Launch Your Startup at SXSW for $880

Cupcake social

Cupcake socialWhen you talk to CS-major CEOs about whether they are launching at SXSW, you will get all sorts of lukewarm feedback. They’ll say SXSW is “too expensive” or “too competitive” or, more politically, “It’s not the best allocation of money for our pre-funded startup.” Promoting at SXSW is not hard for just CS majors. It is also hard for VCs, angel investors and MBAs.

But with a decent dose of street smarts, a dash of fortitude and a sprinkle of hustle, it is very possible to launch at SXSW for well under a grand — $880 bucks, to be exact.

1. Produce a prequel event

Before the Oscars in Los Angeles, there are a number of pre-parties. They are not sanctioned by the organization that produces the official Sunday night event. At SXSW, I take a page out of that playbook at do a pre-party to an event that I’m not hosting.

In Hollywood, producers, financiers and studios favor sequels and prequels because they reduce risk. Sequels would be like my after-parties, which I also hack up for very little money. One example of a prequel event is my SXSW AfterParty #7 that precedes the NEA SVB party. (In the official event name, I call it an after-party because it is after another party but before the NEA SVB party.) The NEA party starts at 6pm. My party starts at 5:05pm and goes until 5:55.


But, Larry Chiang, won’t you get a horrible reputation for stealing their PR thunder and stepping on their toes?
If you cannot politely and entrepreneurially ruffle some feathers, how do you expect to disrupt an entire market, put companies under and have venerable news organizations say bad things about you?

Do you have to do open bar?
There is no law that says you need to have an open bar. SXSW isn’t just about getting free beer. It is about maximizing your ROI for the $2k that you spent on your badge and lodging.

The essential street-smart formula of my prequel party is:
1. Identify a party that you would like to prequel
2. Support a cause or a truth
3. Add value as the “warm up band”
4. Identify a venue close by the event you’re prequeling.
5. Promote yourself, sure — but also help out the community

What do you think that this formula lacks? Add your ideas in the comments below.

2. Raise $300 in VC sponsorship money

I have this theory. Getting a person to pull out a term sheet for $800k is more likely if they already have given you $800.

Well, we aren’t so talented to get $800, so lets set our sights on $300. If you’re like me as the CEO of Duck9, you might want to split that $300 and syndicate all 300 bucks between Sequoia, Morgenthaler and Draper. If you come up with a kitschy, funny, franchise like the Reverse VC Pitch, you might get venture firms to pitch in $800 each.

If you’re a CS-major CEO, and need help cold-calling VCs for $300, text me at 6502838008. OK, twist my arm, anyone can text me for help. Seriously.

3. Anchor event + satellite event

An anchor event is your flagship event. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have a kick-ass navy like the USA (or if your country is no longer allowed to have a navy), a flagship is your best warship, the one that carries your flag. In my case it is the United States of America. Your anchor event is your stake-defining, clearly visible event.

Augment your anchor event with satellite events, which will increase the ROI of the anchor event. One event is easy to miss. Having a carpet bomb of events makes your launch impossible to miss.

One event seems costly, but hosting multiple events for less than $900 seems impossible. Set the audacious goal. It’s fun. Plus, it’s very possible to have the mechanics to engineer a system to produce multiple events.

4. BYOS: Bring Your Own Signage.

The Austin startup community is incredibly nurturing. AustinStartup, Unofficial Austin, Austin Secret Society of Entrepreneurs and Capital Factory. Mooch a table there, and be ready with your own signage. Last year Plancast mooched a table to promote at Austin Tech Cocktail Austin Tech Happy Hour. A VC that was excited about them brought in a couple dozen pizzas. Instant satellite event.

Another mooch-sponsorship example comes from another CS-major CEO: OnCompare’s Justin Wilcox was given a table at “Launch” by Jason Calacanis. Justin took the comp and shared it with a funded startup in exchange for sponsorship in a full-blown after-party.

5. Be the default or back-up party

Here is a little-known secret: Companies that put cash deposits down for events sometimes do not show up. They cancel at the last minute, leaving a gaping void.

You can buy up that event for nickels on the dollar. For example, a brand-name Fortune 500 company was to produce a major event but three executives were no-shows. They canceled their prepaid event. I picked up their event by providing the venue with the needed insurance docs, tipping the appropriate people, and putting up an invite on Evite (it’s like Eventbrite), Ryze (it’s like Plancast) and Friendster (it’s like Facebook).

6. Pay it forward

If you get a comp, pay it forward. For example, Tim O’Reilly’s conference company gave me a comp sponsorship for Web 2.0’s after-party on the first night. I think it was a test to see what I would do with the power.

I divvied it up eight ways and gave away sponsorship chunks on a TechCrunch post. I did not promote my own company, Duck9. I did not charge or sell the sponsorships that I gave out.

7. Woo with flowers

Do you need a VIP to come to your rinky-dink cupcake social? Brush up on you charm and invite that VIP to your cocktail party to help them work your room.

I’d spend $20 on a Whole Foods bouquet and drop it off at their hotel, as an invite to your cupcake social. For example, if the Web 2.0 Summit is at the Palace Hotel, you can bet Tim O’Reilly is staying right there in a room between floors 2 and 8. Drop off flowers for the front desk with a nice card that invites him to a social or thanks him for the lunchtable conversation.

Another way to woo with flowers is to similarly calculate lodging at SXSW for Tim Draper. He is speaking at the Midnight + 1 SXSW kick-off event at the Four Seasons, so my powers of deduction would conclude he is staying…ding! ding! ding! Four Seasons!

If flowers are over the top, then send a small, thoughtful fruit basket. Also, bring a stack of paper thank-you cards — and use them.

Bonus tip
One mention from Gary Vee from the stage and you can have an instant satellite event at your chair. Drop off some wine in his room at the Driskill. If you want, I will do if for you — I am in suite 434. It’s the only suite with a balcony big enough to BBQ off of. It is very street-smart to proactively thank you for writing the The Thank You Economy. Gary, will you come to one of my 11:11 after-parties?

Larry Chiang is CEO of Duck9, a service that helps college students improve their FICO credit score. He is the author of What They Don’t Teach You at Stanford Business School, the unofficial sequel to Mark McCormack’s What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. He’s currently working on his next book, What They Will NEVER Teach You at Stanford Business School, to be published in 2012. He adds, “If you blog about your intentions to launch at SXSW and link to this article, I will let the commenters pick four lucky winners who will get a comp ticket to my prequel event before the NEA SVB event.”

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