A hacker’s guide to throwing a kick-ass party, part 2

Last month, my cofounders at LIFFFT (a design-centric product studio) and I threw a fundraiser for Charity Water. Not only am I not an event producer, I’m not even a particularly good logistics person. You’re probably not either. But if you run (or work at) a startup, you’re eventually going to organize a product launch or marketing event. In yesterday’s post, I shared my tips on how to get on the cool kids’ calendars and manage communication with your team. Today, I’m giving my advice on how to make the most of your network.
1. Channel your inner Voltron
While He-Man was trading blows with Skeletor, Voltron was already home barbecuing and drinking PBRs with his buddies. Why? Because Voltron knew something that He-Man didn’t: a team of complementarily skilled robot battle-cats makes you much more effective than a lone warrior with a magical growing sword.
Unless your startup is in the events and conference industry, you probably don’t have a handy list of caterers, DJs, VJs, smoke machine operators and performers. Do yourself a favor and dig through your network to find people who do. People generally love making these intros and, as a side benefit, they often become more motivated to see your event succeed.
If you happen to know someone with Ryan Gosling looks and a Reid Hoffman network, ask them for help. I have a friend like that and he proved invaluable.
2. Enlist the marketing power of your friends and contacts
Break your contacts into two groups. Group one is enthusiastic and likely to share, but doesn’t necessarily have a huge following. Group two should command some kind of audience. You need to reach out to these groups differently.
You want the people in group one to share your message with their Facebook and Twitter followers. We put together a Linksy campaign and hit group one with a request to share our event. Linksy wraps the email distribution and URL tracking into one product. It also adds a game layer on top where recipients compete with one another to drive the most click-throughs. By the end of that 24 hour Linksy campaign, we saw about 500 clicks on our share url and about 50 new reservations.
You’ll want to be a bit more deliberate with the second group of people. For me, the subject line of this email was generally the same: “An ask :).” Being up front with the request helps the recipient read your email with an open mind. Here’s an excerpt from what I sent:
I’ve been a needy one of late, but at least I’m needy for a good cause. 🙂 Here’s what’s going on right now behind the scenes for our Charity Water party:
[I included a bulleted list of event details that demonstrated momentum (“over 500 shares yesterday”), social signaling (“so and so is involved”) and fun insider info on surprises planned for the event.]
What we need right now is more registrations. We’re at just over [current RSVPS], aiming for [target]. I’m wondering if there’s a way to rope in the [name of community]? This group is always interested in [some relevant thing] and are always a blast to hang with. 
I’m happy to put your logo on the site as a sponsor or whatever else you think is appropriate. Ideally, we’d have invites go out the community mailing list, updates on the Facebook wall, encouraging people to attend and invite their friends. What do you think?  
The last paragraph is the most important — a specific ask for an email blast and sharing from the official community account pages. When a recipient agreed to help out (about two-thirds did), I sent over an email that contained all the copy they would need — tweets, Facebook posts and community emails. Providing marketing copy reduces the friction for your influencers and increases the likelihood that they will come through.
3. Parting words of wisdom
I’ll leave you with a few bits of advice that may sound like dime store wisdom, but are quite important.

  • Don’t forget the product (the event itself). Make it memorable.
    • Even on a budget, we were able to get a VJ to create custom underwater visuals, hire an aerialist who did a mermaid routine, and buy remote controlled helium sharks to “swim” over the crowd.
    • We turned the drinking water at the bar a dirty brown (decaffeinated Lipton tea) to remind people why they were at the event.
    • We created a menu of specialty drinks with names such as “Malaria Buster” and “Microbe.” Nine dollars from each drink went to Charity Water.
  • Under promise. Do your best to over deliver.
    • If we thought we had something memorable — like a mermaid aerialist — we didn’t promote it ahead of the event.
  • Find ways to include other startups. Make them look awesome.
    • We had the Techstars team, Freak’n Genius, show off their latest Kinect-based photo booth app using Charity Water themed backgrounds.
    • We set up Seconds to let guests submit donations via SMS.
    • We ran around with Square card readers and took donations from event attendees.
    • We featured the founder of Personify, who told his story of growing up in Nigeria without reliable access to clean water and how those experiences fed his interest in social impact products.
  • Don’t be scared to fail or screw things up. People will forgive you.
    • Seconds, our SMS donation service, suffered from June’s AWS outage the night of the event. While it made donations that evening more difficult, people made due with using Square instead.
  • Don’t forget to enjoy your own party. I did not neglect this maxim. 🙂

If I were to do it again, I’d do the following:

  • Start with Eventbrite.
  • Use Trello for task management.
  • Give myself more than three weeks from conception to curtain. Six weeks would have allowed us to do some really fun things that we simply didn’t have enough time to coordinate (like giving guests dry suits and rolling out indoor slip’n slides, or passing out vodka popsicles with donation amounts printed on the wooden stick).
  • Build a dedicated, branded landing page with an embedded Eventbrite widget.

A true “hacker’s guide” is meant to be tinkered with, altered and contributed to. In that spirit, I’d love any tips that others have on organizing and throwing parties or product launches. Let’s get a good discussion going in the comments.
Donald DeSantis is a user experience designer and partner at LIFFFT, a design-centric product studio focused on disruptive innovation.
Image courtesy of Flickr user M. Janicki.