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Get the Most From Conferences, Even on a Startup Budget

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Much is lost in translation over phone/email. People need to see each other, in person, to develop lasting relationships and gauge trends in their industry. But entrepreneurs face a unique challenge choosing among the almost comical number of events offered every year. Las Vegas alone held over 22,000 conferences last year.

I attend a lot of events each year as a speaker, writer, exhibitor or general attendee on topics ranging from startups, sports, and technology. They are almost always productive, introducing me to clients, future co-workers and insightful industry trends. Steve Van, founder and CEO of Prism Hotels, once told me how a single conference helped catapult his hotel management business. Toward the end of the event, he was serendipitously the only person in attendance with expertise in managing distressed assets, resulting in a windfall of new business.

While conferences present the unique chance of meeting business-altering people, you must be very careful not to squander your precious time and money. Especially with startup budgets in mind, here's how to approach it.

1. Be selective. Do your homework on the event beforehand and set goals for what you can achieve. Make certain that the major themes, influential companies or prominent people associated with the event align with your goals. Talk to people who have attended previous years (if applicable), thoroughly review the schedule and set up meetings well in advance. If you aren't getting excited about the event and feeling momentum going into it, don't go.

2. Time it right. You don't need to be there for every second of the event. Multi-day conferences tend to be most productive the first full day, after most attendees have arrived and gotten a good night's sleep. Those conferences tend to lose steam as people need to return to their day-to-day responsibilities. You can cut costs by pre-determining the opportune times to be in attendance.

3. Learn, connect, contribute. At one conference, I watched a startup founder stand outside of a busy hallway feverishly passing out cards to all passersby. The card recipients, college football coaches who strategize and persuade for a living, took a few steps with the card in hand before dropping it into a nearby trash can. You don't want to just push a product but rather discover how it benefits your market's ecosystem. You are there to learn from, connect with, and contribute to a specific faction of people.

4. Be nice to everyone. When many strangers are packed into a shared space, awkward situations ensue. Go out of your way to be friendly and welcoming. If you're easy to talk with, and take a sincere interest in others, you're more likely to meet great people and find ways to help one another.

5. Go out at night. Things are often accomplished at side meetings, dinners and parties where we share experiences and build friendships. Yes, you may crawl to a meeting the next morning, or even need to apply scented lotion to mask the alcohol seeping from your pores, but liberating people from the austerity of conference rooms can lead to more lasting and productive working relationships.

6. Follow up! People are busy. They lose business cards. Take the initiative and follow up after the event. Remember, "You are what you do, not what you say you'll do."

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