Networking Event Do’s and Don'ts
I personally hate the word ‘entrepreneur’. To me it conjures up images of wannabe rich people just trying to think up ways to create the next fad and make their millions. I’m sick in my mouth a little bit if somebody introduces themselves as an entrepreneur at a networking event but perhaps that’s just me. By definition an entrepreneur is; a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.
Well, as much as I hate the word, I am unfortunately included under the entrepreneur umbrella. Being a business owner comes with risks for sure and I personally don several hats as I know most other freelancers and business owners do. As well as CEO, CMO, OOO, OMG and janitor, I also have to put on the schmoozy socializing hat fairly frequently. I’m talking of course about networking events. These awkward, not-sure-what-to-wear, cringey, name badge parades can often make your skin crawl but are unfortunately very necessary if you wish to build your network and get your name/brand/company out in the world. They come in all shapes and sizes too. Being in the post production audio world I’ve attended nerdy seminars, advertising award shows, film screenings, black tie dinners, cocktail hours, dive bar mixers, lectures, Brooklyn warehouse parties, discussion panels, and generic Meetup.com events at a variety of different venues. Each is just as scary as the next when it comes to networking so here’s my list of networking do’s and don’ts that I’ve curated over the last couple of years through grueling trial and error…
Do: Bring Business Cards
I’ve talked about this briefly in previous blogs about branding. I was in two minds about whether people needed or still used business cards in this digital, wireless, tangible-less world we live in today. After too many occurrences of embarrassingly scrambling for my phone when someone wants to give me their details or even worse, asking them to put in my details in their phone, I decided it was time for business cards. I used Moo and they are beautiful. True conversation starters and I really recommend getting some printed, it will make the difference when a prospective client asks for your details and reduces awkward digit swapping.
Don’t: Be a Stranger
Networking events are notoriously awkward. Nobody knows anyone, hosts make attempts at ice-breakers and you spend the majority of the time trying not to look like a twat stood in the corner alone. Well here’s my tip; don’t stand in the corner alone. I’ve spent many an evening sipping my drink too quickly scrolling back and forth through my apps trying to look like I’m sending important emails when I really should be networking. It’s really hard to just throw yourself in the deep end and start talking to a stranger but you simply have to do it. I’m fairly social generally but I still get extremely nervous talking to new people. There’s no secret to this other than knowing everyone is literally in the same boat and at the very least you have that in common.
Do: Dress Appropriately
This is another topic I’ve discussed before...appropriate fashion. Being appropriate doesn’t necessarily mean you should sport the latest fashion trend, and often it’s hard to tell prior to an event what everyone else will be wearing but do your research. If it’s an industry-specific event (as opposed to a generic event) then you may know what to expect your peers to be wearing. One tip is to look at the venue and research dress code or past events. I recently did NOT do my due diligence for a University Alumni networking evening I was invited to. For some reason, I had it in my mind that it was at a classic midtown Manhattan bar, nothing too fancy. Well, it turned out to be possibly the swankiest restaurant I’ve ever been to and had a strict jacket and tie (for the gents) only dress code. The happy hour mixer I had in mind turned out to be an exclusive, private dining room steak dinner with a select few alumni, faculty staff and influencers invited. The men had suits on and the ladies wore long black dresses. I showed up in ripped jeans and a Henley t-shirt...SHIT! I was absolutely crushed and felt completely deflated in confidence. It was only because it was a private event that they even let me into the restaurant. Make sure you dress accordingly and it will give you more confidence in talking to people. I’ll say it again; DO YOUR RESEARCH!
Don’t: Drink Too Much
I am no Saint when it comes to this tip. Open bars are often a very generous gesture from a networking host but a potentially dangerous thing. A couple of drinks may give you that little confidence boost you need to start chatting to people, I know this is true for me. Ripping shots and dancing on the bar however, may taint your reputation (or boost it depending on the industry!). It’s also easy to grab a drink and quietly stare at the bottom of the glass as you tell yourself “after this drink I’m going to start chatting to people”, but you really do need to just push yourself out of your comfort zone and start networking. It can also be a hard balancing act when the event you are at is a party. I recently attended a holiday party for a filmmaker's group I am part of where everybody was there to let their hair down after a long, hard year. There was an open bar, DJ and food, all in a large Brooklyn warehouse (insert hipster outfit here). This was potentially the makings of sloppy-ville but at the end of the day, at least for me, it was a great opportunity to meet relevant industry people that were fantastic prospective clients. I kept it professional but fun. Remember if it is a party, you don’t want to be THAT person only talking about work and thrusting business cards in people's faces. Holding back a little on the open bar though (I can get a little over zealous at open bars!) will give you control of any conversation that might come your way plus you’re more likely to remember the prospective clients you spoke to.
Do: Wear a Name Tag
I hate that I had to include this one. I am not a name tag wearing person. But, if they are being handed out upon entry you should wear one. Personally I am terrible at remembering names, I’ll remember the face of someone I rode the subway with 3 years ago but will forget your name the second after you told it to me. Name tags are essential but only of course if the entire event is wearing one. It’s tempting to be the cool person who rebels and doesn’t wear theirs but at an event where names are being thrown back and forth frequently, not being identifiable doesn't help with building contacts. If you can, put your role and/or company on there too. It just makes it easier for people to start a conversation with you and associate a name with a face.
This should go without say but when you’re a freelancer or starting a small company like I did for example, it’s very tempting to try to appear bigger and better than you are. I can introduce myself as CEO of my own business to try and impress my peers with fancy titles but at the end of the day I’m just one guy that decided to start a post-production studio in Brooklyn. So why not just say that? I have found that people respond well and respect honesty more than a greasy sales pitch full of holes. People aren’t generally naive and not only can they see through cheap sales tricks on surface level, they can literally see through cheap tricks by Googling you on their phone.
Another reason NOT to bullshit is that most industries are smaller than you think. Chances are you’re at an event where at least a few people know each other directly or mutually. Just because you connected with a key industry influencer on LinkedIn doesn’t mean you personally know them. Perhaps don’t go around saying you’re BFF’s with them, there's a possibility someone in the room actually knows them. Bullshitting will come back to bite you, trust me!
Do: Think Outside the Box
Meetup.com is a great source for finding like-minded groups of people in your area. There are plenty of mixers, seminars and workshops to search for. I’m based in New York so there’s hundreds of networking events floating around. It can take a while to filter out the ones the are ‘singles only’ or ones that just aren’t right for you but it’s worth taking the time. This is not your only option though. My tip is to not restrict yourself to just ‘networking events’, think outside the box. Know your target client, know your competition, know your industry. Research what events the relevant people are attending. Attend happy hours that will be full of clients, not competition. If I attend audio engineering seminars I am essentially sat in a room with my competitors. That’s not a bad thing but you are unlikely to gain business from being surrounded by people that do exactly what you’re offering.
Reach out to groups to become a panelist at a discussion. I’ve had most contact-building success at the networking portion after a discussion panel by being on the panel. You have this micro-celebrity status for a few hours where people want to talk to you. Perhaps they had questions about what you discussed but were too shy to ask during the Q&A. I landed several jobs by being on a lawyers discussion panel about IP (Intellectual Property), something I know little about. I offered insight into whether my sound design was subject to IP or if my client owned the sound effects I design after they pay me. It was a stimulating topic for the audience but the most important part was that it exposed my services to a room of about 40 people. Afterwards I got chatting to a filmmaker and have been commissioned to sound design and mix several projects for them since.
My target client are filmmakers, directors and producers. Screenings are great contact building events for me. They're not always designed to be networking events but I attend them anyway because I know that's where my target client will be. Inevitably you’ll start chatting to people and something may come of it. Be open minded and creative about where your ideal clients might be.
Don’t: Go To Generic Networking Events
OK, so this is a very soft and subjective ‘Don’t’. I’ve been to a few unsuccessful (and extremely awkward) generic mixers/gatherings, and what I mean by ‘generic’ is non industry specific events. There are a lot of entrepreneur or startup networking events available but in my experience they are the worst to attend as far as making solid connections. They appear to be, ironically, an entrepreneurial endeavour to make money from other (somewhat green) entrepreneurs. I understand the idea of sticking other small business owners, or people looking for investors in one room to thrash it out but there is a stench of desperation in the air at these events. They usually cost around $10-20 to attend which isn’t bank crippling but enough that you’d want something to come from it. There are so many people at these things that it’s almost like speed dating but for contacts (I think speed networking is actually a thing, FYI). You start chatting to someone and as soon as they realize you’re not an investor or don’t have what they need they cut the conversation short. Out of a room of 200 people there may only be a handful that are relevant and if you’re lucky you’ll actually find 2 of those relevant people. I remember chatting to an organic sea salt importer for a while and then realizing, as nice as this guy is, what the fuck can he do to help my business? At that point it becomes a very non-personal event that is extremely dog-eat-dog, scrambling for the best contacts in the room. That doesn’t seem positive or productive in growing contacts to me so in my opinion I’d say avoid the generics and go to specific industry events.
Do: Someone a Favor
One thing I’ve noticed about New York and specifically Brooklyn is that people support each other here. In general, there’s a huge sense of community amongst startups, freelancers and small businesses across various industries. My suggestion is to pay it forward. We've all struggled at some point in our careers and needed all the help we can get. If you’re chatting to someone that may not be able to advance you or your company but perhaps you can help them or know someone that can, share your knowledge. Showing compassion and that you have connections is a great way to build a solid reputation and word will spread about how connected and generous you are.
Don’t: Be Flakey
It’s exhausting working a full day then heading to a venue to talk with a room full of random people that may or may not be able to grow your business network. The amount of times I’ve had to give myself a pep talk just to build enough energy to attend an event is countless. I’ve certainly bailed at the last minute several times. As daunting and awkward as these events are, don’t be flakey. They won’t all be winners but you simply never know. I was so close to leaving an event early that seemed a dead end but I stuck it out a little longer and was introduced to someone that became a huge contact for me. Ultimately, through this contact, I landed a client as well as starting prospective conversations with other contacts. Stick with it, at least as long as you can stand!
DO: Be Prepared
You really never know when or where you're going to meet a prospective client so always be prepared. I carry at least one business card with me in my wallet and most my coats and bags have a few buried somewhere in them. I've met people on planes, in bars, at weddings, and even on vacation. As a business owner or freelancer you need down time and to relax and not think about work. It is however a double edged sword for me, no matter where I am I always have one eye open for connecting with people as well a necessity to represent my own brand at all times. If you work for yourself, are an entrepreneur or own a business, you are the brand...don't taint it no matter where you are or what you do.
There are so many options when it comes to building business connections. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing out there. Depending on how social you are, certain events may be extremely awkward for you but my advice is to push yourself and go anyway. Contacts and networks are absolutely key to running a business and bringing in revenue so it is essential that you are constantly meeting people. Even when you think you're not getting any return on your hard schmoozing game, keep at it! I've had people email me 6 months after an event requesting studio time, you really just never know.
If you'd like to skip the awkward networking event to meet me and discuss any audio post production needs you have, feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org