Nutshell @ SXSW: what $100k gets you

Written by Guy Suter on March 21, 2014

This month the Nutshell team went to South By Southwest in Austin, TX. Participation in trade shows and industry events is a question many small businesses face.

I hope you find the story of our trip useful and interesting to your business.

To say the team was reluctant is an understatement. I interrupted a productive day with talk of exhibit booths, parties, hotels and everything else at SXSW Interactive, one of the industry’s biggest spectacles. Nutshell’s product team is a group of talented developers and a one-in-a-million designer. They’re dedicated to the craftsmanship of building a great product for our customers. And I love that. So it was uncomfortable for me to push them on something beyond making Nutshell better.

Objections included “it will distract us from development,” “the product needs more things first,” and “maybe there is something better to do.” But after a few weeks of pitching some exciting booth designs and talking it over, I won the team over and we got to work.

Let the show begin

A busy Nutshell booth at SXSW

So there we were on Sunday morning: the exhibit hall doors were about to open and lines of thousands would storm in. The entire Nutshell team (minus one expecting new mother!) stood ready. We were in a beautiful 20x20' end-cap booth. It had a minimal design by @KarstenRowe, built to invite casual conversations with the interesting, brilliant, and influential attendees of SXSW.

Before the first person even walked up, we had already spent more than $50,000. Considering Nutshell normally spends less than 20% of that on monthly advertising, it's quite a lot of money for us.

I asked the team to keep three things in mind


We‘re here to promote Nutshell. Historically, we've been heads-down building the product, and neglected our own promotion. We’ve built a great product and we want to show it off so we can grow faster, hire more and make Nutshell even better.


We’re here to learn. It is an incredible opportunity to talk face-to-face with thousands of people about the software they use to run their businesses. We had the opportunity to meet many Nutshell customers and we were inspired by countless professionals who had never heard of us. We heard firsthand what people care about, the challenges they have, and the software they need.


We’re here to have fun. In five years at Nutshell, we had never done anything like this before. Startups are fun and should get more so with success. We've created a product loved by many. Great companies recognize and reward their contributors. I really wanted everyone to enjoy themselves in Austin. And they certainly did!

The party

Nutshell SXSW

In addition to the trade show, Nutshell also sponsored the Interactive Awards Finalist Party. We worked with SXSW and an Austin event planner to throw a beautiful party for some of the industry’s most talented designers and engineers.

We even convinced our Ann Arbor friend, @ViolinMonster, to serenade the party (and join us for dinner).

The finances

Trade show booth fee & badges $14,000
Party sponsorship $27,000
Block party kegs $1,200
Booth construction, setup, TV $29,000
Swag $5,000
Hotels (12 people, 4 nights) $10,000
Airfare $7,500
Rental car, shipping $1,000
Extracurricular activities  
Food / booze / don’t remember $5,000
@ViolinMonster cash tip Priceless

The verdict

SXSW was the largest promotional expense we've ever undertaken — roughly 80% of last year’s advertising spend. We're still recovering from the sticker shock but unanimously agree that it was worth the expense. We came back with loads of ideas to improve Nutshell. The stories and frustrations we heard inspired us. We learned more about what the world wants from CRM software in four days than we could have over three years inside the office.

Of course, incoming leads ticked up and we've already seen some direct sales from the show, but that's not the true ROI. We pitched our product, met journalists, decision-makers, competitors, partners, and customers, and left the conference having all had a lot of fun.

Ask us more!

Want to know more details? Think we’re crazy? Join the thread at Hacker News or send me a tweet:

Stay tuned for more posts on our SXSW trip: we're excited to share perspectives from our engineering and support teams and some more specific takeaways. Hope to see you next year in Austin!

Nutshell and Violin Monster at SXSW

Guy Suter

Guy Suter

Guy is a Nutshell co-founder and now serves as Chairman of the Board. He’s started a slew of companies and loves building great products.

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