Across three startups in the last 15 years of my life, I’ve experienced the value of building a network and the long-term relationships that go along with it.
Not only has my professional network helped me to build my current business; keeping in touch and maintaining contacts has become my business.
And in all my years of strategic networking, I can say confidently that the most valuable place to network is at those “official” industry events. Yes, they seem a little incestuous and, in this day and age, appear to fly in the face of the “disruptive experimentation” that arises from people in completely different industries getting together for a chat. But really, truly, whether you’re recruiting, looking for opportunities, in need of strategic connection, or just trying to move deeper into the universe of your industry, these events are invaluable.
That said, these aren’t the kinds of events you show up to casually. If, for example, you imagine you’ll have a few drinks, head over to the event to pick up a few business cards, and head home, you’ll be sorely disappointed. To get the most from these events, there’s quite a bit of front-loaded strategizing and after-the-fact upkeep. Think long-term goals, a slow burn, and you’ll approach these events with a much more productive attitude.
The key to succeeding at these events is your mindset. Come prepared, ready to help (think: “pay it forward”), and you’re a lot more likely to get real value, to make lifelong connections with people who’ll help you succeed (and vice versa).
Here are some small steps to ensure you are making the most of a networking event:
Identify your goals: Know why you’re going to this event. Is this relevant to your business? Do you want a new job? A strategic partner? An investor? Answering this question is key to your preparation as it helps identify if there’s actually a need to attend the event, who you should meet, and how you should talk with them.
Know who’s coming and reach out: The great part about events like this is that it’s pretty easy to know who’ll be there. Because valuable networking is about real connection, it’s important to select 10 people you’d really like to meet, and reach out before the event. Typically, four or five of them will respond to your outreach, and you can personalize your conversation/talking points appropriately. Because you should speak to each for 15-20 minutes, it’s important to have something valuable to say.
Define your value: Key to networking is reciprocity, and knowing what you can offer potential connections from the get-go sets you up for success. If you show up to one of these events begging for a job, for funding, for a business partner, you’re doomed. Instead, after chatting a bit with your connection, it’s important to offer them something, to do them the first favor. This makes it much more likely that, when you need them, they’ll be there.
Pack your phone accordingly: Because you’ll want to maximize your talk-time with each connection, having a simple, accurate business card scanner will help keep you efficient and organized while ensuring the new connections you make are protected and will stay with you forever.
Take your time and pay attention: Networking is not a relay race; each person you meet deserves the entirety of your attention. Engaging someone beyond talk of children, sports, and weather can be difficult but, since you did your homework, know your value, etc., it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to get a meaningful conversation going.
Offer your value: Offer your help to anyone you’re serious about connecting with. In doing so, you communicate that the hypothetical relationship you’re both entering into won’t be one-sided or totally unfulfilling for them. Impressions are key at this stage in your relationship, and this always makes a good one.
Don’t ask for anything: Even though everyone knows that networking is about a mutual exchange of benefits–professionals using their own resources to help each other succeed–we don’t acknowledge it. Instead, we pretend that we’re attending these events because we want to, because meeting new people is definitely fun and not awkward at all. And we expect you to do the same. At the event, we’re just talking.
Follow up (and create a plan to continue): Meeting someone once at a networking event definitely won’t make you two fast friends who’ll go to the ends of the earth for one another. People forget, so be sure that you reach out quickly after an event via email and LinkedIn (referencing the specifics of your conversation) and that you maintain an, at least, twice-yearly schedule of chatting, sharing value, and exchanging favors.
And remember: networking is a journey, a marathon, an investment. No matter how things seem initially, everyone you connect with has something to offer, and can help you in some way at some point in your career (just as you can for them). Keep this in mind as you nurture these relationships over the years and, guaranteed, opportunities will start to present themselves.
Manoj Ramnani is the founder and CEO of CircleBack. With over 15 years of entrepreneurial experience in the information technology space, Manoj’s expertise encompasses everything from developing successful consumer products, enterprise solutions, and mobile applications to starting businesses in the healthcare, e-learning, and federal verticals. Manoj graduated from George Washington University’s business school with a degree in management of information systems.