It’s a familiar dance for anyone who networks on the conference circuit: Attend a few plenary sessions, mingle at the cocktail hour, inspect products in the exhibit hall and exchange lots and lots of business cards. Then head back to your hotel room to send out email follow-ups and LinkedIn requests.
If you go to more than a few events a year, it’s exhausting. That was Israeli business student Eran Ben-Shushan’s experience as he and two classmates trotted from meeting to meeting while researching a proposed startup as part of their courses at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s Zell Entrepreneurship Program.
Ben-Shushan’s take-away: “We were shocked that with all of the technology we have today – mobile, online, social networks – we’re still basically networking only with name tags!” he says.
Ben-Shushan dropped the startup idea (a vacation rental app) to address the more pressing conference-networking bugaboo. The resulting company, Bizzabo
, has since raised over $1.8 million from well-known angel investors Gigi Levy and Jeff Pulver, the latter a conference junkie himself.
Bizzabo is a mobile service for iPhone and Android devices that allows conference organizers to create their own event-specific apps. Participants start by downloading the app, which uploads their LinkedIn profile data. That way, even before the event starts, attendees can see who will be there and whom they’d like to meet.
Participants can contact each other to set up meetings in advance. While at the event, they can message each other to confirm or change details; “star” a contact they’d like to follow up with; view the conference schedule; receive live updates on late-breaking parties; exchange contact details; or follow a live Twitter feed from the plenary or other sessions.
Everything is archived, creating a virtual space to revisit the event after it’s over. And, of course, back in the hotel room, there are no business cards to mess with because the connections have already been made digitally in real time.
700 LinkedIn connections per 1,000 users
Bizzabo launched in July, and by November more than 100,000 “interactions” were made using the app. It is geared toward small to medium-sized events.
Bizzabo is particularly popular, not surprisingly, at tech-centric events: At least 70 percent of attendees at the European Pirate Summit, a gathering of 400 of the highest risk-taking entrepreneurs on the continent, downloaded the app. At the Dublin (Ireland) Web Summit, 30% of the 3,500 participants were on Bizzabo.
Ben-Shushan says the company’s data shows that, for every 1,000 users, an average of 700 new LinkedIn connections are made.
Most of the company’s clients to date have been in Europe but, with the new investment, Ben-Shushan is relocating to the United States to make a major push there.
The concept of business networking apps is not unique – many of the top international conferences have their own apps. The difference, says Ben-Shushan, is that those are custom-built apps that cost anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000 to create and can take up to 90 days to develop.
Bizzabo, by contrast, is meant for organizers to use as a self-service platform: Come to the website and in five minutes, create the app, and you’re ready to go. And a Bizzabo-powered event does not require people to learn a completely new interface for every conference.
Physical events on the rise
Right now, Bizzabo is free. But targeted advertising from event sponsors is not far behind.
“The app becomes a very effective business lead generator for sponsors,” Ben-Shushan explains. Bizzabo will charge the advertisers, then share that revenue with the event organizers “so they will have a bigger incentive to use us.”
Other revenue possibilities include premium features such as better data analysis or real-time mobile polling. There may be opportunities to sell to users too – imagine if you could, with one click, integrate all your new contacts into your Salesforce application database.
With all that power and functionality, there’s only one “must have” feature that Bizzabo doesn’t have yet – the ability to allow event participants to geo-locate each other at the event. This isn’t Bizzabo’s fault. GPS systems are notoriously poor at working indoors. That’s a problem that other services like Foursquare are dealing with as well.
Ben-Shushan and his co-founders are all former Air Force officers, although they didn’t meet until they enrolled in the yearlong Zell program, which accepts 20 students out of some 800 applications. Ben-Shushan previously served as the CEO of the three-day Rosh Pina Festival for Israeli media and TV executives.
Still, given the continuing poor economy, is an app that works with real-world events the best idea? Isn’t the industry moving more towards virtual meet-ups?
“It sounds like that would make sense,” Ben-Shushan says, “but it’s actually the other way around. Physical events are on the rise. There’s no alternative to meeting face-to-face.”