Say you’re an entrepreneur at a pitch event.
You’ve just finished giving a presentation about your startup, and the crowd is receptive. All is well so far. But, now it’s time for networking, and a swarm of people wants to talk with you.
Yes, some of them may offer worthwhile feedback and contacts, but some may pepper you with tough questions or, worse, hog your time while others are waiting to chat with you.
How do you navigate this networking scrum? How do you manage the throng in order to find helpful connections?
To find out, we talked to people involved with Babson College’s Summer Venture Program, an intensive, 10-week entrepreneurial experience that aims to accelerate the development of student ventures. The program culminates in a showcase, where participants give presentations about their startups and then mingle and network with attendees.
What can be taken away from their showcase experiences? Here are four networking tips for entrepreneurs.
1. Have a Goal
When facing a networking opportunity, entrepreneurs should have a goal, and one that is realistic.
“Your goal is around intros and referrals and getting customers,” says Cindy Klein Marmer MBA’02, co-director of the Summer Venture Program, which this year saw the 15th cohort in its history. “Even if you are seeking investment, it is unlikely that someone will pull out a checkbook in that moment. Instead, it is about getting that next meeting with them.”
At the Summer Venture Showcase, the team behind Lou Adventures, a learning platform that helps children develop reading and literacy skills, was hoping to make connections with teachers, librarians, and education leaders. So, at the end of its pitch, the team directly asked the audience if they had any such contacts.
“This ask sparked conversations with attendees that approached us after the pitch to offer their connections,” says Nicole Finkielsztein MBA’24, who founded Lou Adventures with her brother, Alex.
The team behind PetPax Co., a pet supplement and wellness brand, had two goals in mind at the showcase. First, it was looking for orders, offering a steep discount for folks signing up. Additionally, it was seeking opinions.
“It was so exciting to have so much access to people who have no connection to me or PetPax,” says Anthony Gatti MBA’24, who co-founded the venture with Nathan Ruff MBA’23. “Many of them were happy to give us their honest opinion.” To network with so many people at the showcase allowed PetPax to perform some informal market research. “You can start to get a better sense of what people have reservations about, are excited about, or absolutely love about your business,” Gatti says.
2. Keep an Open Mind
When people approach after a pitch, entrepreneurs should be receptive and listen to any questions they may have. “Respect the fact that people are taking the time,” says Marmer, who is also the associate director of The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. “There may be a lot of people at the presentation who have the same question, but not everyone will come over and talk to you.”
Sometimes, those questions may be tough. They may challenge and provoke, but entrepreneurs should make sure to listen anyway. “Even if you disagree in the moment, you want to be perceptive and curious,” Marmer says. “They may be sharing proven practices that are hard earned from their own experience. They might have considerations or thoughts on how things could be different.”
Never be dismissive, even if someone, on first blush, doesn’t seem to have much help to offer. “Each person is another future customer or advisor or advocate for your business,” Marmer says. “You never know who they know and who they can connect you to. They may have contacts and relationships that can move your business forward.”
3. Connect with Everyone
Entrepreneurs may want to network with as many people as possible after a pitch, but that’s not always easy. Sometimes a talkative person may approach and monopolize their time, even though there’s a line of others waiting to speak with them. In this case, entrepreneurs can try to bring the others who are waiting into the conversation as well. “Enroll others so it’s not one on one,” Marmer says.
Otherwise, look for a way to end the overlong conversation. If necessary, entrepreneurs can be honest and say they don’t want to lose the opportunity to talk with others. “You can take the conversation offline,” Marmer says.
If entrepreneurs are worried about missing out on connecting with people, they can put a QR code with their contact info at their table or booth. An old-fashioned signup sheet also works. After their pitch at the showcase, Gatti and Ruff split up to maximize their networking, with one of them manning their booth and the other socializing with attendees in the hall.
4. Follow Up
The final networking tip for entrepreneurs focuses on a critical next step: following up.
Finkielsztein wastes no time in reaching out to people she met after a pitch or presentation. “Timing is essential,” she says. “I want to follow up with someone within a few days of the event to ensure that the event is still on their mind when we connect.” Likewise, Gatti sends out a simple email to everyone he meets at an event, adding something personal to each message if he can.
“Each person is another future customer or advisor or advocate for your business. You never know who they know and who they can connect you to. They may have contacts and relationships that can move your business forward.”
Cindy Klein Marmer, co-director of the Summer Venture Program at Babson
Making LinkedIn connections, sending out a company newsletter, or inviting people to coffee are other ways to keep a conversation going with new contacts, Marmer says. She cautions entrepreneurs, however, about worrying too much about the timeliness of their follow-ups.
Yes, sooner is better, but entrepreneurs are extremely busy. If they take awhile to send a follow-up email, they shouldn’t worry about it. “Follow up when you can,” Marmer says. “In most cases, people are open to having that email come at a later time.”