This week, as I look forward to traveling to see family and friends for Thanksgiving, I realize more than ever how geography has the power to unite us all in ways we don't always consider. After the AMSA Fall Conference held at the City College of New York, energy and excitement are extremely high about our product and company mission. We feel good about the splash we made with those in attendance, and we posted several photos to social media to prove it! We took photos (even Polaroids), handed out candy, gave away stickers and spent a lot of time engaging with attending pre-med and med students in ways that we’ve only dreamt about doing since we started on our development journey. Each of the almost 200 individuals whom I spoke with freely acknowledged that they have been searching for a solution such as ours for quite some time—a comprehensive, user-friendly solution that will help save time and excite new possibilities. Probably the greatest takeaway for me was the level of enthusiasm from those we spoke with, and the undeniable kindness and supportive demeanor of this group. Not that I ever doubted this, but it did reinforce for me that perhaps the greatest thing one can do as a founder of any company at any stage is to get out and talk to those who stand to benefit the most from your product or services. I’m talking about real, face-to-face engagement that goes beyond what you're selling—getting to know users as the individuals they are.
I mention all of this because sometimes we forget the impact or lack thereof that we can have on those around us. We can be so sure of what we’re doing that we go “heads down” and forget to look up. I would say right now, for our company, this is where we’re strong. We are so new to the market and trying so hard to find our way in the world that engagement is where we excel. We listen, we respond and we act—quickly. When you’re small with resources stretched, you learn how to be nimble and productive with very little. You also don’t forget who you are, because you have to share it with others—day in and day out. This keeps us focused on our mission and reinforces our drive to always innovate and push for a better product and better solution for our user community (even from day one).
In the rest of this post I'll talk about the key takeaways and advice I have for anyone who wants to be successful at an event, and about how their message can have the greatest impact.
Attend with the right engagement tools.
The AMSA Fall Conference was our first as an actual company with a real product. For the past year, we’ve been in prototyping and development mode, which always forced our engagement to fall short. We didn’t have anything to actually show people—something they could touch. So, my first advice is don’t show up anywhere without something to offer. Beyond that, we knew we had our work cut out for us, because we wanted to get our message right, attract attendees to our booth and make them glad they came. If their friends hadn’t stopped by, we wanted visitors to get their friends to come hang out with us. Apps aren’t new in the marketplace. We had to think about what makes (To) special and plan how to talk to students about their challenges while presenting our application as a helpful solution.
We don’t have a lot of money to spend on giveaway items, because we’re so new to market and are working to establish ourselves. We mean it when we say we spend all of our money on development, so we assembled a low-cost, high-value strategy that complements our desire to increase our social media presence while getting students to talk to us and have a good time with us. Basically, we’re the new kid in town who wants to make friends. We successfully achieved this in three ways: (1) by creating a dynamic, exciting booth (showing videos and the actual app); (2) by creating features to attract students to our display, in this case a photo backdrop and med-specific props like the ones you’d find at a wedding photo booth; and (3) by passing out Polaroid photos of attendees taken against the backdrop. Yes, you read that correctly—Polaroids. Polaroids turn out to be probably the best $50 you can spend on exhibit outreach right now. We also had some Jolly Rancher candy, but students definitely weren’t coming because of it. We knew that through these very simple solutions, we would be able to excite students no matter what part of the exhibit hall they were in—and it worked! They came for two solid hours–with lines at times! They were excited and brought their friends. Honestly I'd like to contact some of these people to consider working for us in the future. Many visitors were happy to provide their contact information. They did all of this because we were exciting and approachable and had designed a space where they felt welcomed!
Don’t be afraid to engage.
At this particular conference, our booth time was also part of the lunch hour, so we had to be strategic and efficient with our time and getting our message heard. How did we do this? We visited with students while they were in line for lunch and after they were finished eating. We gave a (To) sticker with our “#wherematters” tagline to each of these students, We encouraged them to place it somewhere fun and to tag us on social media. The stickers were a really great way to start talking with these folks and encouraging them to think about why where matters to them. Beyond that, the stickers are colorful and fun, and it’s always nice to get something for free! That time we spent working the room was definitely of benefit, with many students visiting our booth as a result. Also, no other booth sponsors were mingling, so it was a way to set us apart.
Encourage lingering through conversation.
Any time you attend a conference or networking event, you never want to be the person in the room with no one around you. You also don’t want to talk to the people you already know. The purpose is to meet new people and learn something—whether it be you or them. It’s almost better to attend alone, because you can act out of character and no one will ever know! But it's also great to attend with someone equally as motivated to get your message out—to man the table, talk to people and encourage interaction. We did this in a number of ways. Our photo opportunities were top-notch—we had a great backdrop, relevant props and, again, the Polaroid camera to leave visitors with a priceless takeaway item. As they stood in line for our backdrop, they talked to us and we learned from them. We encouraged them to leave their contact information, showed them the app and discussed the challenges they currently faced. This interaction was invaluable, because it reinforced the value of what we’re doing and helped us consider where we should be going next. In many cases, talking with our visitors about geography was THE most powerful tool to get them on board. These students from all over the world cared very much about how environment affects health. The relationship between well-being and environment is now a big part of a physician’s education. Students commented that a direct relationship between health and environment is frequently discussed in class, reinforcing the importance of geosciences to medicine and health. This medical dimension of (To) was the most exciting revelation of all!
I can’t emphasize this enough. The reality is that none of us would be where we are today without the support of those around us. We may not know yet who those people are, or we may have just met them (as I did this weekend). But we're all working toward something else—“our next” as I like to say—and the experiences we have together are drivers of the vision we have for ourselves. If we hadn’t taken time to attend the AMSA Fall Conference, perhaps we wouldn’t have been reminded of this. With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, it’s just another reason to be thankful. Never shy away from an opportunity to connect with someone, make a new friend, confront an opportunity or thank another sponsor. Those interactions will pay off, even if not necessarily immediately. Being gracious and a good listener transforms experiences. I thanked the students for coming to speak with us, for downloading our app and for recognizing why #wherematters. I thanked those who work with AMSA because without them I wouldn’t have had an experience that makes me better today. I also thanked those in booths around me for tolerating all of our foot traffic (and they in turn thanked me for attracting so many people!). I thanked the individuals that held the door as I walked through with an 8-foot (very awkward) backdrop display. And I thanked my dear friend Henry Sondheimer for driving with me from D.C. and back all in one day, just to go out and do good in the world. Always be gracious—it will take you far and echo through everything you do.