Key tech conferences like the upcoming Web Summit in Portugal can gather thousands of industry players in one place. Such events are often essential to find partners and grow your business.
But they can only be essential if you prepare for them the right way. Otherwise, it will be just a noisy gathering that will make you tired and irritated that you spend your money on tickets and an overpriced hotel with bad coffee.
Having visited plenty of conferences, I've drawn up my own rules for making the most of any event.
Set your goals, prepare for networking
Start preparation with a question, "What do I want to achieve at this conference?"
Generally, startup founders attend such events to find investors or new clients; investors go there to find startups and meet fellow VCs. Knowing your ultimate goal will help you understand whom you need to talk to.
Nowadays, each conference has its own app for matchmaking. So your first step would be to install it, sign in and fill out your user profile.
Then, find other attendees in the app, google them, and skim through their LinkedIn pages before you set up meetings with the people you are interested in. It would be best if you did that several days before the conference to have a higher chance of booking someone.
As long as it's about the people who can help you achieve your goals, it's OK to be ambitious with the number of meetings you schedule. Remember that not all of them will actually happen: you may not find each other or your plans will change.
In my view, a good practice is having 10 meetings per day. My maximum is 20, but that was exhausting — eventually, I lost my voice and couldn't talk for some time.
If a meeting is canceled or was missed for some reason, I write to the person via the conference app or on social media. "Hi! We scheduled a meeting in the app to discuss your startup but couldn't find each other. I was wondering if maybe we can meet tomorrow or schedule a call after the event?"
Afterparties can be another place to catch up with someone, but it's not a good idea to talk business at parties. So just say, "It's already late for the conversation I wanted to have. What do you think if we schedule a video call or talk later in person?"
You can skip panel discussions, parties
I listen to a speech or a discussion panel only if it's relevant to my goals and I believe I can learn something valuable from it. I might also want to attend a startup competition and listen to their pitches. The rest of my time at the venue is about networking because — let's be honest — one can learn anything from YouTube, Tech blogs and Twitter nowadays.
I try to attend gatherings, including parties, only if there's a chance I will meet startup founders and other investors. My rule in this regard: don't go to a party if you don't know how it can be useful for you.
Rehearse your introduction
Everyone feels a bit uneasy when meeting someone new. It's helpful to have a bit of a cheat sheet with phrases and topics you can discuss to break the ice. Talking about the weather or the conference itself only sounds lame — but it's a good technique.
And then, of course, your elevator pitch, a 1-minute speech that will help you introduce yourself, your company, and your goal to the people you meet for the first time.
During any conversation, take notes in an app or notepad. Otherwise, it will be difficult to remember what you promised and whom you wanted to talk to after the event. Notes also help write follow-ups.
I usually write down general info: the person’s name and company, what we talked about, contact details and what we promised each other. But it's okay even if it's just a note saying, "A funny guy with a beard from startup X"—there's a higher chance you'll remember parts of the conversation and follow up properly.
A good idea is to follow people on LinkedIn or Twitter right away.
The most important detail about this part is that you shouldn't approach people just because you think it's cool to meet them—you need to have a question or an offer and be curious about how you can work together in the future.
What to wear to a conference
Regarding my looks, I have three rules.
Rule No. 1: Wear something comfortable for walking and talking the whole day. High heels or a tight costume may not be a good idea for a busy day. Conference attendees usually wear trainers, jeans, shirts or T-shirts, and rucksacks. And it's fine.
Rule No. 2: If you can pull it off, wear something flamboyant—a red dress or a cool hat. Once I met a guy who wore a unicorn hat, and I remembered him because of that.
Rule No. 3: Feeling good and looking healthy, perhaps, is an even more important detail about your look. That's why don't skip breakfasts — being busy, you may forget to have lunch and end up with shaky hands and hungry thoughts be the end of the day. Sleep as much as you need to be fresh in the morning. It's better to come to a conference an hour later but to have a clearer head.
What's considered success
For startup founders, success is the number of investors they talked to (in case, of course, they went to a conference to look for investment money). It can also be about acquiring new clients.
For investors, it's the number of startups. It's a good indicator if, after a three-day conference, you have 5-10 startups you'd like to talk to in detail. I'd say 10 new startup contacts mean an investor can eventually talk business with 1-2 of them.
Don't count on immediate results. Nothing extraordinary will happen to you just because you went to a conference. Such things happen only in movies. But done the right way, attending a conference can help build up your network and impress potential partners, which is always helpful to bring your business to the next level.