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Every May to September, my inbox is full of “out-of-office” and “I’ll be slow to respond” emails. The culprit? Vacation, yes, but also conference season! Conferences can be great – you focus all your attention on selling for at least a couple days, you connect with strong and weak ties scattered across the globe as they’re all gathered in one central place, and there’s an opportunity to make a connection with someone you wouldn’t otherwise be in a 100-metre radius with. However, one of the nuances of conferences is that while they can be a valuable work opportunity, they can also just feel like a valuable work opportunity.
Conferences take you out of your business, away from your employees, and into an environment where networking counts as a hard day’s work. How can you maximize your impact at a conference?
Understand why you’re going
There are three general motivations for attending a conference – landing customers, impressing investors, and gaining accolades. Your specific goal will influence what conference you’re attending and who you should be scheduling meetings with.
If you’re targeting customers, you should be at an industry-specific conference. These are not glamorous and they’re not going to be jam-packed with your peers.
Use these events as a way to catch up with already established relationships in one fell swoop with a consistent update.
If you’re connecting with investors, you want a conference that has a great bench of VCs attending and a formal mechanism for facilitating investor/startup pitches – C2 has a parallel session run by VCs (formerly by iNovia, now by Real Ventures) that ensures startups get two days of facetime with investors. Collision has a similar event. Other conferences have investor office hours or VC/startup matchmaking services.
If you’re looking for accolades, you want these to be either industry-specific or from a leading conference. Winning a pitch competition at a broad conference without much credibility isn’t particularly impressive. Winning the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference Pitch Day can carry a lot more weight with your customers as it demonstrates technical expertise and excellence among a competitive pool.
Consider whether you should be making an initial point of contact or deepening your relationships
Conferences are a great time to get in front of people you otherwise wouldn’t have access to, especially when there are formal 1:1s set up. Conferences are increasingly facilitating matchmaking, by opening up their attendee lists in advance and encouraging attendees to reach out. You should absolutely take advantage of this tool. Conferences can also be a great opportunity to get some facetime with a client you’re trying to close or an investor you’ve met in the past.
However, regardless of who you’re meeting with, treat it with the same care you would treat a non-conference meeting. There are lots of stories of great contacts someone made bumping into them in the hallway or at a cocktail. Don’t close yourself off to these connections, but don’t invest all your energy in them either. You wouldn’t walk into a customer’s office to see if they’re free, so you shouldn’t assume if you bump into them at a conference that they have time for a 30-minute demo. Use these random connections as an opportunity to make a great (short) first impression, and then set up a meeting later to go deeper.
Your work is not done after the conference. So you had a great touchpoint with a target you clearly identified in advance. That’s great! They had the same great touchpoint with 50 other people. Treat this lead or progression in the funnel the way you’d treat any other – follow up where you said you would, solidify the relationship by being responsive and accountable, and don’t wait for the next chance meeting to engage!
I can’t count the number of business cards I’m handed at a conference – but it’s a much smaller list who follow up with thoughtful emails to move the relationship forward.
I personally have a love-hate relationship with conferences. For every conference I attend where I make a meaningful connection with a founder or partner I attend a conference that is a total waste of time. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Furthermore, my personal stats may be overly optimistic on the number of positive connections I’ve made versus wasted times.
If I’m deeply cynical for a minute, conferences are an excellent way for institutional investors to boost the number of companies they have reviewed for internal data reporting within a fund’s governance structure, but a terrible way to build connections towards making investments. Not all investors will be attending conferences for this reason, but be on the lookout for time wasters.
If I see you at every conference I attend, I’ll start to wonder when exactly you are in the office taking care of business.
Fundraising is typically a drawn-out affair, and touch point with different investors may differ by weeks, if not months. Of course, you’re not sitting still during those intervening periods. So each investor is getting a slightly different snapshot of your company. This difference will lead to diverse reactions from investors. For example, a VC you spoke to just before a big deal gets signed will have a substantially different picture than the VC you speak to right after.
The difference may feel slight to you since in your gut you’ve known you would sign that deal all along, but from an outsider perspective, the difference can be huge.
As it pertains to fundraising, my advice for founders approaching conference season is to use these events as a way to catch up with already established relationships in one fell swoop with a consistent update. This method establishes a baseline interest per fund. By giving the exact same update to a group of people within a short time frame, you establish a relative benchmark of interest from the various firms you’ve approached. The firm calling you back the next week is far more interested than the firm you have to reach out to three weeks after the conference.
Use this information to your advantage in fundraising and focus on the firms who are actively showing an interest. You can use this same approach when approaching prospective customers at conferences.
At the other end of the fundraising spectrum, conferences are a great way to put a name to a face for venture firms you might consider raising money from in the far future. By approaching fund managers with the “Hi, I’m not raising right now, I just want to meet you,” soft-pitch you can establish a no-pressure relationship in the networking sessions, hallways between sessions, or post a keynote address. The goal here is to just put a name to a face so that you can follow up in a few weeks post conference with a personalized update and perhaps even a value-added introduction. i.e. “I’m not raising, but a friend is and they are on-thesis for your fund, would you like an introduction”?
Lastly, don’t become a conference junkie. If I see you at every conference I attend, I’ll start to wonder when exactly you are in the office taking care of business. Be judicious in which conferences you go to and which ones you skip.
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