Building a company from scratch is is an adventure like no other.
Many wanna-preneurs get attracted to lifestyle of a startup founder, only to find out that it is very different to that of a rockstar. Hundred hour work weeks of building something from nothing. Never-ending search for the best product market fit.
Countless investor meetings with plenty of negative outcomes. The startup journey is hard, very hard. Meeting those who can help to make it easier is even harder. Being accepted to startup accelerators like Y Combinator or Techstars is harder than getting accepted to Harvard or Stanford.
The Startup Product
Once a startup has a product that is presentable, many founders decide to hit the road. They go hunting. For customers, for investors, for new team members. They go on Product Hunt, others create a crowd funding campaign.
The obvious place to start for most are industry conferences. Like most of you I attended a bunch of conferences. First as attendee, later as moderator or as a speaker. Now I better understand why many founders find it so hard to build a successful company.
They make it unnecessarily hard for themselves. If you want to be like them, here's what you should do.
Who has time to practice pitch? You can always improvise!
You know your startup well, there is no need to prepare. You are busy enough as is. No one knows your company better than you. You can scramble a few sentences about your company on the spot, can't you? Besides, every person is different and needs to hear different aspects of your pitch.
So why prepare? Every conversation is different and you should be spontaneous, right? There is no need to waste time preparing a pitch. Nobody can explain better what your company does.
Challenge yourself to create your perfect pitch.
Think long and hard. Rehearse it. First alone in front of a mirror, later present your pitch to friends or colleagues. Watch their reactions and focus on elements that get their attention. Leave out boring parts. Write down what's not clear and keep simplifying the pitch until people get it immediately. Distill it to the shortest possible form.
Select the cheapest, ideally a free conference.
The conference industry offers a wide variety of choice. There are conferences for everyone. Massive conferences like the Web Summit in Lisbon, Viva Conference in Paris or smaller conferences organized usually by media outlets like TechCrunch, Wired or WSJ. Most of these are paid conferences.
But why pay for expensive tickets, when there are trade shows or sponsored industry events? Those are usually free. They are build to attract big audiences so you can meet way more people. Sponsors cover the cost of such events, so you get free coffee and food.
If you want to attend a free conference, don't expect high quality crowd like you would at paid conferences.
Free means anyone can attend. And you probably don't want to meet everyone, or just anyone. You want to meet people who can help you get your business to the next level.
You want to meet great potential partners or mentors. Focusing on attending a fewer quality conferences where you can meet great potential business partners gets you farther and cost you less time.
Look for alternative ways to attend
Every conference does more or less the same thing. They invite a bunch of speakers, ask sponsors to showcase their products and when it finishes in the evenings they have business networking parties. It is usually full or corporate managers anyway.
Conference tickets are not cheap and you need to add other significant costs like flight, hotel and food. It pays to look for alternative ways to attend. Most conferences offer free live-streaming anyway. Or you can watch your favorite keynote speaker on YouTube for free.
When it comes to conference networking, there are alternatives to that too. Simply find out, who will attend a conference and approach that person. You don't need to go to a conference for that.
Conferences exist for a reason.
Yes, you can watch your favorite speaker on YouTube, but you won't meet him there in person. You can at a conference. Yes, you can approach people via email or phone.
But meeting them at a conference, when they are approachable and ready to listen is a special moment. It can last, if you prepare and follow-up. But most importantly, you can meet a lot of people you are keen to meet in a short amount of time.
Ignore networking basics. Who cares about names?
We all know how hard it is to remember names.
Nobody can remember names of dozens of people you meet at a conference. Why bother? It is generally accepted that you will forget name of the person you just met five seconds after they told you their name. It is not a big deal. Just focus on the conversation and just to be safe, ask for their business card.
Remember people's names. It only takes a few seconds!
When you meet somebody new and they will say their name, stop! In your mind. Take a second and think of a person with the same name. It can be someone you know or someone who is a celebrity.
Now imagine the person you just met standing next to the person you know that has the same name. Take a mental picture of both of them together. Chances are you will remember their name for a very long time.
There is another cute trick you can use to remember names. After they tell you their name, mention it in your conversation several times. You can start right in your first sentence after they introduce themselves: "Hi Brenda. It's very nice to meet you, Brenda."
According to research, as long as it seems natural, mentioning people's names makes them feel more comfortable. It will not only enable you to remember their names, but people will enjoy talking to you more.
Keep conversations short, meet as many people as possible
When you come to a conference, make the most of it.
Meet as many people as you can. Give away your business cards, catalogues and promotional leaflets. Time is of essence. There is no need to go into deep conversations. The more people you meet the better. They don't need to remember you as long as they have your business card and catalogue. They can send you an email later.
Make your conversations memorable.
They don't necessarily need to be long. Make it a conversation, not a presentation. Most conversations are interesting, but only one way. The other party often finds it boring. People often hear, but don't really listen.
If you pay attention, you should be able to say if the other party enjoys the conversation. If they do, their eyes are lit up, they lean forward, look at you (don't look around) and seem very engaged. if that is not your case, remind yourself to make it more engaging.
Make it interesting by asking interesting question/s. Think about the topics that you're interested in and prepare 2-3 interesting questions. Then memorize them. If a conversation is getting boring, pull out one of those questions from your hat. It works wonders.
Example? I meet a lot of CEOs of fast growing tech companies. This question works every time: "What is your biggest challenge right now?"
There are many ways to waste the conference season. They most reliable method is to avoid them. You will save yourself valuable time and money. And you will be protected from business opportunities. Who needs those, right?
Choose carefully which conference to attend.
There are many. Not every one is for you. If you are an entrepreneur looking to build your company and take it to the next level, I recommend attending one of our conferences.
We put our hearts and souls into them. But you can just as well attend other great conferences like TechCrunch Disrupt, Web Summit or Slush. They are all worth attending.
But of course, ours are a tiny bit more special. Don't take my word for it, ask someone who already attended.
Good luck discovering new business opportunities. You deserve them.