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Insights for Entrepreneurs

How to Really Network at Conferences and Events

Connecting with people is one of the few things that is important to all industries and businesses, but the word networking makes many of us shiver.

Putting yourself out there, “bragging” about your industry, and shaking hands with tons of people you don’t know can be totally nerve-racking.

However, successful business owners will tell you about how valuable human connections are. And one of the best opportunities you’ll have to network with new people in your industry (or old colleagues!) is at conferences, trade shows, and other events.

Events like these bring together people from across your industry, and they’re all looking to network and make connections, so you should be too.

And you’ve got to be on top of your game! Not only is this the best time to make connections, it’s also the best time to ruin connections because you’ll be seeing all the people in your industry. 

We’ve got a step-by-step guide to making the most out of your time at a conference or event:

Step 1: Choose the Perfect Event

There are so many events for every industry, and it can be difficult to figure out which ones are best suited for you and your business.

First, get specific. To begin with you should go to conferences that are geared towards just what you do. If you are working on a social network app, go to a social network conference, not an iOS conference. 

This will help you make allies in your direct field, and they’ll be valuable in picking and attending larger conferences, and you’ll have more in common to connect over. 

Consider what you want to get out of the event: do you want to meet customers or vendors? Do you want to research the competition, or get investments? Evaluate these goals and do a lot of research to find where you can best meet them.  

Make a list of all the events that you could possibly attend, and then start weening them down. If it involves travel, is it worth it? Consider the ROI like you would with any other business decision. Of course you can’t ever fully anticipate who you’ll meet at an event like this, so there is some risk involved. 

Step 2: Come Prepared

Once you’re there, you’re there. You won’t have your desk or computer with you, and you look like a doofus if you go digging for info in your phone. Don’t get caught without something basic like business cards, sales sheets, or information.  

You’ve gotta mentally prepare too. Know your pitch. Know who you’re talking to– research all the companies that might be there and know a bit about each one for conversation starters. If you can walk up to someone and know that you have a mutual colleague, you already have something to talk about. 

Dress well, but of course gauge the atmosphere of the conference. Even if a t-shirt and jeans are appropriate, make sure you wear the ones without tomato sauce stains!

And, silly but important, consider bringing your own food! Sometimes, nourishment is included, but other times, you’ll be stuck paying convention center prices for terrible chicken fingers. Bring power snacks that are easy to eat on the go. 

Making friends is just as important as making business connections. Go out for drinks, and have fun (but not too much fun, you’ve got that 8 am seminar in the morning!) 

Step 3: Talk to People

When you’re at a conference, the front facing part of business is literally your face, your personality, and how you present yourself. You’ve gotta present yourself well, because in some cases this will be your only chance to make these connections. First impressions are everything. 

Charisma is hugely important. The Harvard Business Review (Rebecca Kantor, a professor at the school) says that charisma is an important part of entrepreneurship because venture capitalists invest in the leader, not the idea.

Don’t forget, the people you’re connecting with are trying to network too, they have their own needs and goals. When you meet someone at a conference or event, they’re not thinking about how they can help you, they’re thinking about how you can help them. You have to prove your value to them, be it as a vendor or new employee, or investment opportunity. 

Make it so that you’re the one people want to network with, and your job will be a whole lot easier. Try to get to the point where you no longer need to worry about making connections, because you are the connection that people are trying to make.

Step 4: Exchange Info and Follow Up

This step is important– ALWAYS follow-up on your connections, even people you don’t particularly feel like you ‘need’ right when you’re done with the show.

You’re really wasting your time if you don’t follow-up on the connections you make. And don’t make silly excuses either: I personally am guilty of the “oh, I’ll wait a week so that I don’t get lost in the flood of OTHER people following up after the show,” and then I just never follow-up.

Be proactive in your follow-ups, but read the situation well. Do not assume people will get in touch with you. A phone call is the most proactive way to get in touch with someone, but isn’t always appropriate. Sending an email and saying it was a pleasure to meet the person, and offering a helping hand, is often all it takes to start a friendship with someone. A LinkedIn friendship is the least you can possibly do, but it’s something, and in some cases the best thing. 

Be sure to remember a few key facts about everyone you meet up with: think about the people who follow-up with you after these things. Find out about a project someone is working on, and mention it in your follow-up.

Consider sending an email as simple as this:

Step 5: Repeat!

Once you’ve made the connections, use them to grow your business. When a project comes up that you want to promote, or you’re the one running an event, or you’re looking for expertise, you have to reach out again and again. Relationships aren’t created from just one interaction, so it’s your job to keep up with your new friends.

Attend the next show in a different capacity: maybe instead of being an attendee you’ll be a speaker or have your own booth. Again, become the person that people want to connect with! 

Your Turn: How do you make connections at events? Have they proved helpful?