Thursday 16 November 2017

Do you have a budget?

The issue

There are two mistakes young entrepreneurs make when being asked to speak at conferences, events, panel discussions, and company workshops:  Asking for money, and not asking for money.

For a new entrepreneur, exposure is extremely important, and getting noticed by the startup community and the corporate bigwigs is encouraging.  In startup hotspots, once you start speaking at events, other invitations quickly follow if you’re a decent speaker with a good story, and it can easily drain your time.  In the early days of Subvise, my first startup, I would go to speaking events as an invited guest once a month or more, often travelling at my own expense, because I believed it would help me be noticed among potential customers.  It did, but it was hard on the budget in the early days, and took a lot of time away from other work I could be doing.

Eventually after friends commented on this, I started asking if there was any funds available to pay for the trip.  Sometimes the answer was no, and I’d go anyway if I deemed the exposure worth it, but sometimes it was yes.  A couple hundred Euros for a flight makes a big difference to a startup whereas it might not matter at all to the organization who invited me.

On the other hand

I have known a number of entrepreneurs who have missed out on opportunities by only speaking when there was both a stipend and money for travel expenses available. Organizers of events who want to get new startups will not usually ask a founder a second time, if they refuse the first time because there was no budget.

That’s why it’s always important to know how to ask.  When you’re speaking at a conference it is exposure to you, but you are also the product that is being sold to the people buying tickets.  The question you need to answer is how well known are you? How many tickets can you sell?  

If you are a very well known speaker, you can probably afford to only speak at events where there is a stipend.  But if you’re reading this article, that’s probably not you.  If you’re starting out, the reason they want you at the event is because you’re a member of a group.  A young entrepreneur.  An early stage founder. A founder who raised money. A female entrepreneur.  A European entrepreneur.  A refugee entrepreneur. A founder in a rather uncommon niche. Your name isn’t what draws interest, it’s your membership in that group.

Some groups are much more in demand than others.  If you’re part of an in-demand group, it makes it a lot easier to get funds for their speaking engagements, so don’t be shy to ask.  However, until your name and company are well recognized on their own, you should still try to be flexible.  The goal is to build reputation for your name and company, and speaking as a member of an in-demand niche group is a pathway to do that, not the other way around.

How to ask for money

I felt very awkward asking for money when invited to speak. It always felt like getting a gift and asking if there was anything else also.  I didn’t want to look demanding, and if I asked then backed down I didn’t want to sound wishy-washy.  

Certain phrases are more diplomatic:

  • Is there a budget for speakers?
  • Can you help me with travel expenses?
  • Are speakers responsible for their own costs?
  • I’m very interested, but I’m going to lose a day of work.  Are there any stipends available to help me offset that?

Framing the issue as a problem they can help solve can help you feel comfortable with asking.

Travelling for companies

If you’re meeting with companies who will be your customers, you might think you have to pay for everything.  But it doesn’t hurt to ask.  Perhaps your potential customers have a budget for a small workshop or training.  If they think of you as a small business they probably wouldn’t give you money to travel to them and make a sales pitch, but if they see you as an innovative startup with a new technology, they might provide travel money to consult on their problem and see how your technology might help them.  It’s the same situation, but framed slightly differently.  It doesn’t hurt to ask.

The decision

Lastly when making the final decision, think of your ROI.  If you’re travelling overnight on a plane to speak an event for free, you might spend at minimum 500 EUR plus 2 days is 700 EUR.  Do you have the potential to make that back with the contacts and exposure you get?  If 200 EUR is covered by the host, then you need to make 500 EUR to even out.  Your time and money are limited so don’t be afraid to turn down a gig if the return just isn’t going to be there.


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