Filling A Conference Room

How do you organize a profitable conference?

We’re talking about a business where if you fail, not only have you just shelled out a lot of money, but you end up alone at a conference with hundreds of little sandwiches.

Joining me is Sanjay Parekh, founder of Startup Riot, which organizes affordable, curated events for the startup community. He’s here to tell us how he organizes an event and gets people to come.

Sanjay Parekh

Sanjay Parekh

Startup Riot

Sanjay Parekh founded Startup Riot, which organizes all-day events highlighting 25 startups through three minute, four slide presentations given by the startups.

 

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey. Before we get started, if you need a web app built or a mobile app built, who do you call? Check out Koombea.com. They’ll take your idea from PowerPoint to product in just a few weeks. And when you go to Koombea.com, I recommend you look at that top tab, the one that says ‘work’ on it, to see their previous work and understand what Koombea can do for you. From a minimum viable product to a full-blown web app, they have you covered. They work in Ruby on Rails for web, they can build an IOS or Android app for mobile, coumbia.com.

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Finally, if you need a lawyer as a tech entrepreneur you need to talk to Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. Why? Because if you go to the high-end law firms they’re going to charge you and arm and a leg and probably expect to take a piece of your business. They want shares in many cases. Or, if you go to the mom-and-pop law firm, the one that your friend recommends, that lawyer is probably not going to understand the issues that you go through as a tech entrepreneur. I recommend, go to the guy who specializes in start-up entrepreneurs, Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. Here’s the program.

Everyone, my name is Andrew Warner, I’m the founder of mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. How do you organize a profitable conference? Joining me is Sanjay Parekh- I was going to do the Indian pronunciation but it didn’t come out. Let me try it again. Sanjay Parekh. No, how do you do the Indian pronunciation, Sanjay?

Sanjay: Parekh.

Andrew: All right. Sanjay joining me here, he is the founder of Startup Riot which organizes affordable, curated events for the startup community. I invited him here to find out how he does it. I want to find out how he organizes conferences and get people to come and makes it profitable. Not necessarily because I or you in the audience want to organize our own conferences -though I know some of you do- but because I want to understand, how did this business where if you fail you end up at a conference all by yourself with a lot of money shelled out for food and nobody with you…

It’s dangerous, it’s not easy to get people to come out and show up at your event and pay for tickets. It’s not easy to get sponsors to actually pay for ads that aren’t measurable the way that google ads are. I want to find out how he does it so that we can learn and bring back some of his ideas to our businesses. If you want to actually see one of his conferences in person -I know I did and I loved it, I went to the one in Atlanta, Georgia- but if you want to see the next one, it’s in Seattle, Washington, on August 24th. Sanjay, welcome to Mixergy.

Sanjay: Thanks for having me, Andrew.

Andrew: How about that last name one more time, how do you pronounce it?

Sanjay: It’s Parekh.

Andrew: Parekh.

Sanjay: You got it.

Andrew: All right. How many people came to the biggest event that you had?

Sanjay: The biggest event was the one that you were at just now in February, and it was a little over 450 people at that event.

Andrew: 450 people, that’s a huge crowd especially for Atlanta, Georgia, right?

Sanjay: Yeah, it’s interesting. We get people from all over. I think this year we had one startup from Australia coming in and present and one from France. We get a cross section of attendees everywhere and I think it’s different a little bit also in the fact that we curate the audience. We don’t just let anybody come into the event.

Andrew: What kind of curation do you have in the audience?

Sanjay: The one big group that we keep out is service providers. So your lawyers, accountants, recruiters, consultants, the folks that end up flooding an event like this and just make it so that folks don’t want to come back. If they are sponsors we let them in but otherwise we don’t.

Andrew: I see. Everyone needs to actually have a business in the audience, too.

Sanjay: Or they have to be an investor or something like that, related to this community.

Andrew: Got you. What do you feel comfortable telling us about the size revenue from the event.

Sanjay: In terms of revenue, this year we were just for the Atlanta event, over $70,000 in total revenue between sponsors as well as registration fees. The majority being sponsors rather than registration fees.

Andrew: That nervousness, the worry that I have about events where you put the event on, you spend money on the conference space and all that, and no one shows up… Do you as an organizer have that feeling or is it just in my imagination and in my experience?

Sanjay: Yeah, every time almost. I think it was more the first year because I decided to put this on with just a couple of month’s notice, and it was just me, and it’s still almost just me. I’ve got somebody else working with me now. But that first year, was just kind of like, let’s do this thing and see what happens. And honestly, I think I lucked out in a lot of ways. I got a lot of people to help out and sponsors to sign up with kind of no idea what they were going to get. And most of the sponsors have continued to stay on with me through the years.

Andrew: Hey, you know, if the people I know who run web apps are worried that they’ll launch it and nobody will come and use it, or maybe two people will. But if that happens, no one knows that you failed. If that happens, it all happens, you know, from the privacy and safety of your own bedroom or office. But as a conference organizer, nobody shows up, it’s kind of embarrassing. Or if it’s under attended, like if you had 100 people in a place that you meant to have 400 people, everyone knows. Hey, this thing didn’t work out, and they feel like fools for buying tickets. It’s a nervous feeling. When did you launch? When did you do the very first one?

Sanjay: The very first one was in 2008. We did it in May, and like I said, I think I came up with the idea to do it in February or March of that year. And then, after that year, it was moved to February, and every year it’s been February here in Atlanta. And now, we’re adding on Seattle in August. And so, yeah. It wasn’t with much time, and very fortunately the venue that we ended up picking, we pretty well packed in. And we stayed with that venue for two years. The second year was super full, and then we moved on after that.

Andrew: What was the venue that I was in? Wasn’t it the House of Blues?

Sanjay: Yeah, it was the old House of Blues in Atlanta, the tabernacle, so it’s a hundred plus year old venue, absolutely fabulous building. We’re going to be there again next year. We’ve got room to grow there, and they just treated us so well, that we’re not going to go from that space.

Andrew: A really cool location.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: A really cool location. All right. Where do I want to take this interview next? Do I want to go back in time and find out what you did before this, do I want to talk now about . . . you know, let’s just give people an understanding of what the conference is about. It’s speakers on stage, right? Who are the speakers?

Sanjay: We do, actually, with your conference, the first time we did it we did two keynote speakers, and we’re working on that again for Seattle. And then the rest of the day is startups, and actually with your event that you were at, we had 50 startups for three minutes, four slides presented throughout the day. We’re tweaking that a little bit for Seattle. We’re going to 25 startups, three minute presentations, using the same four slides they get, they all get. Not the same four slides, but their four slides. And then they get grilled for three minutes by a judging panel. So they have to answer questions from a panel right after they do their presentation.

Andrew: Interesting. OK. All right. And then, you also have booths where they can show off their stuff and answer questions afterwards, too?

Sanjay: Exactly. So, if they want to do demos for audience members, or whoever comes up and is interested in what they’re doing they can do that there.

Andrew: OK. Over $70,000 in revenues, you said 450 people came to the last one. You peaked my interest. I want to know how you got here. Let’s start with where the idea came from. What was the original idea and where did you get it?

Sanjay: Yeah. It actually slips back then to my previous startup, which sold and exited in 2007. And then, thinking about kind of what had happened to me with that startup . . .

Andrew: This is Digital Envoy. What did Digital Envoy do?

Sanjay: Digital Envoy I started in 1999, and it’s still around, IP-based locations. So, knowing where somebody is on the Internet and knowing only their IP address. So, all those ads that you get based on where you’re geographically located, more than likely, that’s my technology. The fact that you can’t get streaming of certain stuff outside of the U.S., again my apologies, that’s probably my technology.

Andrew: Really? Well, get out. That’s cool.

Sanjay: Yeah, yeah. It’s cool and it’s not, right? We can’t get the stuff that we want when we’re traveling.

Andrew: It’s cool to be that deeply embedded. You said that you sold in 2007 to who?

Sanjay: We sold to Landmark Communications, which is an old family-owned private company out of the southeast, out of someplace in Virginia. I’ve forgotten where, now. But they used to be the previous owners of the Weather Channel, so that’s why a lot of people know those folks. So, we sold to them in 2007, and thinking about that, and that experience . . .

Andrew: Sorry, one more thing.

Sanjay: Yeah. Go ahead.

Andrew: I know you and I talked before and you said that you weren’t working day to day on the business when you sold. How did you do from that sale?

Sanjay: I did okay. So, yeah, I left the business in 2005. I was kind of burned out. I wanted to take a year off, and so I went, and rather than lounge around I took a year off and got my MBA over at Emory University. I stayed on the Board until we exited. And so, from the exit, you know, I did well enough to be able to take some time off. Not well enough to retire for the rest of my life, but it was a nice exit, and for the first time doing a startup, it was nice. A nice win. So, from that experience, I wanted to give back. And so, that’s what led me to do Startup Riot. And, you know, it was really more about, how do I help other entrepreneurs? Right? How do I give them something that I didn’t necessarily have when I was doing a startup? And so, just because it wasn’t there for me, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do it for other folks. And, you know, thinking about that fear, one of the things I heard when I was doing this, when I kind of circulated the idea, a lot of folks were like, well, there’s no way you’re going to get fifty people to present at this thing. There aren’t even fifty people startups in Atlanta. And so, that had me actually second-guessing myself and going, well, you know, what have I gotten myself into?

Andrew: Why do you feel that standing up . . . I’m sorry to interrupt the train of thought?

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: I want to understand the motive here. Why do you think that standing up and presenting as a startup would fulfill a need that you didn’t have, I mean, that you didn’t have met when you were launching Digital Envoy? What is it about that that you didn’t have that you wish you had?

Sanjay: Well, one of the things that I did have was, we were involved with Garage.com, Guy Kawasaki’s firm. They actually put on an event where it was us and I think two or three other startups that presented in front of a large audience of investors out in the valley, just one morning, maybe it was an hour and a half, two hours long. I did have that, but you know, I didn’t have it to the extent of, you know, let’s get a daylong conference going where it’s just all about startups. It’s a bunch of people that you know are interested and are not going to try to sell you stuff. I think that happens just over and over again in conferences, and actually at that event that Garage did, I tell you a lot of the supposedly qualified leads of folks that are, you know, angel investors, a lot of them were just trying to sell services. And not Garage’s fault, at all. I think they did a wonderful job, and we actually got some great leads out of that. But I think that is really the hole that we’re trying to fill with this event. You’re asking people to take a day out of their lives to present and be a part of a conference, and it’s got to be something that’s valuable, right? Because otherwise, they’re just going to stay in their office, heads down, decoding, you know, trying to build up their business. So, this has got to be something that’s more value-add than doing that. And that’s how I view this event. And I think it is, because people will go there and everybody they meet is somebody useful for them, somebody that can help them succeed. And that’s kind of the ethos that we push upon the attendees, as well. Look, you’re here not just for yourself. You’re here to help everybody that’s around you. And that’s the only way that we get stronger.

Andrew: So you had this vision for the people on stage. They’re going to get to present to real investors, to people who really can have an influence on their business. I understand how, well, we’ll get to the sponsors and the benefit to them in a moment, but I understand the investors might want to be in the audience to look for the next investment to make in the next startup. What about for attendees? Why did you imagine that you could get them to pull cash out of their pockets and pay to sit in the audience and watch other people present their startups?

Sanjay: Right. Well, I think one of the things is that we keep ticket prices low, right? So it’s extremely affordable to attend this event. Unlike a lot of conferences you see that are $1,000, or $500 to attend. We’re talking $30 to $70 bucks. So really, that ticket price is to cover just the base minimal stuff. I mean, it costs us a lot more per person to actually put on the event than what they’re shelling out–even at the high end of $70, we’re still shelling out money to cover the event. But, you know, I think one of the best ways to learn how to do some of the things that you want to do is to see other people do it. Right? So, if you can sit there and watch, up until now, 50 startups present in three minutes, that’s really a tight elevator pitch. And we only give them four slides. We don’t give them animation. We don’t give them anything. They don’t get slide builds, or anything. It’s really about connecting with the audience. And sitting there you can see, and I think your audience does that, too, right? You’ve got a session on how to do interviews. You understand how to do great interviews by watching somebody do great interviews. And also, you learn how to do great interviews by watching people just flub up interviews, as well. You see the things that you don’t want to do. Right? And that’s kind of the point of all these interviews, too. You talk about failures, as well. And so you go, I don’t want to do that. So let’s make sure we avoid that. And so, these presentations, I think, are the same way. Right? You see these things that people do that are fabulous, you see things that they do that are just horrific and don’t land. And that really helps you understand your own style and what you might want to become in your presentation.

Andrew: OK. So, I see that. What about the vision, then, for the sponsors? What do the sponsors get, considering that they have 450 people who are coming to an event? That’s not . . . you know how we sell ads online on a CPM basis, cost per thousand. This isn’t even an M. This is a cost per half M.

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew So, I always think, when it’s time to sell ads to an event, you’re never going to reach enough people for the sponsors to really get excited. They’re only going to do a little bit to . . . actually, I don’t know. I don’t know the mentality of the sponsor, and I know from your experience and from others who’ve done conferences that the sponsors are the reason why you can continue because they put in enough cash to pay for the event, otherwise you can’t pay for everyone’s lunch even. So take me through the mentality that you imagined a sponsor would have, and then we’ll talk about that evolved when you actually got into selling them.

Sanjay: Yeah, and an important note you mentioned lunch, we don’t even pay for lunch for our attendees. Nobody likes knowing that they paid $30 for an overpriced, crappy boxed lunch. So we do some fun things to let people go out and enjoy lunch with each other, and support local entrepreneurs that are in local restaurants or whatnot. But in terms of the mentality that we see, I think it’s hard to compare online pricing to an event like this. And I think the difference is, for us at least, is that online your thousand, your M there is possibly a bunch of unqualified people that you as a sponsor never even want to hit. Whereas in our case, every single person who comes through the door, I have personally looked at them. Looked at their linked in, looked at their background, and verified that they are somebody that should be in that venue. So we’re talking about a highly qualified group of people that as a sponsor you really want to support and you really want to hit.

Andrew: I understand. Like if you’re a wannabe, you’re not paying money to go to a conference, you’re not driving out to the conference, you’re not taking the whole day. If you have no interest or no business in the space. Where if you’re just person online you might head over to tec [??] country, you might go over to Mixergy just to check it out for a moment and then be counted toward that M that I was talking about earlier from CPM. So I get that.

Sanjay: Yeah, exactly. And we’re talking about a whole day captive, it’s not a minute and a half on a website. It’s an entire day that they’re there. And so, it’s not a lawyer that’s sponsoring the event that’s promoting to another random lawyer that just happens to be in the room, because we would have kept him out. So there’s that aspect, but I think that the other, and probably more important aspect is, these sponsors that we end up getting are really folks that are focused on supporting the community, because they understand the kind of the long term evolution here, right? If we sell and try to sell services to start ups when they are just two guys in a room, sure you might be able to get $100 out of them, $200 out of them. But they’re not going to succeed in the long run. If we can get those two guys, or two gals to a point where three years from now they are a profitable business that’s growing and needs a lot of services and then is laying down thousands of dollars and getting support from the community from all the service providers, that’s good for everybody. But getting involved too early and hindering that process is just bad. And so the sponsors that we have understand that, right? They want to be known at the beginning, and they know that it’s a long relationship type of thing. And that’s the sponsors that we look for, that are focused on the relationship and not on the transaction.

Andrew: Let me see, if I was sitting in the audience and wanted to organize an event and kind of wanted this to be my how to, if I wanted to study how you did it and bring back some ideas, what would I want to know? I would want to know, first do you get the venue or first do you see how many tickets you could sell? What’s the first thing you do?

Sanjay : Let’s see, what was the first thing that I did? I think you’ve got to get the venue first.

Andrew: First you lock in the venue. How do you know whether to go for a giant venue because you’re ambitious and want to get a lot of tickets sold, or do you go for a small venue because you want to be protective and then again, you can’t make that much revenue, what do you do?

Sanjay: Right. Right. I think it depends on the individual in terms of what their reach is. For us, over years I think we’ve been doing, the numbers are something like 30% annual growth in terms of attendees kind of year-over-year. That’s just the rate that it grows on, because of the good name that we’ve built in the brand of Startup Riot and people know that they want to come to the event.

Andrew: So the first time you did Startup Riot, what venue did you go for, how big and what kind?

Sanjay: It was like a conference center at a hotel here in town. And so we did it for the first two years, the first year we had a little over 200 attendees, the second year we had almost 300 attendees. The second year it was packed. There’s no way…

Andrew: So the first year 200 attendees, you end up getting a hotel where it’s a little more expensive but if you need to go bigger I’m sure the hotel could accommodate, and if you need to go . . . no you can’t.

Sanjay: No, actually not with this center. It’s a single standing building. And the reason we went there was it was central to a lot of things. There was food choices right nearby which you could walk to, which was important because we weren’t paying for lunch. And actually the after party venue that we ended up taking was one of the law firms actually sponsored the after party in their conference center. So everybody walked from this conference center to their conference center, like a two block walk. So everything just kind of worked in terms of that. It was cost effective, but we still had to bring in a lot of AV so that drove up the cost.

Andrew: OK. So first thing is you get your location; now you need to recruit three groups of people. You need to recruit attendees, you need to recruit presenters and you need to recruit sponsors.

Sanjay: Yep.

Andrew: Do you go after all three at once?

Sanjay: Pretty much, yeah. I mean, you’ve got to get everybody – sponsors I think you start a little earlier and maybe just before you stat getting the venue.

Andrew: Who’s the first sponsor you called?

Sanjay: Oh, gosh, that’s a good question! I don’t even remember; I think it was the folks at Georgia Tech. I’ve got kind of roots there. I was an undergrad there and graduated back in ’96 from Tech. So I think they were first, as well as the [??] law firm; they were gung-ho about this as well, locking them in an knowing that the after-party was going to be there really kind of helped out.

Andrew: Georgia Tech. University, right? They need to pay money in order to get people to pay attention. What’s in it for them?

Sanjay: So it actually wasn’t the institute, it wasn’t Georgia Tech itself, it was the, I think it was the research arm, the Georgia Tech Research Institute. The thing that they push is kind of helping to tie together the start-up community as well as corporate. They do a lot of research for large corporations and they like to bring in new technologies and expose it to companies when they can. So it’s good for us as start-ups, it’s good for the companies that they deal with and it’s good for them getting more grant money.

Andrew: I see. So you were saying they already were out there, I guess talking to, trying to recruit people in the start-up world or get to know them and connect them with businesses. You said they might be a good fit.

Sanjay: Exactly, exactly.

Andrew: Law firm – why is a law firm always in the mix when it comes to events?

Sanjay: Well, because they usually charge a lot of money and eventually I think they’re hoping to get exits out of these start-ups so they’ll make it back then. But, you know, I think a lot of law firms understand the idea of relationship, relationships with their clients; they’re not transactional. I mean, when you sign up for a lawyer, your corporate lawyer, it’s not like they’re hiring and firing them monthly. Once you sign up you’re a client for quite a long period of time.

Andrew: Gotcha.

Sanjay: So I think that’s why they make a good fit. So on the other side of that coin, you know, not to pick on recruiters, but recruiters oftentimes are transactional. They don’t view their clients as relationship over the long haul.

Andrew: I see. I always wonder why recruiters don’t end up on the list of sponsors all the time, since they try to get to events.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: And you’re saying it’s because they have very transactional, very short relationships with the people they work with.

Sanjay: Right, right – exactly. And that’s why we keep out those kinds of folks, because you don’t want to have somebody that’s just there at an event collecting business cards and spamming you with e-mails and things like that. I mean, we don’t release out attendee list to anyone. None of our sponsors get that; nobody other than me (and the person that’s working with me) has access to that information, because I don’t like going to events and then getting spammed afterwards, so why would we ever do that to any of our attendees?

Andrew: I used to actually hate when recruiters came to my events when I did them, because if a person wasn’t interesting to them they would be rude to them.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: They would just want to quickly move on to someone else. They’re in there with a clear agenda.

Sanjay: Yep.

Andrew: And I’m sure, I know I’m generalizing, because I know there were some that were really nice and helpful.

Sanjay: Oh, yeah.

Andrew: But I know that for the most part there was no vested interest in helping me or building a relationship with the people who came in. It was just, ‘I’m on the hunt for the right people. What do you do? Oh, you can’t even explain what you do?’ And they’d only say that to, like, non-developers, to people who they don’t ever foresee recruiting. They would quickly dismiss them on move on to someone else. It created a bad atmosphere.

Sanjay: Right, exactly.

Andrew: What about this? The packages that you give sponsors – how did you envision those packages? What were they?

Sanjay: In the beginning they were kind of almost all the same. It was, you know, probably just bigger logos and smaller logos, that’s basically about it.

Andrew: You just said, what I’m going to do is I’m going to put a big logo here on the event for the guy who gives me the most money; smaller logos for the others, that kind of thing; that was it?

Sanjay: Yeah. And the other thing that we did is we let the folks that gave more money bring more people to the event, and less money was less people to the event.

Andrew: So you get more tickets the more money you spend?

Sanjay: Right, right.

Andrew: Was there like a gold, silver, bronze type of package?

Sanjay: I think the first year we had just two levels, so it was like a gold and a silver, and a couple of years ago we added platinum. And now there’s a premier, which actually covers multiple events (now that we’re doing multiple events). So it has kind of evolved over time. The other thing that we do that other conferences a lot of times they don’t do is that we don’t let any of the sponsors get up on stage.

As an event organizer the hardest thing is you can’t really say no to your sponsors, right, because they’re paying the bills. And so if one of them gets up on stage and you tell them look, you only have 60 seconds and they go on for four minutes, you don’t really want to be the guy that gets up there and pulls them off stage because you now that next year they’re not going to come and sponsor more than likely, or it hurts the chances of that.

Instead, what I do is I’m the one that gushes about sponsors, and the other thing that a sponsor can’t do is they can’t say, we’re awesome, but me, I can say that, yeah, they’re awesome.

Andrew: And it gives them more credibility, right.

Sanjay: It gives a lot more credibility, yeah. And I don’t do that unless I really know them and I really know their product, and I really . . .

Andrew: So, that’s another thing in the package. The package at first included bigger logo and more tickets for the person who spent more, smaller and fewer for the person who spent less, and a promotion from you on the stage. I imagine the more they paid, the more, of course, time they were entitled to.

Sanjay: Right. Exactly.

Andrew: So, that’s the sponsorship package. I guess a little bit of web presence also.

Sanjay: It’s listed on the website and it’s mentioned in e-mails, but other than that they’re in the room, and it’s all about networking and seeing how they can help people.

Andrew: Because everyone knows they’re the sponsor, and they get a little bit more attention at the event itself.

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew: How deep is the website? Do you build it all the way out, or are we talking about just three pages, the home page with basic description, a link to the map, that kind of thing?

Sanjay: Yeah, pretty basic. We’ve always kept it that way. I think now it’s gotten a little bit more complicated because we’ve got a page for the events for each city, and the thing we’ve added on this year is we give career fairs now as well as another way of helping out and helping startups.

Andrew: I’m going to add the career fair to the side to come back to that because that happened later on. I want to continue dissecting the business as I did up until now. Hey, Sanjay, by the way you and I are good enough friends that if you feel that I’m being too abrupt and moving from one side to another or missing out on something that someone in the audience needs to know, stop me. I care much more about being complete and thorough than I care about my feelings, believe me.

I want this to be completely useful, so any time there’s something that’s not, you stop me and you say, “Andrew, if I was in the audience like three years ago and I was doing this, this is what I’d want to know. Don’t pass over it.”

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew: I’m not going to let you and stay and make sure that we give a lot of value to our audience. I want them to really remember us and thank us if they ever do a conference.” So, we told them a little bit about the sponsors. I’m going to come back and talk about how to call up sponsors, but let’s move to the second group of people which is the presenters. How do you find presenters?

Sanjay: Finding presenters is just a lot of work because a lot of startups . . . Like I said, your head’s down, and you just want to keep focusing on your business without thinking about all this other stuff, especially if a startup is just developers or you don’t think about the business side of it. I think that’s important to get out there.

We try to approach as many folks as we can that are involved in that space, that are interacting with these folks. Obviously, sponsors help out a lot in this kind of scenario because they . . .

Andrew: Sponsors help you find presenters?

Sanjay: Absolutely because if you’ve got the right sponsors, they’re the ones that are talking to these folks kind of on a day-to-day basis. So, they’re got referrals or whoever, and even if they aren’t clients or whatever they’re talking to these folks. If we’re .. .

Andrew: What happens if a sponsor refers you to a client, not a client, maybe a friend, maybe a client and say, “Sanjay, you should have this guy present to StartUpRiot” and you don’t want them because they’re not a good fit. What do you do?

Sanjay: Yeah, it’s a hard situation to be in, but I try to cultivate a good relationship with sponsors and try to be honest with them and say, “Look, this is just not a right fit.” For whatever reason, you try to be honest with them as much as I can. You can’t just tell them that they’re idiots or anything, but sometimes you’ve just got to say, “Look, I don’t see this. I don’t think our audience is going to be interested in it.”

Andrew: You evaluate them yourself?

Sanjay: I do. I do.

Andrew: Do you have any pre-qualifications? They just come in. You go through and you decide who goes up on the stage.

Sanjay: Exactly.

Andrew: Do you charge for the applications?

Sanjay: No, that would be wrong and evil and we’d never do that.

Andrew: I know many conferences do charge for the applications. It’s usually around a hundred bucks.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: The other thing I noticed was when I was a judge at Twistup, what I noticed they did was they brought in big names or big people in the community to be judges for two reasons, one because they would then had an incentive to promote the event and the second is I think Mike Macadaan who ran Twistup didn’t want to be the fall guy. And he also wanted to other people’s voices, I’m sure, to go through and pick out the right ones were. This allowed him to pass the process onto Mark Suster and to people like him and to also say to everyone, hey, Mark Suster’s judging so you know it’s going to be good people.

Sanjay: Right. We’re going that route for the main event, but for the first cut of selecting the actual presenters we do that internally. I get some help sometimes, but we kind of control that internally. It’s not a public thing. Nobody knows that you were selected or weren’t selected until the day of the event, if you were selected. So, we keep it secret until then.

At the event in Seattle coming up, we actually are going to have a judging panel, and that judging panel is going to select the top five startups from the field of 25, and from those 5 startups the audience is actually going to select the top three.

Andrew: OK. So I see that you’re reaching out personally. What about doing things that draw in presenters? Like, the prize that you give them, I imagine that helps get the word out, does it?

Sanjay: Absolutely.

Andrew: What’s the prize?

Sanjay: So, starting this year we started to assemble a package of meetings. It’s a pretty simple package, but in Atlanta the top winner got fifteen thirty-minute meetings with top VCs and investors. So that’s seven and a half hours of meetings. So for a start-up that’s doing this for the first time, an entrepreneur that’s doing this for the first time, that doesn’t have the connections, doesn’t have the introductions, you know, probably doesn’t have a lawyer yet to make those introductions, these are guaranteed meetings. These people are going to take these calls; they’re going to do these meetings, there’s no stipulation on them, it’s not like they have to invest or anything else like that. But it’s really just thirty minutes of your time, give advice, give insight, make connections. If you want to invest, that’s great, if you don’t that’s fine too.

Andrew: Who do you get to do this?

Sanjay: So all kinds of VCs, so people that I’ve known over the years, but, from firms that you know so, like we had Tech Star’s folks involved, we had folks from Foundary (sp?) involved, we’ve had Red Point involved. This year coming up in Seattle we have Google Ventures involved. We have a bunch of folks from before that are coming back, Draper Fisher Jorgensen (sp?) is involved for Seattle.

Andrew: What does it take to get one of these guys to say ‘yes’; to basically give you their credibility, to give you a half-hour of their time, to allow you to use their name, which also draws, I imagine, not just presenters, but ticket-holders and sponsors feel more confident about the event because of their names. What does it take? Is it a lot of persuasion, is it just a phone call, is it just an e-mail? Is it a net? You tell me.

Sanjay: So it’s a mix of stuff. So from back in the day when I raised money for my start-up, during my very active raising time, I pitched over two hundred VCs in a ten month time-frame. So a lot of those contacts I’m still friends with, even though most of them didn’t fund me. But I’ve stayed friends with a lot of them, and the ones that I respect are the ones that I reach out to, you know, pretty frequently, we stay in touch. Other folks though, you know, it’s just things that I’ve done ever since I had a start-up, just cold-call e-mails, just sending those out or getting referred to folks. Like an example; you referred me to a bunch of folks too, back in the day when we were doing Atlanta earlier this year. But, you know, a lot of it is just having that compelling story, making people understand why I’m doing this event. And when most people hear that, look: this is because we want to help entrepreneurs and start-ups succeed, I think it’s really hard for people to say, ‘no, I don’t want to be a part of that.’ I mean, we’re talking an hour and a half of your time in a year; it’s not a lot of time.

Andrew: And let’s see, I’m looking here in my e-mail to see who I introduced you to. Mark Sister (sp?). So I e-mailed Mark Sister.

Sanjay: Mark Sister was one.

Andrew: I said ‘would you be willing to do it?’ It looks like he said ‘sure.’

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: And I send a three-sentence e-mail, and then you followed up with him afterwards. It seems like it’s because they want their name out in your community too, and they also want to know who the hot start-up is of this event.

Sanjay: Yeah. And that absolutely helps too, right? I mean the way you succeed as an investor is by knowing all the latest trends and knowing that before anyone else knows them. So it’s absolutely beneficial for them as well.

Andrew: OK, all right, so I understand now, now you’ve got the sponsors, now you’ve got the credibility that comes from the people who are going to listen to your presenters, I see how you get presenters. Next is ticket- holders, how do you get 450 people to come to an event? In fact, I know that some people of course are coming because they’re sponsors and they’re getting a ticket, others I imagine because they’re working with the presenters and so on. Lets talk about just the people who pay cash money to come in. Where’s the best place to get those?

Sanjay: I don’t know. From all over it seems like. So, you know, over the years, we built up a pretty big mailing list, and honestly, the first year I didn’t even think about doing a mailing list, so we didn’t have people on a mailing list that first year. But starting the second . . .

Andrew: You got 200 people to come to the first event. What did you do to get them to come out?

Sanjay: It was all word of mouth. So, I just started talking about it, I think Twitter was one of the main mechanisms that I kept talking about it. We didn’t even have a Facebook page for the event, I don’t think we started that until a year or two ago. And so it was just me talking about it more and more, and getting other people to talk about it and say: ‘you know, I’m going, and this person’s going’, and all those kinds of things. But, you know, every year, out of the woodwork, I think we see entrepreneurs that have been here, or in other cities, that nobody knows about. And just all of the sudden they become aware of the event, and they end up coming.

Andrew: But how? Again, I remember Mike Mackinin (sp?) of Twist-Up, because I got to watch him from the beginning as he built it up. What he did was he went to the local bloggers and he asked them, he went to national bloggers and he asked them and they did it. But what seemed to work best with him was bringing in the people who were running local meet-ups as advisors, and he said help me organize this thing. It’s going to be this big, beautiful event, so it’s not going to compete with your meet-up because I’m looking at this like this glitzy thing that you’re not doing on a weekly or monthly basis.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: And they would then bring in their people. He had these little tactics like that that worked. What about you? Go more specific than word of mouth. I want to understand how you got that word of mouth to work.

Sanjay: Yeah. So we do the big shock and approach, right? There are all the places that you already know, like, you got Startup Digest, and the local blogs. But we look at folks that are on Twitter and what they’re talking about. We try to stay engaged with almost anybody that talks about us, or might be even somewhat related to what we’re trying to do, and try to get everybody’s help. And I think the story is earlier to tell when it’s about, we’re trying to help entrepreneurs succeed. And so, like I said, just like the investors, nobody’s going to say no to that. And they’re going to try to give you ways to help make it happen.

But a lot of it is just constant drilling on things, contacting . . .

Andrew: Contacting who? I want to know, like, I’m putting myself now is the shoes of the person who’s in my audience who organized the conference and is now saying, how do I get people to come so that I don’t embarrass myself, here?

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: And so, he might reach out to his friends, and they come. He might wait for someone to talk about him on Twitter, because he heard that Sanjay suggested it here on Mixergy, and sees nobody’s talking about him on Twitter because it’s too new. So he gives that up. He goes to Startup Digest, they say sure, a week or two before the event we’ll send out an email and we’ll get you a lot of people. And sure enough, they do. And now he’s stuck. What else could he do to spur on the word of mouth, or to get some tickets sold?

Sanjay: Right. This time around, with Seattle, we’ve been hitting up all the folks that you mentioned, like the Meet Up folks that organize that. That’s hit or miss. You know, I think that’s the case whenever you have anybody, regardless of whether they’re Meet Up organizer or not. We look at some of the events that we do here that are pretty well known, kind of throughout the eco-system, like Open Copies, and things like that, and see who are running those, and see if we can get their help. Because I think a lot of, for an event like this, this not like Tech Crunch disrupt, or something like that where you say Tech Crunch, and it’s like OK, automatically people are going to come. So this is, because of the nuances of the event, I’ve found that it’s really something that people need to talk about one-on-one, or be explained to in an email. You can’t just go to the site and really understand what it’s about. And sure, we could add all those details on the site, but I think people get bored reading a lot of that stuff. Right? You’ve got to understand from somebody that gets what the event is about, to understand why you should go to the event. And maybe that kind of limits the growth that we could have with this event. But I feel like the quality of the people that end up coming ends up being a lot higher, because they know what they’re getting into.

Andrew: But you’re then talking one-on-one to people for the first event to get the first two hundred people?

Sanjay: A lot of time, yeah. I mean, it’s one-on-one emails.

Andrew: Who do you find that you talk to one-on-one? How do you even find two hundred people to even talk to, let alone go beyond so that some smaller percentage of that big number ends up coming?

Sanjay: Right. Well, it’s not even that I’m talking to 200 people. I think if you do that it’s going to be disaster. Right? You need to find the people that you know talk to more people.

Andrew: OK. Who are those people? How do you find those people?

Sanjay: So it’s the people that are involved in incubators, investors, obviously, the sponsors, like we talked about. Just your entrepreneurs that are vocal, blog a lot, talk a lot, people follow them.

Andrew: And you go to the local blogger and you say, you should write about this. Yeah, the local blogger would do it. They’re looking for this kind of stuff.

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew: You go to the meet up guy, and he’s going to say, I got all these other meet ups that are asking me for promotion, and I can’t keep promoting everything, right?

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew: Oh, they do? Even in Atlanta they say that?

Sanjay: Yeah. Well, so, honestly, I haven’t hit many of the meet-ups here, just because I know the community a lot more. And so, a lot of the folks that are meet up organizers already know me, and so they’re willing to do it because they know it’s going to be a good event, and now we’re four years in at this point. So, most people already know this. But, you know, I think there are a lot of demands on the time of people that do these kinds of events, and so you’ve got to make the story compelling. You’ve got to make it . . .

Andrew: How did you make it compelling? I feel like I’m missing this one piece. I hate to keep drilling on it, and you tell me to back off. We’ve talked about this. So you tell me to back off whenever I need to, but I’m feeling like I don’t have a clear enough understanding of that. How to get ticket holders.

Sanjay: I think it just goes back to the whole idea of, do something different. Right? And the things that we do different are we make it affordable. We make it pre-screened and curated so that the right people are coming in. And we make it day-long party. You know, we’ve got an after-party after the event, too. So we do all the things that make sure that the event is an event like I would want to go to, that I would want to sit there in the audience and be a part of. A lot of conferences that you go to, like, I’ll be honest, we’ve had problems with the Internet access. We tried to solve that. And we most had them solved this year, had a little bit of an outage, but we had 100 megabits symmetrical into the venue here in Atlanta. So people were pretty happy about that, but we’ve had a lot of problems in the past. We have a lot of power strips everywhere. So, if you go to a lot of other conferences, you can’t find a place to plug in your laptop to save your life. And there’s no reason why that should be the case.

Andrew: What about the speakers? That there are certain speakers who just recruit people. I imagine that you asked me to speak because you were hoping that somebody, that some number of people in my audience would come out because I’m there. Does that help at all?

Sanjay That absolutely does help. The problem, the challenge I think, though, is that for any popular speaker, depending on where the location is, you’re probably going to draw more from that local area than anywhere else. And you can do almost anything to draw from the local area. You know, you in particular, I’ll tell you, I think we talked a year before, when you were out of country, and I was trying to get you to just come to the event, and not even be a speaker. And then once you moved, I pounced on you, because I knew I wanted you. But, you know, I think it all helps. And I think just nowadays it’s hard to travel, if you’re an entrepreneur, traveling to an event and everything. And that’s why one of the other things that we do, and again, this goes back to why is this conference different. We actually have a voluntary donation pool, where people that are attending can voluntarily donate money into pool of money that we use to pay for the travel expenses, or help assist travel expenses, for presenting entrepreneurs that are coming from outside.

Andrew: Because presenters will help you sell tickets?

Sanjay: No. It’s because it’s the right thing to do.

Andrew: You’re the only, you know what? The thing is that, as I’m thinking about this, you’re one of the few organizers who didn’t start off with a list already, or a popular website. Like even, why am I blanking out on his name even though I’ve known him for years? From Big Omaha. Shoot, Big Omaha’s founder. It’ll come to me, and then I’ll regret it. But he had Big Omaha’s, he had Silicon Prairie, the website, with all its traffic and all of its local attention. And so he said, well I naturally had a audience for the event, for Big Omaha.

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew: But you didn’t have that.

Sanjay: Nope.

Andrew: Jason Calacanis had that email list that he used. OK.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: All right. So, that’s impressive. I feel like I didn’t get to the bottom of how you got those ticket sales. But it’s impressive, it’s really impressive.

Sanjay: It might be because I haven’t figured out how I got to all those ticket sales either. So maybe that’s the problem.

Andrew: That’s possible, too. But you recognize that 200 people is an impressive number of people to get to come out to a full-day event?

Sanjay: Yeah, absolutely. And even this year, convincing almost 450 plus people to spend the entire day with me, yeah, that’s a lot of people.

Andrew: That’s impressive. Believe me, I mean, I’ve organized events, so I know how tough it is. But, frankly, I know there are people who are blogging right now, who would love to have 200 hits on their website today. Two hundred hits. I’m not putting it down. I’m saying, hey I was there, it’s not easy. It’s true; I was there. I couldn’t even get to 100 hits on [???]. OK, so we got to that. We got to presenters. We talked about that. Sponsorship calls. Let’s dig in a little bit further in that. So, you’re calling up these sponsors. Overall, what’s the response?

Sanjay: I think it’s, the hit rate is low, in terms of how many sponsors we end up getting. And I think that’s a function of a few things. I think it’s a function of the things we let them do at the event. Because we don’t let them do a lot more than just being in the room, is kind of the main thing. But the other thing is that the prices that we charge for sponsorships are, admittedly, pretty high. And there’s a reason for that. It’s that we don’t want too many sponsors. We just need enough to cover the bills.

Andrew: What does the biggest sponsor have to pay? Not the platinum, but the biggest one who gets just one event?

Sanjay: Just one event, the biggest is 10 grand.

Andrew: Ten thousand.

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: So what do they get for 10 thousand?

Sanjay: That’s a good question. I don’t have it off the top of my head.

Andrew: Roughly.

Sanjay: So they get things like, they get their logo laser-engraved onto the giveaways that we do. So this year we gave away a bunch of Kindles, and had them laser-engraved with logos from the sponsors. So at that level you get that. The premier gets that as well. What else do they get? They get, I don’t know, probably five or seven tickets to the event, for their people. They get some other things. They get recognition at the event. And we’ve actually pared down on the recognition, so not every sponsor gets recognized verbally. They all get their logos, so at platinum they get talked about, and I gush about them for a minute or two and point them out in the crowd. And that’s pretty much it. They get a few other things. They get mentioned, I think, in emails, but beyond that . . .

Andrew: Who was the sponsor? Can you say that?

Sanjay: This year in Atlanta the platinum was Rackspace. The premier, actually, so they are sponsoring Atlanta as well as Seattle as MailChimp. We have room for others but they are the only ones right now that are premier sponsors.

Andrew: That’s impressive. I feel like [Rackspace] has got some money because when once they lock you in, you’re using them for a long time and you’re paying a lot. I’m surprised that MailChimp is spending that much money for a conference.

Sanjay: MailChimp is doing really well. They’re a great company. Their office space is phenomenal. It’s a great Atlanta story.

Andrew: Oh, they’re from Atlanta?

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: If you can get them to do an interview here, I would love you. He says no. I asked him. He’s shy. Tell him not to be shy. I love him!

Sanjay: We can get either Ben, or his co-founder. We can get one of the two of them.

Andrew: Yes, please. Tell them we request for them.

Sanjay: Yes, that’s easy.

Andrew: Awesome. All right, I would love that.

Sanjay: I didn’t get you those other folks. We can get this one. This one’s easier.

Andrew: OK. So you’re calling them up and, what does it take to get a sponsor to say yes to sponsor an event?

Sanjay: I think it’s the same as trying to sell a customer, when I was back in [Digital Awkwardness]. It’s a long dance. They have to start out and understand it, and it runs the gamete too.

I’m thinking about this event coming up in Seattle. I talked to the folks at Gist, which is now owned by Rim, and they signed up as a sponsor within a couple of days. And I’ve had other people that I’ve talked to for months, if not years, before they’ve become sponsors. It’s just getting in their budgeting cycles, and everything else like that. Gist, the fact that they’re part of Rim now, made me wonder if they’d still be interested, but they are gung ho about supporting the local entrepreneurial community. I’m not really even sure what their kind of vision is, in terms of what they get out of it. I think it’s more of, they want to give back. And that’s a perfect fit for me in terms of the sponsor that I get on board.

A lot of times it starts out with an initial email. I see something, and I just email them and say, “Look, I’m doing this event. I think you’d be a perfect fit for X, Y, Z reason. This is what we can do for you. Here is a sponsorship document.” A lot of times I don’t send the sponsorship document from the get go because I hate when people send me attachments, and massive things, so I send a short email and say, “If you’re interested, I’m happy to send you more information. Just let me know.”

Andrew: I understand giving back. I remember I asked Noel Kaegan – he used to organize conferences – I said, “What do sponsors want? What do you want?” He said, “What do you give them?” He said, “Everyone wants something different. Some guys just say, ‘I’m sponsoring, I don’t care. Just have a good event. Have a good time there.’ Others want something a little more specific.” Do you find that too, depending on the sponsor?

Sanjay: Yea, absolutely. Here’s one of the funny things. The first year I made a conscious decision that nobody would have on a badge or any identifying marks other than their name. So you can’t tell the investor from the entrepreneur from the sponsor.

After the first year, one of my sponsors here in town said, “You need to add some kind of identifier saying I’m a sponsor.” And he was the only one who said that. I bent and said, “Ok, I will appease you.” And I still do that now. Sponsors are identified, presenters are identified, and my staff are identified. But everyone else just has their name in big letters. That was kind of this outlier, and it ended up helping.

But this same outlier in future years started asking for the attendee list, and I refused. That was just something that I was unwilling to give up on or get any, and I actually lost them as a sponsor, and that was ok for me. I didn’t want to compromise what the event was about and my goal for the event and my idea around the event just because of the sponsor. I’d rather lose money than do something I was not proud of.

So you definitely have that. You have folks who want this, that, or the other. This year we didn’t get a lot of traffic to the sponsor tables, and there were some sponsors who were like, “Whatever, not a big deal,” and they abandoned their tables and just went to mix with people. And then there were some sponsors who were all prickly about it, who were upset about it. They were the old school ones, “I’m going to sit at my table and expect people come to me,” versus, “Hey, this is not working. I’m going to go to the people.”

I think people are all different, so it’s going to depend on the individual in terms of how they want to deal with this.

Andrew: What you start out looking to sell sponsorships, do you first see who sponsored events recently and put them on a hit list, and start making phone calls one at a time to them? Is that how you do it?

Sanjay: Absolutely. I definitely look to see what other events, you know, who they’re getting as sponsors. The challenge with that though is that eventually they get tapped out, right? I mean, their budgets are only so big so a lot of times you’ve got to go for the oddballs.

Some of it, though, is, you know, we get our name out and get attendees. And they hear about the event, and they hear about it from their friends or whatever, and they say oh, you should have been at this event! And then they look into it and they contact us kind of out of the blue.

At least here in Atlanta we’re a couple of years in and so that happens a lot more often now, so it becomes a lot easier because we’ve built this reputation. In Seattle it’s a little bit harder, but that said, we’ve already gotten a couple of folks that have contact us. Now, none of them have signed up as sponsors yet – and I think that’s a function of they just don’t know what they’re getting yet; they don’t know the buzz around it yet. So if we do the first event and it’s good, just like what we had here in Atlanta, the number of sponsors has grown over the years.

The first year I think we had maybe four paying sponsors, something like that; it’s on the site. This most recent year I think we had, like, 14 or 15 different sponsors at all the varying levels. I think just like any start-up, any kind of business, if you build a good product that people are happy with and are willing to come back to over and over again, you will get your name out there and people will know you and keep coming to you.

Just like what you’ve done with Mixergy, right? You’ve built a good product – great interviews – and people keep coming back time and time again.

Andrew: They do, but it’s not just because I built a good product, it’s because (and you’ll probably get this after we finish the interview) I’ll e-mail you and I’ll say, ‘Tweet this out, maybe even add it to your press page.’ You know, there are a few tactics that we use to get people to come here.

Sanjay: Right.

Andrew: We have guides that we give out that you can only get if you tweet out about the site, and so that helps us get traffic.

Sanjay: Yep.

Andrew: On the face of it I can say it’s just because I do great interviews, but really, the true is that doing great interviews is like a third of the job, and the rest is how do you actually build on that?

Sanjay: I think you might be underselling yourself.

Andrew: It’s not enough; no, you need to do more because you need to say things like, someone might come and love the interview but there’s Ted out there that’s great.

Sanjay: That’s true.

Andrew: There are people who take my interview course and go create their own interviews. There’s the Start-up Foundry; there’s Hacker News, where they’re going to identify just the best interviews all over the Internet. I love Andrew, but I forgot – what’s his last name? Andrew-something, it’s probably Andrew Sanjay, I think, you know? He looked like an Indian guy so maybe that . . . they’re not going to remember how to find me, right, so being good is not enough. So we come up with things like you come to the site and we ask you for your e-mail address.

Sanjay: Yep.

Andrew: When you want certain access we ask for your e-mail address, and then we know that we can connect with you. There are little tactics that I learned from doing these interviews and I quietly test them in a small area of the site, and I also blow them out if they work.

By the way, all this can’t be about me and what we do here, but there are lots of little things. Here’s one that really works for me. Some of our tests are pretty fricken out there because I hear about them in an interview and I say we should give it a shot, but I don’t want to give it a shot all over the site.

In one of my first interviews I interviewed a guy named Ramitsay [SP] and he said, ‘Build an e-mail list, and in addition to just helping you with everything else you do, it’s a great place to quietly test.’ Just take a small group of your people, test an idea to them.

Sanjay: Mm-hmm.

Andrew: And if it works take it out to everyone else. We know broke up our mailing list into – we have thousands of people, we break them up into a few hundred pools – and whenever we have an idea for, like, a new course (like we did last week), I send it out to just a few hundred people and l say, ‘Am I off base here?’ Or I send a link out to the thing and see how many people would try to buy it. Or I send a link out to a tweet to see would anyone tweet it out, or would they be upset with me? And then if it works we go to another 500; if it doesn’t, we adjust and then go to another 500.

Sanjay: Interesting.

Andrew: Anyway, lots of little ideas. I’m here pushing you to give me a lot of ideas for my audience, but also so that I could bring it in here and grow my audience, too.

All right, you’re making a list to see who else is out there sponsoring, and then you start calling up. How do you know who to call up in the company? How do you know, like, I see RackSpace all over – what do I do? Do I pick up the phone, call up 1-800-RackSpace and whoever picks up say, ‘Who buys your ads?’ What do you do?

Sanjay: I’m a big e-mail guy; honestly I hate talking on the phone. It’s just, I don’t know what it is.

Andrew: This must be driving you crazy; you’re not just talking but it’s an hour of video.

Sanjay: Yeah, you know what? What’s interesting is I’m really starting to just really love doing video calls over phone calls. I don’t know what it is, just being able to see the person that you’re talking to has been great. I’ve been doing the Google+ hangouts and stuff, and it’s actually a lot of fun, I enjoy it.

Andrew: So you were saying that you hate doing phone calls; what do you do instead by e-mail?

Sanjay: A lot of it is [??] e-mails and keeping them really, really short and to the point. You know, a lot of folks want to have these kind of long e-mails with a lot of details, and honestly nobody reads them. And you know, that actually goes right in with the philosophy of Startup Riot. Now, I have a lot of people that say they want to present, but say, ‘Oh, I need more than three minutes, because I’ve got so much to talk about.’ Really, you don’t. You’ve got to really talk about what’s important, the highlights, and then move on from there. And if they’re interested, they’re going to respond back to you. Just like the event at the presentation. So I did the exact same thing, and a lot of it is kind of tricks I’ve learned over the years. You know, you look at LinkedIn. It’s a great resource for a lot of this stuff. I’m not a big fan of these LinkedIn emails that go through the system, because I just don’t feel like I can be as completely there as well as, I don’t know if people are really looking at those. A lot of people have their settings turned off so they don’t get emails when they get contacts on there, so will they ever really see them? If I can land in their inbox somehow, and there are a couple of ways to do that, right? You look at any big company, and there’s only a few different ways that they name all of their email addresses. Right? First name@, first name.last name@, first initial last name@, and you just keep trying until you don’t get a bounce back. You know it went somewhere. And maybe the guy will never see it, or the gal will never see it, and it’ll get trapped by their assistant. But you know that least somebody might see it, and yeah, hit rates are not 100%, but if you can even get a couple of percent and the fact that you’re not actually typing custom emails for all of these people, it’s just a lot of copy and pasting manually, you do a couple hundred of these and a couple of percent . . .

Andrew: How do you know who the right person is to guess at their email address?

Sanjay: The folks that I usually target are, because of what the event is, the people involved in startup stuff, or people involved in marketing or business def. Because those are the folks that really understand that, hey, we want to be involved and engaged in this community. So, the same thing I did with launch boy when I was doing this kind of thing, a lot of times we would actually target the marketing folks. Sometimes we’d target the technology folks, based on what we were selling. So, I think it all depends on the customer, and who you think has a budget for buying what you’re selling.

Andrew: And you’re going through Linked In to find their job titles, and then you’re calling them directly, or contacting them directly?

Sanjay: Yeah.

Andrew: Now, the categories of sponsors that are willing to come to events, the lawyers are one category? What other categories?

Sanjay: Lawyers, accountants, consultants sometimes. A lot of the service providers, so nowadays, with all the hosting riders and things like that.

Andrew: Hosting, like Rock Space.

Sanjay: Like Rock Space, Amazon, in the past has been a sponsor, hopefully, again. Microsoft has been a sponsor, and hopefully again. So, anybody that’s providing technology kind of services for these kinds of folks. But also, folks that are providing things like services, that folks like need. Recently, I think, because of The View I’ve become a Fresh Books customer. And so, I’ve tried to contact them, because I think this is a perfect kind of link in for their customer base, because these are the people that they want to reach out to. So, anybody that I think might have a good story as to why they want to be at this event, and talk to these entrepreneurs, are folks that we’re going to talk to.

Andrew: Accountants, lawyers. All right. What else do I have, here? The last item on the list that I didn’t get to talk to you about is the career fair. Why did you add that, and how well did it work?

Sanjay: We added that this year for the first time. We added it because, honestly, it goes back to the beginning of Startup Riot. My initial idea with Startup Riot was actually not what it’s become. It was really more of a way of figuring out how to get kids that are graduating from college into startups instead of into big, gi-normous companies, and cube farms. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, you know. We need people that live in cube farms, but that’s not for everybody. And the challenge for startups is that you don’t want to go to a college career fair when one side is Intel and the other side is GE, and you’re there with one or two jobs, having to fight these two big guys for employees. And so, that never actually worked out with Startup Riot, and so this year we finally got to the point where I thought, OK. Let’s do this thing. And so, the day before the event we do this career fair, it’s only startups. They have to be recruiting at least two positions, two open positions. And then, that’s it. They’ve got to pay a little bit to be a part of the career fair. And just like we do at the main event, we actually pre-screen all the job candidates. So if there’s somebody that we don’t feel is a good fit with the openings that we’ve got at the event, we don’t let them come.

Andrew: How do you get candidates? Now that’s a whole other pool of people that you need to recruit to come to the event.

Sanjay: It’s actually the same people that we talked to about coming to the event. Inevitably, they know people that are looking for jobs. And if you’re a startup person, you probably know people that want to work in startups. So, it’s just really getting out the word to those folks and people try to help people that are looking for jobs–and especially if they can help them find a job in a startup. So, we pre-screened all those folks. So, if you have like a marketing person that’s coming in, we don’t have any marketing jobs, we don’t let them come. Because I’d rather they spend their four hours doing something that they can succeed in and find a job with, rather than coming to our event and go, this sucks. There was no jobs for me. So, the goal is really for everybody to be happy walking away from the event, and even if that means not letting them come. Oh, oh. I lost your volume. I don’t hear you.

Andrew: There we go. I hit mute sometimes, whenever I hear background noise here in the office, to keep from interrupting you. And at that point, I forgot to turn it back on, or turn the mute off. I think I’ve got everything here on my list. Let me ask you this. If you were sitting in this audience, about 2080, getting ready to start your own conference, what would you want to know, and say, Andrew, why didn’t you ask it? You were so busy talking about what your ideas, for this interview you forgot to ask this. What’s the one question?

Sanjay: Well, the one thing I’d say is, don’t do it.

Andrew: Don’t do it. Why not?

Sanjay: You froze. Say it again.

Andrew: Why not? Why would you say to somebody who’s thinking of doing a conference, don’t do it?

Sanjay: Well, if you’re thinking about doing a conference to make money, it’s probably one of the hardest ways, I think, to make money. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of stress. And I think there are easier ways of going about this than doing this. The reason I do it is not to make money. So, there’s a different motivation for me. But, it’s painful, I mean. Honestly, if you’re not somebody that’s been doing events, you know, if you’re a technology entrepreneur, like I was, and going into this, it’s not the easiest thing ever. You learn a lot, but I think the one thing that I would say that you should really know before getting into this is really kind of the niche you’re fitting into. Right? Is there really anybody doing what you’re doing? Because if there is, don’t do it. Do something else instead. Right? There’s no sense in just doing the same thing everybody else is. I obviously feel very strongly that what we do with Startup Riot is vastly different than what anybody else does. We’ve seen that. We’ve seen other people kind of steal ideas from us in terms of how we set up the event, and that’s fine. That’s great. You know, it’s all about whoever does it better is going to be the one that succeeds and thrives in this industry. But if you’re not doing something unique, if you’re just doing the same thing that everybody else is, it’s just not worth it. The stress is pretty unimaginable. There were a couple of weeks ago that I started getting all panicky about the event. And it’s funny, because this many years into it, every time we do an event, I still get panicky at some point. I know it’s coming. I just don’t know when it’s coming. But bad things all of a sudden hit. You don’t line up the people that you need, or you see the registration.

Andrew: What causes the panic?

Sanjay: It could be everything. And usually, for me, at this point now, it’s when everything hits at the same point. That’s when the panic hits, right?

Andrew: Give me some examples, just so we know what would come at us.

Sanjay: So, the keynote that you were hoping and planning all this time, that you’ve been working on for weeks, all of a sudden falls through. Now for me, the judges that I’ve been working on for weeks, there’s some kind of a hiccup and they won’t be able to show up, and so you’ve got to backfill in. Attendee numbers are down, and that’s the one crazy thing with all these events. Everybody waits until the last minute to register. And so, up until a couple of weeks before the event you’re like, man, it’s going to be me and like, four people. That’s going to be horrible. And then everybody just rushes in at the last minute. And it’s funny, because my wife complains to me every time. She says, ‘Every year you do this. You’re complaining, and complaining, and stressing until just a couple of weeks before, then everything just happens, and everything’s fine. So I’m just going to ignore you from now on.’ And she tells me that every year, and I still don’t listen. I still get stressed out.

Andrew: Who knows, because maybe being stressed out is the reason that things work out, because you care so much that you actually fight to remove the stress by getting people to come to the event, or getting another keynote to replace the one that didn’t show up.

Sanjay: Exactly.

Andrew: So, I have no interest in doing events again. But a lot of people say, Andrew, do events. Why would you bother with sponsorships on Mixergy? You should do events. They always feel like it’s the cure-all, that it’s so easy to do an event. That there’s so much revenue in doing it you’d be nuts, Andrew, to not do it, is what they say to me. What do you say to them? What do I say to them?

Sanjay: Well, there is a lot of revenue, that’s true. But it’s so much work that I don’t know if the revenue is worth it. And it’s not that all that revenue just goes to the bottom line. There’s a lot of expenses that do into this between the venue and the promotion, the AV, the food. I mean, there’s just a lot of crap that people don’t think about, that you have to worry about. Just getting people there. Now that we’re doing this in Seattle, which is a distance for us, the flight and the travel and this and that. So I don’t know what most conferences make in terms of money, but I’m betting that most of them, the majority of them, don’t make a lot of money. They might make enough to pay salaries and help some folks and whatever, but I don’t think the majority of conferences ever come close to making a hundred grand or half a million dollars or a million dollars in profit a year. If they do, they’re doing a lot of work.

Andrew: Is it because you’re targeting start-ups and start-ups don’t have a ton of money to come to events?

Sanjay: Yeah. That might be. You run the full economic forum and charge people thirty to forty thousand dollars to attend and it’s kind of easy to make money. I mean, they spend a lot, there’s a lot of security there, and there’s a lot they spend money on, but they also have massive sponsors that throw down millions of dollars because those are the people they want to be involved with. But, yeah, these people are not people that have a lot of money, but hopefully by doing the things that we do we can help cultivate a [??] folks that are successful, that make money, that stay involved in their community, be it their local community, the global community, whatever, and give back and make it easier for all of us to do start-ups, because that’s really where all the change comes is from start-ups and innovation.

Andrew: I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to clip out sections of this interview and anytime anyone says “Andrew, go do a Mixergy conference,” I’ll say, “listen to that. Then call me.” It’s a lot of work. But, it has worked out. I mean, you end up with big audiences. You end up with an event that people talk about. I was checking out Twitter during the event, well actually not during the event but after the event. I was too busy having conversations at the event. And it’s nice to see that there’s revenue coming in from it. I know you don’t do it for the money, but it’s nice to see that there’s revenue and profits.

Sanjay: Yeah. I mean, for me, a lot of it is I enjoy meeting people. I’m a people person and I like knowing people out there, and so that’s part of what Seattle is for me. I haven’t been to Seattle in quite some time, and I want to go there now every year, and we’re going to draw in a different group of folks over there in Seattle. And, honestly, this year in Atlanta, four hundred and fifty people, I don’t really remember too many of them. A lot of them walk up to me and say, “Oh yeah, I was at Startup Riot this year. We talked,” whatever, and I’m like, I don’t really remember that. But for me after the event is where a lot of the magic happens, right? You start connecting with people. They start to know you. As you’ve seen with Mixergy, they help you out randomly. And I think that’s what we’ve seen with Startup Riot. You know, being a people person, even though I’m a developer and I was an engineer, I’m more of a people person than anything else, and that’s what I enjoy and what I love, and so that’s why I do the events.

Andrew: The site is startupriot.com. The event is great. I hope everyone gets to go. Check it out. The next one is, where is it? Washington, Seattle Washington August 24th. Then there’s another in Atlanta and you’re going to introduce me to the founder, one of the two founders of MailChimp, which will make Jesse Lipson, who I interviewed last week, very happy, because he’s one of many people who suggested I interview the guys from MailChimp.

Sanjay: Great guys.

Andrew: Yeah. They are. Thanks for doing the interview.

Sanjay: Thank you.

Andrew: Cool. Hey, why is it, before we go, Joe don’t edit this out. Why is it pronounced Sanuay if it’s spelled Sanjay? Why not change it to a U? I changed my whole first name.

Sanjay: Because that’s just the way it is. I don’t know why. That’s just the Indian pronunciation. With a lot of Indian names, it’s not pronounced the way it’s spelled.

Andrew: I see.

Sanjay: So, my wife’s name is not spelled the way that it’s said. I think we like being tricky, catching the people who aren’t Indian. I don’t know.

Andrew: To tell who really knows you and who’s just reading off of a list to try to get you to invest in his company.

Sanjay: Exactly.

Andrew: I get it.

Sanjay: So I know who watches too much CNN because they don’t say my name right, because that guy doesn’t know how to say his name right.

Andrew: Oh. I know that guy.

Sanjay: [??]

Andrew: Well, cool. Sanjay, thank you for doing the interview.

Sanjay: Thanks, Andrew.


  • I like Sanjay’s saying about doing something unique. It is all about niche marketing and finding a good niche I guess. Also, conferences are more like community service, so, Sanjay is totally correct that there are lot easier businesses than just doing conferences/events.

    Same as doing websites, there are too many websites out there, most don’t make a dime. I guess for startups, you want to just find a profitable niche and you are good at as well.

  • Great interview! Looking forward to StartupRiot Seattle!

  • Auston Bunsen

    Jeff Slobotski – Big Omaha!

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