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Joel on Software

Should you launch at a conference?

by Joel Spolsky
Thursday, September 15, 2011

Should you launch at Launch? (Or TechCrunch Disrupt? Or Demo? They’re all pretty similar).

This year I launched two major new products at conferences: Careers 2.0 and Trello, and both times, it was totally worth it.

First, a little background. There are three popular conferences where you can launch new products: Launch, TechCrunch Disrupt, and Demo. They all work the same way:

  • You apply. If you have a half-decent product that is genuinely new, you’re likely to get a spot. That said, hundreds of companies apply for these conferences with unbearably awful products, so there’s always a risk that you’ll get lost in the noise.
  • If you get in, you will have a chance to give a demo on stage for exactly six minutes. There will be some celebrity judges who will give you a few sentences of honest feedback about your startup. (Here’s how our demo went down).
  • Even if you don’t get a slot presenting, you may have a chance to set up at a little table in the conference area where you can show off your product to passers-by.
  • The official promise is that you’ll get exposure to a lot of journalists and VCs, and this will launch your startup on the way to huge success. The truth is, well, complicated, but I’ll get into that in a minute.
  • At the end there is a “winner.” For example at Disrupt the winner (chosen by a panel of utterly uncorruptable, gazillionaire judges) receives a check for $50,000. There are between 30 and 50 startups presenting at each conference, and the politics behind who “wins” are murky enough that you should basically assume that the chance of winning is zero. There’s always going to be a “Netflix for Cabbage” or a “Second Life for Facebook” that the judges fall in love with. So the benefits of winning, which is vanishingly unlikely, should never factor into your decision as to whether to go or not.

So, are these conferences worth it?

Let’s look, individually, at the two big promises of the conferences: exposure to VCs and exposure to the press.

Are VCs at these conferences? Absolutely. Does going to one of these conferences get you funded? It’s complicated.

  • If you have a brilliant product, a great team, and you’re eminently fundable, but you don’t know any VCs yet, and you launch at one of these conferences, you will meet a bunch of VCs—even some top notch ones—and the conference may actually get you funded. At the last TechCrunch Disrupt, the finalist judging panel consisted of some of the best investors in Silicon Valley. If you made it to the finals, these folks now know who you are and what your product does, and if your company is fundable, they’ll all take your call.
  • That said, if there’s some reason your product is not fundable, all the conferences in the world can’t help you. Yeah, you may have a chance to present to a bunch of unknown VCs wandering around looking for investment ideas, but most of them won’t actually invest in you and those that will may be more trouble than they’re worth.

I’ve been tossing around the word fundable without defining it. Every entrepreneur thinks their “Mint.com for Laundry Tickets” is the most fundable idea ever, and all VCs should be dying to invest, if they would only sit still for the brief 62 minute demo!

No. Technically, whether you’re fundable has to do with things like traction, the total size of the opportunity, the quality of the team, whether you build moats (?), and a bunch of other gibberish that VCs like to tell themselves in their heads so that they don’t think they’re just spinning bottles.

But it’s too hard for an entrepreneur to evaluate their own fundability. So here’s a working definition of fundable which is all that matters for you as an entrepreneur:

  • If you’re knocking on VC’s doors and they all seem to be opening, you’re fundable. If you keep getting more meetings, more introductions, and good vibes, keep going. You’ll get funded.
  • If you’re knocking on VC’s doors and they all seem to be closed, you’re not fundable. These days most VCs will just tell you why. If you can’t get a second meeting with anyone, just stop. You’re beautiful, you’re smart, and you’re going to change the world, but you happen to be non-fundable, so just stop. Either change the company or the product, or find a way to make your product popular and successful without investors. 

So, that said, if you don’t know any VCs and think you might have a fundable company, a conference like Launch or Disrupt will get you your first intros.

Now, on to the other promise: Press and publicity.

It is possible, nay, common, to launch at one of these conferences and get NO press whatsoever. Zero. Nada. At Disrupt you’re guaranteed at least one mention in TechCrunch, but you’ll soon discover that TechCrunch’s tech-industry insiders may not really be the audience you need.

Yes, there are a lot of journalists at these conferences. Disrupt probably had about 200. When we launched Trello this week, you know how much press we got?

Four stories.

And every one of those stories came because I knew the reporter and emailed them before we launched, and pre-briefed them on our product under embargo.

Yep. There was not a single reporter, from the 200 that were registered, at Disrupt who saw our presentation and said, “Oh cool, I’m going to write about that.”

You know why? Because there were dozens of companies launching in two days, and reporters usually file one or two stories a day, so they all focus on one or two companies they find interesting (and at this last conference, they mostly wanted to talk about Arringtongate).

That said, you can get exactly the burst of publicity you need from launching at one of these conferences, if you do it right. You have to:

  • Prebrief friendly media (under embargo)
  • Get the bloggers in your area to write about you
  • Have a sensational demo that gets retweeted
  • And do this all at exactly the same moment when it’s newsworthy.

We did all that and leveraged 6 minutes of fame into 130,000 eyeballs.

The thing entrepreneurs often forget about news media: It’s supposed to be news. They want new things. As a startup, you are only going to have two or three new things that happen, ever:

  1. Launching your product
  2. Raising money from a VC
  3. Reporting insane traffic or revenue (optional)

That’s it. Those are your chances to get news. Under no circumstances can you expect to be covered because you take a walk in the woods with potential employees... you’re not Mark Zuckerberg. (Unless you are, in which case, Hi Mark!) You’re not getting font changes on the home page covered, unless you used to work for Mark Zuckerberg.

In short, you only have two or at most three chances to got coverage unless there’s Mark Zuckerberg involvement.

Well, wait, there’s one more way. If you are very lucky, you will have some famous people involved in your company, and some of them will have tawdry affairs with prostitutes that are captured on video. That will get you a fourth story. Otherwise, you’re not news. Get over it.

Also important: the news cycle is 12 hours, tops. If you call journalists the day after you release your product, it’s not news. They won’t care. You have to call them two days before you launch, tell them you’re going to launch in two days, and offer to pre-brief them, so that they can run their story when it’s actually newsworthy. The bottom line is that you have to get all your coverage within a period of a few hours which means you have to plan ahead and work hard. This is not the time for incrementalism. Don’t worry about DDOSing your own server. There’s no choice: you can’t spread out the newsworthiness of your launch.

Because there are so few opportunities for a startup to get press, you have to make the most out of each one. That’s why I am still a big believer in “the big launch” even though the Lean Startup ethic today is all about trickling things out to your users bit by bit and pivoting a million times.

Here’s the story of Trello. We wrote the first line of code last January. By the time we hit 700 lines of code, the product was useful, and we immediately started dogfooding it in-house. We probably could have brought it to market after three months. That would have been ever so lean. There was a strong temptation just to dump it on the world super-early and spend the next year iterating and improving.

We didn’t do that. We worked for nine months, and then launched.

I couldn’t stop thinking that you never have a second chance to make a first impression. We got 131,000 eyeballs on 9-month-old Trello when we launched, and it was AWESOME, so 22% of them signed up. If we had launched 3-month-old Trello, it would have been NOT SO AWESOME. Maybe even MEH. I don’t want 131,000 eyeballs on MEH.

Still, I do, firmly, believe that a completely new product has to go through what Steve Blank calls customer development to find “product/customer fit.” I.e., you have to get real people really using your product and you have to watch them and listen to them and make changes to make your product better, and you have to do this very, very early.

How did we reconcile this? Through the old fashioned method of a closed beta. We got a hundred of our best friends to use Trello and tell us what they thought while we iterated and polished and improved.

So the thing we launched, nine-month-old Trello, is really kind of slick. And we got a little initial bit of publicity for it, but then that publicity became massively viral. So those four news stories caused a few people to check out the product, and they liked it, because it was AWESOME NINE-MONTH-OLD TRELLO, and they wrote amazingly nice tweets. Thousands of amazingly nice tweets.

So, the story so far: if your product is really good, launching at one of these conferences is an incredible catalyst. If your product is “meh,” it won’t help.

But wait—there’s one important, bonus reason to launch at a conference, and it’s a good enough reason to do it even if you don’t need the publicity or the VC at all.

It’s all about your team.

When you launch at a conference, you have an incredible hard deadline. This deadline forces you to ship. It forces you to make decisions about what has to be in version 1.0. It's actually an incredible team-building exercise to work your butt off, together, for the weeks leading up to the conference.

The morale boost you’ll get will be incredible. After months of toiling away, the feeling you get from seeing real-world people actually start using your product is the best feeling you will ever get as a software programmer in your professional life. These are the great moments that make it all worthwhile. We *made* something. People used it. It matters.

It's like sex, with clothes on.

The members of our team who came out to San Francisco for Disrupt (including two summer interns who skipped a week of classes to join us) had a blast. It was the best week, ever. The members of the team who stayed back in the office, watching the conference piped in over the Internet, had a blast. It was the best week, ever.

Work has to matter.

The stuff we create can’t just be bits on a hard drive.

Brett, Daniel, Bobby, Justin, Ian, and Aaron built something with their bare hands that will be a part of how the future works.

One company that just launched at Disrupt is trying to fix medical bills. Another wants to bring fresh produce from farmers direct to households. Another company built the universal translator from Star Trek. Good software developers invent the future.

This is what matters: launching products, getting them in the hands of users, and hearing them get value out of it. That’s why we stay up late, ruin our wrists and our eyesight, and drive our families crazy. It’s all about shipping.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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