9 Ways Bootstrapped Startups Can Impress at Conferences


Conference-Bird's Eye View_CL

Being memorable at a conference doesn’t entail a big budget and flashy gimmicks. These tips will get you connections that matter — and close deals.

Conferences and other industry events are a great way for startups to get noticed, but it’s hard not to feel small (in a bad way) when you walk into such a large event. For example, the 2014 HR Technology Conference had 300 vendors, including one veteran that had a high-profile stage, Cirque du Soleil dancers, a briefing room, huge video displays, giant signs hanging from the ceiling, neon lights and more.

Our booth was in a back corner with a smaller footprint than a Fiat and only held a cocktail table. Still, we had a line of people waiting to talk to us throughout the entire conference. At one point, we were running two demos simultaneously, had commandeered an empty table nearby and had also set up a spot to talk outside the expo hall. And we had decision makers from huge, well-known companies stand in line to talk to us, showing genuine interest in our products.

Yes, you can win against a company that spent a million dollars on a trade show booth. In fact, we did it all with a budget of less than $5,000. Here’s how:

Start With a Message

Look at your event presence as you would any marketing campaign and consider:

  • What should you call your campaign?
  • What is the message you want to send to attendees?
  • What pain are these attendees facing? What’s stressing them out?
  • What do these people care about?

Once you have your answers, work on building a creative campaign that addresses those pain points and will draw attendees to your booth.

For HR Tech, we knew the human resources professionals and other leaders in attendance were worried about employee engagement, and we know they’ve been working to address it with broken processes or products. They know they can do better, but just aren’t sure how. With that in mind, we came up with the theme “Out with the old, in with the awesome.”

“Old” referred to worn-out methods — like annual employee surveys — that employers use to measure engagement, and “awesome” referred to our being named one of the conference’s “Awesome New Startups for HR.

Throw Your Trinkets in the Trash

The table dressed up with a skirt, the pens, the stress balls and the coffee mugs — just throw them in the garbage. Most of these things will end up there anyway.

For HR Tech, we designed some great hoodies and bought as many as we could afford — 40. That’s not a lot, but people loved them, wanted them and were excited if they were among the few that got one.

Bring Something Beautiful

Whether it’s your clever T-shirt or hoodie, the demo you build or the one-page takeaway you hand out, you need to make sure it looks amazing. The details matter and people will notice.

Train Your Entire Team

Everyone who goes to the event needs to be ready to do your company’s cocktail-napkin pitch — and do it the same way. For us, HR Tech was an all-hands-on-deck event and even people who usually spend all their time behind the scenes had to be prepared to talk to customers, prospects, VCs, competitors and anyone else who showed up at our booth. We practiced relentlessly the week before and our efforts paid off.

Make Real Friends With Your Industry’s Influencers

We were named one of the top new HR tech products in 2013, and no one knew who we were. The following year was a totally different story because at HR Tech 2013, we strategically invested in getting to know the industry’s influencers — the right press people, analysts, bloggers, industry insiders, etc. We didn’t focus on getting new customers, but instead used our small conference budget to throw a party for influencers and work to get to know them as people.

The relationships we’ve built with them since that party have been extremely valuable. These people know us and now genuinely care about our company’s success. The secret is making sure you work to connect with people who are a good fit for you, your product and your customers. Not every “must-know influencer” will fit that description for every company.

Find Other Cool Vendors and Buddy Up

At a show with so many vendors, everyone is competing for attention, but that doesn’t mean you have to view everyone else as the enemy. Go out and see what others are doing on the floor and make some friends. It’s a compelling way to generate traffic and build relationships.

I walked out of HR Tech with a professional connection and friend I know I’ll have for life. During the conference, I sent at least 10 people over to talk to her team and she sent at least 10 people over to us.

Give Out Your Swag Strategically

As I said, we could only afford 40 hoodies — clearly not enough for such a huge show — so we wanted to be strategic about who got one. We gave them to people who we made a real connection with, who would show it off and be proud of sharing our brand with others.

Make Life Easy for the Media

Mary Ellen Slayter told me once that if you want to get reporters’ attention, you have to make their lives easier. I followed that advice and sent an email to The Wall Street Journal reporter Lauren Weber with the catchy subject line “The busiest lady at HR Tech.” I said if she’d talk to us, I’d gather all six of the “Awesome New Startups for HR” together for her to interview all at once.

She was thrilled and took me up on the offer. I got my company time with a Wall Street Journal reporter and a ton of love from the other companies that joined me. When you aren’t spending all your time yammering on about yourself, you can create a win-win.

Make the Follow Up Count

Our plan to make a splash at HR Tech was a wild success, but it didn’t stop when we got on the plane back to Cincinnati. That plan included a strategy to follow up with every lead, connection and business card we received.

If you want to turn a sensational event into an uptick in sales, you need to be prepared for spikes in traffic to your website. You also need systems in place to convert those visitors to leads and close deals. If you aren’t ready to hit the ground running with follow-up as soon as the show is over, the opportunities you created there will pass you by.




The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.


About the author: Chris Ostoich

Chris Ostoich is co-founder and marketing leader at LISNR, a TechStars company. He leads the marketing function for one of the hottest companies in the IoT space that intends to disrupt the mobile industry with a new communication protocol that is the most efficient way to connect any device with a speaker or microphone.

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