want to inclusionary and invite some hand-picked top performers from other departments.
  • Guest policies can be surprisingly tricky.  Normally this is simple — each qualifier gets to invite a spouse or partner, with the implication that the company wants to reward the chosen guest for the sacrifices they made while the qualifier was working long hours on the big deal and doing extended travel. What if the guest is a friend as opposed to spouse or partner?  (Well, that’s OK if not quite the intent.)  But what if that friend is coworker?  (Hum, less so.)  What if that friend is another quota-carrying rep who failed to make their number?  (Even harder.)  Or, changing angles, what if their spouse is a sales rep at your top competitor?  What if they run competitive intelligence at your top competitor?
  • Opinions diverge on family policy.   Should qualifiers be encouraged to bring their children?  How about Grandpa to watch them?  Are these family members invited to any events or activities?  Can their pay their own way on the snorkeling cruise if they want to?  Is babysitting covered?  Is the reward for spending too much time away from your family a mandatory vacation away from your family?
  • The business meeting can be a religious issue.  Many sales VPs think Club should be a 100% reward — a complete vacation with no work.  If so, the CFO will take an income tax withholding from each qualifier.  Hence most companies have a business meeting that keeps Club a business affair  — and off the W-2s of the attendees.  Some sales VPs thus think:  do the absolute minimum to stave off the tax man.   More enlightened folks think:  what a great opportunity to meet with our top performers to talk about the business.
  • People can’t even agree on the dress code.  Should the awards dinner be California Casual, Summer Soiree, Creative Black Tie, Brooklyn Formal, or just a regular Black Tie Affair.  (And where do they get these names?)
  • Picking the location is difficult.   The Caribbean isn’t exotic for East Coasters and Hawaii isn’t exotic for West Coasters.  Some people think Clubs should always have a beach location, some think European cities are more exotic.  (By the way, try to find a reliably warm beach location in February or April.)  Should you invest your money in flights to a relatively inexpensive place or get cheaper flights to a more popular and presumably expensive place?  And this isn’t to mention any debates about hotel brands and their significance.
  • In-room gifts can jack up the price.  Club planners seem to love to include special gifts each night.  A welcome bottle of champagne the first night, a beach kit the second, a Tumi backpack the third, and a farewell mini-Margarita kit can quickly add up to $500 in extra cost per qualifier.
  • Planning is intrinsically difficult.   It’s inherently hard to plan when you have 30 QCRs and you’re not sure if 10, 20, or 30 are going to qualify — this is particularly difficult when you plan sales-only Clubs because you have less to fudge in terms of non-QCR attendees.  What do you do mid-year when you’ve planned for 20 and forecast that only 10 are going to make it?  Devalue Club by dropping the qualification bar for some reps or (the same act seen through a diametrically opposed lens) preserve the incentive value of Club by making it a realistic goal for the reps who otherwise had no realistic hope?

Holy Cow, just making this list gets my blood pressure up.  Are we sure we want to do this?  My answer remains yes.

Most startups, once you’re beyond $5M to $10M in ARR, should have some sort of Quota Club.  Here is my advice on how to do it:

  • Define it as the CEO’s club.  You can call it Quota Club or President’s Club, but make it clear to everyone that it’s the CEO’s event.  It’s a big expense (with a huge opportunity to waste a lot of money on top) and it’s full of decisions that are both subjective and polarizing.  Listen to what your current sales VP wants, but make those decisions yourself.
  • Start small.  At MarkLogic our first Quota Club was something like 10-15 people for two nights at the Bellagio in Vegas.
  • Leave room to make it incrementally better each year.  This is what I call Narva’s Rule, after my friend Josh Narva who came up with it.  (By the way, had we better applied his rule, we’d have held the first MarkLogic Club at Caesar’s Palace, saving the Bellagio for the following year — but at least we got the two days part right, leaving room to later expand to three.)  Don’t cover every bite or drink that goes in someone’s mouth in the early years:  folks can get a breakfast croissant at Starbucks or a drink by pool on their own nickel. You don’t need a group breakfast and a pool party to cover it.
  • Be inclusive of other functions.  This lets you recognize a few folks outside of non-quota-carrying sales each year.  (It also makes planning a little easier.)  Don’t be so inclusive that QCR/QCM attendance is less than 50%.  But take all your qualifying QCRs and quota-carrying managers (QCMs).  Add your selected SCs.  Add your qualifying CSMs (according to whatever rules you establish).  Then perhaps add a few folks — based on their helpfulness to sales — maybe from consulting, marketing, product, or salesops.  Helpful e-staff are also good candidates and can benefit from the direct feedback they will get.  Think:  I’d rather run a bit less luxurious event and invite a few more folks from across the company than the converse.
  • Do it at a beach in April, alternating East and West coasts.  Or, if you have a strong ski contingent, alternate between a ski resort in February and a beach in April.  Beware the sales VP will gripe about too much first-quarter time in meetings with a January kickoff and February Club.  But who says you can’t still ski in April?
  • Be family-friendly.  Be clear that kids and family are welcome at the event (at the attendee’s cost) and at most, but not all, activities.  If you have two dinners, make one a bring-the-clan affair and make the awards dinner spouse/guest only.  Let family opt-in to an any easily inclusive activities like snorkel trips. Help folks find and/or pool babysitting.
  • Take the business meeting seriously.  Run the meeting on the morning of day 2.  I like doing attendee surveys in advance (e.g,. via SurveyMonkey) and then doing a detailed review of the results to drive discussion.  This sets the tone that the event is for both fun and business and that the company isn’t going to miss the chance to have a great conversation with its top performers.  Discussing business at Club isn’t a party foul.  It’s part of why you have Club.
  • Stay aligned with event planner, particularly in the early days when you are trying to run a discount event as they will, by default, try to run a standard one.  Skip the bells and whistles like custom event logos, fancy signage, custom beach bags and towels, in-room gifts, and all-meals coverage. Define what your program is going to be and deliver against that expectation.  Then make it better next year.
  • Make and hold to a sensible budget.  Know, top of mind, the total event cost and cost/attendee — and remember that cost/qualifier is about double the cost/attendee, since each qualifier invites a guest.  As part of Narva’s Rule, increase that cost every year. Because I like to make things concrete, I think cost/attendee should range from $2.5K to $5.0K as a function of your typical salesperson’s on-target earnings (OTE) and your company’s lifecycle.  This means the “prize value” of the Quota Club invitation is $5K to $10K, equivalent to a roughly 2-4% bonus against typical OTEs.  On this sort of budget, you can offer a very nice, high-quality event, but you won’t be doing the truly unique, memorable, over-the-top stuff that some CROs like.
  • If you want to have an ultra-club do what we did at BusinessObjects.  While during most of my tenure at BusinessObjects we ran in nice-but-not-crazy mode, towards the end of my tenure there was a movement to make Club truly exceptional and unique.  That first led to discussions on how to trim down Club in order to increase the spend/qualifier, including potentially increasing the attainment bar from 100% to 125% and ending our inclusive philosophy.  I’m glad we didn’t do that.  Instead, we ended up creating an intimate ultra-club as a few days tacked on to the end of Quota Club.  It provided some niche cachet when the attendees were whisked off onto their continuation trip.  It allowed “the movement” to do some truly exceptional things for a small number of people.  Most of all, I think we correctly figured out who the “right people” were — not the one-hit wonder reps who had one big year, but instead the consistent reps around which you truly build a company.  I believe we set 5 years of consecutive Quota Club attainment as the criteria for an invitation to the ultra-club.  I’d invest extra in those people any day of the week.