Avoid networking events marketed like a crappy apartment on Craigslist and other pro tips

By Hayden Williams , written on October 27, 2013

From The News Desk

As a first-time startup founder, one fundamental question I struggle with is “How is my time best spent?” Do I focus on product, user acquisition or customer acquisition? Or maybe I should just hang out on Twitter all day and have an existential crisis every time I catch a whiff of someone else building a professional networking platform. So many options to choose from.

One unexpected beast that’s reared it’s time-eating head is the infinite loop of networking events. The longer I’m in the NYC startup community, the more invitations accumulate in my mailbox for happy hours, mixers, roundtables, pitch competitions, and conferences. Some seem benign -- town halls where like-minded people gather to listen to a speaker. Others sound more intense, with nebulous descriptions like “power pitching and power networking.” I’m not sure what power networking is, but I have a hunch arm-wrestling and business card paper cuts are involved.

When I quit my finance job to start Treatings, these kinds of events were a boon. My professional and social network was fairly homogenous, which was the impetus for starting Treatings in the first place. I wanted to speak with people who had transitioned from investment banking to a startup, but found peers with relevant experience difficult to find and meet.

My co-founder Paul and I borrowed from online dating sites, creating a platform where you can propose coffee meetings with fellow members to learn about companies and skills of interest and see who's interested in treating you to a coffee (or drink). Now that our New York City beta is live, we have a platform to reach out to strangers who have experience we’re interested in. That said, right after jettisoning our corporate jobs, networking events seemed to be our only portal into the startup community.

As a non-technical co-founder, I assumed one of my responsibilities was to go to as many events as possible. I attended countless Meetups, as well as networking events sponsored by local startups, investors and co-working spaces. These helped me get a better feeling for the startup landscape, learning about the players (prominent founders, startups, investors) and abundant resources available, such as General Assembly and Skillshare.

While initially helpful, I found these events sported diminishing marginal returns. Not all networking events are created equal, but I’ve noticed some parallels.

When you’re pinching pennies like we are, even cold pizza sounds appetizing when it’s on the house, so free food can be enough to rationalize attending any event. Sometimes you’ll find a diamond, or should I say shrimp, in the rough. When I walk into an event and see cocktail shrimp, it’s like Christmas has come early. This past week when a law firm hosting an event provided everything from sushi to berry skewers, I had to stop myself  from stuffing sashimi in my Jansport.

Moving from caloric to educational satiation, sometimes these events are centered on an inspiring guest speaker. By being a member of the New York Tech Meetup, I entered a raffle to see Ray Kurzweil speak last year. I was fortunate enough to receive tickets and two hours later I was on the roof of a SoHo office listening to the futurist say things like, “and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if animals could vote.”

I was only a few months removed from a cubicle at a bank and had never heard anyone like him speak. Something he said that particularly stuck with me (besides giving animals civil liberties) was, “You don’t build products for today, you build them for tomorrow.” Technologists and experienced product managers might find this elementary, but it had an impact on me. When we started Treatings I was focused on the existing behavior of people who wanted to meet professionals outside their network. I needed to adopt a more forward-looking perspective to anticipate paradigm shifts in technology and consumer behavior. This is a simple example of a viewpoint I might have missed if I didn’t step outside of my insular network.

I've attended many great panel discussions and speakers. The events I’m skeptical of are those where the major draw is networking. Or as some events are detailed in e-mail newsletters, “NETWORKING!!”

Pro-tip: Any time a networking event is marketed like a crappy apartment on Craigslist run the other way.

Even when big name speakers are present, I’ve found that much of the potential networking value centers around serendipitous connections with fellow attendees. At most events, these latent connections remain just that -- undiscovered.

A prime example is at startup pitch events, where VCs are often given red name tags. This inevitably precipitates a pitching frenzy, with a sea of founders swarming the few red name tags, lining up single file while silently rehearsing their elevator pitch. I’ve been guilty of spending an entire event waiting in various lines to speak with people who don’t have the energy or time to have a meaningful conversation.

It doesn’t help that most entrepreneurs are transactional and competitive. Introduce a limited commodity (investors, prolific entrepreneur, etc.) into a room full of founders and it’s no surprise when everyone falls in line vying for face-time. By the way, this is someone who minutes earlier probably announced, “The best way to get in touch is through a warm introduction.”

The irony is that you’re often surrounded by peers with more relevant insights than the senior person in the front of the room. Whether looking for product feedback, funding advice or anything else, chances are that peers in the room have recent, pertinent experience.

One problem, besides the tendency of everyone to focus on a handful of luminaries, there is often little transparency around who is attending the event and why they’re there. You have to hope you serendipitously end up speaking to someone with whom you can have a mutually beneficial conversation, and even then you may not unearth shared interests.

In learning about task prioritization through diligent mismanagement of my own time, I’ve resolved to cut out most things that take me away from the product and our users. This hasn’t left a networking void in my life, since I can reach out to Treatings users who have experience I need in and set up one-on-one conversations over coffee.

That said, cutting out networking events has left a pigs-in-a-blanket void in my life... but that's nothing that a few salt packets and a stick of butter can’t replicate.

This is the 17th installment of a PandoDaily weekly series that chronicles the experiences of a young entrepreneur as he bootstraps his startup.

Part 1, "The less-than-glamorous life of a young entrepreneur."

Part 2, "How to survive co-founding a company with a friend."

Part 3, "Starting a company and having a girlfriend isn’t easy."

Part 4, "Customer validation: from lean startup to craigslist."

Part 5, "Dealing with competitors without turning your product into Mr. Tumnus."

Part 6, "Why I gave up a cushy career as an investment banker to launch a startup."

Part 7, "The best way to take feedback: Keep quiet."

Part 8, "The embarrassment of premature VC-infatuation."

Part 9, "Don’t ask me about money! I’m a startup founder."

Part 10, "How a summer job selling knives helped me with my startup."

Part 11, "When social norms interfere with your startup."

Part 12, "It’s hard to tell which startups are simply spinning their wheels."

Part 13, "What do you tell people who ask how your startup is doing?"

Part 14, "A bootstrapped startup’s freelancer dilemma."

Part 15, "In lieu of investors, how we breathe down our own necks."

Part 16, "A bootstrapper's survival guide."

Come back next Sunday to read the next installment.

[Image Credit: Ray_from_LA on Flickr]