Unfortunately I am not able to attend SXSW this year—and I’ll miss the networking opportunities there. When approached correctly, these events allow me to do three weeks of work in just a few hours.
Let me explain that with a recent example. Last week I participated in the annual technology and investor conference hosted by Santa Monica venture capital firm Upfront Ventures. Due to other obligations, I was only able to attend for four hours, but in that time, I participated in a fireside chat with Upfront partner Mark Suster, spoke with a number of interesting venture capitalists, many of whom I already knew but rarely see, like Dave Hornick of August Capital, Omar Hamoui of Sequoia, and David Lee of SV Angel. I also had the opportunity to meet other VCs for the first time and learn about new funding opportunities. And, I had a chance to collaborate with my WIN team (something we had not done in person for a week because of travel schedules). It would have taken me three weeks to schedule all of this and I’m not sure if the results would have been the same had they not happened serendipitously.
At our own annual conference, we find the same time-saving phenomenon happen when we all have the opportunity to network offsite. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to make my time at events most productive:
Think carefully about who attends. You need to make sure you have the right mix of people. Don’t make the invite list too big—it should not be a cast of thousands, but an intimate event of the right caliber of people.
Build in informal time for interaction. Leave room for serendipity. Events that are hosted somewhere other than the office or conference center are a great way to get people more invested and present at your event. The most meaningful encounters happen when people are at an event for a dedicated period of time, not just popping in for one topic that interests them. That’s because relationships are not built during formal programming, but rather when people have an opportunity to create the conversation in a comfortable atmosphere. (At Upfront, most of my best “meetings” took place around the food trucks that served lunch.) Make sure there are spots for mingling so attendees are not all running back to their hotel room to hide (or email).
Make sure people want to come back. That means ensuring that every attendee leaves with more than he or she expected. Build a roster of impactful content and give attendees opportunities to have fun (I find contests help with this). You want to make them feel the event was worth their time, travel cost and time away from family.
As the host, aim to see that every attendee walks away believing that he or she gained far more insights and contacts with eventual business impact than the costs incurred.
Don’t do it all. There is only so much time we all have. Decide which events make sense. Similarly do not go to every session at each event. At Dreamforce, saleforce.com’s annual user conference, I always go to the keynotes and leave the rest of my schedule open for things that I schedule, or serendipity.
Plan some meetings in advance. People have busy schedules, especially with the compressed time of an event. Get an attendee list and put meetings on the calendar before you go to the event so you won’t miss the opportunity to see each other.
Have fun, but measure results. Events are not just about partying, though that does seem to define some of them. Make sure you keep what matters at the top of your mind: new insights and new connections. I make sure that attending an event will enable me to make at least twice the impact I would have had if I stayed in the office, and I define what that looks like (meeting three new company founders, two new VCs, three affiliates or three portfolio companies). Define what a successful event looks like for you in advance—and then chase your goals while there.