TechCrunch Disrupt SF is officially over. It was a lot of fun, and was an absolutely exhausting but overall excellent experience for us. I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the event in the hope that it will help other startups that are considering the event in the future.

The Good

It was great to finally make it out to the startup mecca that is Silicon Valley. If you’re from the “no coast” like we are, things probably seem a bit weird out here. Startups advertise on billboards and taxis, for one thing.

But it turns out that for the most part the people aren’t that much different. Some are extremely intelligent, but not all. Some are really great hustlers, but not everyone. Most are really working hard to make their product and their company stand out and get noticed, and most are doing everything they can do to make it better. That sounds a lot like startups everywhere.

The highlights of the conference itself, for us at least, included watching Mark Zuckerberg on stage, getting interviewed by Robert Scoble, and checking out all of the amazing companies. Wednesday–hardware day–was especially cool. Playing with gadgets is always a load of fun.

We also got to launch our new product at Startup Alley on Monday, which was the culmination of a lot of really hard work. There’s still A LOT of work to do, but we’re happy to have something out there, and we’re happy to be getting great feedback.

We worked with our partners at am>ventures to create a really awesome guerilla marketing campaign, and it worked out really well. The concept was “the death of the old fashioned job board,” and all of the marketing was based around that concept. We had a hearse. We had a dude dressed as the Grim Reaper. We even built a special website for the event. And now we have a huge stack of new contacts, many of whom sought us out as a direct result of the campaign.

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It all worked out really well, and it helped us to stand out. And believe me, you need to stand out at TC Disrupt. More on that later.

We also got the chance to see some of our transplanted Memphis buddies who now live in the city and work for local startups, and we even managed to make it out to the Golden Gate Bridge and down south to Mountain View and the Computer History Museum. Both spots are very highly recommended, but make sure you give yourself at least three hours at the museum. It’s pretty overwhelming.

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The Not So Good

There were a few not so good things, but I would put most in the category of surprising rather than all out bad. Not making it into the Startup Battlefield was of course a disappointment, and learning that many of the judges on stage were also investors in the battlefield companies was a little surprising (maybe not so surprising in hindsight, but surprising at the time). We were competing with a lot of companies, and a lot of the companies that made it were really awesome, so not getting in ourselves didn’t put much of a dent in our confidence.

I was a bit more surprised by just how far along the battlefield companies were, given that they were supposed to be launching at the event. Many already had significant ($1M+) funding, most of were extremely full-featured, several already boasted thousands of users, and several others had already locked down significant numbers of institutional clients. Against those stats, we may not have had much to show, given that we launched on Monday with minimal features and with just a couple companies on our platform. But, I guess terms like lean startup and MVP are both relative. It certainly makes sense that for an event like this, with the significant press that comes with it, you’d make every effort to have the product as polished as possible.

We were a bit disappointed by the relative lack of press attention given to Startup Alley, given the sheer number of press that were there, but in hindsight we should have expected this too. The press are there to see people like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg present on stage and to see the battlefield companies. If you don’t fall into those categories, then it’s a bit harder to get noticed. Of course one of the highlights of our event was getting interviewed by Scoble, and we got a lot of attention from several other writers as well, so it wasn’t a complete wash.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to us was the sheer number of bootstrapped startups in Startup Alley. Perhaps we’re a bit on the frugal side, but this trip was the opposite of cheap. Even if we lived in the valley, the table and related marketing materials alone ran somewhere near $5k. It’s hard for me to fathom how a barely there bootstrapped outfit could come up with that and justify the cost. But, again in hindsight, I guess it makes sense. If you’re a struggling startup in the valley and you want to launch in front of a lot of people and get some quick exposure, TC Disrupt is a pretty good place to do it. I certainly wish all of our fellow Startup Alley companies great luck with that.

Lessons Learned

We learned a lot during our trip to startup land. Here are a few lessons:

1) Spend time setting up meetings and contacts on the front end, because meetings won’t happen once you’re in town.

So we did okay with this. We stayed in town for a couple days after the conference, and set up several meetings in advance. But we kept some time open because we assumed we might set up a few meetings during the conference proper. That never happened. People are just too busy during the conference, and, if they were anything like us, even the days and weeks after are a blur because the spike in traffic and interest has inevitably surfaced bugs that they weren’t aware were even there before.

Bottom line – get there a day early to familiarize yourself with the city, then stay at least a couple days after to meet one on one with folks, but plan those meetings in advance. And while you’re planning, keep in mind that Silicon Valley is a pretty huge place. Mountain View and San Francisco are about a hour away from each other by train, and there are a bunch of places in between. Try to set up your meetings with that in mind.

2) Make a significant effort to stand out.

Startup Alley and the convention hall are absolutely huge, and people and startups and booths are everywhere. As a company in Startup Alley, you’ll be competing for attention with the main sponsors, who often pull out all stops; the battlefield companies, who are clearly top of mind for a lot of attendees; and all the other companies who are there to do the same thing you’re trying to do.

So don’t just show up with a sign, a demo, and some business cards. It’s true that the best products often get the most attention, but only if people actually know about the best products. So, put on your creative guerilla marketing hat and do your best. We had a hearse with our logo and a Grim Reaper handing out flyers outside the event, and our table covering stood out, which got us a lot of interest. I saw a man in a wedding dress, several clowns, some acrobats, and plenty of flashy physical displays. And guess what, I remember all of them…

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3) Get away from your table.

We got a lot of interest because we hustled our asses off. It was incredibly rare that Brad and I were at our display table at the same time. Almost always, one of us was in the crowd with the iPad, showing off our demo, while the other was back at the display, doing the same thing with the laptop. This is absolutely imperative, simply because the conference hall is such a huge place. There’s a really good chance that if you don’t go to them, a lot of people will never even walk down your particular isle.

So, plan in advance. Have a tablet with the demo ready that you can quickly show to folks as you walk around, and do a lot of walking and shaking hands.

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4) Don’t worry about t-shirts.

Just don’t. A lot of companies will have t-shirts, and not a lot of folks will want yours. It’s better to think about a business card that really stands out and make sure you come with plenty of those. Ours had our mugshots, in cartoon form, right on the back, which was really memorable for most folks, especially because of the beards.

If you don’t take my advice and decide to do t-shirts, make them extremely memorable. Our logo works well because of the pie in our name, but I have to admit that the shirts from New Relic are even cooler. That’s a t-shirt I actually sought out after seeing a few folks carrying them around. That’s what you want.

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5) TechCrunch Disrupt (or any big conference, for that matter) won’t make or break your company.

TechCrunch Disrupt was a great experience, and I’m really glad we did it for a number of reasons, but it wasn’t a magic pill that suddenly turned our user or client acquisition numbers into little hockey sticks. Conferences like these, as ironic as it sounds, aren’t actually places where attendees try out new products. If you’re doing it right, then you’re up by 7AM, at the conference by 9AM, leaving around 7PM, then off to the after-party at 9PM, and so on. There’s just zero time to actually sit down and try out a few of the products you learned about.

TechCrunch Disrupt is all about the follow-up. You’ll most definitely leave with a huge stack of business cards. What you do with them is completely up to you, and that follow-up is where you start to see the real benefit of attending a conference like this. We’re in the middle of that phase as I write this, so it remains to be seen exactly what the true benefit will be, but I’m confident about the future…

The Bottom Line

If you’re thinking about going to TechCrunch Disrupt, and the event is something that won’t absolutely break your budget, I recommend going. But realize that your attendance won’t have an effect on your company unless you make it so. Plan on the front end, figure out how you’ll stand out, have an effective follow-up strategy, and you’ll do just fine.

I’m always here to answer questions if you have them. Reach out to cliff@workforpie.com or tweet at us via @workforpie.

Cheers!