How an event led to multimillions of dollars in product revenue

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Last Friday, I attended the 5th Hustle Con.  I could not be more proud of The Hustle team.  It was the best Hustle Con to date in my opinion.  Perhaps even the best event I’ve ever attended.

The Hustle, the company that runs Hustle Con, is a fast growing media company that serves up tech news in an edgy way.  Today, they have around 1 million subscribers, are doing multimillions in revenue per year, and have only 20 employees.  It all started with just one event.  Here are my learnings about events from the last 5 years:

1. A simple event with simple value-proposition can lead to a scalable company.

The Hustle is best known for its avant-garde daily newsletter.  In the beginning, they started out with just one event called Hustle Con that happened once a year.  The premise or mission for Hustle Con was to provide tactical company-building advice for non-technical founders.  That first event in 2013 was held at Intuit, and less than 200 attendees paid between $100-$200 per ticket.

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Photo credit: Lesley Grossblatt

Compared to the 2500 people – both technical and non-technical – who come from all over the globe to attend Hustle Con today, the look-and-feel back then was janky as all hell.  But the value has remained the same every year. You will learn at least one tactical thing from each talk to help you with your business.

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Photo credit: Eric Bahn

Early adopters can easily overlook bugs and janky-ness as long as you are providing a clear, differentiated value proposition.  Even in that first year, Hustle Con delivered on that.

2. It’s easy to get feedback on events.

We know the first Hustle Con went well because of the concrete feedback that came back from the attendees.  At the first event, all the attendees were asked to fill out their feedback right then and there on index cards at the close of the event.

The #1 thing that people thought could be improved was allocating more time for bathroom breaks.  People were so engaged with the content that they felt they could not leave the room.

It is from this feedback that you can build upon your value proposition online beyond the event.

3. People pay to be in your audience when they attend events.

The interesting thing about events is that they are a good way to jumpstart your audience for a new product.  And in fact, people will pay you to be a part of your audience to whom you can later market other products and services.

This is unlike any other marketing channel where you, as the company, need to pay to get potential users.

4. People will help you with your event for free

There is no other marketing channel where people will help promote your company for free.  In fact, volunteers often make all the difference in running an event, and for a good event, volunteers sign up in droves because they want to attend for free.

5. Being an event organizer allows you to meet influential people.

Organizing events is one of the best ways to meet influential people.  People love being asked to speak at conferences – no matter how famous they are.  If you can get your speakers in front of a high quality audience, it makes them feel extra special.  This is one of the easiest ways to meet influential people!  As it would turn out, The Hustle ended up raising their first angel money from many Hustle Con speakers.

Entrepreneurs work so hard to network with investors and potential customers, and it’s hard to get attention.  Instead, run an event.  It’s one of the best hacks ever.  Even if an investor or potential investor isn’t able to attend, chances are, he/she will at least respond to you to decline.  That response opens the door for you to get to know him/her.

6. Influential people like meeting other influential people.

For that first event, you’ll have nothing to offer your influential speakers.  Why should they speak at your event?  You probably won’t be able to get that many attendees.  That first event may have a lot of bugs or flaws.  But speakers like networking, too. That’s a big tactic that many events use to try to draw in influential speakers.

At Hustle Con, for example, they hold a speaker dinner, which happens the night before the event.  This dinner is invite-only, and they invite all the speakers to have dinner together as well as other people they think the speakers would like to meet.  Most large events do similar “VIP dinners” as well.

One tactic I’ve used over and over again to get people to speak at various events is to name drop other people who have already committed to speaking.  Landing that first speaker (usually from within network or close to network) is critical because all your other speakers will come as a result of that first person being there.

7. You have to get creative when cold-emailing.

Warm introductions are, of course, great if you have them.  At some point, cold-emailing is necessary in order to get star speakers.  Sam Parr, the CEO of The Hustle, used a great cold-email to get speakers in the early days of Hustle Con.

He even included personalized gifs like this:

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Gif credit: Sam Parr

8. Engage your list and build off of it.

After an event, you have a captive audience (assuming you pulled it off well).  You need to engage your list of attendees immediately (make sure you have the proper permission from them to do so).  If you are doing an event to get people to do customer development, you need to stay top-of-mind.  Don’t let your list sit around and become obsolete.

One strategy is to put everyone in a FB group and have them ask each other questions.  Another strategy is to create a relevant news digest to send to your list.

9. Culture is set at that first event

What I didn’t realize 5 years ago is that the culture and tone of The Hustle would be heavily influenced by that first event.  In that first event, there was gender balance amongst the speakers: 4 women and 4 men.  Even in the audience, there was a fair percentage of female attendees.  As part of the culture of that first event, there was also a “no asshole” rule.

At the 5th Hustle Con on Friday, I noticed that there was near parity on gender balance (the ticket purchases show 55% men and 45% women).  The attendee makeup was fairly racially diverse as well.  Attendees came from everywhere globally and held just about every job occupation (though primarily from tech).

Most importantly, the ethos of Hustle Con has always been about sharing – sharing information and genuinely trying to be helpful.  And even though the conference now has thousands of attendees, that ethos is still there.  I learned so much about various fields from other attendees.  Unlike at other tech conferences where I often feel like people are trying to size each other up or talk about how they are killing it with their startup, people at Hustle Con just want to share knowledge and learn from each other.  This may sound cheesy, but every year when I walk around the venue of Hustle Con, I get this feeling of happiness, a feeling of “this is how the world should be.”

Setting a tone for culture is a lot easier at an event than online, and you can carry this audience and ethos over to your online product afterwards.

10. Events are overlooked.

Events are overlooked.  I’m not suggesting you necessarily run an events business (though those are lucrative bootstrapped businesses in themselves), but I rarely see startups doing events as a way of customer acquisition to jumpstart a new product or a new company.

If I were to start a company today, I would start by amassing an audience by running an event.  It could be a small event, maybe only 1 to 3 hours, like a meetup.  It could be held at a corporate office for free.  I could have that audience pay to attend and then follow up afterwards with each person individually to do customer development.  Then, I would build out a product and would continue holding these events to amass a larger audience and eventually start to sell to all of these people as my first customers.

Events allow you, as an entrepreneur, to really convey who you are as a person.  Ultimately, this is how you gain followers for your brand. In the beginning, your company is less about your product and more about you.  Your potential customers want to support you because of you, and this is a lot easier to convey in person with that first group of early adopters.

Cover photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

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