We first started selling Okta to enterprises in 2011, our team had an "unofficial meeting" to discuss when we would host our first customer conference. By "unofficial," I mean a few of us had a couple drinks and scribbled possible dates and attendees onto a bar napkin. Luckily I took a photo of that napkin--evidence the meeting occurred--because one employee almost nailed it, guessing that we'd hold our first conference in October 2013 with 600 attendees. Oktane13, our first customer conference, took place in November 2013 and I showed off that napkin to our 600 attendees in my opening keynote.
Just this week we hosted over 1,000 attendees in Las Vegas for Oktane15, our third annual customer conference. We've come a long way since that genial planning session in 2011--and our first conference--which prompted me to reflect on when it's a good time to start hosting one in the first place. Nowadays successful software companies are expected to host their own conferences, but planning and executing an event with hundreds or thousands of attendees is no small feat (or investment) and you need to know when it will be worth it.
For those of you leading fast-growth enterprise companies, here are four signs it's time to take the leap and host a customer conference of your own:
1) You've created a community of engaged customers: By November 2013, we had hundreds of customers (including recognizable brands like Adobe, Chiquita, LinkedIn, MGM Resorts International and Western Union) using our service and interested in talking to other customers about their experiences. We wanted to give them the chance to discuss the challenges they faced when moving to the cloud, share best practices and lessons learned, and talk about their larger IT initiatives and strategies. Up until Oktane13, we hadn't hosted a large-scale meetup of customers and we didn't have an official online forum for our customers to share intel. At the conference, we gave our customers the chance to engage with one another and we launched our first ever Okta Community, an online portal where customers could discuss implementations and unique use cases, as well as request new features.
2) Your product is getting more powerful: As your product offering grows, it will inevitably become more powerful and certain features will be easier explained and comprehended in person. At a customer conference, you can offer training sessions, showcase various use cases, and give comprehensive downloads on product updates to keep everyone up to date. Salesforce notoriously waits until Dreamforce every year to announce new products when customers are present, so they can learn how to implement those updates on the spot. When you're first starting out, this "big reveal" might not be necessary, but as you add functionality and venture into new markets, you'll want to give your customers the chance to attend trainings, meet with experts and hear others' experiences so they can find even more success with your product.
3) People want to experience your brand and culture: When we first founded Okta in 2009, we were focused on building something valuable for our customers. As the company grew, a culture arose around our values of customer success, transparency, innovation and integrity. By 2011, we had an established brand among enterprise software companies. People knew what we were all about--connecting people to technology and making our customers successful--and we wanted bring them even more into the fold. Though many of our customers interacted with our sales and customer success teams on a regular basis, in-person interaction was limited and so were emotional connections. Hosting a conference gave our customers the chance to meet employees face-to-face, experience our focus on customer success first-hand, and see that they were--and still are--an integral part of the Okta brand and culture. At the end of the day, it's always easier to work out a problem or close a deal (and more fun to celebrate) when you know the people you are working with.
4) You want to say thank you: One important way to showcase your culture and brand will be through the activities you host outside of your average conference sessions. Those events also give you the chance to thank your customers for joining you, and for being customers in the first place. Some companies go all out--last week, Oracle had Elton John and Beck perform live at the OpenWorld--but we've found it isn't necessarily the entertainment itself, but the opportunity to get together and have some fun that customers truly appreciate.
Once you're ready to invest in a conference, there are numerous ways to assess ROI--measuring customer attendance and engagement, turning prospects into new customers and deepening partner relationships--but one immeasurable benefit is belief. When attendees see how companies trust their businesses with your infrastructure or are building businesses on your platform, they'll see your impact and believe in your future. That belief is critical to building a foundational enterprise company.