Learn to run digital and hybrid events with Alex Theuma, SaaStock CEO [interview]
Reading about new event formats is useful when planning one, but an entirely theoretical perspective might get tedious after some time. Concepts and theses sometimes look good on paper, but actually turn out to be useless in real life.
That's why there's nothing better than gaining insights from a specialist who works in the field.
This one puts his family first and describes himself as a dad of two first of all, then as the founder of SaaS Stock next. He organizes conferences and local events annually to gather experts from all over the world to share business experiences.
We're proud to present an interview with Alex Theuma.
Hello Alex, thank you for coming. Let’s warm up with a bit of a personal question. Could you tell us more about yourself and your experience at SaaStock?
Thank you for the invitation. I'm Alex Theuma, CEO of SaaS Stock, a global community of founders, executives, and investors that is actively working non-stop.
I founded SaaS Stock in 2015. Initially, it was a blog, and then it developed into a podcast. After that, we started to organize meetups, which brought us a new idea. As more people wanted to participate in SaaS Stock, we thought about a new format, based on a demand for the community that I have built. The result was the first Saas stock conference in September 2016, in Dublin. We gathered about 700 founders and venture capitalists from over 34 countries. It was a massive success despite us never having run any event or conference before!
We had a year of backbreaking work to pull it together. We spent a lot of time, perhaps too, thinking about the event and designing it. But in fact, all the work paid off, and the timing was absolutely right. It was the first SaaS conference in Europe, and from this moment the SaaS industry started to grow massively. We've ridden that wave, and now SaaStock is more than just an events business.
What was your experience with event marketing in the past, and what changes have you made recently?
We started 2020 with an in-person conference business, but then with the COVID outbreak we couldn't run any offline events. Then we pivoted online, and so it's been a year of digital transformation and bringing the value of our conference online. We established SaaStock TV, which features a lot of our curated content.
We have our media channels for all of our content, including podcasts, videos, YouTube, and written articles. Our community platform is a great place for engagement as well.
Regarding event marketing, in the past we have focused on emails. We built a network by leveraging speakers and partners. All of this - especially word of mouth - has helped us with promotion and growth. I've definitely seen that change not only this year but even in the last couple of years.
The coronavirus outbreak forced many companies and events to move online. What were the biggest challenges SaaStock faced?
First of all, we were very transparent with the team, so we canceled our in-person events immediately. Later, we made the very quick decision to run online events. We came up with the idea of SaaStock remote. Within two weeks of that, we had launched the website and the event. The speed was dizzying, and our team had to work really fast. In Q2 2020 it consisted of 26 people working towards one goal - SaaStock digital - and I think that's the reason behind our success.
However, there were several challenges that we had to face. One of the main problems was obviously the impact of Covid-19 on the market. Because of uncertainty in the World, many of our customers and businesses had to temporarily shut down their marketing budgets. We decided, however, to pivot online.
The majority of our revenue comes from sponsors who fund the event want to participate in it, and become a part of the market. Many of those who have budgets for sponsorship events have temporarily closed down, which was a significant challenge. However, even during these extremely difficult times, there still were fine people ambitious enough to invest in new projects.
The thing was that we had never held online events before, so we used everything we knew from in-person conferences. Additionally, we had to do our job and learn about virtual ones. I think now we know that you have to treat digital and offline in completely different ways.
Of course, we also made some mistakes along the way to getting where we are now.
Just before SaaStock remote, the "Black lives matter" protests started and quickly became a global movement. Unfortunately, it merged with our event promotion time. About one week before SaaStock, when we had to focus on marketing intensely, protests reached their peak period. Many speakers and partners were not comfortable with promoting the event during that period because of the global situation. Naturally, that was understandable, but we had to take care of our business. It's hard to express how challenging it is if you suddenly can't get people to promote your events.
How did your team manage to rapidly change strategy?
Keeping a high level of motivation and avoiding burnout were two major concerns. The team worked solidly for three months to put the remote event together, so no wonder they were absolutely exhausted after it finished.
Additionally, we made some changes in the squad of our team. Before COVID-19, everybody worked in the "traditional" conference business, but the situation forced us to change the format of the event. We found ourselves in the situation where we had to make a shift to prepare a virtual version. Some team members didn't believe in the success of online events, so they didn't stick around to see how (and if) SaaStock would develop. However, the rest felt we could become one of the leaders in the online conferences field and so we worked hard for success.
To sum it up, I have to say that revenue is also not as high as it was for in-person events, but on the other hand the costs are much lower. Although it was a massively challenging year, we're getting through it - which is good.
You ran SaaStock in recent years when it was held offline. This year, you moved the event to digital. Did you have any worries about the new format?
I didn't have too many new worries. I'm actually very bullish about online conferences, so I think that we will eventually move to a hybrid model. Hopefully in 2021 we will bring the event back to Dublin. However, the other conferences that we held in North America, Brazil, and Singapore might not have the chance to come back, so we will keep them online.
I think that there are many opportunities with digital events, not only for SaaStock but for online conferences in general. This format certainly opens up events to a broader audience - those who can't attend in-person events now can be a part of them. We've definitely gained new customers this year, and our contact list has grown.
In my opinion, people are a bit fatigued with online events this year just because it's the only option to attend one. When in-person comes back, I think you'll see a rush of event companies moving back to in-person and forgetting about online, whereas we will stay online and have an offline version too. The goal is to have both options and run two very different events. I see an excellent opportunity for us in such a model.
What pricing strategy do you have for the virtual SaaStock?
I believe we still haven't figured out the ticketing strategy for online conferences. The problem is that almost everybody on the market, including our competitors, run their virtual events for free. We're a for-profit business - we have overheads and teams that put a lot of effort into creating our events, so we need revenue for that to sustain ourselves. We have to charge for participation somehow, but the market isn't used to paying for tickets. There's a bit of a challenge there, which I'm just trying to figure out.
We’ve all experienced a huge shift to digital due to recent events. Many companies have accelerated their online actions or even started from scratch. How did your company adjust to the new conditions?
In terms of our company, we were an in-person conference business, and we still are. Now we have transferred pretty much all of the value we had from offline events to online, but it has taken time. We didn't do it all overnight. Everything that we did in person had to be converted into online assets. Then, in the third quarter, we launched our media and community platform.
It's definitely been a tremendous digital transformation! There's a lot to polish, obviously - our revenue is down massively, and we need to start growing it. But we can now move from being an events business into becoming a recurring revenue business, which is one of our goals. That's something we are certainly going to work towards, and I'm very excited about it.
What was different about the new type of event?
Obviously, you couldn't meet in person - but it had its bright sides too. Many speakers would have never spoken at SaaStock because it's a big-time commitment to travel to Ireland to perform for 30 minutes and then go back home. In 2019, Derek Anderson (Startup Grind CEO) flew to Dublin from San Francisco and stayed overnight. It was so overwhelming that he said he's never going to do that again. During SaaStock online, we could host a number of speakers who have never participated in our event because they wouldn't have the opportunity to travel or they're just too busy
For instance, Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot, was speaking recently at our blueprint event. It's been five years since he last gave a keynote at SaaStock because he's too busy running a company. Now, in contrast, we're getting the green light from important business personas because there's no need to make a long journey.They can just log in online instead and dedicate less time to commuting, while focusing entirely on the speech. We even got David Cancel, CEO of Drift, speaking at the blueprint. Even though he's actually on holiday next week, he's going to dial in for the event for a 20 minute speech during his vacation. So the other side of the coin for me is quite fantastic.
I think what's different is the online experience itself - the way that people engage in chat and the way people can connect. In general, the networking is a bit like Chatroulette, where you randomly meet people who are attending the event. It provides quite an exciting way to consume the content.
On the other hand, one of the challenges is that people's attention when working from home isn’t focused. That's why people often drop in and out of online conferences and don't stay for the whole event. Due to multitasking and the domestic atmosphere there are many distractions, so the event routine is disrupted. Attendees do their work while watching the event simultaneously - they also talk with people around them, go and have a break, have lunch with their family, and then only come back to watch another talk. Participants not being immersed in online events is something we've seen a lot, and it's a bit of a challenge.
What are the benefits of the online version?
As we've already stated - you don't have to travel. It's much more time-efficient and you can just participate from home, which is great. It's obviously cheaper and, in some instances, it's free to attend. I think you can also meet people that you would never meet during offline conferences.
Virtual events flatten the world, and you can join them from anywhere simply because you don't have to make your way to a specific place. It makes them even more global, and thanks to this, we've managed to tap into a higher level of speakers than we've ever had before. This definitely benefits us and lowers the cost for us as a business, so to run it is definitely less risky.
How would you further improve the online experience?
Oh, there are definitely ways to improve it. I think pre-booking meetings is key. We're constantly iterating our actions - we do it after each online event. We do a retrospective to see what worked, what didn't work, and we try to improve every possible aspect. We've noticed that, after enhancing, our NPS (Net Promoter Score) is getting better.
When we started with SaaStock remote, we used virtual booths with a salesperson available live in each, but that didn't work for us. Now we have a virtual Expo area as unmanned and self-service, where nobody's selling. There are content pieces and offers instead. Our goal is to limit the "salesy" atmosphere that we have seen at previous events. We want people to come and enjoy the content instead of just selling products and services to the network. Creativity is key for us here because we believe that outstanding content can really hook people in. It's a way to overcome online issues such as scattering - whilst participants have distractions, we don’t want them to leave the event - and gripping content could be the solution. So we're working on things like that.
You will actually see some of these changes at SaaStock Remote, which is taking place at the end of February 2021. You can see for yourself what we've done to improve the online experience there - and so I'll leave you with that one.
If you could give any tips about running online events and presentations to other companies, what would you tell them?
Don't treat it like an in-person event. Keep content short and snappy - don't limit yourself only to keynotes, firesides, and panels. We've done that, and if that's all you do, I think you're doing it wrong. It really needs to be interactive.
We know there's a strong need to get speakers to engage with the audience - to interact with them in the chat, see who's there, call them out, to run polls. We also encourage them to mix up their talks with a bit of presentation to bring some of the elements that really make it engaging. When you're running an online event, you want people to be hooked, and unfortunately, if you give a 30-minute keynote or an hour-long panel, I don't think people will be drawn into it. They might get bored quickly, so you definitely have to be creative and think about being as interactive as possible.
What are your plans for the near future of SaaStock?
In the next few months, we're looking to launch a SaaS product that will help to connect investors and startups. It's one of the things that we're really well known for, but we're doing it in phases to make sure everything is buttoned up. Learning from the Covid-19 situation, I think it would help protect businesses from such unexpected events in the future. I'm enjoying the fact that we are now truly an online business, even though we're at the beginning of our journey.
What do you think about the future of events? Is it possible to go back to 100% offline ones, or will there be more hybrid versions?
So, in the next year for us... I think we will go back offline for sure. Whether that will actually be this year isn't easy to predict. I'm hopeful that SaaStock Dublin can return in October as vaccinations are being rolled out, but the event itself may be slightly smaller. I suppose a lot of people will consider it a kind of hybrid.
I hope that we will be able to manage a hybrid approach, where we will run three online conferences and one in-person event. If it will be possible, that will hopefully be the future for SaaStock. The Covid experience has opened up new possibilities, like the Derek Anderson case that I mentioned. Some people can reach experts who would never travel long hours to a conference, no matter if they were speaking or participating. In my opinion, with online versions, we won't lose people - there is always going to be a new group coming onto the market.
To sum up, I think conferences will be back - and will be back strong. I read something else the other day about the impact of Covid on the way people work. The acceleration of working from a distance, with so many companies becoming remote-first and not planning to go back to the office, causes people to lack human contact. In-person conferences are said to be the place where people go to connect with their customers, colleagues, and more.
I think that's very encouraging for those who are in the events business industry. I believe that great things are going to happen in the near future for our sector.
Happily combines a love of writing and new technology as a copywriter, and enjoys the puzzle of putting together a good article. In her spare time she likes to catch up on the latest, greatest books, bake chocolate chip cookies and ponder her next travel destination.More posts