Security startup confessions: Attending industry events

attending industry eventsMy name is Kai Roer and I am a co-founder of European security startup CLTRe, and these are my confessions. I hope you will learn from my struggles, and appreciate the choices startups make when security matters. I will share experiences from my own startups (my first was in 1994), and things I have learned by watching and advising numerous other startups around the world.

Attending conferences and similar events typically involves a lot of meetings, sales pitches (both giving and receiving), and alcohol.

During the daytime, you run from meeting to meeting, or make sure your team is doing their thing, staying on top of their game even if they would prefer to go home and sleep. During the evenings, you try to manage the cocktails and the partner events where you are expected to show up to show your support.

Day and night, you are constantly on the alert for the whale – the big client we all dream of. It could be the next person, or the one after that, and you have to be ready to impress.

Going through the daily agenda

My typical day at a conference looks something like this:

  • I get up early in the morning, have coffee (and a shave and shower too), put on clean shirt, and a smile
  • I go through the agenda for the day (my agenda, that is – the event agenda has been digested weeks ago, and talks to attend and to skip have already been selected).
  • I go through the daily agenda with my team, to make sure everybody knows what they are to do, where to must be, at what times, and that they remember to smile at all times. This is especially important on the afternoon of the last day.
  • I always arrive early to the event
  • I check the booth (if we have one), meet with my appointments during the day, and keep my eyes open for the next huge client
  • I walk the exhibition floor at least two times a day, pop by all booths where I know someone to say hi, and drop by the booths of potential partners, potential competitors and random vendors to see what they do, how they do it, and to learn how we can improve by comparing our own performance to theirs.
  • I attend the talks I have scheduled for myself
  • When the event floor is closing down, I do a quick stand-up with my team, go through any issues and opportunities that came up during the day, and review the evening schedule. I reschedule if needed (i.e. if I know someone I want to meet with is attending a different party than the one(s) I planned to attend). Then, I dispatch the team
  • I attend the evening parties, smile, talk and enjoy. Make introductions where it makes sense, get introduced to those I need and want to meet. When the time comes to move on, I move on, but not before thanking the host.

And then, in the late evenings and nightly hours, I spend precious moments discussing real business with my trusted and respected peers. I finally get the opportunity to discuss that one particular case I have wanted to get off my chest for quite some time, and ask for advice I can only get from close and trusted friends.

When I speak or train at conferences, my schedule for that day is different. I typically avoid any scheduled meetings before my talk or training, and instead spend that time preparing, to get myself into the “speaker mood.” I typically arrive early, at least 30 minutes for talks and key notes, and an hour or so for trainings. Usually, I will already have checked out the room, the equipment and other details the day before.

When my talk or training is over, I usually hang around to allow people to engage with me. Once that’s over, I find a calm and semi-isolated place where I can review what I did, enjoy a glass of wine, and take myself out of the speaker mode. I prefer to spend this time alone, or with just one or two trusted friends, who can both support me and give me brutally honest feedback on how I can improve.

These routines are the result of more than twenty years of practice and continuous improvements. If someone new is on my team, I will brief them several times in the weeks before the event, and then make sure they get the support they need during the event.

This practice of mine has sometimes scared both junior and senior employees – juniors typically because they don’t have the experience, so they don’t really know what to expect, and seniors because some of them think they don’t need to follow my strict regime. When this happens, they are given the chance to step up their game. Some do, and we typically get to work together successfully. Others don’t, and they don’t get to hang around for long.

Some additional advice

At these events, you should always keep yourself in control. If you cannot hold your liquor, avoid it. If you don’t know how to tackle a hangover, drink light. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a beaten down, still drunk sales person trying to pitch to a prospective client, breath still heavy with the booze he drank last night. A client is never going to close that deal with such a person.

One thing I don’t always schedule in is meals. I will occasionally do lunch meetings and dinner meetings. But while some are scheduled, others happens by chance, when my interest is piqued. I invite those people to join me for lunch, and interesting conversations usually ensue.

Attenting an industry event can be a lot of fun – in fact, if you ask me, it should be fun. But it’s hard work, too, and it may take an event or two for you to learn how to do this properly.

My regime may seem strict to some, but my reasoning is simple: this is business. We are investing our time and resources into building our business, and that means we must work our game hard. Vacation? Use your own time.

That said, I don’t mind my team members or myself spending an extra day or two off while traveling. I’m a strong believer in the need to take time out to reflect, plan and learn, and few things are better at re-energizing people as much as taking a couple of days off to enjoy the local cuisine and culture. This is also the time when you can – and should! – relax completely, enjoy yourself, and not work at all.

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