7 Ways to Get the Most Out of Conferences
Attending conferences, trade shows, and events can feel very productive, but this feeling can be deceptive. I launched SaveOhno.org a year ago, and it has led me to more networking events than I can remember. I’ve come to the realization that there is a strategy for how to make the most of these opportunities, so here are my top 7 ways to create serious value at conferences as a student-entrepreneur:
1. Select relevant, popular events
As your startup gains traction, you’ll be invited to more and more events. It’s up to you to qualify them and choose the best ones to fit in your schedule. The best way to do this is to identify the ones that are both relevant and popular. You want to shake hands with a lot of people, and you want those people to already be in the same industry as you and to care about the vision you’re chasing.
This past summer, I attended The Climate Reality Project’s conference in Canada and gained more value than I could have ever gained at a small event from meetup.com. With a sponsorship from Babson, I was able to be with 650 relevant people for 2 days, get certified by Al Gore as a climate change leader and credible presenter, and gain 2 hours of presentation material. Not only did I network with hundreds of people and gain tangible value-adds, I am now in the Climate Reality network of 8000 people. It’s up to you to find events like these, figure out a way to finance them, and then get the most out of them with the tips below!
2. Don’t just attend, get a booth
There is a huge advantage to being a featured company with a table set up. I’ve been on both sides of the booth, and I recognize an implied order of things: the person behind the table is going to tell you about their awesome company, and you’re going to listen. Maybe you’ll be able to follow up with some info about yours, but only if there aren’t other people waiting to hear from the person you’re talking to. I’ve made incredible connections from having tables set up at networking events – far more than any I’ve just attended. It’s also not that hard to get! Just reach out to the event organizers and ask if they have any open booths.
In some cases, this may even get you a free or reduced admissions price. Web Summit, one of the biggest tech conferences in the world, was once a conference I could never afford to attend. By becoming a featured startup and getting the help of Babson College, SaveOhno will be 1 of 25 startups in the world to have a booth at this event, which hosts over 30,000 people paying thousands of dollars to find the next big things in tech. It’s an incredible opportunity, but it only came about because I shifted my mindset from a conference ‘consumer’ to ‘producer’.
3. Don’t even just get a booth, get a speaking opportunity
If you’re really good, you might even get the chance to be a speaker at the event. There is tremendous value in having the entire conference’s attention for even 5 minutes, and then having a table set up afterwards. At Babson’s Summer Venture Showcase, I had the opportunity to pitch my business to a crowd of over 200 people and then host a booth for people to come and talk with me during networking hours. Visitors were effectively pre-qualified – they weren’t just coming up to learn about SaveOhno, they already knew. People were coming up because they were relevant to my startup and had value to offer.
Check out my showcase pitch here!
4. Target individuals beforehand
Some of the best advice I’ve received was from Jeff Schiebe of Babson’s Summer Venture Program. He told me to find out who the speakers are and do some research before going to the event. Then, and this is key, he advised me to approach them before they speak, because everyone tries to get their attention after. You stand out when you already know who they are before they’ve even given their pitch.
5. Don’t feel obligated to stay in dead end conversations
A lot of people attend networking events. Few are both relevant and valuable for you. You’re single goal as an attendee is to find those people and get their contact information, but to do that, you’re going to need to get in and out of conversations quickly. So don’t feel obligated to stay in long, dead end conversations.
6. Exchange contact info; don’t just give yours
When you do meet the right people, make sure you get their contact information. It’s easy to give out your business card and wait for their email, but people you just met can be unreliable. Get their info and follow up with them.
7. Create real next steps; not just “let’s get in touch”
Once you do get their card, create a quick, actionable next step. Don’t just leave it at “let’s talk”, get a tentative meeting about a specific topic: “Thanks for the card, what’s your availability like next week? It’d be great to meet for 30 minutes and talk about X. Y, and Z”. Write this action item down on the back of their card and follow up with them after the event. Now this person will remember who you are when they receive the email and understand the nature of the meeting you’re looking to get scheduled.
A lot of these tips might not be relevant if you’re just starting out, but do the best you can with them until they are relevant and you’ll be gaining traction in no time. Find events, go to them, and make the most of the doors they open