05 Apr

Landing Speakers For Your Event Or Conference

Lessons From My Real World

People always ask me how we were able to get such sought after speakers for our Tech808 Conferences and our local meetups especially after an event.

My answer used to be “hustle!” Even though that is the 1st thing you have to do, I always knew that it was more than that!

Out of all our events with The Phat Startup I would say I secured at least 90% of our speakers including the bigger speakers like Gary Vaynerchuk, Ben Horowitz and one of my favorites Paul Brunson. I wanted to put together a quick and simple post that could get YOU started on land some game changing speakers along with speakers that your community may not know but need to know.

Here are a few things to be mindful of, but if you need more help hit me up!

Securing Speakers:

Budget: Payed or Unpaid Speakers?

Most of the time when you reach out to a speaker, the 1st questions they may ask is how big is your budget? Rightfully so, they know they add tremendous value to your event so getting paid for their skills isn’t a bad thing.

For us there was no budget. We weren’t big time like a techcrunch or recode, so having a 6 figure budget was a no go. I had no problem being upfront and telling the speakers that. They respected the honesty, but it also weeded out the speakers we couldn’t afford.

That meant that speakers that made a living doing public speaking events were more than likely out of the equation. The beauty of tech is that most like to give back since someone was there to help them. So money for tech speakers isn’t that big of an issue at times. Most will do it for free, especially if they have a company or product they want to incorporate into their talks.

Warning: When you go the free route you will have to work harder to weed out the great speakers and the speakers doing it because they have a press release to push. Speakers that are there peddling a product instead of teaching are worthless, cut them off asap.

From prior experience paid speakers are usually more polished than unpaid speakers but they are not the end all be all. Some of my favorite talks came from speakers that didn’t get paid and that many didn’t even know existed. They do it to build their brand but most of the time get a real kick out of helping others #bossup.

We got lucky scoring great speakers but I’m most proud of the speakers people didn’t know. Those were the speakers I really vetted for specific topics, like going from 0 customers to 1000 customers. They might not be known but they know how to hustle and your community should learn from them.

Another great hack for speakers is to see if they are local to your event. It’s much easier to negotiate with someone like Gary Vaynerchuk if they are locals. Now traveling expenses are gone so they are more inclined to work with you. Sometimes they might just do it for free because they are always around. Start local!

Reach: Does Your Speaker Need Access To Your Community?

This one was my secret weapon! Considering we were hosting Tech Startup Events for Minorities, I knew many of our speakers needed access to them. Seriously looking at it, were speakers like Tristan Walker or Devo Springsteen going to find a huge audience of minorities at TechCrunch?

Hell no, you would be lucky if they had 10% minorities there. With us we guaranteed that we would have over 75% of our audience compromised of minorities, sometimes even 95%. Just ask NYU and George Washington University, outside of a hip hop show they didn’t have those types of numbers until we did our thing.

Hip Hop, Tech, And Entrepreneurship


That made it even easier for me during my pitch. I would tell them, “you need my community, and we are the only ones to do it authentically!” That would open up further discussions and once we got past the 1st encounter 9 out of 10 times they would sign on to speak.

Think of the community you are fostering. Does your speaker need your community or do you need them? If you need them your work just increased, if it’s the other way, things could get easier.

Are They Selling Something?

You might not have a crazy budget to pay a speaker the 70k they demand but that’s ok. Sometimes buying a few of their products for your audience is good enough.

A perfect example of this was our talk with Ben Horowitz. He was on the top of my wish list because I knew everyone in tech knew who he was or knew his a16z firm. Not to mention I knew landing him as a speaker would promote us to a whole other community and give us huge credibility.

As a billionaire and not really a public speaker I really had no idea how I would break into his circle. The normal tweeting of hip hop lyrics got me responses from him but nothing crazy.

Then one day I noticed that he tweeted about a book he was about to publish. The light bulb went on, without hesitation and without a budget I tweeted to him. I told him that I would like to buy 100 copies of his book and have him speak at our event.

While everyone else was begging for advice or free shit, I saw where I could be of value. He didn’t need our money, but he wanted to sell books and my community was one he loved. I would pay for the books by pre-selling tickets. BTW we sold out that event with 150 people in less than 15 minutes.

He passed me onto his co-worker who after a quick phone call deemed us worthy! April 15 wasn’t going to be just tax day for us; it was going to be a day we learned with Ben Horowitz. The same thing happened with Gary Vaynerchuk and Alexis Ohanian who both would have done our event for free anyway. We bought books out of love, respect and wanting our community to learn from them.

Reaching Out To Speakers:

Mutual Connections:

I am the 1st to tell you that I am not good at reaching out via mutual connection. The pride in me doesn’t allow me to ask for help often and I really hate to put people on the spot. Out of all the speakers I was able to land I would say that less than 20% came from a mutual connection but I also know I made my job harder that way.

The 1st time I really asked for help was when I was looking for female speakers for our 1st Tech808 conference. A few of the bigger names I had reached out to told me no way or wanted to get paid. Some were even afraid due to the Hip hop environment we had cultivated at our events which I understood fully.

My Co-founder told me he knew someone that could help us land some great female speakers and connected me to Nathalie Molina Nino. Nathalie was well known in the tech space but also was living her passion by helping female technology entrepreneurs take it to the next level. I quickly shot her an email and proceeded to make magic happen together.

Nathalie Molina Nino x Paul Brunson xTech808 GWU, DC

Nathalie Molina Nino x Paul Brunson xTech808 GWU, DC

Without her my job would have been even harder than it was and she also taught how to ask for help without feeling like a loser. Don’t be like me, make your job easier and see if you have a mutual connection to a speaker.

Repay that connection by helping them out with their projects, free tickets or simply a shout out.  Most of the time they won’t want to be repaid but if they looked out for you why shouldn’t you do the same?

That mutual love can go really really far.

Social Media:

If you followed my twitter handle for a while, you will notice that I engage with everyone especially the big shots. Social media, especially twitter has made it so easy to connect with others that you would be a fool not to use it.

Twitter is usually the 1st way I attack connecting with someone but it doesn’t start with a “can you speak at my event?” tweet. Use social to start a relationship with the speaker. You don’t have to become best friends but if you are always having dialogs with the people you want to work with, sooner or later they start to recognize you. Be human and treat them like you would want to be treated.

Join their convos on social media, figure out what they like or even dislike, and find that common topic that both of you can speak about authentically. Then take the convo off of social via email or a phone call.

They might ignore your first few tweets but don’t be an asshole and curse them out. Sometimes they might not see your message or are busy handling things in their real world. Just keep trying!


Sometimes having a mutual connection or using social media to reach out to speakers isn’t enough. Sometimes your speakers might not even use social media so what do you then?

My fail safe has always been emails. Think about it, when you sign up for a new social media platform they tend to ask you for an email. When you fill out applications or forms they ask you for your email address.

As much as we talk negativity about emails, everyone has one especially business people. Guess what, they open emails also! They just might not open it the 1st few times you send it.

Remember when emailing someone that they probably get a shit load of emails a day so you have to be smart about it.

There were times that I would send a speaker an email multiple times a day hoping they would open it. I learned that with emails busy people tend to open them super early or super late. So I would send one early and then use an email client like mail chimp to send another one at night. If they didn’t respond I would do it all over again the next day.

To some it looks like you are being a pest but if you don’t do it you won’t get the results you are looking for. Once someone would reply to me even if it was a no, I knew I could connect with them again. A no meant no for that moment but it didn’t deter me. I learned the hard way that you have to make it easy for them to say yes, and a no means that a yes could come about later.

Same principles apply for emails as in social media, be human. Keep the message short and powerful, the objective isn’t to lock them down in one attempt. The objective is to break down the barrier and get a 2nd and sometimes 3rd dialog going.

There’s so much more that goes into getting landing a speaker but to cover all of that I would need to write a book. Might have to do that! This is just a starting point and some of the things that helped me land some REALLY REALLY great speakers.

To make all of this work though, you need to remember to be human and consistent. Keep pushing!

Young Guru x Tech808 NYU

Young Guru x Tech808 NYU

Thinking About Hosting An Event Or Conference And Need More Info? Hit Me Up Via Twitter or Hit The Comments Below.


Would you like to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!

  1. Ella Rucker

    April 5, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    You da bomb!

    This is good stuff. Even if we KNOW it it is good to hear it again and see how much bigger our results can be.

    Thanks for this, James.


    • james

      April 8, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      Thanks Ella!!!! Its hard work but damn that payoff is great!


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