Many people have written tips, guides and questions for aspiring entrepreneurs. Many of them are excellent, but I don’t think anyone has captured the essence of the stages a young entrepreneur goes through and specific advice for what they should do at each stage. As part of our efforts at GreenhornConnect.com, we want to create a central location that provides the information that an aspiring entrepreneur needs to go from starting out (Is this for me? What should I do?) to evaluating an idea (What goes into a business plan? How do I build a team?) to being a real business (Do I need investment? What tools should I use?).
In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing different sections of this guide in my blog, pulling from my experiences, what I’ve read and advice I’ve heard from others. If you read this and think something is missing or disagree with any of the advice, please comment; I want this to be the best guide possible and will gladly give you credit for your contribution. Thanks.
Thus far: See Part I: Starting from Scratch
PART II: Getting Out There
You’ve read a lot about startups and love every minute. You’re starting to take interests in specific industries and startups and may have a few ideas of your own. How do you get “plugged in” to the community?
1) What’s Out There?
If you ask any established entrepreneur what events are out there, they’ll tell you that there are too many to count. If you ask the average aspiring young entrepreneur the same question, they’ll give you a blank stare. So how do you go from nothing to trying to be 3 places in the same night?
First, take a look at lists of the entrepreneurial organizations in your area. Pay particular attention to those in industries of your interest. Check out their sites and you’ll find out about any events they hold. Use your twitter account (if you don’t have one, get one now), start following those organizations as they’ll tweet any new events they or their partner organizations are holding. You can then also find a number of great calendars listing specific events.
2) Where to Start?
Similar to reading material mentioned in Part I, there’s an impressive number of events to consider attending. It can be intimidating to get out there at first, so to build your confidence up, here’s a list of the best organizations in Boston for young entrepreneurs:
Boston Young Entrepreneurs
Innovation Open Houses
Web Innovators Group
There’s also some great competitions that welcome young entrepreneurs (Mass Challenge & MIT 100K), an organization that will help cover event costs and a site dedicated to delivering all relevant events, organizations and resources for young entrepreneurs.
3) Look the Part
Most events take place in the evening so it’s a slightly relaxed environment, but it still means you need to be prepared:
Dress the part: No one wears a suit or tie to the majority of these events, so don’t worry too much. Just make sure you’re not wearing that wrinkly, smelly shirt from the corner of your room and that you’re generally put together. A good rule of thumb for dress is that the higher the cost of the event, the better the dress required and if the event is during the day on a weekday, it will also be more formal (usually suits or sports coats with no tie). If in doubt, ask the event organizers or look at pictures from previous occurrences of the event.
Have a Business Card: The reason you’re getting out there is to make connections with others in the community. Business cards are the currency at these events, so make sure you have one. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and you’re not expected to have a startup even; simply having a card with your name, email, twitter id, and phone number is very effective. If you don’t have a company, don’t be afraid to list some of your entrepreneurial interests on there (i.e.- “Cleantech Enthusiast”). For about $15 you can get at home business cards that you can make with Microsoft Word and your printer. Most people won’t notice the difference or care.
Have a LinkedIn profile: LinkedIn is your online resume and contacts manager. After events, go on LinkedIn and look up the people whose cards you got. Request to connect with them and mention something about meeting them that night in the request message; people appreciate personalization and it shows you were listening. Don’t feel like you have enough to list on LinkedIn? Add all your work experience you can, including internships and if substantial, volunteer work. If you’ve done any interesting side projects, list them. And of course, go into detail regarding your education, so people see what your skills and interests are.
4) What to Expect
Many of these events are crowded and overflowing with energy. There will be clusters of people talking excitedly about their startup or a topic of interest to entrepreneurs. It can be intimidating at first, but try your best to be confident and extroverted. Remember, if you’ve been reading about the community, there’s a great chance you are familiar with the topic they’re discussing, so don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation. Cort Johnson, the leader of the young entrepreneur organization, Dart Boston, wrote a great piece about what most of the community is like. Be prepared for it and you’ll be fine. Asking a good question will always impress older members of the community as it demonstrates your understanding of a topic and a desire to learn more. Try to think of a few questions that come up as you’re doing your daily reading/skimming and bring them with you to an event.
5) Be Patient
Not every person you meet is going to be the perfect connection and not every event will be of great value to you. Try to take away at least one good contact from each event you attend and make note of what events you like best. Try to return to those events and similar ones. When you meet people you do make a good connection with, ask them what events they like going to and try them out if you haven’t already. After a while of doing this, you’ll settle in and find that there are certain events you look forward to every week and some people that you always see at events. The great thing about seeing the same people is that you can “warm up” by saying hello to them at an event before going out and talking with new people.
6) Keep it in Perspective
Networking is an important part of being an entrepreneur; it helps build the connections that will help you find what you need to make your business successful. It also introduces you to other people with the same “genetic defect” you have, which can be reaffirming. Remember, going to events should be enjoyable and provide some great learning opportunities; if you aren’t having fun, you’re either going to the wrong events or doing something wrong. And if you’re actually missing spending your nights in front of the TV, entrepreneurship may not be for you.
In the end, networking is just a small part of the process of being an entrepreneur. It’s a tool along with many others. Any startup is dependent on customers, which are usually not your fellow entrepreneurs. So, don’t get too caught up in networking and forget about them.
Are you getting your feet wet by networking and attending community events?
Coming Thursday: Part III: Building a Reputation, Network and Following
This is ongoing series to try to build a comprehensive, lasting guide for aspiring entrepreneurs. I would greatly appreciate any input in the comments below to make this the best it can be. Thanks!