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5 Ways to Think Like a Start-Up

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of PCMA’s Convene


In the era of unicorns (early-stage companies with a market cap valued at $1B+), a new IPO being announced every week, Fast Company and Wired business celebrities and entrepreneurs being touted as the future of our economy, what’s a normal person to do?


What can a mere employee of an association, non-profit, or really any organization do to ride the wave of the exciting and lucrative start-up world?




For starters, the first question is, why would I want to take the risk of a start-up without the reward and with all of the ups and downs I read about entrepreneurs navigating? The answer is that you can have the best of both worlds with a start-up mindset within a safe and predictable environment. Why not?


Being an employee and thinking like a start-up is not only possible, but is preferable. You don’t want to be the person with 20 years of experience who really just has one year of experience repeated 20 times. Your best job security is to help your organization see a new future.


And there is no better place to think like a start-up than your event. Your ability to take your live event to the next level is within your reach, and maybe it’s even your responsibility.


Why think like a start-up? Why not evolve, make incremental changes, and build upon an established event platform? You can, but that’s not how your for-profit competitors are thinking. New events like Groceryshop, Shoptalk, HLTH, and hundreds of others have captured serious market share, much of it coming at the expense of associations. And by starting a new event from scratch, they aren’t limited to the same old formula many of your volunteers, board members, and committees seek to preserve.


Here are 5 things you can do to think and act like a start-up:


1. Don’t ask for permission. Sure, get your boss on board but make some moves on your own without asking. Invite a well-known protester to debate the merits of their opposition with one of your industry’s top minds. Schedule 25% of your sessions with polling, audience interaction, and questions that are woven into at least half of the session.


2. Seek for your event to be an ecosystem event – if not you who will? What’s an ecosystem event, one that has as many adjacent sectors present as possible, expanding the focus, dialogue, and problem-solving that is only possible only with the right people in the room? If you’re a scientific organization, invite industry, regulators, insurance providers, telemedicine, acupuncturists, holistic healers, and technology innovators. Design intentional curriculum and systematic journeys for them to meet, interact, and solve vexing problems in a new way. Hackathons only work with a widely diverse audience.


3. Stop the madness. Brown food, uncomfortable chairs, ice-cold rooms, overscheduling, trade shows designed for the vendors not the audience, lack of seating, spotty wi-fi, charging stations that require payment…there are 100 more “worst practices” that a start-up would never do.


4. Get real. Take on the actual challenges your industry is facing. Lack of diversity and inclusion, class systems among members, pay scales, legislation your industry needs, wage gaps, you know what they are. Rush into the gnarly topics. No one likes a boring movie with no tension or conflict. Your audience can take it.


5. Work with a wing-wo/man. Hire someone who has been where you want to go. Said another way, if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together. At a minimum, talk to the people who have started up new events, who have reinvented trade shows, who have learned from their mistakes.


Becoming a start-up inside of an established organization can reinvigorate your organization. You can build upon an established track record, resources, an audience, and a brand. You’d be surprised just how much your membership is waiting for you to start-up their imaginations, their professional growth, and their experience at your next event.


And, you’ll probably start-up your own career while you’re at it.


Have questions or ideas you’d like to discuss? I’d be happy to chat. Email me at don@360livemedia.com

Don Neal Headshot

A marketing thought leader, speaker, teacher, and advisor, Don Neal brings his Madison Avenue experience to help organizations see their opportunities in a new light. He is passionate about helping organizations accelerate the trajectory of their success.

Don Neal
Founder & CEO
360 Live Media

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