Business Rx: How to get the most out of events

March 31, 2013

It’s that time of year in Washington: Event season. It can be difficult and overwhelming to keep track of all of the opportunities. But if you’re starting or growing a business, putting yourself and your company out there is critical. Just spend your time wisely and be strategic at the events you do attend. Here’s how:

Make it count. You can’t afford to spend a lot of time away from the ins and outs of running your business — chasing funding, developing your products, fine-tuning your Web site, hiring and managing your team, etc. — so the investment you make in a day spent at an event should be a good one. Make sure you understand the event agenda, the other types of people who will be in attendance and the format of the event.

Here at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, our biggest event, Cupid’s Cup, is this Friday. Cupid’s Cup is a national business competition at the university’s College Park campus, featuring students, inventors, entrepreneurs from 50 regional start-ups, investors and business leaders from the likes of Under Armour, BB&T and AOL. (Capital Business is a media sponsor).

Other organizations, such as the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association, Foster.ly and Co-Founders Lab have upcoming events this spring for entrepreneurs.

Local entrepreneurs can also choose between events from the alphabet soup of strong regional resources including DBED (Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development), NVTC (Northern Virginia Technology Council), REDI (Rockville Economic Development Inc.), AEDC (Anacostia Economic Development Corp.) and CIT (Center for Innovative Technology), among others.

This region has so many opportunities to connect with other entrepreneurs, investors and industry veterans — just be strategic, which brings me to my next point:

Have a game plan. Create a strategic game plan and you could come home with some great take-aways. Set measurable goals for your day. For example, gathering five sales leads or networking with three potential job candidates. A colleague and I recently headed to Austin for the behemoth South by Southwest event, and we made sure to comb the agenda. It made our weekend more productive and ensured we came home with the key contacts and information we set out to get.

Do your homework. Like anything else, you can expect to get out of events what effort you put into preparing for them. Study the agenda for presenter information and the registration list (if available). Know who you might want to talk to. Read bios on panelists and speakers. Have questions prepared. Set up coffee meetings before you go.

Follow the 60-20-20 rule. Spend 60 percent of your time focused on achieving the goals you outlined in your game plan, whether that’s meeting new people, gaining new insights or trying to forge partnerships. Allot 20 percent of your time to catching up with people you already know. For the other 20 percent of your time, be opportunistic. You may get some unexpected benefits from attending a session that didn’t intersect with your original goals. Check out what others are doing in particular industries, talk to them to hear their stories. Even get ideas on the way they present their companies and display their products and technologies. It can be very helpful to see how established businesses and other start-ups showcase their companies — that might spark a great idea for you.

Don’t arrive empty-handed. Obviously, bring a big stack of business cards. And come with your polished “elevator pitch” so you can concisely explain your company to new people. Also have your “ask” prepared (whether that is asking for introductions, funding questions, potential partnership conversations, sales pitches, etc.). Above all, leave your inner introvert at home. To make the most of any event, you need to be able to approach people and engage them in conversation.

I get invites to events throughout the region nearly every day. Don’t feel like you have to go to everything. Set a reasonable goal to attend one event per quarter. If you are in public “launch” mode or trying to raise funding, you’ll likely want to be out at more events.

If it fits in your strategy, I hope to see you at Cupid’s Cup on Friday, or at one of the other events throughout the region sometime soon.

Elana Fine is managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She regularly offers her expertise to entrepreneurs starting and growing businesses. Capital Business and the experts at the Dingman Center and the Smith School are ready to assist entrepreneurs looking for advice. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.

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