How to (re) Approach People

Posted on Dec 7, 2009 | 42 comments


Business Etiquette Tips for dealing with Business People at Conferences

This is part of my ongoing series with Startup Advice.  With the LeWeb conference about to start in Paris I thought the timing of this post would be appropriate.

Right after Techcrunch50 Michael Arrington wrote this great post on how to interact at business events and conferences.  If you haven’t read it, please do.  It’s an important reminder.  But so that you finish reading my post first ;-) I’ll give you the summary version – when approaching somebody at a show be polite / respectful of time, try to be introduced if possible and never assume the person remembers who you are.  He gives the example of Roelof Boetha, a very well known VC from Sequoia, who always (re) introduces himself to Michael and reminds him who he is even though Michael has met him several times.

When I first read this post I immediately filed away in memory that there was important information to impart on entrepreneurs and led to this post.  Apologies in advance if it sounds arrogant – just trying to impart some realistic advice.

How to (re) intro yourself.  I do about 15 in person meetings / week … that’s about 750 / year.  Let’s assume 500 are new meetings and that I’m exaggerated by 20%.  That’s still about 400 new meetings that I do every year.  Each one has pitched me for between 30-60 minutes.  Then let’s add on all the conferences I attend where I have literally hundreds of 10-minute conversations (at least 15% of which are after a few beers).  Then I get people sending me Twitter comments, blog comments and tons & tons of email intros.

The truth is that I actually do remember almost all of the people I meet.  But don’t assume that I have a Minority Report like machine that can invisibly and instantly gin up my memory.  The most important advice I can give you is – give me context.

It should start something like this,

“Hey Mark, it’s Mike Schumacher from SchuCo Technologies.  We presented to you about a year ago our company that does voice recognition software integrated with IVRs.  We were introduced through Bob Johnson over at NewWorld Ventures.”

Now wait a moment and let me process this.  Most people are visual thinkers and need to access our visual memories.  You should see a light go off in my head and if not feel free to give more context.

“Last time we spoke you had some insights on how we could partner with Microsoft to power their Zune.  You knew a guy there who said that VR was their next big initiative.  Thanks for the tip – we’re now actively engaged in discussion.”

I am too often in the situation at an event where I see a face I immediately recognize but seeing the person out of context I can’t quite place who they are, what their name is or what they do.  With one visual trigger I can usually remember minute details about our discussion.

How to approach somebody after a panel discussion.  Truth serum – my golden rule is that I never do this.  When there is somebody that I really want to meet I care about the context with which I meet them.  Standing in the “groupie” line after a conference is NOT the best way to meet somebody.

But if you feel that this is the ONE chance you’ll have to meet this person then at least do it correctly.  When it’s your turn in the ambush greeting line get all of your energy pumped up and with great enthusiasm say, “Hey Mark, I really enjoyed your panel on social media marketing.  I have a new startup in the space that I think would interest you.  I know it wouldn’t make sense to pitch you here – do you mind if I got a card to follow up directly with you?”

Be energetic, be very brief, get my contact details (if I don’t have a card ask politely whether you can have my email address to send me a pitch deck) and by all means make sure you follow up.  80% of the people never do.  And when you do email me, make sure to remind me of the context that we met after the panel.

Now if you’ve ever talked to me after a panel you’d know that I am pretty gracious with my time there.  I know that people like to talk after a panel so I always stay until the last person who wanted to meet has the chance.  But I recognize people that don’t have enough Emotional Intelligence to recognize when they’ve spoken for too long and the person after is waiting patiently.  I like people who are self aware so over staying your welcome, while people will tolerate it, leaves a bad taste.  If no one is behind you then feel free to linger BUT make sure you ask the presenter – “do you need to get out of here? I’d love to stay and chat but want to respect your time.”

Why isn’t it a good idea to rush the stage after a presentation? As I outlined in my post on How to Get Access to a VC, it matters who introduces you.  It sets context that you’re a valuable person to know from a “filter” that you trust.   And it also shows you’re an entrepreneur.  If you can’t figure out how to get access to somebody in the era of social networking then you’re likely not going to be a successful entrepreneur.  And this advice applies to any senior exec you want to meet – not just VCs.

How to approach somebody you want to meet.  The best strategy to meet people at a conference is to have some “anchor” people that already know other people.  Hopefully these are people that already know and respect you.  And hopefully they’re people who like hanging out with you because you’re going to need to spend some time as their wingman for a while.  Give them the short list (2-3 people maximum) that you would love their help in meeting.  Ask if they mind giving you an intro to give them a chance to say whether it is or is not a good time for them to intro.

So the line goes something like this, “Hey, I was hoping to meet Bob Johnson – do you know anybody that knowns him?”, “Oh, you know Bob?  Do you know him well enough that you’d mind an intro?”  And make sure you send a nice note later to that person as a thank you for the intro.

An even better way to meet.  My second favorite part of a conference is the hallway.  Any readers of this blog will know that I have ADHD and therefore sitting through presentations is like water torture to me.  I can get through some but I find little value other than getting a sense for what is being said.  But in the hallways you find all sorts of interesting characters.  You find lurkers like yourself that want to meet people but don’t want to sit through another dammed panel on the future of X,Y,Z.  This is the best time to meet people and most people are open to you casually walking up and introducing yourself.  If you see me lurking outside the conference door – you can assume I’m open for business.  I here to meet people – come up and say hello.

The best way to meet. Even better than the conference hall is the after party.  You can only get to know me guinness18superficially if you come to my office and present for an hour.  You’ll only get the basics if you catch me outside in the conference hall.  You’ll know me ZERO if you ambush approach me after a panel.  But you’d be surprised how well you can get to know me over a Guinness at midnight.  Ask anybody who went to the W hotel after TC50 whether they got to know people better at the W or the conference.  So don’t go to a conference that is really important to you only to bugger off early to catch up on email.  Waste.

The Rolls Royce of meeting.  This can be hard for people without financial resources but the best way to meet people at a conference is to try and throw (or attend) a dinner.  Often there is a down time between a meeting conference and the nighttime activities.  Book a table for 10 at a local restaurant.  Doesn’t have to be super fancy.  Invite 4-5 people you know and a few people you want to get to know better.  Partner with somebody else who knows people so that you can access multiple networks and split the tab.  Get an anchor tenant that you think people want to meet so you can tell future people, “Steve Sayers and I are hosting dinner at Maximo’s at 7.30pm with 8-10 interesting entrepreneurs.  It will be people like John Wood from KnownCo and Dave Dodge, a VC from Boston.  We’ll be out in time for the after party.

Dinners are where it’s at.  You have a group of people captive for an hour-and-a-half.  Hopefully these are people that will enjoy being together.  You’ll have to be an active host and a conversationalist.  If this isn’t your forte partner with somebody it is.  At these dinners you build friendships that go beyond a conference room table.  You really get to know people.

The real power of a conference comes before & after.  I’m surprised by how little planning most people give before they attend an important conference.  You’re traveling all the way to Paris.  You’re spending money on flights, hotels and food – not to mention the price of the conference.  And many important people that you want to spend time with will be there.  Make sure to put in your efforts before hand.  Email everybody that you already know who will be there and find out what their plans are.  Email people that you want to meet and are approachable (e.g. not too senior) and ask if they have time to meet.  Plan a dinner.  Scope out the after party locations.  Know which panels you want to attend because of who else will be in the room.  Make sure you’re not nipping out at lunch because that’s maximum networking time.

And then there is afterward.  You collected all those cards – don’t make them useless.  If you email somebody right after you met then you lock in a certain relationship.  Keep it short and sweet – no BS novel like this post!  And make sure that if you agreed any verbal actions / next steps with anybody that it is in your email and that you follow up.  If you didn’t agree any actions / next steps with anybody at the conference – WTF were you doing there?  Long way to go to hear people say what you could already read online or watch on Ustream (powered, I might add, by MobileRoadie – go Michael!)

  • http://www.vumedi.com Roman Giverts

    I've found emailing people before the conference has been the most helpful thing. It's amazing how many people will write back and tell you when and where to meet them. I've had people give me their cell phone numbers to find them. It's also amazing how many people wont respond, but when you come up cold and say “hey I emailed yesterday about….,” they actually read your email and already know a bit a about you.

    The trick with dinners is being one of the 10 people at the table, but not being the one paying for it ;) That can get really expensive if you're doing a lot of conferences/tradeshows.

  • Norris Krueger

    Mark – this is great… and it applies to lots of meetings. I got to many high-powered academic conferences and I'm not sure there is anything here that doesn't apply there to…

    Except maybe the “groupie” line… more like the “how-can-you-advance-my-career” line, LOL

    Thanks!

  • http://www.netjacobsson.com/ Net

    There is a very deep concept in the Talmud (jewish code of law) about the notion of “stealing time”. According to the Talmud, this is one of the most serious things that a person can do. Might sound trivial – but when you think deeply about it totally makes sense. They say time is money. It isn't. Time is life. And life is the most important currency we have. Therefore one should always be concerned about not wasting somebody's time.

    Having spoken at many conferences, and been the “target” (a totally justified one too) I totally agree with what you are saying. Context is very important. I would rather pass on approaching somebody at a conference unless I have been introduced, had an exchange with the person before the conf or see that the person is really open for business.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: emails – great points.
    re: dinner – If you split dinner with somebody and find somewhere that you can manage to $50 / head then you get by with only $250. Assuming $75 / head it's $375. That's a drop in the bucket compared with your travel costs and conference costs.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, there have been many occasions where I wanted to meet somebody after a panel but decided to wait until I could meet them on my terms.

    re: the Talmud, I can't help of thinking about Tevye (Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof when I hear this word, “As the good book says …”

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    My strategy for approaching people I really want to talk to after a panel is sometimes to wait until I'm literally the last person left for them to talk to – so it goes from an ambush to more of a casual conversation, and there is no pressure. I go for a quick, impactful conversation (always leave em wanting more..) and then follow-up email.

    Sometimes at a conference I miss almost all the sessions and spend most of my time outside hoping to have a meaningful conversation with someone new and relevant (or even catch up with old contacts). After all, business is about relationships and besides, the sessions will probably be posted online anyways…..

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    Also I make it a point to ask a question for each session I do happen to attend. This is a good conversation starter for anyone in the room later.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Smart advice in both your reply and in your reply to your reply ;-) And knowing you, Rajat, I'd say people could learn a lot from how you build relationships with people. I get the sense you know what you're doing from how we started connecting.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    just helping you boost your comment count Mark ;) That's trick no. 3

    Thanks for the compliment! Seriously though, I think your no-nonsense detailed advice and high standards for founders are very beneficial to the entrepreneur community. Despite some who may not love VC blogs telling founders what to do, I think this blog is a big cut above the boilerplate advice that most entrepreneurs receive….and to be honest, founders need to hear thoughtful advice, however opinionated, just to test their own implicit assumptions

  • Norris Krueger

    Rajatsuri – the point about asking a smart question is excellent (as long as it's smart, LOL)

    Also, there was a study once of Nobel laureates – “how did you first connect with your key collaborator?” It was never in the lab, it was always in the hallway or at a pub/coffeeshop at a conference. “Hey, I'd like to work with you one of these days…”

    Making the human-human connection first is much better than hunter-prey (LOL) -at worst, you've made a friend/acquaintance.

    You can also foster serious serendipity. At one conference I was just chatting with a very bright colleague with differing interests when a third person walked up & she asked if we were figuring out a research project at the intersection of our 2 areas (a real stretch). We looked at each other, laughed & simultaneously blurted out “We are NOW!” (And, yes, we invited her as the 3rd person on the team.)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good to hear that even Nobel laureates meet this way!

  • Roman Giverts

    I've found emailing people before the conference has been the most helpful thing. It's amazing how many people will write back and tell you when and where to meet them. I've had people give me their cell phone numbers to find them. It's also amazing how many people wont respond, but when you come up cold and say “hey I emailed yesterday about….,” they actually read your email and already know a bit a about you.

    The trick with dinners is being one of the 10 people at the table, but not being the one paying for it ;) That can get really expensive if you're doing a lot of conferences/tradeshows.

  • Norris Krueger

    Mark – this is great… and it applies to lots of meetings. I got to many high-powered academic conferences and I'm not sure there is anything here that doesn't apply there to…

    Except maybe the “groupie” line… more like the “how-can-you-advance-my-career” line, LOL

    Thanks!

  • http://www.netjacobsson.com/ Net

    There is a very deep concept in the Talmud (jewish code of law) about the notion of “stealing time”. According to the Talmud, this is one of the most serious things that a person can do. Might sound trivial – but when you think deeply about it totally makes sense. They say time is money. It isn't. Time is life. And life is the most important currency we have. Therefore one should always be concerned about not wasting somebody's time.

    Having spoken at many conferences, and been the “target” (a totally justified one too) I totally agree with what you are saying. Context is very important. I would rather pass on approaching somebody at a conference unless I have been introduced, had an exchange with the person before the conf or see that the person is really open for business.

  • http://www.thesecomefromtrees.com petekazanjy

    Hey Mark, was going to email this to you, but couldn't find your addy, so i'll post it here, so you'll see it.

    Anyway, the first organic google result for your name ( http://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en#hl=en&source=… ) is a 404 on GRP's website: http://www.grpvc.com/team.php?screen=PARTNERS&t

    FYI. Maybe you can get IT to redirect that to your bio page. ~Pete
    Feel free to delete this

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: emails – great points.
    re: dinner – If you split dinner with somebody and find somewhere that you can manage to $50 / head then you get by with only $250. Assuming $75 / head it's $375. That's a drop in the bucket compared with your travel costs and conference costs.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, there have been many occasions where I wanted to meet somebody after a panel but decided to wait until I could meet them on my terms.

    re: the Talmud, I can't help of thinking about Tevye (Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof when I hear this word, “As the good book says …”

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    My strategy for approaching people I really want to talk to after a panel is sometimes to wait until I'm literally the last person left for them to talk to – so it goes from an ambush to more of a casual conversation, and there is no pressure. I go for a quick, impactful conversation (always leave em wanting more..) and then follow-up email.

    Sometimes at a conference I miss almost all the sessions and spend most of my time outside hoping to have a meaningful conversation with someone new and relevant (or even catch up with old contacts). After all, business is about relationships and besides, the sessions will probably be posted online anyways…..

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    Also I make it a point to ask a question for each session I do happen to attend. This is a good conversation starter for anyone in the room later.

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  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Smart advice in both your reply and in your reply to your reply ;-) And knowing you, Rajat, I'd say people could learn a lot from how you build relationships with people. I get the sense you know what you're doing from how we started connecting.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    just helping you boost your comment count Mark ;) That's trick no. 3

    Thanks for the compliment! Seriously though, I think your no-nonsense detailed advice and high standards for founders are very beneficial to the entrepreneur community. Despite some who may not love VC blogs telling founders what to do, I think this blog is a big cut above the boilerplate advice that most entrepreneurs receive….and to be honest, founders need to hear thoughtful advice, however opinionated, just to test their own implicit assumptions

  • Norris Krueger

    Rajatsuri – the point about asking a smart question is excellent (as long as it's smart, LOL)

    Also, there was a study once of Nobel laureates – “how did you first connect with your key collaborator?” It was never in the lab, it was always in the hallway or at a pub/coffeeshop at a conference. “Hey, I'd like to work with you one of these days…”

    Making the human-human connection first is much better than hunter-prey (LOL) -at worst, you've made a friend/acquaintance.

    You can also foster serious serendipity. At one conference I was just chatting with a very bright colleague with differing interests when a third person walked up & she asked if we were figuring out a research project at the intersection of our 2 areas (a real stretch). We looked at each other, laughed & simultaneously blurted out “We are NOW!” (And, yes, we invited her as the 3rd person on the team.)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good to hear that even Nobel laureates meet this way!

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  • http://www.gorankem.com Adam Wexler

    it takes some of the simplest of expressions to finally put things into perspective. on that note, i believe i got one of my favorite quotes a/b conferences from derek sivers. he said “business is not done at the conference; business is done AFTER the conference”

    sounds like you guys could agree :)

    -adam wexler

  • http://www.vumedi.com Roman Giverts

    This is brilliant. Sometimes the best thing to do is ask a question about something that person is passionate about. Then just shut up and get out of their way, they will talk forever and love you for listening.

  • http://www.vumedi.com Roman Giverts

    Couldn't agree more. For people who have real businesses that are moving, the topics are always perfect. I'm leaving tomorrow for a conference, perfect timing on this post and great comments. It's helped me prepare.

    Thanks Mark!

  • http://www.gorankem.com Adam Wexler

    it takes some of the simplest of expressions to finally put things into perspective. on that note, i believe i got one of my favorite quotes a/b conferences from derek sivers. he said “business is not done at the conference; business is done AFTER the conference”

    sounds like you guys could agree :)

    -adam wexler

  • chongcheech

    Then you should probably stay away from conferences and just watch the streaming version online. Normal people go to conferences to network. Normal people also are generous with their time. Find something else to read.

  • Roman Giverts

    This is brilliant. Sometimes the best thing to do is ask a question about something that person is passionate about. Then just shut up and get out of their way, they will talk forever and love you for listening.

  • Roman Giverts

    Couldn't agree more. For people who have real businesses that are moving, the topics are always perfect. I'm leaving tomorrow for a conference, perfect timing on this post and great comments. It's helped me prepare.

    Thanks Mark!

  • http://markgslater.wordpress.com markslater

    how many great ops emerge from your first examples? you invest in 5-10 a year and you have between 5-700 conversations to do that. No dig on you but your job is actually all about the scarcity of attention. engagement rules aside – that scarcity should tell any entrepreneur that the asymmetry warrants something dramatic!

  • chongcheech

    Then you should probably stay away from conferences and just watch the streaming version online. Normal people go to conferences to network. Normal people also are generous with their time. Find something else to read.

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  • http://markgslater.wordpress.com/ markslater

    how many great ops emerge from your first examples? you invest in 5-10 a year and you have between 5-700 conversations to do that. No dig on you but your job is actually all about the scarcity of attention. engagement rules aside – that scarcity should tell any entrepreneur that the asymmetry warrants something dramatic!

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  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Totally. Business is also done before conferences. I'll one up his statement, I often say “all decisions are made before meetings. If you're not in on the decision before hand you're the sucker in the room. If you want a decision and don't lobby before hand to get the votes you're naive.” Maybe the subject of a future blog post. thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Mark, I totally agree with you. Dramatic is good. Chutzpah is required. Entrepreneurs need to stand out. But that's why I say don't bother with the post panel greeting line. This is never a case where you can really stand out IMHO.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Totally. Business is also done before conferences. I'll one up his statement, I often say “all decisions are made before meetings. If you're not in on the decision before hand you're the sucker in the room. If you want a decision and don't lobby before hand to get the votes you're naive.” Maybe the subject of a future blog post. thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Mark, I totally agree with you. Dramatic is good. Chutzpah is required. Entrepreneurs need to stand out. But that's why I say don't bother with the post panel greeting line. This is never a case where you can really stand out IMHO.

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  • http://www.susanroane.com/ Susan RoAne

    Great tips! As the author of How To Work a Room® , I'd share one more that I tell my audiences. This is for those who don't remember everyone they've met. When you see someone at a meeting or event who looks familiar, re-introduce yourself. (Full name and context be it title/company or friend in common). Most people will respond in kind.
    If you're struggling with recalling their name, most likely they can't retrieve yours. This way, you know each other's names and the conversation begins.

  • http://www.susanroane.com/ Susan RoAne

    Great tips! As the author of How To Work a Room® , I'd share one more that I tell my audiences. This is for those who don't remember everyone they've met. When you see someone at a meeting or event who looks familiar, re-introduce yourself. (Full name and context be it title/company or friend in common). Most people will respond in kind.
    If you're struggling with recalling their name, most likely they can't retrieve yours. This way, you know each other's names and the conversation begins.

  • http://www.dialogikdigital.com/ Pam Kulik

    Great article, Mark! So let me put your advice to work. (Your feedback is welcome!): Hi Mark, my name is Pam Kulik. We met at the Twiistup conference back in July and chatted at the coffee stand. You were nice enough to wait for my order to be filled and we walked back to the conference room area together. I didn't ask you for a meeting or money, being a marketer for tech startups, but we exchanged cards. I followed up with an email to you a few weeks later around VentureNet asking you to coffee and noting that a client was participating in that event. How did I do? (Keep the advice coming!)