Reimagining Startup and Enterprise Innovation

Why Schwag and Conferences are Important to Startups

Kyle York
VP of Product Strategy, Oracle Cloud Infrastructure and GM, Oracle Dyn Global Business Unit



Entrepreneur and investor Brian Norgard recently wrote an excellent Twitter post about some of the top things that startups should avoid. I agreed with the vast majority of his points -- raising money from non-seasoned investors, not sleeping, etc. But there were two that I feel strongly don’t belong: schwag and conferences.

I feel this way because we built Dyn into a global leader, as a point product IaaS provider focused on the domain name system (DNS), on the strength of our go-to-market strategy -- a strategy that featured schwag and conferences. Norgard is right in a sense; if done incorrectly, it is easy to waste money on schwag and conferences with little return on investment. But if they become an integral part of your brand, culture, community, and story, then they can become incredibly valuable -- even company-making.


Go to any trade show and you know schwag is table stakes. Have a cool t-shirt or koozie, and people are willing to let you scan their badge -- even if they wouldn’t buy your product in a million years. Too many startups think of schwag in terms of its connection to lead gen. As a result, they get too cute or over the top. That may stop traffic and encourage people to take a peek, but if the schwag doesn’t line up with your ethos, target persona, use cases, and technology value, it is a lost opportunity.

Back in 2008 when I came in to build Dyn’s GTM function and scale the business, our competitors were large, stuffy, publicly traded companies that didn’t represent the cloud native startups and developers building large, global, fast-growth online businesses that would benefit from a premiere DNS provider. We wanted to be their provider because our DNA was similar. We wanted to use our schwag that we gave out at conferences as a proclamation: We are different. We think differently.  We are just like you.

That is why launched our #DNSISSEXY t-shirt and corresponding integrated marketing campaign. We wanted to be brash and show that we were looking at DNS, a 30-year-old protocol, in a different light. Just because we were selling internet plumbing didn’t mean we couldn’t be cool. Our prospects were the unsung heroes of a company, the IT and system admins who were tasked with creating the best user experience but were rarely publicly acknowledged for how awesome the experience was. Our t-shirt was implying that what they did was awesome and important. They were sexy to us. And they bought in. They felt like we understood them.

We then carried that over into our sales approach, which was consolidative and customer-focused. For us, schwag became more than a knick knack we gave away at a conference. It was a statement on who we were as a company. And we rode that strategy to $100M annual recurring revenue -- and to this day as part of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure and our real, direct, accessible approach with the DevOps community.


There is a saying that goes, “half of life is just showing up.” This is not true of conferences. Going to a conference, standing in your booth, and scanning badges isn’t a strategy. It’s lazy, especially for a startup. You need to send people who are willing to hustle. You need to stand out from the crowd and OWN THE SHOW. This means creating content that you can distribute through all of your social channels, setting up customer meetings in advance, timing a press release around the event, and launching a new, innovative feature or product. Then you can tap into the events’ media partners, create a publicity stunt, or throw a happy hour. (We DDoS'ed a bar and hosted a DynTini!)

If you do this well enough and you do it in enough places, then you will build a reputation as being everywhere. You actually don’t even need a booth. Just show off those peacock feathers large and bright and amplify your presence. Your market will notice. That can be a huge credibility play and make your startup seem bigger than it is. Once you get there, you can have some fun.

At Dyn, we decided to start an industry event. We called it Inside Baseball and we brought all the big DNS companies together to talk about the state of the industry. In doing so, it not only gave us a seat at the table long before we truly belonged, but it placed us at the head of that table. We began to be perceived as thought leaders, and many of the talent from other companies that attended liked what they saw in us and eventually joined up. We leveraged that perception as a leader to join industry working groups and punch above our weight. All of this was possible because we were willing to be aggressive and make the most of the conference season calendar. To this day, we’re a fixture at ICANN, NANOG, IETF, and more events throughout the globe for Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.

Again, this approach isn’t for everyone. Your efforts need to be fully integrated and fully embraced by your entire business. But I think it’s wrong to dismiss schwag and conferences outright as a waste of time. Yes, if you just go through the motions with either of them they can be. But if you’re building a startup, then you’re probably not the type of person to just go through the motions and blend in. And if you inject your passion and creativity into them, then they can play a pivotal role in your future success.

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