As an entrepreneur, I face a significant challenge.
When you’re working in a large company, some form of mentorship is a given. Even if there is no formal program in place, your manager is responsible for providing you with regular guidance and opportunities for growth.
Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are on their own. And given that I started by own business when I was 28, I find this scary. I still have significant gaps in my skills due to the absence of senior people who have been in my shoes from whom I could learn.
I’m not the only entrepreneur with this issue, and in response, a unique type of mentorship culture has emerged. In-person conferences and meet-ups organized for entrepreneurs and independent consultants are popping up everywhere, filling our need to trade ideas, share war stories and view our business problems from a fresh perspective. Such events are not only a great place to get support, but they are also ideal for networking with potential partners and customers and for identifying funding sources.
In 2009, for instance, I first attended SOBCon, what I believe is one of the best of such events. Starting as an informal blogger gathering in Chicago coordinated by Liz Strauss and Terry St. Marie, SOBCon has grown into an adrenaline-packed “think tank with a heart” that hosts 150 successful entrepreneurs in Chicago and Portland every year.
I could only participate in one morning session of Chicago’s 2012 conference, but I typed notes so furiously I thought my hands would fall off. The networking dividends are still paying off for me two months later.
Select the Right Events
In addition to SOBCon, events that best represent the spirit of the entrepreneurial conference culture include TIECon, South by Southwest Interactive, and CEO Space. However, conference choice is a personal decision that depends on your career and business goals.
Due to travel and cost constraints, it may make sense to attend conferences in your city or sector (e.g. women, social media, retail). To research appropriate events, look online and get recommendations from other entrepreneurs or third-party associations.
Budget Your Time
In-person conferences can be expensive, and they also take you away from your business, so you want to make the most of every minute. Carefully review the agenda ahead of time and select the sessions that are most critical. Also have a look at the attendee list and make dates for coffee and drinks in advance with the people with whom it would be most beneficial to network.
Practice Your Pitch
Hopefully you have your business’ elevator pitch down cold already, but if not, now is the time to perfect it. You may need to adjust it so that you are clearly communicating why other entrepreneurs should care about your work.
Don’t Zone Out
Even if you’re not speaking, be actively engaged at all times. Following and contributing to the event stream on Twitter can be helpful in this regard. Raise one or two strategic points or questions during each session, if appropriate, and listen to those brought up by others outside the official presentation.
Identify Action Steps
Taking notes during sessions and conversations is useful, and it’s even better if you can map what you’re hearing to specific action items you can address at home. Timely follow-up is especially important for networking. Ensure that you leave the conference with the business card of everyone you encountered and get in touch as soon as possible while the event is still fresh in your contacts' minds.
Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.