Why travelling to one of the biggest conferences in the world as a startup was worth the investment

KillBiller is a mobile startup based in Dublin. They create an application that audits subscriber call/SMS/data usage and recommend the best mobile plan from all of the (500+) plans available on the UK/Irish market. This year, Bart Lehane (co-founder / CTO) attended Mobile World Congress, a four-day global conference attended by a hundred thousand people and over two thousand companies in Barcelona. This post describes his experience.


Is a global conference any place for a startup?

The decision to exhibit at Mobile World Congress was not one taken lightly. For a start, there is significant expense in being there — flights and accommodation would need to be paid for, but they pale in comparison to the cost of having a stand to actually show the world what your company does. Secondly, there is the time investment, which is significant for a small company as three people would need to take valuable time from busy development/sales/marketing schedules to be there. We also wondered how hard it would be to stand out at a conference where some of the biggest companies in the world try to out-market each other, and even the smaller companies exhibiting have marketing budgets that we can only dream of.

We carefully considered the cost involved, and decided to go. The chance to be at the center of the mobile world for four days, with every mover and shaker within touching distance, was just too much to miss. Additionally, it would give us a great opportunity to get a view of the mobile market and some of the latest and greatest technology advances. If the conference was a wash-out, a week in Barcelona would be our consolation prize.

KillBiller’s experience of Mobile World Congress

We had a number of objectives for the conference. First and foremost, the aim was to find new partners and customers. In that degree we had a successful week. While our meeting calendar wasn’t initially chock full, we were kept busy for the four days with meetings that in most cases would have been difficult to arrange, or at best would have been over conference calls rather than face-to-face. For the data-driven people amongst you, we had 17 meetings over the four days of the conference, 5 of which were with potential customers, and the rest of which were with potential partners or resellers.

We set up roughly two-thirds of the meetings ourselves, and the rest we got via Enterprise Ireland (the Irish government support agency) or helpful colleagues. The quality of people attending Mobile World Congress tends to be pretty high, so many of these people were decision makers. For a startup, being able to get meetings with a C-Level executive of a mobile operator is absolute gold-dust, and fortunately we did manage to get a few.

From a networking perspective, we also found it very useful. We were part of the Ireland stand, so we were co-located with Irish companies who didn’t opt for (or couldn’t afford!) their own stand. This provided ample opportunity to mix with other companies big and small. Enterprise Ireland also hosted an event on one of the evenings which was thronging as you would expect for any event that handed out free Guinness!

Standing out at an event like this is an impossibility. Companies of the size of Intel, Samsung and Ericsson spend millions on this event alone, and so a small startup is never going to be able to compete at that scale. That said, I did see some smaller companies with great demos that caught the eye (for example, one glass manufacturer had a team of people bashing a protected phone with a hammer which immediately grabbed everybody’s attention!). We weren’t focused on promotion at the event, so a small stand and a place to meet people suited us perfectly.

Mark Zuckerberg Mobile world congress

Our marketing budget did not stretch to creating a VR theatre and getting Mark Zuckerberg to speak as Samsung did!

Overall we were extremely happy with our decision to attend the conference. It opened up a few doors that would been hard to open up otherwise, and gave us a lot of great feedback on the work we were doing. But, there was a significant expense and there was a huge amount of work in preparing for it. So I’ll leave you with a number of things that we found worked well, and a few that we’ll improve on for next time.

Tips on approaching a big conference

Plan Plan Plan

Make sure there is a clear plan of what you want to get out of the conference. If it is a corporate conference, setting up meetings for the sake of it, or just going there to be seen are probably not good reasons. We had a focus of seeking out European operators and resellers of a certain profile so we targeted our efforts on them. Even with that relatively targeted approach, we found getting in front of in-demand mobile operators difficult. Don’t get disheartened if you get ten rejections for meeting requests, you are competing with big companies who have large corporate ‘wine and dine’ budgets so any relevant meetings are a success.

Think of the ROI

Going to a big international conference can be very expensive, and exhibiting can be even more expensive. Unless you think attending will result in additional revenues, then it isn’t worth it (note here that I am talking about trade-shows, not educational conferences or investor showcases that clearly have many other benefits).

Don’t have an Inferiority Complex

As a startup, you are going to be at an earlier product stage than most other companies at a big conference and it’s easy to get an inferiority complex about your company or products. However, even the biggest companies launch products at big conferences that fail miserably, and typically startups are bringing out far more innovative products and solutions. It’s also easy to take one person’s negative opinion too heavily, especially when it’s your own company and product. You might feel like you are spoofing it, but most of the bigger companies are spoofing it too!

Utilise Government Agencies

As an Irish company, we significantly leveraged the government support agency Enterprise Ireland. In the UK the UKTI fulfil much the same role. We exhibited as part of the Ireland stand and Enterprise Ireland helped us greatly in having a successful conference. They are there to help you and, if you work with them, can have great contacts in the right areas for you. Don’t rely on them to set up all your meetings though, they are a helping hand, not a replacement for a sales organization! They do make planning for a conference a lot more manageable.

Prepare for Follow Up

One thing that we had to do on the fly was have a system for storing notes on the meetings and organizing follow up. With such a large volume of meetings, it is very difficult to remember follow-up actions and relying on sporadic note-taking during the meeting is dangerous. We tended to sit down for ten minutes after each meeting and write down our notes and actions. Next time we will have a defined template for meeting notes and follow up activities to make this process more efficient.


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