Lessons From Having The World's Largest Startup Event as a Customer
It's a blistering hot spring day in San Francisco, and I'm listening to billionaire Peter Thiel recount the story of telling Mark Zuckerberg – "Just don't f**k it up" when he made the first investment in Facebook.
The experience was mind-boggling, but what was even more surreal – my first company – Get Invited – was powering the ticketing for Jason Calacanis's LAUNCH Festival 2015. In addition to Peter Thiel, LAUNCH boasted speakers like Gary Vaynerchuk, Reid Hoffman and Tony Hawk.
Many people have asked me how a baby-faced founder from Belfast managed to secure a US deal like this during his first year in business with no experience.
This is not as difficult as you might think. There was no black magic or hypnosis involved; you don't need to have years of experience; you simply need to be prepared to do four things that most other people are not.
1. Book a Flight
At our April 2014 board meeting, we discussed breaking into the US market, and the board encouraged me to visit the states.
"I wouldn't know where to start" I retaliated.
"Book a flight, get on a plane and go" encouraged Tim, our chairman.
A few days later, dates were set and flights booked for one week in NYC and then onto San Francisco for two weeks.
If you're anything like my former self, you will probably have a list of reasons why you couldn't do this, but you have to bite the bullet and force yourself to get out of your comfort zone.
Some marketers will tell you that you can land deals like this over email or a Twitter DM, but who would you trust your global event with: someone that spent 30 seconds DMing you, or the person that has flown halfway across the world to meet you?
Tip: if you're anxious about going travelling on your own, then look for trade missions in your local city so you can travel with the support of other entrepreneurs.
2. Leverage Your Network
Like many new entrepreneurs, I'd never been to the US on business and had zero contacts there, so, the first thing I did was tap my local network in Belfast to see who had US connections in the startup and event spaces. From this, I got quite a few names and email introductions to set up meetings weeks before arriving.
The first (and coolest ever) name on my list was Luke Lightning. I sent Luke an email, and he got back to me on the same day to set up a meeting.
Sounds easy, right? Two things:
- I name-dropped Luke's friend in the email who gave me his contact details, so this was a warm introduction.
- If you're making an effort to travel across the world, most people will be open to meeting with you because you come across as a serious business person.
I can't stress enough how important building a network is. You should be doing this from the first day you decide to start a business. Build a local network first and then expand into other countries.
3. Get on a Plane
After a productive week in NYC, my first meeting in San Francisco was with Luke; he suggested we hit up a Vietnamese place called Tu Lan for lunch, just off Market on 6th in downtown San Francisco. We grabbed a curry, had a few beers (never happens at business meetings in Belfast) and Luke made a few email introductions to his network for me.
One of these was an early employee of Eventbrite (our billion-dollar US competitor) whom I met and ended up partying in his apartment until 2 am (but that's a different story).
Luke worked for LAUNCH Festival and mentioned that they were currently looking for a ticketing system for their next conference.
He invited me to pitch Get Invited to their CEO, Jason.
"Absolutely, when?" I asked.
"About 45 minutes should be cool."
That was my first taste of how quickly things move in Silicon Valley (this kind of meeting would take weeks to set up in Belfast).
After lunch, I grabbed a coffee and frantically set up a demo on Get Invited specifically tailored for LAUNCH festival and then met with Jason at LAUNCH HQ.
We chatted for 45 minutes as I showed off the platform while negotiating a deal were Get Invited would gain some extra exposure at LAUNCH Festival as a sponsor.
They needed a referral system - which we didn't have - so I agreed to build it and worried about breaking the news to my team later.
Jason said he'd let us know in a few days once he'd spoken to the other ticketing companies pitching.
Three days later, the email arrived with a contract attached from LAUNCH Festival.
The deal was done. The company I co-founded had secured the world's largest startup conference as a customer little over six months from when we were incorporated.
4. Engineer Your Luck
People have criticised me in the past saying this was luck, and that I was in the right place at the right time.
It's not difficult to be in the right place at the right time when you've flown 6,000 miles and inserted yourself into the tech capital of the world.
If you want to get lucky, you have to immerse yourself into an environment where your chances of having a lucky encounter are increased.
Handling Emails from Jason Calacanis at 5 am
Getting a contract with LAUNCH was the easy part. A big event like this has big needs, and there was a lot of back-and-forth between the LAUNCH team in San Francisco and my team in Belfast with many late nights trying to overcome the eight hour time difference.
I awoke one morning at 5 am to an email from Jason Calacanis, suggesting some changes to the ticket-purchase flow on Get Invited.
As always, I thought – "we can do this", but our CTO, Dave, was already fuming from my earlier agreement to build a referral system, so it was best to run it by him first.
Dave sent me one of his classic 10,000-word explanations via email explaining that we'd have to rewrite a large part of Get Invited's core engine to do what Jason had requested.
How the hell was I supposed to tell Jason Calacanis we couldn't do what he wanted?
Thankfully, Jason is a cool guy and didn't mind.
Ticketing for Tim Ferris
As part of the process of getting LAUNCH set up on Get Invited, the team wanted to run a smaller, test event first to get to grips with the platform.
This 'smaller event' happened to be This Week in Startups LIVE with Tim Ferris. We were now powering a Tim Ferris event.
LAUNCH Festival 2015
I landed in San Francisco on the Friday night before LAUNCH festival and spent the weekend cycling across the Golden Gate bridge and drinking beer with a bunch of other entrepreneurs (business is tough, I know).
First thing on Monday morning, I headed to LAUNCH Festival and was immediately blown away. The venue was Fort Mason in San Francisco, right along the north coast overlooking Alcatraz. There were thousands of people and startups everywhere.
The most magical experience, however, was witnessing the army of check-in staff using the Get Invited app to scan thousands of tickets as I walked past with my VIP pass to indulge in an unlimited supply of free beer.
One of the highlights for me was having the opportunity to sit in front of PayPal founder and billionaire investor, Peter Thiel as he told us about making the first investment in Facebook and negotiating with Mark Zuckerberg. It was a magical moment that every tech nerd will appreciate.
Why You Need a Lighthouse Customer Like LAUNCH
This deal was not about making money; it was about exposure. We went from being a small local startup in Belfast to competing on the global stage and being associated with the biggest names in tech overnight.
Having a customer of this magnitude gives you almost unquantifiable leverage.
I was in San Francisco for two weeks during LAUNCH Festival, and at every sales meeting that I attended, people already knew about Get Invited because of LAUNCH.
It gave us huge credibility in a market where we were previously unheard of, and I was able to leverage this to secure even bigger meetings with companies like VentureBeat, Microsoft and the man that grew Eventbrite to $100 million in revenue.
It was a proud success story to bring back to Belfast, where we got media coverage in the local papers, and I even appeared on TV.
Moral of The Story
Focus your early marketing efforts on getting that one big 'lighthouse' customer that will put you on the map. It will help you - massively - in securing additional customers, especially if you're the new kid on the block and haven't built a lot of trust yet.
Do things that don't scale if required to get the customer on board – even if you infuriate the rest of your team as I did.
After LAUNCH, we got several other partners in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including the world's largest virtual reality expo.
Getting customers like this isn't as difficult as you might think, I did it with almost no experience. It just takes you to be prepared to get outside your comfort zone and build relationships.
Main photo courtesy of LAUNCH Media
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