Ten Conference and Networking Tips

The Kelsey Group, or should I say BIA/Kelsey, held their annual Marketplaces conference this week in sunny San Diego. A heck of a show it was. So good that I probably was only able to sit in a handful of sessions. I say that because when I first started going to Kelsey shows in 2005 I was a newbie to the local scene, a newbie to local search conferences, and I probably sat in on 90% of the sessions, and soaked up information like a dry sponge. And that was the intent – to learn as much as possible, and then learn more. While my desire to learn at these shows hasn’t changed, my priorities have – it’s all about networking now and prospecting and establishing business relationships, of all types.

My colleague, Todd, and I had back-to-back-to-back meetings from even before the preconference started on Monday morning. By the time I left the hotel late Wednesday night, it wasn’t without three more impromptu meetings that kept me busy and well fed right up until I had to leave for the airport at 7pm. Here I am, 1:30 the next day, 60 minutes away from a follow-up meeting.

I wonder sometimes how some businesses in my industry (vertical? space?) are even able to stick around or grow without attending shows like these. These shows are sort of like annual or biannual checkpoints for many companies; are you still in it? are you thriving? surviving? ready to grow? growing? ready to do that deal you put-off last time around? changing models?

Since I started attending these shows almost five years ago now, I’ve seen many companies come and go. It’s exciting to grow alongside other companies, competitive or complementary or otherwise – it really is something to have those brothers and sisters to grow up with. It’s also sad and disheartening to see some of them vanish, never to be heard of again – to reminisce with others about those brands, faces, names, stories.

Perhaps the one point that really stands out for me though is how clear it is to me that these kinds of conferences and trade shows are so vital for me as an entrepreneur, and for CitySquares as a business. Some thoughts I’d like to share while they’re still fresh:

  1. Never judge a book by its cover. It’s so easy to dismiss a company because their slides may have seemed boring, or overly complicated, or the speaker wasn’t charismatic enough, or was even too charming. It’s easy to dismiss a company because their booth wasn’t fancy enough, or because someone was shy or anxious and didn’t have a drink at the mixer. I’ve been surprised so many times. Be bold, be brave – talk to everyone – but don’t be too aggressive about it. Just be there. Being there is the first step. Before you know it you’re deeply engrossed in a conversation and discovering common denominators.
  2. Don’t go to bed. I mean this. You didn’t spend your or your company’s money to go to bed when the best stuff happens. The best time to meet people, to learn, and to establish relationships and prospect for deals is during the hours following each day’s show. Whether in the bar, the restaurant, in the lobby, in the hallways, or outside the hotel at dinner and bar meetings – that’s when it happens. Simply put, be available. Don’t drink? No problem – but be there. You can make up the sleep on the plane or when you get back to your hometown. This way you’ll really be taking advantage of all the networking opportunities.
  3. Be real, be curious, be yourself. Don’t know about a topic being discussed, ask the panelists questions when the mic goes around. If the mic doesn’t make its way to you, stick around after the panel and track down the people you want to talk with. They’re at the show for the same reasons you are!
  4. Have business cards. I know it’s a no-brainer, but there is nothing worse then meeting someone and not getting their business card, or vice versa. Bring three times as many business cards as you think you’ll need. I can assure you that if you’re doing all of the above, you’ll use them. You may even need to run up to your hotel room to get more cards.
  5. Ask for time. If you meet someone you’d like to get to know better, or learn more about their business or talk about some ideas you have for working together, just ask them to meet with you. This is so easy – whether its an early breakfast meeting the following day, a chat in the hallway at a table, outside in the sun, at the bar that evening, over lunch or dinner, or even out in town – just ask them for their time. You’d be surprised. I’ve never been turned down. Sometimes you meet with someone and you find there’s just not a fit. OK – now you know! Time wasted? Absolutely not! More often than not though, there’s a synergy somewhere – but don’t force it either.
  6. Follow up. LinkedIn is the best way to follow-up. If you’re not on LinkedIn – get with the program! Really though. When you gather up all those cards every day, before you finally close your laptop at the end of the night, set them down, search LinkedIn for each person and write a personal message to them – remind them who you are and add some context to the message. A lot of names and faces get mixed up, business cards are just the reminder. Mention the topic you were discussing, be it business or even something casual that was discussed. It’s hard to remember who everyone is, but when you add context it jogs the memory and make it a lot easier for the recipient to accept your request. Follow up again a few days later with an email or a phone call.
  7. Go to the sponsored parties and events. Most evenings after the day’s events, there are company sponsored parties and gatherings. Go to them! If you find out its exclusive, and invitation only, just find out who’s doing the inviting and ask if you can attend – its rare that you’ll get turned down. Again, that’s what these events are for and the more people that show up, the better off that company looks – they want a good turnout! They want to be sold out and want people talking about it.
  8. Relax. This is especially important because no one wants to talk business 100% of the time. Be yourself, talk about where you’re from, learn about where others are from, talk sports, schools, family, hobbies. You’d be surprised when you do – often times you’ll find that you have a lot in common, and what was at first perhaps an awkward introduction turns into laughter, common interests or connections.
  9. Keep it simple. You’re wearing a name tag. People will look at it. After shaking someone’s hand and introductions the first question will be “so what does [your company name] do?” Don’t go into a 10-minute monologue about your special patent-pending technology that’s going to change the game and disrupt the whole business. First, no one likes to hear that their business is threatened by yours, and two, no one likes a bore. Be able to explain in less than 3-4 sentences what you’re business does – specifically what problem it’s working to solve. But don’t be secretive either. No one likes a spy or stealth company being sly.
  10. Know the right people. This is huge. Get to know a few people who run the conference, or who seem to know the right people, the folks at the booths, and others. If you see someone talking to someone you’d like to speak with, just ask for an introduction! They’ll be flattered you asked them. Knowing the right people does not mean shadowing people, tagging alongside them like a pet dog though either.

I hope these 10 points ring true for you, or inspire you to get out there more. And if you have any tips you’d like to add to this list, I’d love to hear from you, as would my readers.

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Speaking at Marketplaces 2010

The Kelsey Group is like the ESPN of the local search and advertising world. They’re the authority. They host about four major conferences every year, attracting industry insiders from around the globe. Their next one is next week in San Diego, called MARKETPLACES 2010: THE LOCAL VERTICAL OPPORTUNITY. It’s the who’s-who and that what’s-what of local and vertical solutions and advertising. I’ve attended numerous Kelsey shows and have come to know the Kelsey staff as warm and generous professionals, and many of the conference regulars. The Kelsey Group and their conferences have been absolutely critical for CitySquares. If it wasn’t for them and their shows, I don’t think we’d be a player on this big and competitive field.

I was asked to speak at the Marketplaces show alongside Colin Pape with ShopCity and David Vazdauskas of Local Thunder. The panel will be moderated by Steve Marshall, who I always enjoy. He doesnt pull punches and he adds a certain kind of intensity to the panels. I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll be at the show from Sunday through Wednesday with my colleague and VP National Sales Todd Salerno. We have a few meetings teed up but if you’d like to catch up with one of us just email me, tweet me or send smoke signals, whatever works for ya!

If anyone wants to go, but does not yet have tickets, please get in touch with me, I have a discount code for you to save a little.

Looking forward to seeing a whole lotta people! See you there!

“You stay classy San Diego” – Ron Burgundy

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Two Simple Statements

610xAs I was leaving the ILM:08 conference Friday afternoon I made my way around the various rooms and hallways to say goodbye and shake the hands of the many people I met with over the last few days. As I neared the lobby of the hotel I bumped into the Localeze crew hanging out and waiting for a cab to the airport. I walked over to thank them for the dinner and drinks from the previous evening. We joked around about a few things, as we usually do, and when I thanked Brian Wool, Vice President at Localeze, he responded “No Ben, thank you, we really appreciate your business.” I didn’t think much of it, we chatted for a minute longer and then I left the hotel for the airport.

Coincidentally, when I arrived my airport terminal I bumped into Geoff Jeff Beard, President of Localeze. We chatted a bit while until it was time to board the plane. I turned, shook his hand, and said “thanks again for the great time last night, really” and his response was “It was our pleasure, and thank you, we really appreciate your business.”

That’s when it hit me – “Thank you” and “we really appreciate your business” – two very simple statements, but so powerful. And sadly enough, as consumers and customers we just don’t hear it enough. Instead, we see a generic sign from the hardware store hanging in a window, or on the back of a cash register, that reads “Thank you, come again!” or “We value your business” but so rarely is it actually spoken.

When I sat on the plane I started to realize something – I’ve heard these statements many times from Localeze. In fact, I’ve heard it from each and every one of them either oh the phone or in person. I found myself rather dumbstruck by this, as simple as it is. All of this translates into something else, something vital in business – loyalty.

Like all companies there are a number of service providers, partners, and vendors that we work with at CitySquares. Nearly all of these relationships have lasted because, well obviously they provide value, but also because they appreciate our business and they make sure I know that. They make us feel like we’re valued. If I don’t feel like they appreciate my business, I’ll continue doing business with them but if someone else comes along and makes me a better offer, I’d give it serious consideration.

CitySquares’ relationships with our customers are our biggest asset. We have a high customer renewal rate because we take care of them, we provide them with value, and we appreciate their business. In fact, every month we have what we call Customer Love Day. Yeah I know, it sounds a little corny but that’s what it is; Customer Appreciation Day sounds so corporate and cliche. The point is that we make a concerted effort to make the time and we go out of our way to check in with our customers, provide them with additional value and to thank them and let them know that we appreciate their business. This is a process that’s simply in CitySquares’ DNA.

In these tough economic times, as businesses struggle in various ways it’s never ever too late to tell your partners and customers that you appreciate their business, to thank them. You can’t build loyalty in one phone call though, it takes time – but you can start today.

Clear a few minutes off your calendar and call just one of your customers today, or one more. Thank them, do something for them, go the extra mile. It only takes a moment and the worst you get out of it is a happy customer.

Off to ILM

Bag-33415Next week myself and Jason (account executive from CitySquares) are off to Santa Clara, CA for The Kelsey Group‘s annual superbowl of all things local – ILM:08. This is a fantastic event that I’ve had the pleasure of attending in the past. The panels are excellents, the keynotes as well, but what I really like about ILM are the networking opportunities. That’s really at the core of ILM for me – meeting other players, and looking into new opportunities with them. It’s a hell of a time. Peter Krasilovsky organizes the event each year, and moderates many of the panels, and does a hell of a job each time. I look forward to seeing many people at ILM this year! If you’re planning to attend, shoot me an email or send me a DM on twitter. If you’re not aware of ILM, but you can make the trek out to the west coast, I highly recommend you do – well worth the investment.

CitySquares at NY Venture Summit

CitySquares was lucky enough to be invited to the NY Venture Summit June 24th and 25th. This is our first NY Venture Summit and we’re really excited to be a part of it. We’ll be one of about 40 exhibitors there. It’ll be myself, Bob Leland (Co-Founder and VP Product), and our Sales Manager Kim Hillis. If you’ll be there please be sure to stop by our table and say hello!

As a side note, please pardon the lack of blogging lately. I’ve moved much of the CitySquares specific blogging to the CitySquares Blog, and frankly, on a personal and professional front, I just haven’t had much to blog about. I’ve been getting fired up about a few things lately, so it won’t be long until I get something up. Also, I hope you like the look and feel and organization of the new blog, on WordPress.

Choose Your Weapons Wisely

Thursday evening Bob and I attended a networking event in Waltham hosted by TCN, at Foley Hoag’s Emerging Enterprise Center. As usual, it was well worth our time. We met some great folks who are doing some cool new things in a variety of innovative industries. We also got a chance to catch up with some folks we haven’t seen in a while. After all this I started to reflect on how instrumental some of our service provider choices have been for CitySquares. Choosing the right vendors is critical for a startup and I firmly believe that it can make the difference between being a startup and a relevant startup.

Find the right law firm. When we started out in 2005 I actually made it a point, and a time consuming process, to go out and interview law firms. Being that we’d be interfacing with consumers as well as small businesses, hopefully in high volume, I knew we’d need good representation and especially if we were going to raise funding. First, I wanted a firm that could provide a full suite of services to us. Having worked with boutique, or home based lawyers, I knew what they could provide and I knew very well what they couldn’t provide. At my previous company a home based attorney was OK, but not for CitySquares. Secondly, I wanted a firm that had extensive experience with high tech startups and Internet startups. That was very important to me. Lastly, I needed a firm that could provide a deferment. So I set out on a two month project to find the right firm for CitySquares. I literally conducted interviews. I had lawyers from small firms and large firms coming to our old office to meet with me and sell me. Most of them were pretty darn good. They were about as good a salesperson as I am, and that concerned me a lot of times. Other times I’d go to firms and they’d show off their view of Boston, or impress me with meetings with senior partners in the firm. At times I was flattered, because, who were we? We were nobody yet, and we didn’t have two nickels to offer. But I think they were all selling me just as much as I was selling them.

One evening I went to an entrepreneurial event at Foley Hoag called “Negotiating Term Sheets.” The attorney from Foley Hoag who lead the event seemed like a nice enough guy, and he put up with me during the event. I was a little outspoken at times about some of the terms and even about raising money at all. He tolerated this. After the event I asked for his card, told him that we were looking for a firm to help us with various corporate matters, funding, and then building the business etc. Long story short, Foley Hoag is now our law firm.

Now, I have to say that despite the fact that, yes, we’re talking about lawyers here, there is no substitute for a good lawyer. What I like about our firm and about our guy, is that a) he’s not your typical lawyer, he’s a pretty regular guy – salt of the earth, b) they treat us extremely fairly in any number of ways, and c) they have this EEC thing I mentioned in the first paragraph – the Emerging Enterprise Center. I can’t say I’ve attended all that much there, but when I have it’s been well worth it. It’s all about value-add right? I hate that expression, but it’s so true.

Find the right bank. Also along these same lines is picking the right bank. When we were on the hunt for financing we knew we’d need a good bank. And some might say that Citi or Bank of America can do just as good a job as any, or that the community bank around the corner can. And ya know, that may be true but it’ll be a long time until I find out because we chose Silicon Valley Bank based on numerous recommendations by numerous trusted folks, from our advisers, our CFO, to our attorneys and prospective investors. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. I don’t quite know what I’m really looking for in a bank anyway, aside from lower fees, good rates, and a strong relationship. What you get with SVB is the later, strong relationships that hinge on the very fact that you are a funded startup company and that they understand your needs unlike any other bank. They also have relationships with your investors, as well as countless others, and that makes for some very good treatment. They know that if they treat you well, that they’re also treating your investors well, and in doing so, building relationships. Silicon Valley Bank was able to get us started on some basic banking services very fast, but also with some nice value-added services, like an unsecured credit card with a very reasonable rate and limit. Despite their name and that they’re headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley they are here in Boston. They have an office in Newton, not a branch, but they are able to handle deposits there, which they also offer via a free courier service. At SVB’s Newton office is where you can find one or two of Boston’s more well known angel investor groups meeting once a month. Those relationships can start with SVB. I bumped into our rep from SVB at the Foley event Thursday, and he was full of good information about a great many things going on in the Boston startup arena. Again, this is a key relationship that you just can’t find with your standard, every day bank.

Find the right accountant and CFO. There simply is no substitute for the right people handling your books and financial strategies. I’ve been using the same bookkeeper for about 8 years now, and I trust him with my personal finances as well as my business’ finances. He’s handled my taxes, my wife’s taxes, and my businesses’ taxes. This long lasting relationship will continue for a long long time. Why would I ever consider changing? He has never let me down, he’s been with me through the tough times and the good times, and he works very well with our financial strategist, our CFO. If the three of us couldn’t work well together, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I met our CFO a little less than a year ago, he was referred by one of our advisers. He’s got a ton of experience in the Boston startup community, specifically with technology and Internet ventures. Let me repeat that… He’s got a ton of experience in the Boston startup community, specifically with technology and Internet ventures. The more I work with him, the more I appreciate his experience and wisdom and the more I realize how critical a good CFO is. Keep in mind that we don’t employ him on a full time basis, he’s a consulting CFO. Financial strategy, projections, etc., is one area that I’m not savvy in, so having a CFO who can work with me to layout the financial plan, who can work with the board of directors, who can work with my bookkeeper, and office manager, and who understands the scene is just absolutely mission critical. We made a mistake a couple years ago, working with a “CFO” who wasn’t up to par. Well, that’s a mistake I won’t make ever again.

Obviously there are other key relationships that need to be built and cultivated in a startup, but also over the longer term for an entrepreneur. I’ve talked about the importance of good advisers previously, and how hard it is to find them, but I’ve neglected to talk about these service providers. Having good service providers, and top-tier service providers like those I’ve mentioned, brings a certain amount of credibility and respect to the business just as much as having the right management team or the right investors. These folks need to believe in you just like a good investor or employee would. That is the basis of the relationship – trust, and believing in the entrepreneur(s) and in the plan. With that trust comes a relationship, and with that relationship comes top-tier services, credibility, and it puts you in a leading class in the entrepreneurial community. Lastly, I believe that if I do a good job with CitySquares, and if I decide to build another business afterwards, that I’ll be able to count on these folks to go for another ride with me – at their own risk of course!

Events and Networking for Boston Startups

It’s been over two years since we discovered WebInno and were subsequently invited by David Beisel to be a sidedish. Among other notable Boston area events, WebInno was probably the most exciting for us, and it really gave us the shot in the arm that we needed. We also met some fantastic people that evening, many of whom we stay in close contact with. In fact, we met one of our advisory board members at that first WebInno. Each time I attend a WebInno, I’m not only shocked by the spike in attendees each event seems to have but also by the genuinely good vibe in the room that lasts for hours.

My point here is that as a startup company, and as an untested business seeking an identity and a place in the Boston entrepreneurial and startup scene, WebInno was really just one of many pivotal networking events for us. As this blog continues to be about entrepreneurship, and my perspective from the trenches, I don’t want to forget about these events and opportunities. Furthermore, I really encourage other entrepreneurs to be sure they get out there – hit the streets, attend events, network, don’t be shy. It’s like anything, once you get some momentum and get into a rhythm it just gets easier.

Here are some events that I’ve either attended or would like to attend in the Boston area:

  • WebInno – Cambridge, MA, about once every 3 months or so. Well worth it! And if you’re in the Internet space, check with David to see if you can a shot at a side dish or main dish. David’s very accommodating and open minded.
  • MIT Enterprise Forum – Cambridge, MA. Hey, it’s MIT man, you know it’s gonna be interesting! I’ve been a member of the MIT Enterprise Forum for about two years now. While not all their events interest me, specifically the bio-tech stuff, they do host many very helpful and relevant events and networking opportunities. From big, globally broadcasted panels on angel investing and venture funding, to small networking opportunities where David Weinberger shares his perspective on the digital world, MIT Enterprise Forum is well worth your attention.
  • MIT Entrepreneurship Center – Cambridge, MA. Are you an entrepreneur? Doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in – go to these events! Get involved! There’s a ton of value to be gained at this event. If you’re in the Boston area – don’t be a schmuck, take advantage of all the MIT has to offer!
  • The Capital Network – Waltham, MA. An organization for entrepreneurs seeking funding. I had the honor of being on one of their recent panels and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. TCN offers some really powerful resources for entrepreneurs, and they really take their time to make sure you’re absorbing all that you can. It’s very much a dialogue at TCN.
  • TechTuesday – An event hosted by the Mass Technology Leadership Council and growing in strength and numbers.

Here’s a bunch more (write-ups courtesy of Don Dodge, thanks Don!):

New England Angel Capital Conference – The Angel Investor groups of greater Boston meet once a quarter to review their best companies. Each group nominates companies to present. They are all looking for a round of funding that is bigger than any one Angel Group can handle. This meeting lets all the groups get a look at promising companies and pool their investment dollars.

Entrepreneurial Team Building – a panel of entrepreneurs that have built companies from the ground up and know the ins and outs of building great teams. What really makes a team come together? How can you be sure that you are bringing in the right folks? Who should be hired first, second, next? We’ll talk about teams at the senior management level and at the BOD level.

Entrepreneurial Series – Plain English Term Sheets – This is a webinar for startup entrepreneurs who want to understand the details of financing term sheets. What to ask for…and what to avoid.

MITX – Mass Innovation & Technology Exchange have lots of great events for technology based startups. The next session is “Building Social Applications and Widgets“.

The 128 Innovation Capital Group – The regular meetings are held on the second Thursday of every month at the Best Western Hotel on Totten Pond Road in Waltham. Every month an investor provides our formal program. After Q&A, our speaker generally remains to speak with audience members, one on one. After the meeting, a roster with the contact information of all attendees is made available to those who came to the meeting.

Nantucket Conference – The 2008 Nantucket Conference audience will consist of approximately 150 of New England’s top entrepreneurs, investors, and tech executives. Rather than sitting through a series of speeches and PowerPoint presentations, the audience will be engaged in a dialogue – and sometimes a heated debate – with Conference presenters.

Get out there! Spring is here, so you’re out of excuses!

At SES NY

SES NY

I forgot to post this earlier, but better late than never! I will be at Search Engine Strategies New York this week, from Monday through Thursday. I look forward to seeing many friends and acquaintences, including:

Gib, Mike (and Fred?) from Localeze
Andrew Shotland from LocalSEOGuide
My friends from TurnHere
Ryan Sarver from Skyhook Wireless
Danny Moon from UpNext
Jason Calacanis from Mahalo and Calacanis.comassuming he’ll speak to me!

I’m sure I’ll see, as well as meet, many others from around the way. I always enjoy these industry conferences – there’s always such great energy and fun, and of course overwhelming amounts of information. I’ve heard great things about the SES shows and this is actually my first.

I’ll be staying with a friend uptown and seeing some friends and family while in town too. It’ll be a tight schedule that’s for sure! If you’d like to meet up shoot me an email at my name at CitySquares.com.

At ILM:07

At ILM:07

Originally uploaded by Benee

It took a little longer than we’d hoped, but Bob and I made it to ILM:07. Our flight from Boston was delayed and we ended up missing our connection to LA. So we had to crash at a JFK airport and catch a flight to LA bright and early. We arrived at ILM around noon, cleaned up, grabbed a bite, and jumped right in. We quickly ran into many familiar faces, shook hands, gabbed a bit, laughed a bit, and caught the remainder of the day’s sessions. So far so good. And as expected, Peter Krasilovsky (www.localonliner.com) is doing a heck of a job. Went out to dinner tonight with Danny Moon (www.upnext.com) and Fred Pfeiffer of Localeze (www.localeze.com). Went to a cool steakhouse called The Lodge (www.thelodgesteakhouse.com). We had a good time. Came back here and jumped into the Call Genie Martini Party and hung out with Ian White (www.urbanmapping.com) and Peter K.

What did I get out of today? Well, we’re getting ready for 2008. And now that 2007 is coming to a close, I’m thinking a lot about what we’ve done in the past year. It was a year ago that Bob and I were in LA, under very difference circumstances. A year later, we’re feeling much better about things but there’s still so much work to do. The game is changing for us now. Our roles are evolving and it’s time to step up the level of execution. We need to think about getting Citysquares.com to a point where it can be reproduced easily. That includes the site, that includes the sales model, the marketing strategy and more. Today gave me a chance to buckle down and dive deep into the financial projections and plans, on the flight, and to think about things at a higher level than I’m usually able to on a day-to-day basis. Citysquares is about to enter 3rd gear. I’m excited. I’m also very tired. Good night.

Going to ILM:07

Being billed as The Premier Event for Interactive Local Media Execs and Local Search Practitioners, ILM:07 is widely known amongst local-media folk as the biggest event of the year. Hosted by The Kelsey Group and organized by my pal Peter Krasilovsky ILM:07 is next week, starting Wednesday and going a full three days. Bob and I will be attending and we’re greatly looking forward to the agenda, to meeting back up with many of the folks we know from around the way, and to connecting and meeting with new peeps. If you’d like to meet up, shoot me an email at bsaren -at- citysquares.com.