Building Relationships in the Early Stages of Your Startup

As someone in a business development role for a company in a crowded industry, meeting people face-to-face is by far the most effective way for me to do my job. Over the last 16months as FarShore’s Business Development Manager, I’ve averaged three networking events per week, which is over 150 events per year. There have been fireside chats, panel discussions, speed networking, and just about every other type of booze and schmooze that exists. My experience focuses on the startup community in Chicago, so here are a few (hopefully practical) networking tips.

Ditch the hard sell

I’m not the first sales guy to go try picking up new business by meeting strangers. But it seems that more people than I would’ve thought haven’t figured out that the general population doesn’t appreciate when you shove your idea/product/service/pipedream in their face. Boil your pitch down to just two or three sentences. My version is ‘I work for a software development agency. We design and build custom web and mobile apps for startups and enterprises.’ If that’s not enough to grab the person’s attention, A: they aren’t interested or B: they aren’t curious enough to care. Either way, you want to avoid making people uncomfortable. At its most basic, networking is putting yourself out there so hopefully someone remembers you down the line, so leave a good impression.

Be Interested/Interesting

Unless you are the headliner for the night, no one came to listen to you. So have a real two-sided conversation and respond to the things that the other person says. Remember who, what, where, when, why, how? Ask questions to learn more about the other person and what they’re working on. Going to events that are typically related to things you’re interested in or have experience with also helps with this. If all else fails, being in a room with other people in the same industry or similar job experience is an easy fall back for conversation and automatically creates common ground. In Chicago, I’ve seen groups dedicated to marketing, sales, developers, data science/analytics, product management, healthcare, fintech, agriculture, CPG, and a plethora of others. A great way to make an impression is to ask for help with something. Ask for feedback or suggestions on a prototype, app mockup, or strategy that you’re working with. This works especially well if you’re talking to a potential customer or someone with experience in your industry. This leads into the next point but if you find someone that you’d really like to connect with, get their email address! ‘But what about LinkedIn?’ you say. I constantly get messages from recruiters on LinkedIn, so I mostly ignore them and I’ve heard similar things from many others. At least with email, you have a direct line to their inbox, where we all spend way too much time.

It takes more than once

This is where it falls through for most people. Chances are people won’t remember you for more than a week if they’ve only met you once and never hear from you again. So, when you get their email address, ask them to grab coffee sometime in the next couple of weeks. I know this can be difficult with all the other things you’re working on for your startup but it’s essential to building a group of people that remember you… a.k.a. your network and the point of this post. Chicago has a ton of cool coffee shops so pick one close to you and set up some meetings. Once again, no hard selling, they agreed to meet you because they liked your initial conversation without the pushiness. Something to note though, when you do get to talk about your idea/product/service/pipedream, be passionate. It’s infinitely more engaging to hear someone who is excited about their work than Boring Bill drone on like his face would physically break if he smiled.

It takes more than once: Chapter 2 -Fundraising

Investors are like little kids at bedtime, they really want you to read them a story. They want to know about the characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. In this glorious analogy, characters are the startup team, the setting is the market, conflict is the problem being addressed, the resolution is the product or service. The most repeated advice I’ve heard about getting investment is to make a list of investors/groups that could invest in your company and put them in an email list. This is where the plot comes in. Every month or quarter (pick one and be consistent) send an email to everyone on the list with updates about your company; tell them a story. Talk about growing the team, product milestones, new clients, revenue goals achieved, etc…. The catch here is that your company must be making progress for this to work, easier said than done.

In conclusion, don’t be pushy, do be interested/interesting, and do follow up.

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