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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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!