Festivals--featuring music, art, “happenings,” and world-class speakers and panels--have become a great way for startups to grab massive social and old-school media exposure, cool-kid credibility, and, increasingly, funding. But don’t expect to waltz in and start selling. There are rules for vendors--even those doing guerrilla marketing--at these events. This festival field guide will help you choose the best one for your company.
Best for: Clearing your head, getting back to nature, and camping next to potential investors.
What you get out of it: The courage to make changes in your life, a boost in creativity, a renewed appreciation for indoor plumbing, and the chance to rub shoulders with business titans who will go on to become your investors and advisers.
Who came out of it: Justin Gary, founder and CEO of game-design company Stone Blade Entertainment, happened to camp next to a gaming-company CEO during his first year at Burning Man. The exec became a key investor. Another year, Gary launched a card game (he gave it away) and found an adviser. He wouldnt suggest actively seeking funders at Burning Man. Just let it happen.
Do: It’s an anti-commerce, cashless event, so bring basic survival items like food, water, and shelter; items to share; crazy costumes; and creative ideas for art installations and performances.
Don’t: Logos, pitches, or any other sort of overt business agenda will get your sunburned butt shunned very quickly.
- August 30-September 7, 2015
- Black Rock Desert, Nevada
- 66,000 people
Best for: Finding investors and publicity for your early-stage company.
What you get out of it: Money--and potentially lots of it--when you join creators of art, music, education, tech, and nonprofits at this annual event, which is part startup conference, festival, and pitch slam.
Who came out of it: ReThreaded turns donated T-shirts into scarves and other accessories (proceeds benefit women affected by the sex trade). In 2013, founder and president Kristin Keen won $6,700 for an art installation of a 20-foot-tall house built from T-shirts. More valuable was the publicity it generated. But despite the benefits, Keen says the event took a huge amount of prep work.
Do: Sign up early. Registration runs from December to February. Projects must have an operating budget of less than $1 million to enter.
Don’t: Expect to show up with less than your A game. This event demands even more prep than a VC meeting.
- Various dates in April
- Jacksonville, Florida
- 325,000 people
Best for: Getting your product in front of famous tastemakers.
What you get out of it: Access to some of the most well-connected, wealthiest music and art lovers in the world.
Who came out of it: Sock company Richer Poorer was invited to produce a special edition three-pack for Coachella 2013 and 2014. Co-founder Tim Morse says the effort was worth it in terms of celebrity promotions. The socks sold out fast, and the company got great social media buzz.
Do: Bring your food concepts. The festival accepts food vendors (other types of vendors can sell by invitation only, so work your Coachella contacts). Unlike at many festivals, you’ll have to share revenue with Coachella and follow its many vendor rules and regulations.
Don’t: Dress like a schlump.
- Second and third weekends of April 2016
- The Empire Polo Club, Indio, California
- About 90,000 people
Best for: Networking and building your brand visibility.
What you get out of it: Validation of your startup and media opportunities ... if you can find a place to stay in Austin.
Who came out of it: Verie, maker of a smartphone- based personal ID, competed in SxSW’s Accelerator in March. Jim Drolshagen and his Verie co-founder did 13 media interviews at SxSW and were featured in at least seven articles as a result.
Do: Sign up for speaker slots or events a year in advance. Make your hotel reservation then, too.
Don’t: Be shy.
- March 11-15, 2016
- 30,000 people
Best for: Selling your wares to thousands of well-heeled, hippie Millennials.
What you get out of it: $1,700 to $2,700 gets you up to four vendor passes and a 10x10 space to sell your wares to nearly 100,000 music and art lovers.
Who came out of it: Glass-U, maker of foldable, customizable sunglasses, sold festival logo sunglasses in 2014.
Do: Make sure your product matches the creative, youthful demographic.
Don’t: Bring your entire leadership team, says Glass-U founder Daniel Fine. Company productivity will suffer. The distraction [of the event] is significant.
- June 11-14, 2015
- Manchester, Tennessee
- 90,000+ people
How to look like you've been there before
Don’t expect to just show up and set up shop. Most festivals are strict about when, where, and how you can sell. If you’re on a shoestring, send a team wearing your logo and take lots of pictures to post on social media to position your brand as part of the festival experience. Make your offering relevant to the event, or better still, fill a need that festivalgoers have (soap, shampoo, relief from the noise). Be professional: Always bring a high-quality product or pitch, and enough inventory, particularly when the product carries the festival logo.