Before starting my technology company, I spent 10 years managing rock bands. Most of the artists I represented were successful in Australia, but our big dream was to crack the United States. And the best place to introduce a new band here is at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex. — the world’s largest conference for new music. Each year, along with thousands of others from around the world, I would stage a campaign to make some band the hottest new act of the conference.
Last year, I went back to SXSW to introduce Posse, a social network that helps users see their friends’ recommendations for places to go. Technology companies now use the conference as a platform to capture the world’s media in a bid to be the next big thing. Like many top bands, Twitter and Foursquare got their big breaks as start-ups at SXSW.
With the conference season here again, thousands of entrepreneurs will head to SXSW,TechCrunch Disrupt, Launch and a myriad of other trade shows and exhibitions that showcase products and services. But with so many competitors and limited resources, how can one start-up stand out? Managing bands taught me how to make an impact without spending a lot of money. Last year, when I introduced Posse, I used many of the tactics I had used to introduce bands. Here is how we became one of the hottest apps at SXSW on a $10,000 budget.
1. Get people talking
In music promotion, we focused on being heard by well-known music producers before the festival. These guys are easy to get to because they are always looking for new work, and they are friends with industry executives who ask them what hot bands they have heard about recently. To introduce Posse, we figured out which tech industry influencers go to SXSW every year and asked them to tell us their favorite places to eat, drink and shop in Austin. People like to think of themselves as taste makers, so it was easy to secure recommendations from people like Maya Baratz (ABC News), Elspeth Rountree (NBC and Fox) and David Tisch (BoxGroup). We turned them into the tech elite’s guide to Austin, publishing the map on our site and distributing print copies around the festival. With everyone looking for places to eat and drink, our maps became very popular.
2. Timing is everything
With music acts, we held off releasing a band’s album until right before SXSW since that was when we could obtain maximum media coverage. At SXSW, that coverage morphed into hype. Similarly, we raised a round of funding for Posse in December 2012 but did not announce it until four days before SXSW. We finished building our iPhone app in January but did not release it until the day SXSW started. This culminated in a TechCrunch feature that ran the morning the conference started. When people came past our stand, Posse was fresh in their minds. They wanted to try the app.
3. Go guerrilla
During SXSW, every inch of available wall and pole in Austin is covered top to bottom with posters by 9 every morning. Most of these posters are plastered over within an hour, so there is a short window of opportunity to make an impact. When introducing Posse, we designed notices that resembled the typical lost animal posters that people use when a cat or dog has gone astray. We found the funniest looking animals we could and displayed them in the center of the poster with a prompt for people to find the best places to eat, drink and shop. We photocopied a few hundred of these in black and white, designed to look cheap and homemade (which they were) and stuck them up the next morning at 7, all around the conference center. They became conversation pieces, with Mashable declaring our campaign “perhaps the best example of how effective postering can be.”
4. Be ready to hustle
If you go to a conference like SXSW to introduce something, you must be prepared to hustle every day. I brought Jen with me from our office in Sydney, and we stayed at a share house outside the city that we found on Airbnb — but we weren’t there much. All day and all night, we were on the street or in hotel lobbies where important people stayed, handing out stickers and maps. If you were influential and at SXSW last year, there is a good chance we persuaded you to download our app. Opportunities were everywhere. On the first day we noticed a long line of people waiting to register, so we bought three boxes of cupcakes and made our way down the queue handing them out to anyone who could show us our app on a phone.
Hustling often pays off in unexpected ways. One afternoon, Jen and I were getting out of a cab after buying stuff at Walmart to make our trade show stand, and we handed stickers to two guys as they helped us unload the car. They happened to be journalists for NBC, and five minutes later they interviewed me on the street and filmed us handing out stickers, publicizing our start-up. That night, Posse was the lead story on NBC News in Austin. The next day our trade show stand was packed with people who had seen us on TV the night before — including someone who managed the food and drink apps in the Apple App Store and advised us in the development and marketing of our app.
5. Get a street team
Every band has a “street team,” but most businesses and apps don’t. We could afford to send only two people to SXSW, and two people have limited range. But a month before the conference, we advertised for student volunteers on the University of Texas jobs board. We think we were the only company to do this, and we were flooded with applicants. We interviewed prospective team members by Skype and chose an enthusiastic group of 10 marketing students, who got the opportunity to learn about introducing products at a conference and received a letter for their résumés. They were quite successful at signing up users, staffing our stand and distributing our maps.
6. Leverage other people’s events
Every year brings a few music shows that everyone wants to see. A new band should endeavor to appear on the bill for one of these shows, gaining exposure to the whole industry at once. It’s much easier than staging your own show and competing with every other gig that’s on at the same time. I also used this ploy to introduce Posse. SXSW tried to convince me that we should invest $10,000 in staging our own party. Doing so would have given us a venue and a listing in the official event guide, but we still would have had to promote it, dress the venue and buy food and alcohol. And I had a budget of $10,000 for the entire event, including flights and accommodations.
So we teamed up with an influential group of women in technology called Change the Ratio. It had already organized a party, and we offered to sponsor it. For a fee of $2,000 we secured naming rights to the event and covered the venue in posters, and I gained a speaking opportunity. Change the Ratio attracted all of the power women, so for a tiny cost and little effort, we owned the hottest women’s event of the festival, with attendees like Randi Zuckerberg and Cindy Gallop. I had long been wary of trade shows. Big companies like Microsoft and Google pour millions into their presence, and it seemed unlikely that a start-up on a budget could get noticed. We decided to give it a shot, and I’m proud to say that we did make an impact.