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.