No matter how much we tweet, blog and post, nothing in business is as powerful as actual face time with prospective business partners and customers. Some of the most lasting contacts and friendships that I have developed began by just grabbing a drink or breaking bread with a stranger at an industry event. From Mumbai to Moscow, Tulsa to Tokyo, here are my five favorite tips for networking:
1. Show Up Early
Whether the event is an industry conference, trade show or seminar, everyone that shows up early feels awkward. The room is massive and you wonder if the three people standing around you are the only ones planning to show up. This is the best time to break the ice and get to know others. As more people arrive they will gravitate to you because you already have a crowd.
2. Flying First or Business
Flying first or business class is a huge and unnecessary expense for startups to undertake, unless it can generate business. If you are going to a major trade show or event (think Davos or Midem), the people you really want to meet are flying at the front of the plane. What better way to have a no pressure conversation than during an 8 or 10 hour flight. By the time you arrive at your destination you have a new best friend, are invited to the best events, and can maximize the extra expense by being introduced to others. To keep your CFO happy, fly back coach. Only the pushiest of salespeople are still talking shop on the way back from an event when everyone else is exhausted.
3. Get Active in Charities Supported by Your Industry
There is no better feeling than doing well while you are doing good. If you really want to meet the nicest, most caring people in your field, get involved with charity work. The thankless hours that go into planning charity dinners, running a carnival, and gathering donations for silent auctions are noticed and appreciated by both those at the top of the food chain as well as those at the bottom. With all the hours entrepreneurs put into their businesses, it is also a nice change of pace to help others and give back. Be an indispensible part of your professional community and business will follow.
4. Speak on Panels
Walking up to a stranger is a whole lot harder than speaking to a room full of them. Try to become a thought leader on a topic of paramount importance to your business and your industry. The great advantage of being the speaker, is that everyone at the event gets to know who you are and usually those with the most needs for your services will line up to meet you at the end of your talk. Remember, no one wants to sit through a sales pitch for your company. Focus on educating your audience and communicating your expertise. People will then want to know more about how your startup can solve their problems.
5. Have fun and let your personality shine.
In my twenties, I was stuck in Las Vegas during CES for five days. While there, I met the person who later became the largest investor in my startup at a Caesar’s Palace black jack table. I first met future Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt when we were pulling cable to install the Internet into a high school classroom in the 1990s. I once spent the day moving furniture with future Paramount Pictures Chairman & CEO Brad Grey for a hospital charity. You never know what the future may bring, but the more fun you have with others, the more you will enjoy your career. Next time you have to go to a conference in an exotic location, book a tour guide and bus for a half day and watch how many people ditch the event to hang with you.
Networking is all about connecting with people. But then again, isn’t that what life is about? The more time you can find to get out of the office and build true friendships, the farther your startup will go. Entrepreneurs need to remember to spend as much time working on their business as they do in their business.
This post originally appeared the Wall Street Journal March 11, 2014