Founders are regularly told they need to network like crazy in order to be successful. On the surface, that sounds like going to a bunch of events and meeting a bunch of people. But lots of time can be wasted and opportunities missed if there’s not a strategy associated with the activity. This article explains my personal best practices for networking at an event.
What are you hoping to accomplish by networking? The first answer for most startup founders is some combination of finding prospective investors, customers, business partners and talent (employees). It could also include generating awareness about your startup, learning more about a specific topic from others, or getting to know the local startup scene. Networking can also be valuable for practicing and perfecting your communication skills, or overcoming a natural tendency for introversion.
You don’t want to just randomly network, but rather want to be specific and targeted. At any given point in time, rank the potential purposes based on your greatest need and the impact they could have on your success. The resulting prioritized list will change over time and should affect your strategy and implementation of the best practices that follow.
You’ve probably heard the saying “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. I’m regularly shocked at how many founders just randomly network and when I ask them how it is specifically contributing to their success, I either get a blank look or a random story about a successful interaction.
If the potential purposes that landed towards the top of your prioritized list are important to your success, you should manage your networking activities similarly to other company operations. CEO’s should treat networking as a part of their job description and, therefore, part of their overall performance scorecard.
To help set your goals and associated targets, I recommend working your way backwards from the most valuable accomplishment the networking activities can to contribute to. It’s like a marketing or sales funnel. An example framework is listed below:
- What business result are you hoping to accomplish?
- How many desired (insert desired calls to action) do you need in order to accomplish the business result?
- How many (insert desired targets) should you meet to yield #2?
- How many events should you attend per month to yield #3?
A specific example related to a round of funding would start with the target funding amount, then the number of investor meetings you hope to come from event networking, then to investors met at such events, etc. Here’s how that might look in real terms for achieving a goal of 2 follow-on meetings each month with investors you meet via networking at events:
- 10% success rate from your requests to have a follow-up meeting
- 10 investors met per event
- 2 events per month
Those are measurable objectives. In the beginning, you might not know the right targets to set. No problem, either start with ones that seem logical and adjust as you get real results, or talk to a mentor or an experienced founder to get their opinion. After that, create a simple tracking sheet, much like you would with your marketing campaigns.
It should also be obvious that improving things like your elevator pitch and networking skills to increase the 10% success rate to 20% results in doubling the number of follow-up meetings. The same applies to finding ways to meet 20 investors per event versus 10.
Selecting the Right Events
It’s possible that a given event might include all four of the targets previously mentioned (investors, customers, etc), but usually there’s a concentration of one or two of them.
Using fundraising as an example of the most important thing to you at the moment, you would try to identify the events that investors attend. And to get more specific, investors that match the stage of funding you are pursuing. Series B/C growth stage investors don’t necessarily attend the same events that angel investors do.
The title and abstract of an event usually make it obvious who is likely to attend. If you can’t quite tell, ask the event organizer or others that have been to the event before.
Side Note: If one event type you end up targeting is trade shows or industry conferences, read my article titled “Favorite Trade Show Hacks” for another set of suggests for optimizing your time and money spent.
Working the Crowd
There might be specific people that you know will be at the event, because they’re one of the speakers or sponsors. If you don’t know what they look like, look them up on social media so you can quickly and easily identify them at the event. While doing that, familiarize yourself with their background and possibly their position on certain matters. This will give you ice breaker conversation topics.
If you have trouble securing a first conversation, ask someone from the event organizing staff to point out some people that fit your target category and then ask them to introduce you to one of them.
Part of working the crowd involves keeping an eye on the ideal targets you want to meet. Doing that while maintaining a conversation isn’t easy and should not appear like you aren’t interested in the person you’re currently talking to. But effectively moving from one high-value conversation right to another is a badass ninja networking skill.
If upon finishing one conversation you don’t already have your next target identified, ask the person you’re talking to who else you should meet with and ask them if they’d be willing to introduce you. Being introduced to a high-value target by someone they know is far better than an unsolicited approach.
Keep an eye out for people standing by themselves. It’s not fun standing alone at an event. Take advantage of that by introducing yourself and breaking the ice with them.
If you find yourself as the one standing by yourself and don’t see anyone that you should obviously talk to, look for a group of 3-5 people that seem to be having an interesting or lively conversation. Wander over to them and gradually work your way into their conversation circle. This works best with groups of 3-5 people versus just two people that could be having a more semi-private and specific conversation.
These groups of 3-5 people tend to morph over short periods time, as some peel off or get pulled away by someone. If you determine it’s not an interesting or valuable group for you, it’s easy to peel off yourself without offending anyone. But if you identify someone standing right next to you as an ideal target, address them individually in conversation. In other words, you can be the one to peel someone away from a group conversation. This is also a badass ninja networking skill.
Quantity vs Quality of Conversations
Networking at an event isn’t the same as a party with family and friends. Your purpose is to gain as many valuable connections as possible. If two really long conversations with investors yields a 100% success rate for a follow-up meeting, and your target per event is two such meetings, then congratulations. But it never works that way. Two really long conversations likely means zero follow-up meetings and a ton of wasted time.
The objective in networking is to secure a follow-up meeting with as many interesting and high-quality prospects as possible. You aren’t going to secure an investment, win a new customer, or hire a new employee during the actual event. Instead, your purpose is to identify such prospects, qualify them, and gain a follow-up meeting to continue the pursuit (investors, customers) or exploration (talent, business partners).
Pretty quickly after meeting someone new, you should be able to tell if they fit one of your target prospect categories at all. From there, work things like a decision tree to optimize your total time at the event.
Not a Fit
You want to gain something of value in the least amount of time possible. If your purposes for networking include generating awareness about your startup, learning about the local startup scene, practicing your elevator pitch, or overcoming introversion, do that. If not, try to find the first opportunity to ask them if they happen to know any (insert target prospect type) at the event and, if so, would they be willing to introduce you.
- “It’s really great to meet you Gordon and it sounds like what you’re working on is really interesting. I happen to be looking for seed-stage investors tonight. Do you happen to know any that are here?”
You purpose here is to determine how good of a fit they are. If it turns out they’re not a good fit, then follow the steps described above. If they are a good/great fit, you’ll basically follow something that resembles the initial parts of a sales process, leading up to a call-to-action (described later in this article).
Dealing with Perpetual Talkers
One thing that can prevent you from optimizing your time using the methods described previously is a perpetual talker or socializer. You know the type I’m talking about. Some people just like to talk and socialize. They are the ones that would rather have two very long conversations than meet as many new people as possible. You can’t afford to get stuck in 30-minute conversations with such people.
Breaking away from perpetual talkers/socializers is not easy to do diplomatically. You could say you’ve got to get another drink, but they might follow you to the bar. You could pretend someone is waiving at you to get your attention, but might get busted as a fake. I guess you could say you’ve got to go to the bathroom.
The best method I know is to find a way to ask them if they know any (insert target prospect type) at the event, in hopes of either an introduction or a 3-way conversation. Regardless, you’ll have to develop your own diplomatic ways to get out of these one-on-one conversations.
Your Elevator Pitch
I can’t think of a better use for your killer elevator pitch. If it’s not yet “killer”, networking events are great opportunities to practice, evaluate and refine it. Again, your elevator pitch is critical to successful networking.
If you don’t already have a killer elevator pitch, I strongly encourage you to read my article titled “Your Elevator Pitch Only Needs to Accomplish One Thing”. In it, I describe a framework for a short 2-sentence version of your elevator pitch.
If your very short elevator pitch doesn’t trigger the questions you’d like to be asked or causes the other person to think you’re working on something totally different than you are (these are two concepts explained in my article), you’ve got a problem. Networking time is best optimized when your elevator pitch is so clear and compelling that it quickly triggers a high-value conversation that quickly leads to a follow-up meeting.
It is possible that your short elevator pitch will need to be slightly different based on who you’re talking to. A prospective investor versus prospective customer is a good example, because they care about different things. I find that a 10-20% adjustment to the elevator pitch narrative is usually sufficient to accomplish this. In other words, a tweak rather than a totally different pitch.
Talking vs Listening
Your mission isn’t to say as many things during a conversation so as to increase odds of something being interesting to the other person. Instead, your mission is to say the right things to gain their interest.
The best way to figure out the right things to say is to learn a few things about the person you’re talking to. Which type of prospect are they? What are their business interests? What are they hoping to accomplish by being at the event? Answers to questions like these will best enable you to be surgical with your dialog and eventual call to action.
Below is a high-level summary of what an ideal conversation might look like:
- 10% – introductions
- 30% – other person does most of the talking because they’re answering your guided questions
- 50% – you do most of the talking, directed based on what you learned and the call to action you’ll pursue
- 10% – call to action(s)
Calls to Action (Asks)
At the end of the meeting, you want to ask for something that’s valuable to you, but as simple as possible for the other person to agree to. A very short call or videoconference might be an example. Or maybe an offer to buy them coffee. I like these better than emailing some information, because they involve yet another one-on-one interaction.
To facilitate the above requires that you be able to contact the person after the event. A business card exchange, email/phone number exchange, or social media info exchange are the most typical options.
In addition to the above, don’t forget to ask if the person knows someone else at the event that you should meet as your final request. By this time, they’ll know enough about you and what you’re working on to hopefully make a really valuable intro.
In the true spirit of networking, you should make sure to ask each person you talk to if there are ways you could be helpful to them, either during the event or otherwise. You can decide the best timing for this, but it either comes right before your ask of them, before the business card/phone number exchange, or before you part ways.
Many events that include a networking objective include a bar with alcohol. I don’t want to act like your parent and tell you what to do regarding alcohol consumption. So instead, I’ll just suggest that you determine the right/best amount of alcohol to consume during an event in order to accomplish your stated objectives. The answer could actually be none and surely isn’t an amount sufficient to get royally drunk. Again, you decide.
I hope you found at least a couple of best practices that you either aren’t already doing or could improve on. And if you’re fairly new to the whole process, consider setting a quarterly reminder to re-read this article until you become a natural. In time, you’ll be a badass ninja networker.
P.S. – I generated the featured image for this article using the generative AI tool Midjourney. The prompt I used was “a man and woman in their 40s conducting business at a technology event, technology demonstration, blue jeans, casual attire, people in the background, realistic, futuristic, high detail, interesting lighting, –ar 16:9”