How to Confidently Network at a Startup Conference
Fundraising — 8 min read
Networking is a critical skill for startup founders — you need to know how to network well in order to make the long term connections that will help your business grow and flourish.
Networking is such a crucial skill partly because it’s so versatile. You can leverage your networking abilities to open doors to new sources of capital, locate new talent to add to your team, spread awareness of your brand to potential early adopters, and much more. Whether it’s an interested investor, a fellow startup founder, a prospective customer, a potential business partner, or some other worthwhile contact, each new connection you add to your network can serve as a valuable asset to your business’s growth journey.
Where to Network for Startups
Most of the time, the best places to find networking opportunities are professional conferences and networking events in your industry. Networking events come in all shapes and sizes; they typically include speakers who provide expertise and lead discussions on relevant industry topics, as well as activities designed to give attendees the chance to meet and collaborate with one another. Many of these events are created specifically for startups.
How to Network for Startups
Networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and that’s okay. However, it is a very important skill to develop. As a startup founder, you can expect to wear many different hats during your business’s early days, so you’ll almost certainly find yourself doing some networking at one point or another even if you don’t consider it your strong suit.
Your first few networking events may feel awkward, and you will likely make some mistakes or walk away from some conferences feeling like you didn’t accomplish much. However, as with any skill, you’ll find yourself getting better with practice. Here are seven tips to help you overcome your imposter syndrome and become a networking pro in practically no time at all.
1. Go to the right events.
The first step to confident networking is simply knowing which events to attend. There are likely so many networking events in your industry that it would be impossible to attend all of them. You’ll need to narrow down the ones that hold the greatest strategic value for your current startup goals.
Here are a few of the best ways to locate startup networking opportunities:
Talk to people you already know.
Odds are, you already have a few colleagues or like-minded friends who you can reach out to. Any of these people might be able to recommend an upcoming event they’ve heard about.
Use social media.
Social media can help you stay connected to resources in your industry. For example, following prominent people or organizations in your field can ensure you don’t miss the announcement whenever they host or promote an event.
Join networking platforms.
Aside from social networking sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, there are also networking platforms like Meetup that make it easy to organize conferences and group events of various kinds, whether online or in-person.
2. Research the people you want to connect with ahead of time.
Networking events are great for mingling and meeting new people, but it’s also worth identifying a few key people ahead of time. By researching these key players before the conference, you can come prepared to make a good impression and hopefully establish a lasting relationship. Even better, reach out to them shortly before the event date and set up a specific time during or after the event to meet with them.
3. Pay attention to the way you dress.
This one is easy, but it’s also easily overlooked! Different conferences have different dress codes, so it’s very important to find out what the expected attire is ahead of time. You can increase your self-confidence and make yourself seem more approachable simply by showing up to the conference well-dressed and well-groomed.
4. Hone your conversational skills.
Try to avoid hovering around people or groups you want to talk to — approach them confidently and simply strike up a conversation. That’s the whole point of networking events, so don’t be shy. If making conversation with strangers isn’t a skill you’re very comfortable with yet, that’s understandable. Networking events can be intimidating, but there’s a lot you can do to improve. Here are a few things to remember when approaching people at networking events:
Craft meaningful conversations.
Small talk is fine for casual introductions, but at professional networking events, you should make better use of the time you have with people. Rather than blending in with the whirlwind of new faces, strive to create engaging and memorable interactions. An easy way to launch a meaningful conversation is to bring up something you liked about one of the related talks or activities at the event or ask the other person which one they found the most interesting.
Approach each conversation with an objective.
Networking conferences are often fast-paced affairs, so it’s essential to have a clear goal in mind going into each conversation. Maybe you’re approaching a group conversation with the simple goal of breaking the ice and kicking off a few new relationships. Maybe you’ve already done some research on a particular business, investor, or potential client and you have a specific pitch ready for them. Whatever the case, the last thing you want to do is arrive at the event with no clear idea of what you hope to accomplish.
Consider the setting.
Always be aware of how much of the other person’s time and attention is appropriate to ask for in your current situation. For example, if you’re sitting down for a pre-planned coffee in between activities, you’ll have more time to chat and arrive at your point gradually. If you’ve snagged just a moment of their time on a crowded conference floor, you might need to use your elevator pitch instead.
5. Talk to many people, but focus on a few.
Start off by talking to as many people as you can.This is especially true if you're a new startup founder with few connections so far. You never know where a useful partnership is going to come from. Try to join in as many conversations as you can and expose yourself to a wide range of people and circles.
While it’s good to create as much exposure for yourself as possible, it shouldn’t come at the expense of productivity. In other words, don't spread yourself so thin trying to meet everyone that you don’t have enough time to make an impression on anyone in particular.
Once you’ve met a variety of your fellow conference attendees, you’ll probably start to get an idea of which partnerships would be the most valuable to your organization; you can then focus your efforts on nurturing those relationships further. You may have also planned ahead and chosen a few key individuals to prioritize.
6. Always keep your next step in mind.
Engaging in productive conversations during the event is one thing, but there always needs to be follow-up. Make sure you get business cards from everyone you talk to, and have your own business cards ready to hand out. You’ll probably also want to keep your phone or a notebook handy so you can take down any other important notes you want to remember from your conversations. You should also add people you meet at the conference on social media afterwards to ensure you stay in touch.
Most importantly, don’t just make an introduction, collect a business card, and leave it at that. If you make a connection with someone who could benefit your business, set up a call or a meeting in the near future — or better yet, ask them what they’re doing later and see if they can grab a drink or a meal with you to continue your conversation in more detail. Some of the most productive interactions at networking events happen outside of the actual conference location.
In any case, keeping the momentum going after the initial introduction is a key step in the relationship-building process.
7. Know what your startup has to offer.
Remember that your fellow conference attendees are all there for the same purposes as you — to make beneficial connections with other business leaders. With this in mind, networking is very similar to marketing. It’s not just about connecting with people who can help advance your company, but about identifying mutually beneficial relationships.
Whether you’re approaching a potential investor, customer, or business partner, you’ll need to bring something to the table as well. Be prepared to “sell” your company to your fellow attendees in order to convince them why you're a valuable investment or business partner.
Virtual events and remote attendance are becoming more and more commonplace in the business world. However, networking at virtual conferences is quite a bit different than networking at in-person events.
Often, virtual conferences are more about learning from the various speakers and sessions and less about the networking activities, since online events do not facilitate mingling and conversing as comfortably as in-person environments do. If your primary interest is in the networking aspect of the conference, you may be better off skipping the virtual events and focusing on in-person conferences.
That being said, technology is beginning to catch up with online networking needs. Social media and collaborative communication tools are making it easier and easier to replicate the feel of networking at in-person events.
Networking Advice From Trusted Mentors
Networking is a difficult skill to master. Sometimes, all you need is some one-on-one guidance from a mentor who has firsthand experience networking at startup events. Through Mentorcam, you can get in touch with a mentor today and receive guidance on which networking events you should be attending, tailored feedback about your networking strategy, advice for conducting better research before conferences, and much more.