Should You Get a Booth At a Top Industry Event — Or Just Hack The Event?

So we’ve been doing SaaStr Annual’s since 2015, and we’re excited for the biggest and best SaaStr Annual 2023 ever, Sep 6-8 in SF Bay Area, as well as 5,000+ at SaaStr Europa 2023 in London in June.

Now we sell a lot of sponsorships to these events — over 200 top-tier sponsors.  So we’re biased.  But we’ve also learned to turn away a lot of sponsors.  In fact, we turn away the majority of the folks that reach out.  Because we want to make sure they have real ROI.  Most importantly, we turn away a lot of smaller startups with limited marketing budgets.  We tell them instead to come back and sponsor a SaaStr event next year, when they (and their budgets) are bigger.

And yet … you really want to be at the top events in your industry.  Maybe not the ones no one goes to.  But you do really want to be at the top 1-2 events each year at a minimum.  They just attract the best buyers, the best partners, the best colleagues, and more.

So how do you “do an event” — with no budget?

Well, many SaaS startups at, say, under $5m ARR say it’s better to hack an event.

What does that mean?

  • Do a dinner, instead of a booth.  This certainly can work.  Do customer dinners!
  • Do rogue marketing around the event, e.g. fake picketing, etc.  Yes, it gets attention.  But does it get leads?
  • Do list pooling.  Chip in just a few dollars to share leads.  But if they’re shared, do they really show any intent at all?

I’ve done the rogue thing in the past, and it can be kind of fun.  And if you do it right, it can work, at least a little bit.  And if your budget really is $0, it can be the best strategy!

Here’s my meta-learning on events, booths, and the like:

  • Booths and sponsorships are expensive — but realize they are a somewhat turn-key service.  They package up a whole bunch of things (engagement, brand, placement, getting you in front of 1,000s of potential buyers) in a turn-key fashion.  Later, as you scale, turn-key will be very, very valuable.  As your limited time comes more important than saving a few nickels.
  • Doing small dinners and side events are a good idea. But how will you get folks there?  The best approach generally is to do it all if you can.  Do your own customer dinner, and also do the event itself.  But when you are smaller, pick what you can pull off.  Folks, though, will tell you doing a dinner around an event is better than sponsoring an event.  Maybe.  But it’s not an “either/or” decision.  Being a part of a top industry gathering exposes you to folks that … won’t come to your dinner. 😉
  • Sponsorships start expensive but later get “cheaper” — as a percent of your budget.  A $60k sponsorship may sound like a lot of money in the early days, and it is.  But the cost doesn’t go up as you get bigger.  So there is a lot of value here after, say, $5m-$10m ARR that may be harder to see earlier.  Getting in front of 1,000 decision-makers for $60k or $100k won’t seem that expensive at $20m ARR.  Sponsorships get more and more cost-effective the bigger you get.

Net net my learning is: going rogue at events can work if you know how to do it and put in the work!  But it doesn’t really scale.

Try it.  And then next year, go official. 🙂

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Published on January 12, 2023

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