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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Angels are Good, Right?

6a00d83421dda453ef00e54f2e25558833-640wiFinally, someone is calling attention to those angel investor groups who charge entrepreneurs unfair amounts of money to pitch to them, and it’s not someone with a small microphone or with no following. Jason Calacanis has announced a “jihad”, as it seems, and is stirring things up. This topic is not a new one for many entrepreneurs but many more don’t know what all this means or what the fuss is out, and could use a bit of a primer on Angel investing and how it works. Given that most of the people who read my blog are aspiring entrepreneurs and those doing it for their first time I thought I’d shed some light on the subject. This is a bit lengthy, and not for vanity – I think it’s important to cover the subject thoroughly.

In our great country, the US of A, there is an overwhelming spirit of capitalism that trickles down to every street corner and school yard. Over the decades that spirit has become what it is today – the spirit of entrepreneurship. Once upon a time “entrepreneurship” was actually a rare thing, but today it seems that everyone knows an entrepreneur in one form or another. People like Bill Hewlett and David Packard, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs and more recently Larry Page and Sergey Brin, among countless others, have made entrepreneurship what it is today – something that many actually aspire to become. It’s a radical new time, a very different one than those my parents grew up in.

One of the most misunderstood part of entrepreneurship is also one of the most critical parts – the part of fundraising. Over the past few years as CitySquares has raised money, it never ceases to amaze me how many people ranging from self proclaiming “entrepreneurs” to family and friends just don’t have the slightest concept of what raising money for a start up actually means. I’ve often heard some people inquire “wait, you got so-n-so to just give you money?” Just the tone of that question makes it sound like an entrepreneur is like a street corner pan handler begging for charity.

There are primarily two types of investors in the entrepreneurial and start-up worlds – Angel Investors (and Angel groups) and Venture Capitalists (and venture capital firms, a.k.a. VCs). I won’t be discussing VCs, just Angel’s, as they’re affectionately called. Angels are indepenently wealthy individuals who invest their own money in a business and usually do so in exchange for equity (usually Preferred Stock) in the company, or sometimes in the form of a Note – effectively a loan that will convert into Preferred Stock – loan companies help a lot (visit their website here). It’s not that complicated really. Some angel investors are professional angel investors, others are current or former entrepreneurs themselves. For example, one of my Angel’s built and sold his high-tech company to Yahoo! in the late ’90s for several billion dollars in stock. Another of our Angel investors has been an executive at several multi-national high-tech companies and did extremely well along the way as these companies exited (went public or were merged or acquired). Angels are also “accredited investors” as defined by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Sure, anyone with some money can make some investments and call themselves an Angel Investor, but to truly be an legitimate investor they really need to be an accredited investor (SEC definition, Wikipedia definition). I should also briefly note that the term “Angel Investor” is not a legal term, it’s more of a term of endearment that seems to have stuck throughout the years.

The most famous angel investment that I’m aware of is the $100,000 check that Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim cut to Google after watching Larry Page and Sergey Brin demonstrate their technology. The funniest part of this story is that the founders couldn’t do anything with the check for weeks because they didn’t have a legal entity formed under which the check was made out to.

There are other famous Angel investors like Andy, including Mark Cuban, Mark Andreessen, Ron Conway, and others. There are thousands of mostly unknown Angel Investors too. At the end of the day they all want the same thing – a return on their investment. Fair enough.

Some Angels work together, in what are known as Angel groups. These Angel groups typically form out of a shared sense of fostering entrepreneurship in a specific city or region or industry, among other reasons. The Angels might meet once a month to discuss their investments, invest together in companies, and invite startups to pitch them.

Here’s where it gets sticky. Imagine, for a minute, that you’re a young and budding entrepreneur. Let’s even say that you dropped out of college (like so many famous entrepreneurs have), you live in a house that you share with seven other young people, and you barely make ends meet. You make enough money waiting tables to cover your share of the rent and bills, to go out with friends, to take your girlfriend out, and afford yourself a cell phone and other bare essentials (by today’s standards). In addition to your part time job waiting tables at a nearby restaurant, you, in your spare time, have an affinity for cars and technology. And in this spare time you conceived a new technology that can power automobiles using carbon dioxide and have a very simple prototype designed. Pretty cool right? Probably a market for this? Maybe sell it to GM, if you can just prove that it works well, and that it’s affordable? Solve a climate problem? OK, so you need money. Your Mom and Dad are tapped, and they’re also pissed because you dropped out of college. Your uncle is good for $2000, so is your girlfriend’s parents. But you need more than $4000 to really build a working prototype, to hire someone to help you market it to car manufacturers, to hire a patent attorney to help you protect your Intellectual Property, etc. Sitting alone at a local pub you put some numbers on the back of a napkin and calculated that you really need $200,000 to get this idea off the ground and build a product and go to market. So… where do you go?

You have some friends who know people that have raised money from investors and had some success – you get the introductions and before you know it you’ve gone from playing Wii at home with your roommates to being thrust into the world of entrepreneurship, IP, angel investing, venture capital investing, business models, business plans, etc etc. But you need capital – plain and simple. Where are you going to go? You need to meet some Angel investors.

How do you move forward? You need to present your technology and business model to an Angel Investor, or more likely to an Angel group. There are many of them out there. A quick gander on the ACA website shows that there are actually a few right in your city. So you email an executive summary to these groups at their general email address and hope for the best. What usually happens at this stage is that you receive some responses from the Angel groups asking you to fill out an online application. The application process is a tedious but excellent exercise, forcing you to refine your concepts into just a few sentences, and to present your financial forecasts and capital requirements. The application process isn’t fun, especially when you have to do it for 4 or 5 different groups. Then, you wait. You wait while your information is being circulated among the angels or a committee. Then, after a few weeks (yes, weeks) you get an email telling you how wonderful your idea is, how excited some investors are, and you have an invitation to present to a committee representing the Angel Group. This is very exciting! But there’s a catch… you need to pay $750 first.

Now you pause, and you think long and hard. You ask yourself why you, a bootstrapping, young, starving entrepreneur who’s living off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, who’s put so much on the line, should have to cough up $750 just to present your idea to a committee! Absurd right? But what choice do you have… either you pay it and maybe raise some money, learn in the process, make some connections, or you don’t and hope something better comes along.

This is not unusual. Most angel groups want you to pay something to present to them. And they have their reasons, usually good reasons. But doesn’t it seem unfair? Absolutely! Despite their reasoning, it’s just unfair!

When CitySquares was barely six months old we paid to present to an investor group. It was our first time. It was almost the same scenario as I presented above. It cost us about $750. It was a total waste of money. We had a bunch of old timers vet us through their committee, and blow smoke up our asses. So far so good, or so we thought. Two months later we finally presented our business to a room full of 50 or so Angel investors. As it turned out, 90% of the people in the room had no idea what we were talking about. Zero, zilch, nada. They were in completely irrelevant industries, and in the twenty minutes or so that we were allotted, with a ten minute Q&A, it became painfully obvious that not only was our idea way over their heads, but that we’d just wasted $750 and a whole lot of time. And to make matters worse, it was soon made clear to me that this specific angel group had made very few investments and had zero successful outcomes.

How did that leave me feeling? Angry, frustrated, mislead, and a bit more broke.

This not just my story, but the story of many many other entrepreneurs who just don’t know better, who don’t know where else to turn, who have to learn the hard way. This is so much more common then most people realize. But it’s just part of the territory. Just as with any advisors I’ve attracted to the company, the best people I’ve come to work with are those that don’t ask for anything up front. They are genuinely interested in you and your business, and they want to help.

Now let’s get something straight – Angels are investors, and they’re in business as investors for one reason – to make money. Any other reason is secondary. So then, it seems that charging entrepreneurs a fee for pitching them likely has some justifying, right? Sure! But the entrepreneur doesn’t care what about those things. The entrepreneur is in business to make money, but he/she is not rich! And there’s the discrepancy. That’s where it becomes “unfair” – that’s where it’s skewed. Some Angel groups charge a lot more than $750. And there are even some people out there, predators, who prey on entrepreneurs and charge them for introductions to Angel investors. Fred Wilson points this out on his blog as well.

Generally speaking, Angels are not bad people and they’re are not milking entrepreneurs. I think its safe to say that this statement applies to 99% of angel investors and angel groups. It’s a scary place out there for entrepreneurs, especially when you’re being taken advantage of by wolves in sheeps clothing – and there are a lot of wolves and no shortage of sheepskin. The key, as with so many other things in life, is to sift through the bullshit, the noise, and use your instincts and intuition. That’s not easy, because all the signals can be confusing. In addition to using your basic human intuition is associating with the right people, good people, people who from the start do not want to take advantage of you, and people who are genuinely interested in helping you move to the next checkpoint. CitySquares was fortunate enough, after learning some of these lessons, to meet these of people. These folks guided us in the right direction, brought us into the right meetings, made the right introductions. And they didn’t do any of this for a fee.

My advice? Do your homework. Find out if the angel groups have had success, and if there’s a genuine interest in your kind of business or industry. Find out if they’re the right profile of investor you’re looking for. If not, then move on – don’t waste your time or money. Another piece of advice is to find a back door into an Angel group. Don’t follow the same protocol as every other company. Find a way inside the angel group through a connection – perhaps one of the angels in the group is active in your industry!

I think Jason Calacanis is doing a great thing by calling some of these groups out, because some charge a very unfair amount, and some of them have developed reputations for being egregious in these regards, and for wasting entrepreneurs time and doing little to nothing for the entrepreneurial scene. And Jason has a great platform to do this. These Angels and/or Angel groups definitely have a knack for ruining it for the others, and spoiling the bunch. That’s a damn shame.

Angels are fantastic resources beyond their financial capital. They’re intellectual capital is often priceless. They contribute a lot to the economy, providing financial capital for hiring people, for creating industries, and much more. Don’t let the bad ones spoil what can and should be a wonderful entrepreneurial experience for you and for the world.

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Decisions, Decisions

iStock_000006048082SmallAh, decisions decisions. They never end in life, unless you just decide to spend your life as a lump on a log. But even then you still have to make decisions, starting with “I’m going to be a lump on a log.” If, however, you’ve chosen a life beyond lumping on a log, your life is full of decisions. Every day we’re faced with them:

Should I get out of bed?
Should I eat?
Should I wear the wrinkled shirt?
Should I get gas?

Those are routine daily decisions that we all have to make, and there’s nothing  exciting or risky about them – we all make them. We’re not paralyzed by them, unless we suffer from a disorder, as some do.

There are other decisions that are far more important, that we don’t face every day, decisions that affect our lives and the lives of those around us. Decisions like…

Should I marry her?
Should I have children?
Should I buy this house?
Should I get that operation?
Should my child get that operation?

People who are in business for themselves, whether they’re a self-employed contractor doing roof work around town, or an MIT scientist who discovers a new  vaccine, face a whole different set of decisions. These entrepreneurs make a huge decision once they decide to go into business. Some decisions entrepreneurs face…

Should I start my own business?
How do I get my first customer?
Can I afford to pay a staff?
Can I afford to pay myself?
Do I really have a business here?
Can I make money?
Should I raise money?
Should I incorporate?
Should I trade equity for money?
How much control do I give up?
Should I keep doing this?
Should I fire this person?
Should we expand the business?
Can I keep doing this?

The list goes on and on. These decisions have a way of putting an abnormal amount of stress on an entrepreneur because they’re piled on top of the routine/daily decisions, the big life changing decisions, and yet at the same time an entrepreneurs decisions affect herself, her spouse, her children, her family, her social life, her employees, her partners, her customers, her investors, shareholders, board members, etc. There are more people who have a stake in an entrepreneur’s decisions than one might first realize. It’s facing those decisions every day that partly define an entrepreneur. Some are good at these decisions, some aren’t. Some can make these decisions with little help, others need lots of help.

The hardest decisions I’ve faced as an entrepreneur have been the ones that affect individual people – like having to lay someone off, or fire them. There is just no way around it – it hurts the entrepreneur, the employee, and those around the employee.

Recently I faced another hard decision. This one pertained the direction of my company and pertaining those who were at the helm with me. You might say that I was at a point where I felt like my number of options were becoming more and more limited. And for an entrepreneur like me, who’s a fast decision maker after a quick risk/reward assessment, there’s nothing worse than being out of options.

Over the last few months I’ve had to face a reality that was hard to come to terms with – that the company that I’ve built with Bob over the last four years, that I’ve put so much of myself into, was slipping from my grip. I was not pleased with the direction it was going and my vision for the company was moving towards my periphery instead of where it had always been – straight in front of me. Something had to change, and some decisions needed to be made. Others agreed.

Ah, decisions decisions. They can halt you in your tracks. Some people can go their whole lives regretting one decision, and it becomes something of a curse. I knew I was at one of these splits in the road but I couldn’t be hasty. This decision required a lot of thought, and it required a lot of smaller decisions along the way, like playing a game of chess or poker.

A couple of weeks ago, the decision was made and almost immediate effect at many levels. And at the risk of being secretive, but in light of the fact that this decision was a sensitive one, I’m unable to explain what the decision actually was. It’d be inappropriate of me. Also, not knowing the ultimate outcome yet, it’d be reckless. But what it pertains is the very course that CitySquares takes in the near future and long term future. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving. It’s the difference between growth and prosperity or slowly suffocating. It’s about change. And change starts at the top.

Sometimes you don’t know if your decision was the right one for quite a while, and sometimes you know instantly. Sometimes you can go back and change your decision, other times they’re finite. This one was finite.

I learned something during this process, and it was something that I knew but hearing it from one of my investors, hearing him articulate it, and having him look straight into my eyes while saying it, really drove it home. What I learned was this: I am the founder of this company. While I have shareholders and a board of directors, it’s me and my vision that the investors bought into. It’s my passion, my knowledge of the space, my guts and gusto, my vision that got us this far. And if I believe in myself at least as much as my investors believe in me, then I must have an equal amount of conviction and gusto when presented with decisions that do not align with my vision and strategy of the business.

At the end of the day, when I have to rest my head on my pillow, I have to be able to say “I made the right decisions today.” Not making the right decisions, and not making them in timely manner, is the difference between sleeping well and not sleeping well – the difference between doing right by my own Self, doing right by those that trust me (from investors and shareholders to staff and customers) and one day living with regret.

I’m extremely pleased with my decision so far, and I’m proud that I turned this corner as an entrepreneur. Time will tell if they were the right decisions, but I refuse to be a lump on log and let others make them for me.

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