Unconference Singapore is now eChelon 2010

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eChelon 2010 – Asia’s Leading Web Technology Event in Singapore

Well, this is not a post about the event itself. That would be redundant, since you can learn more about it yourself and buy tickets directly by heading to http://www.echelon2010.com, so why don’t you click on that (opens a new window) while you continue to read.

This post is just some of my personal thoughts, on how to attend such events, so that you maximize the value you get out of your money for the ticket. It doesn’t matter if you’re a business guy or a technology guy or a design guy etc. It also doesn’t matter if you’re a start-up, or representing an agency / end customer / working in other big companies. This pretty much cuts across all the grass root organized shows I’ve attended in my past 4 years in Singapore.

1. Network! Talk to people. It is a networking event, not an art gallery.

The number one observation I see in such web technology events is that people think they are here to absorb, immerse and leave, while organizers strive to make the content as passively acceptable as possible. However, that’s NOT why you paid to attend the event in the first place – you can get 80% of the content in _any_ show by just reading it off Internet (or following attendee’s tweets/blogs). You are there to meet people, and people is the source of all opportunities in the world.

How to network effectively in such a “messy” situation? I fought through this myself as well, because it is always easier for me to have a meaningful exchange when we’re sipping coffee without interruption. In the end, here’re my approach that might work for you as well:

1a. Prepare 3 standard questions, for example if you’re from a trade development board, just ask “So how are you planning to bring your solution to the market”; if you’re an end customer you can opt to be blunt and just say “So how much is this?” and scribble it down on his brochure if he has one; or if you’re a peer start-up, try “who are your target customers?” or “where is your development team”.

The key is not the content of the question (it has to be relevant and simple of course), but it is the willingness to ask _everyone_ you come into contact these few questions. It’s ok to sound like a pest, as long as you’re confident that the question can be answered in a minute or so. The point is to create the awareness of the person you meet that you’re interested in them, and their company/product.

1b. Create a “map” of your journey. Many such conferences have booths where they will publish the floor plan online prior to the event. Get a copy, print it out, and draw out what path you’d take to “complete” the tour. Set a target of the number of booths you want to visit (or perhaps there’s a relevant section to visit), and meet that target.

Even if the networking event has no booths, people tend to cluster during networking session with their own friends (ironic behavior, but true). You can treat each “group” as a “booth” and participate in the conversation. Remember 1a – get ready 3 standard questions that you’d use for getting yourself into any conversation instantly to make the connection, and practice. My favorite has always been, “do you run a start-up too?” (and if not) “so what do you do?” low pressure pick-up lines to get into a conversation that will lead you to step 2.

2. Take something and leave something. Help your memory help yourself.

The laziest way but pretty effective way to do this is to bring a stack of name cards and exchange them with everyone you meet. Note the “exchange” bit, i.e. don’t just give out your name card without taking one back. Many networking gurus will also suggest that you immediately turn the card around and write down what you just spoke to the person about.

A more exciting way to remember each other is to exchange something slightly more memorable. On the one end you can become like a santa claus, giving out company branded stickies attached with your name cards, on the virtual end you could explicitly ask for the person’s linkedin/twitter/xing/etc. account and add the person on the spot (mobile social networking’s coming of age should be exploited!)

Don’t wait till much later in the conversation to exchange name card. Try to cultivate the habit of sharing the name card immediately after the 1st exchange. The typical Asian habit is then to stare at your name card to “size you up” – try not to let that happen by constantly engaging and looking at the person while you exchanging the name card, giving primary focus to their interest. Catch them off guard by being well rehearsed in your speech (unless it comes naturally to you..)

3. Say Thank You and end your conversation properly. Don’t just get distracted (or pretend to get distracted) and move on.

You owe it to the person who took the effort to speak to you, no matter how mercenary the person’s ultimate goal is. By thanking the person, you leave an indelible mark of gratitude in the “mess” of people, making you stand out above the rest. You also create a clear opportunity and signal that you want to move on. Get a “standard” exit line prepared as well, such as “Ah Meng, it was nice speaking to you, we should catch up again, and thanks for your presentation.” Apply body language (shaking hands, bow etc.) as you see fit culturally.

And why do all these networking you might ask?

One answer has already been given earlier: all opportunities arises from people. By connecting with more people you build a bigger “funnel” for the chances of success. Sales people are keenly aware of this (which is also why they always throng these seminars).

Something more crucial is the enhancement of your online personal branding, which has become crucial in this decade. Everyone is represented by their online presence, and it’s hard to stand out. You can be weird and edgy in your own way online only to the extent acceptable to your own imagination. In the real world, you can’t hide, and you’re yourself. By connecting with people face to face, you increase the legitimacy of your existence in the virtual world. In fact, I’ve evolved to not adding people on social networks until I meet you in person (or you’re already a famous personality and I’m interested in your broadcast not engagement).

Finally, it’s also about becoming more human. Our digitally connected world might have created unlimited possibilities online, by way of shaping the path, i.e. making it easy to connect with people next door or thousands of miles away, it has also robbed us of the face time we spend with people. Don’t just be another walking high-tech gadget carrier in the midst of other technology-oriented people. Be the friendly guy who everyone can speak to and learn from, and your altruism will be well rewarded.

And you can practice that with me during eChelon 2010. See you there!

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