This post is third in a series about the challenges and opportunities that first-time ed-tech founders face when entering the space.
If you’re an entrepreneur who is new to ed-tech you’ll likely face a particularly challenging problem: You suddenly don’t have a network.
When my startup StoriumEdu pivoted into the education space I was in the same boat. I had spent most of my career working on consumer web products. In that time, I’d been fortunate to build relationships with a wide variety of talented and interesting people, from fellow entrepreneurs to engineers, designers, and investors.
But when I switched to the ed-tech space it all disappeared. Or that’s how it felt, at least. The entrepreneurs I knew were no longer sure of how to relate to me, and the investors I knew — including some who had funded and supported my prior startup — no longer found my work relevant.
It felt a lot like starting over. But starting over can be an opportunity. In this case, an opportunity to build a whole new professional network and to do it with intention rather than by happenstance.
Creating Opportunities for Connection
So where to start? As a stranger in this strange land of ed tech, how do you forge new relationships, connections, and alliances?
There are many methods, but the one I want to discuss here involves industry conferences.
Yes, conferences. Stop looking at me like that. I know conferences can be expensive, time consuming, overwhelming, and exhausting. Not to mention boring, at times. We’ve all sat through a snoozer or two. But if you’re savvy and have a game plan, education conferences can be invaluable tools for meeting people, kickstarting your professional network, and even finding your first early adopters.
Before you dive into the conference scene, you must begin by having something of value to offer others. That may sound brutally transactional on the surface, but I’m really just talking about good manners. If you’re going to engage people in conversation you should at least have something interesting to say, shouldn’t you?
In this context, the value that you have to share is your startup, your idea. Don’t hold it close to the vest; lead with it. (The last thing you should be worried about is someone stealing your idea. In practice, that isn’t really a thing.) Before you approach potential new allies you should have at least the following in hand:
- Multiple elevator pitches, rehearsed and memorized. Because your first one is almost certainly wrong, and you’re going to A/B test the alternatives in real time.
- A landing page. Simply a place for people to go to learn more about what you’re doing.
- Business cards featuring your landing page URL. (I know, I know. Stay with me…)
Getting the Most From a Conference
You may be further along in your startup journey than this, and that’s fine. If you have a prototype or a working product to show off, so much the better. But as long as you at least have the above items, you’re ready to proceed.
Here, then, is my own personal script for getting the most out conferences:
- Research: At least a week before the conference starts, review the program and make a list of any sessions that are even tangentially relevant to your startup. Do the same with the list of speakers, noting any whose areas of interest or expertise intersect with yours.
- Plan: Take these lists and turn them into a spreadsheet that records session name, speaker, time, and location, and then sort it by time slot. Most conferences are hopelessly over-scheduled so you’ll likely find oodles of conflicts. For each time slot, pick the one session you think is most important to attend. Consider not only the content and speaker but also the location. You’re looking for the session that nest combines expected value with physical proximity to other speakers of interest.
- Reach out: Send an exceedingly brief email to every speaker on your list. Introduce yourself and provide a one-sentence summary of your idea. Say that you’ll be attending the conference and would like to say hello and get their input. Say why you want to speak with them. Personalize each email (you’re not a spammer, are you?). Don’t expect replies, but if you get them, great!
- Attend and engage: When the conference arrives, follow your premade schedule. Attend your first-choice session in each time slot, and when the session is over make your way quickly to the front. Speakers almost always remain afterwards for a few minutes to take questions one-on-one. Here’s what to do next:
- Wait your turn and then introduce yourself. Offer your URL-emblazoned business card from the get-go rather than waiting to produce it later when it might feel awkward or rushed. Be brief and respectful; don’t talk their ear off. Just remind them that you reached out via email and would love their feedback on your idea.
- You’ll get a wide range of responses to this, and you’ll need to learn how to read them. If the speaker seems obviously disinterested, don’t push it. After all, how would you like that?
- If your pitch resonates with the speaker and if schedules allow, they might signal an interest in continuing the conversation right then and there. Go for it, but again, be respectful of their time.
- In most cases you’re going to get the third kind of response: politeness. It’s hard in the moment to truly know where people stand, especially at a conference that’s packed with people and sessions. That’s OK, because at the end of the day all you’re really aiming for is the chance of future follow-up.
- Sprint: As soon as you’re done, run to the location of your #2 session for this time slot. If you’re nearby and time it right, you may still arrive before the speaker has left. Follow the same steps as in #4 above!
- Follow up: After the conference ends, wait a few days for people to travel home and get back into the swing of things. Then, send a follow-up email to everyone you managed to meet in person, reminding them that you met and asking for the chance to get their feedback on your idea. Try to get to a Skype call if you can, even if it’s just 10-15 minutes in length.
The entire goal of this process is powerful yet simple: Make face-to-face connections. That’s what helps you stand out from the crowd and elevates you from random email inquirer to someone who is demonstrably interested and invested in a real connection. There’s no substitute for the impression that an in-person introduction makes, and that’s especially true when you’re new to an industry and don’t yet have a reputation of your own.
When you meet people on their own turf, you’re showing them respect. When you actually and literally show up, people notice. Applied to conferences, these truths have helped me form meaningful, lasting, and mutually beneficial relationships in the ed-tech space. I hope they help you to jumpstart your own network!
Image credit: Pixabay