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For the young entrepreneur, conferences represent a wealth of opportunity to drive sales, forge partnerships, court investors and recruit talent. Sadly, I’ve found that most entrepreneurs waste these events. They simply don’t have a framework for how to optimize two days jammed into an Orlando conference center. I ran 3 separate companies during my start-up days and now my firm advises 15 companies (proud examples include: @bloom_life, @DashRobotics, @XeevaSoftware, @streamloan1, @gomemeni, @TrueAnthem, and @10xmgmt). I’ve seen what works and what does not and have spent time chatting with various veterans to compile the best advice I could find (special thanks to @laels and @ajhoag for your input).
How to do conferences right…
— Chief Story Officer is a real thing. For anyone attending a conference, you better have a 60 second, clean and compelling narrative. Why your company exists and what it does. If you’re new to this, I recommend watching Simon Sinek’s TED Talk. Conferences are marked by a hundred brief collisions. Often, you’ll have just a moment to engage, ask a question or two and share your story. The story better be memorable; so practice!
— I know conferences feel like necessary but unquantifiable events where the hope is to just meet relevant people. That’s just lazy. Establish targets! Meet 20 people per day? Get the business cards of certain notable attendees? Close 1 new deal?
— Of course you can sponsor the event but there are less expensive yet useful tactics. Stalk notable folks on social media to determine attendees. Post publicly that your company will be present. Look at the agenda and contact speakers and panelists. Do the homework so you can identify and arrange relevant meetings in ADVANCE of the conference. If you put in the effort you might even learn of un-posted events, which leads us to…
— Be social, go to parties, cocktail hours, dinners, after parties, etc. The more homework you do in advance of the conference, the more you’ll uncover what is occurring after the last speaker exits the stage each day. Get some rest between the conference schedule and in the evening, shower, change, bring business cards, be prepared to buy people some drinks, and present your best first date self. Focus your energy on 1) listening versus talking and 2) how you can provide value. Don’t just try and sell; find a way to be useful.
— There is always someone who drinks or plays a bit too much and fails to show up the next morning. We all know that guy (or woman). No one wants to work with that guy, and no one really respects that guy. Don’t be that guy. Stay out, moderate your intake, make sure you get at least 5–6 hours of sleep at a minimum, and show up the following morning as fresh as the prior.*
— By the end of the conference, you’re going to have a lot of business cards; take the time at the end of each day (perhaps during the break before the evening activities commence) to take 30 seconds of notes per card. What did you discuss? What does the person care most about right now? Are they looking for work? A new solution? Capture any personal details that might help solidify the new connection.
— Review the cards and the notes and immediately (perhaps even on the flight home) start sending emails to set up phone calls, coffee dates, lunches, etc. Increasingly, entrepreneurs connect via LinkedIn and consider that sufficient follow-up. That’s worthless. Only real conversations (not email, not social media) establish the start of a relationship. If you had a drink with someone at the conference at 1:00 am and there is some (even loose) thread between your start-up’s vision and the contact’s background, follow up! Even a week later is way too slow. (one disclaimer: if the conference is over a weekend, then perhaps wait until Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning to follow up; this lets people catch up after the time away)
— At the end of each conference day, grab your people for 15 minutes and ask, “What went well, what went badly, what might we do better next time?” None of you will remember the following morning, let alone a week later. Conferences are big investments; take the time to document how to improve.
“I also recommend showing up at the airport looking reasonable, if not professional; you never know who you might collide with at the gate or sit next to on the flight.”