How to Run a Tech Conference in NYC

Over the years, I’ve spoken at a bunch of NY tech conferences—and they vary widely in terms of their success.

A few things remain consistent:

  • Organizers complain how difficult it is to get people to show up.

  • Attendees don’t stay.

  • Even when they do stay, they’re not super engaged.

Here are a few tips for organizers if you’re going to put on a conference here. It’s very possible and I’ve been to some good ones—and the best ones all have some common attributes.

The biggest thing that conference organizers don’t seem to understand is the following:

New York City is not one tech community.

New York is a multi-industry town. We have media startups, healthcare startups, real estate tech startups, fintech startups—every kind of startup you can imagine. The advice, connections, and customers they seek are in all sorts of different verticals, and so it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to build out a conference where paying hundreds of dollars and spending a day makes sense to someone if only 10% of the content and audience is relevant.

That’s become even more true as startup content flourishes online. In NYC, more and more people have joined startups, so they’re more familiar with the basics. Ten or twelve years ago, you could do a generalized tech conference about the “101” of startup life and a lot of New York founders would get a lot out of it, but now we’ve basically all gotten up to speed, read the posts, watched the videos, etc.

The only way to do a conference here that isn’t vertical specific is to make it about a horizontal—something that all startups have on their todo list that they find difficult, like fundraising, recruiting, marketing, etc.

And if you’re going to do a fundraising one, it needs to have real check writers—partners from known VC funds with deals in their track record people know. It’s ok if you get the occasional principal, but the majority of the speakers need to be people who could lead my deal that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. Analysts and associates aren’t difficult to access and they have less experience—and while they’re a smart bunch on the whole, they’re just not going to be a big attendee draw.

The other thing about conferences is that, in general, they aren’t very good—for either the audience or the participants.

People are growing tired of not only the format, but the lack of work actually put into the content itself. There’s a lack of research and vetting that goes into topics, and panel moderators fail to create narrative. Moderating is a skill. Invite people people who are good at it, or train them.

A few tips for panel moderators:

  • Know what you want the panel to say before you ask it. Create the narrative you want to share beforehand, and select your panelists and questions to reflect that.

  • Ask questions that will get at meaningful, specific answers. Don’t ask, “What are you seeing?” or “What’s exciting to you?” because the question is too open-ended to be weaved into a coherent narrative.

  • Don’t ask any question to more than two people on your panel, regardless of how many people are on your panel. You’re better off with less answers to more questions than the other way around, so bounce around, directing questions to specific people they’re most relevant to. After two, the answers get repetitive—and there’s nothing worse than a panelists wasting time with a “I agree with everyone else here” or “I don’t have much to add, but…”

Also, why does every session need to be a panel? Mix up the formats. Ask key, experienced attendees to lead small group sessions. Leave more time for hallway conversations.

Curation of attendees and speakers is incredibly important—which is why you really need industry insiders to be in charge of the content and speaker invites. Just because someone raised a round or two of capital doesn’t make them a great speaker with a compelling narrative—nor should they be asked how to run a successful startup, because they aren’t successful yet. Vet panelists and topics with the kinds of people you’d love to see at the conference before you invite anyone.

Diversity is not difficult—you just need to want it.

There are a ton more interesting people with unique perspectives on a topic that aren’t all straight, white and male. Just because they don’t sign up right away doesn’t mean it’s too hard to find them. Reaching out to communities of women and/or color with specific invites will help—as well as making sure these potential attendees can see people with similar perspectives participating at high levels at the conferences

If you want influential/VIP type attendees to stick around at the conference, you have to give them something to do. If someone is speaking at 2pm, they’re not going to necessarily come for lunch unless they’re captaining a table conversation. They’re not going to stay after unless you’re organizing some people for them to meet.

Every conference needs a Code of Conduct. Here’s one that I used previously. There’s no better way to empower victims of bad professional behavior than to explicitly state how people should behave, giving clear indications of organizers wanting to be aware when people step over the line..

Lastly, logistics is important to NYC conferences. If it isn’t near a subway, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get anyone to attend—unless you’ve already got a community following or you’re an oversubscribed conference to begin with. First year conferences really need to focus on lowering the barriers to participation.

Shut Up and Invest? Investors Weighing in on Politics

For the last two years, I’ve been pretty vocal about politics on social media, in my weekly tech community newsletter and on this blog.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more progressive—which is a big shift for me because I grew up conservative. More and more, I’ve felt the need to speak out—but the question was asked of me recently whether or not it does more harm than good for me professionally.

It’s an entirely fair question—and the risk is that limited partners, founders, or other VCs might not want to work with me because I’m vocal about my political views.

Most people don’t think about it, but VCs need to raise money from high net worth individuals and institutions to have the money to put to work. These groups are much more likely to be more conservative than your average NYC or SF tech entrepreneur. (I mean, just about anyone is more conservative than the average tech entrepreneur, so it’s not exactly a high bar.) I suspect, though, there are even some founders out there who could be put off by the things I write and probably how I write them.

As a solo General Partner, my firm is me—and there isn’t a difference between investor Charlie and personal Charlie. When you get an investment from Brooklyn Bridge Ventures—you get me. When you ask me what I think about something—I’m not juggling two hats. My investment thesis is shaped by the sum of my personal experience and so are my values. My goal is to make Brooklyn Bridge Ventures the most accessible VC firm not just because I think it’s good business, but because I think it’s a based on good values. I don’t believe that your gender, school, socioeconomic background, race, identity etc. has predictive value for whether or not you can be a successful founder—and I think the next great 50 companies are going to be majority founded by people not in anyone’s “inner circle” today.

I also believe in treating people with respect and being helpful when I can—treating the world like a community where we all benefit from generosity and things aren’t always zero sum. These are both my business principals and my personal values.

The struggle I have with politics these days is that it doesn’t quite feel like a discussion of principals anymore. If you want to sit down and debate what the size of the government should be those are arguments I’m happy to have and can stay pretty respectful around.

But I don’t think that’s where we are today. It’s hard to ignore that some policies aren’t just disagreeable or not optimal, but they just seem, well, wrong. They feel wrong because they violate some basic values I think our country should be built around. They’re wrong because they seem more like power plays than positions—inauthentic political theater. They’re wrong because they’re clearly not working, or they’re only benefitting the privileged at the disproportionate expense of everyone else.

I understand that when you draw a right/wrong line, it makes people feel alienated and unwilling to engage—no want wants to have their values questioned.

I used to think that—that you could concede and negotiate in the search for common ground around values. For example, I used to debate the best tactical way to get to marriage equality—because I didn’t think that people in Arkansas or wherever were “ready” for it, and so I would say we should go state by state first, showing people that it wasn’t the end of families as we know it, and eventually have it spread everywhere

That was before I thought about what it would be like to be gay in Arkansas—and how sometimes tolerance of things we see as wrong can be just as bad as the wrong in itself, empowering those who would discriminate. Today, I’ve come to realize that calling out where you see injustice and wrong is the better thing to do, even if it offends some people.

Can I prove that I’m right about my opinions? I can’t prove that I’m right about any of this stuff any more than I can single-handedly prove climate change as a non-scientist—but I’m pretty sure we’re fucking up the environment and I’m definitely going to judge you for support of any policy that makes it easier to pollute, because you think climate change is debatable or that somehow economics justifies the destruction of our planet.

But what does that judgement even mean?

Perhaps I’m judging you, but so what? What right does anyone have to live their life free of the judgement of others? We get judged all the time. Limited partners judge my investment acumen. Founders judge whether or not they think I can add value. I judge founder ability and the level of homework they’ve done on a plan.

A co-op board is going to judge me at my next apartment.

Opinions are a dime a dozen, and if you’re not happy with someone’s opinions or their opinion of you—there’s really only three options. You can either take them to task—because maybe you think they’re wrong and you want to call them out and have a debate. You can just put on your thick skin and ignore them. Lastly, you can usually choose not to have that person in your life.

I’d hate for the third to be an option that gets taken too many times. I wouldn’t want to lose my relationship with my parents just because they’re conservative—no matter how many times we argue. I wouldn’t want to lose an investor because they disagree with my politics—because I strongly believe I can make great returns for them by investing in impactful companies. I wouldn’t want to lose a deal because I know how hard I bust my butt for founders.

But does that mean we can’t talk about it? Is it better to avoid the subject or to have those difficult conversations?

It’s probably going to happen that I’ll lose a few opportunities along the way—but I also think it’s going to happen that someone reaches out to me because of what they heard and wants to work with me because of it. In fact, I know it has. I know I get deal flow because founders want an investor who is going to be direct and tell them what they think—about anything. They want an investor who works from a set of shared values and not purely on a set of economic algorithms—because this is a people business highly short on data to make anyone’s algorithm work that well anyway.

Plus—the values of today’s innovators are getting more and more progressive everyday. They’re looking for better ways to share, to run cleaner businesses, and building more accessibility into power structures. They’re questioning capitalist models as the best solutions to every problem and examining where and how they feel comfortable profiting.

As investors, we’re in positions of power—and as we know from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. We have to be conscious of our privilege and try to use our stature in the community to improve the world around us. Quietly sticking to investing means wasting the opportunity to do good. You should always feel comfortable talking to an investor about their values and their politics—and you have every right to work with people on the same page as you, no matter which side you support.

The Moments that Define Investor and Founder Relationships

In almost every single investment I’ve ever made, I can think of a singular moment in my relationship with a founder that, no matter what came before or what might come after, defined our relationship. Often times, it came in a very vulnerable and down moment for the founder—perhaps they just lost out on a big opportunity, had someone from the team leave, or they’re running low on capital before sales have come around. It happens to everyone regardless of how well the company is doing—because no path to success is a straight line.

While it might be a low point for a VC’s expected return on investment, it might demand of an investor a high point in their generosity and empathy—because a founder is going to remember who was there for them with confidence and motivation, and who either abandoned them or tried to take advantage of the situation.

Not only that, but the venture community is extremely small when it comes to investor reputations. Founders are tremendous advocates for investors who have their backs—but if you put a founder through the ringer unnecessarily, everyone in their circle is going to know about it, if for nothing else because they’ll need to talk through it with others in real time for guidance.

The key to having difficult conversations with founders is setting expectations. The worst thing you can do as an investor is to go back on indications of support or to blindside a founder that you’re changing the strategy around your professional relationship. If you’ve lost the confidence needed to follow on in a deal, that needs to be signaled right away. If you’ve decided not to invest in the first place, you need to say so as soon as you know it so you don’t string a founder along. If you’ve left your firm or have other deals that require more time, you can’t just become a ghost or check out on a founder after negotiating all sorts of legal incentives for the founder to be motivated for the long term, which makes someone assume you’ll be doing the same.

Failure stories are going to be told just as often as success stories—and investors need to make sure that even when the decisions are tough, they come early, consistently, and with transparency, or they’ll be one of the villains in an oft-repeated tale.

The Willingness to Learn and the Pressure to Be Confident

Being a founder means showing confidence. It’s nearly impossible to fundraise, hire, or lead without it—but at the same time, founders don’t know everything.

There are many things they’re going to be doing for the first time that are ridiculous to expect them to know how to do right off the bat. Just because you start a company doesn’t necessarily mean you’re automatically a good manager, a good recruiter, or good at PR. Yet, you’re under constant pressure to instill confidence in your team and your investors that you’re the right person for the job. Raising your hand to say that you’re struggling with something isn’t easy, but it’s a crucial job requirement.

The most successful founders excel at one thing more than anything else—learning. They ask a lot of questions and listen, putting into place best practices and systems that don’t depend on them just knowing everything outright. For example, instead of thinking that they have to be a great manager, knowing at all times how each person in the organization is doing, they put systems of evaluation in place that are both quantitative and qualitative so that everyone can be on the same page about job performance from a more objective point of view.

Systems take the pressure off individuals for lots of different aspects of the company. They allow everyone to know what their part is and how they’re going to be measured. They also help switch the conversation from “This person is good or bad at X” to “This is how we’d like to do things here and here’s how you’re performing compared to that.”

If a founder has issues with confidence, admitting they need to work on things can feel like opening old wounds of the worst things you think about yourself. You’re already convinced you’re not good enough, and so being asked to examine how you can improve can feel like a painful, all too well-trodden path or a slippery slope to feeling like you’re not good at anything. This is where it’s important to check yourself and be confident about what you bring to the table, while being objective and constructive about where you need some advice, a system, or training to help you perform better. No founder is perfect, and if you find yourself funded, employing people, and having already launched—you can’t be as inadequate as your worst insecurities tell you that you are.

Trust me, you’re not that good at faking it.

You’re an early stage founder with lots of potential and you’ll become a great executive one day if you’re willing to learn.

Do you have to bankrupt yourself to start a company? How all in is all in?

I started a company back in late 2007. We raised $550k in seed funding and, despite a lot of hard work, things didn’t work out. It turned out I wasn’t such a great product manager, the technical things we were doing were about two years too early—about to be made orders of magnitude easier by a lot of cloud and big data tools, and, oh, yeah, Lehman went under when I was pitching VCs for money in 2008.

Because we hadn’t raised much money, me and my co-founder didn’t take much in salary—but as things started to look like they weren’t going to work out, we took less and less. I was optimistic about my financial situation because I was in a relationship with someone graduating law school who I thought I was going to move in with. I was just bridging to the economics of scale of couplehood—at least, that was the plan until the relationship ended. That’s when things really went off the rails and my debt started to pile up.

The hardest thing about that situation was that there wasn’t anyone to talk to about it. Personal finance is a thing that no one likes to talk about. It comes with a lot of shame and embarrassment—that somehow if I was more successful or more savvy I wouldn’t be in this situation. I definitely should have saved up more—but I was also embarrassed that I wasn’t more successful at my startup.

What I did do was to create some boundaries for myself. I wasn’t going to sell my apartment and I wasn’t going to sell my car, nor was I going to touch my 401k. I was done when my credit card maxed out and my personal savings were both gone and that was it. When I joined First Round Capital in October of 2009, I limped in with about $31,000 in credit card debt and no immediate savings.

The reality, though, is that the salary I made isn’t realistic for everyone. If I had kids, I wouldn’t have been able to make it as long—but if I had kids, I probably would have raised more capital and just taken more dilution to cover that.

One of my investors made us feel like taking any salary whatsoever wasn’t enough sacrifice—and that they wanted to see us forgo salary until we launched a product. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have taken on that investor—because anyone that things that starting a company should be an exercise in putting thumbscrews to founders to create the most painful exercise possible to get the best results just didn’t share our values. Maybe that was their experience, or how they were best motivated, but that’s not how we worked best and you want to make sure every aligns on how to get the best effort from the team.

Founders need to feel empowered to build companies on their terms—and they should seek to find investors who align with their values. Your salary, what you pay employees, work hours, etc. are all very personal decisions for team members and there is no single formula for success.

Generally speaking, I back founders that I trust to understand that any money they take is money the company doesn’t have, while at the same time being self aware enough to know how they do their best work. If you cut your salary to $35k and you can’t afford to pay your rent or feed your kids, that’s not going to get me and my investors the best return on our money. It’s only going to exacerbate a long, slow, stressful death for the company because you were too stressed to make the right decisions for the long term value of the business.

If you’re in NYC and you’re interested in having a transparent and honest conversation about founder finances, check out the Financial Gym and their event on this difficult topic this Thursday. They’re a financial wellness company that I invested in built around eliminating the fear and shame around money and staffed with trainers who are experts in having honest and non-judgemental conversations.