People have been asking us how we put this event together and whether we will be organizing a similar event during SXSWi 2012. Figured we’d tell the story and share our experience, while it is still somewhat fresh in our minds. What struck us from the get-go, and still resonates, is how the NYC startup community came together to support each other and stand out during a conference that vies for everyone’s attention at all times. So this is a joint narrative from the perspective of Jane Kim, Greg Gortz, and Tin Dizdarevic who brought the NYC circus to Austin and what we learned in the process.
In mid-December the concept of the idea was borne from a Yammer thread and subsequent conversations among USV portfolio companies that discussed pooling marketing resources to create a presence during SXSWi. Jonathan Basker (Etsy) suggested that the event focus on recruiting technical talent. From there, conversations between Greg Gortz (Zemanta), Jane Kim (Hashable), and several others resulted in a rough outline of an event. An initial outreach to a handful of companies followed to gauge interest and get feedback. It was estimated that eight start-ups participating at $1000 each, would allow us to secure a bar and hold a recruiting Happy Hour. We wanted this to be an event for NYC start-ups, by NYC start-ups. And while we did initially reach out to USV portfolio companies - it wasn’t intended to be an USV sponsored event. These companies were the lowest hanging fruit - as we knew them :)
Within 10 days of our initial outreach, we had seven start-ups who committed to the event (10gen, Aviary, Blip.tv, Hashable, Knewton, SquareSpace, Zemanta). That quickly grew to 11, and then jumped to 22 as word spread. We had secured a venue, hoping for fifteen start-ups to participate. Now, we were at max capacity with additional start-ups still interested. We didn’t want to turn anyone away, so we offered a lowered price point to ensure anyone who wanted to participate, could. In the end 37 start-ups partook in the event - 22 providing kick ass demonstrations.
We secured sponsorship of NYTM and WeWork to help defray marketing and participation costs. We believe, with more time, we could have made a concerted effort to secure a larger sponsorship. Ultimately, NYTM and WeWork made the financial contribution that we asked of start-ups, manageable.
Several things enabled us to grow quickly and gain momentum:
1) Asking VC’s to reach out to their portfolio companies – Gary Chou (USV), Lawrence Lenihan (First Mark Capital) Charlie O’Donnell (First Round Capital)
2) Getting larger companies to participate. The larger, more established, start-ups (Buddy Media, Etsy, Foursquare, Meetup, SecondMarket) leveraged their brand power to draw attention to the event.
3) Getting marketing and community managers involved. They have a lot of friends within the startup community and love to get everyone involved.
The ensuing weeks required a lot of coordination and deliverables. Given that we had day jobs at our own start-ups, we quickly lost bandwidth. Fortunately, several people stepped up to help out:
Gary Chou (USV) championed the event and leveraged his connections among companies and other VC’s to spread the word.
Tin Dizdarevic (Zemanta) provided the organizational backend and was the point of contact for all start-ups.
Adriana Gascoigne (SecondMarket) organized wristbands and t-shirt design
Abby Ricarte (Knewton) designed marketing materials and posters
Anna Frenkel and Susan Loh (Foursquare) pushed several sponsorship opportunities
Nate Westheimer (NYTM) plugged the event at the March meetup
Everyone else provided community support by spreading the word through the usual social media/blog outlets, ending up with 935 registered attendees.
The morning of the event was filled with a frenzied two hours of preparation from the venue staff and the participating companies. At 11:30, Greg kicked off the event, introducing our sponsors, Nate Westheimer (NYTM) and Jesse Middleton (WeWork). Albert Wenger (USV), our featured VC speaker, followed with his positive and enthusiastic outlook on the NYC tech Startup scene.
We launched into demos immediately after, running through 5-6 presentations, followed by 25-minute networking breaks. This format (borrowed from NYTM), initially worked well. As the day continued and drinks consumed, it became progressively harder to get the audience to focus on the demos. But while observing the crowd, you could see that the engagement level was very high. We scattered the startups all over the venue, so you couldn’t take a few steps without running into someone who was willing to tell you about their company. All of the companies did a great job with their presentations, and were incredibly patient with some of the technical glitches.
At the end of the day, after the last demo, a packed venue of people stayed to continue their conversations and drinks and enjoy the company of new friends. With a dozen t-shirts from various companies in hand, we had a shot of tequila and headed out for some hard-earned celebrating. We left feeling good about the success and efficacy of the event
Looking back we would do a few things differently to make the event more successful:
1) Assume a larger participation rate and plan for it accordingly
2) Secure sponsorship early and often
3) Split the venue into two areas – one for demos, the other for networking (drinking)
4) Lock down the Wifi
5) Use an Event planner (we used Red Velvet Events, a local Austin event company that did an awesome job for us)
6) Don’t forget to reach out to the press (side note - we had planned to do press outreach, but just ran out of bandwidth - although the CNNMoney article tells us that if you bring the right people and companies together, the event will attract the right kind of attention)
7) Ask for help - people will rise to the occasion, the NYC start up community is full of energetic entrepreneurs.
People have asked us if were going to do something like this again in NYC (Entrepreneur Week, Internet Week, random week). The answer is we’ll see. We think NYTM does a great job showcasing NYC startups and has a fantastic member base. That said, there is an opportunity to build off of this event and keep the focus on bringing talent to NYC. The more we can leverage the network that we have, the more things we can do together. We’d love to see the participating companies reflect on the event and start thinking about other ways that we can continue to draw attention to what should and will be the new high-growth job sector in NYC.
Thanks again NYC!!
Jane, Tin, Greg