Some background: I’m the CEO and co-founder of Magoosh, a growing, profitable, edtech startup. We have a team of nearly twenty employees and are based in Berkeley, CA. We’re not cash-strapped (for a startup). Conventional wisdom says I should have gone to SXSWedu, but I made a conscious decision not to go. Here’s why:
1. Our customers aren’t there.
When you’re growing a startup, you need be where your customers are. We create test prep products for the GRE and GMAT, so our customers are potential grad students. Some of them are undergraduates, while others are in their thirties and forties looking for a career change. You might find them hanging out on college campuses, studying in coffee shops, or working nine-to-five jobs, but most likely they are not entrepreneurs, and most of them will not be going to SXSWedu. In fact, I’m guessing many of our customers don’t even know the education portion of the conference exists.
By the way, this is also the reason that getting TechCrunch press is overrated for most startups. Your customers aren’t likely to be reading TechCrunch, unless they’re technophiles or other startups. Go where your customers are — and if your customers aren’t other edtech companies, they likely won’t be at SXSWedu.
2. We’re in “do” mode, not “plan” mode.
Even though our customers weren’t there, there were other good reasons for going to SXSWedu, such as finding inspiration, and exploring and understanding macro trends. But at Magoosh, we get plenty of inspiration from our students, and we’ve been active in engaging with and voicing our opinions on the education news that affects us the most. We have a general plan for 2014 and a detailed one for Q1 and Q2. Everyone on the team currently has major projects underway. Going to SXSWedu for inspiration is a great idea when you’re planning out your year or you have the resources available to potentially tackle a big project, but we currently don’t fit into either of these categories. We’re fully booked, and we’re relatively — maybe foolishly — confident in our plans for this year. We’re in “heads down” mode, getting stuff done, and SXSWedu would have just been a distraction for us.
3. Serendipity does not have to happen at conferences.
There’s a notion that startup CEOs should manufacture serendipity. I agree wholeheartedly that serendipity is important, and that CEOs should spend time making new connections with people outside the office, since connections you make today could be incredibly helpful several years down the road. That said, I’m very cautious about how I spend my time away from the office. We’ve had several full-timers and part-timers start since January of this year, many of whom are still getting ramped up, and I need to be accessible for them when issues arise. For now, I prefer to create serendipity by taking coffee meetings in the mornings or heading to networking events after work, so I can spend most of my days at the office helping remove obstacles for my team. When I’ve done a better job of making myself redundant, I’ll feel more comfortable heading out to a conference for a few days to manufacture serendipity.
The internet tells me SXSWedu was a great conference, but I have no regrets about not going. As a startup CEO, I need to ruthlessly prioritize my time, and this year SXSWedu didn’t make the cut. But maybe you’ll see me there next year. 🙂
Bhavin is CEO and co-founder of Magoosh, a company that creates web and mobile apps to help students prepare for standardized tests such as the GRE and GMAT. He loves advising startups on growing their ideas and building great cultures. Years ago, Bhavin played on several Nationals-level ultimate frisbee teams. Now, he eats gelato. Follow him on Twitter here.