Tech conference season is in full swing - we just wrapped CES, and Mobile World Congress, GDC and SXSW are looming large. If you know how to network, it’s a season of opportunity. If you don’t know how to network, it’s time to start addressing this deficiency and recognizing that it’s an important part of growing your business. As an Indie dev, you need to do it all -- coding, sound design, pixel art, marketing, monetization, you name it. Networking is just another tool you need in your tool belt.
Chatting people up at events may seem somewhat frivolous, but it’s a crucial skill to have in business today when so much relies on partnerships, and when most people work at a host of different places during their careers. Whether you’re comfortable networking or you need to bone-up, conferences like GDC offer chances to shine and make productive connections that will move your business forward -- whether through partnerships or just knowledge gained.
Networking can pave the way for new and valuable deals and make the connection that you need to take the next step in your career. Research indicates that networking has a dramatic effect on job retention, increases in salary, and even satisfaction on the job.
But you have to learn how to do it well. Here are my tips for successful networking, at GDC or any conference.
Tip #1: Do your homework.
Check the attendee list and identify with whom you’d like to connect. Sometimes this information is public, but often not. You can reach out to the organizer before the event and request an attendee list, but what you’ll get varies depending on the event. Whatever you have to go on, you have to dig in on researching attendees before it starts.
Determine your personal goals for the conference, whether they include hiring for a new position, finding a brand to align with for business development, or searching for a new job. Then identify people or companies who you think could help you -- or that you can help, because it works both ways! Use Google and LinkedIn to confirm that the appropriate person to speak with. You won’t have time to research all the people on any attendee list, but at the very least, give it a read and make sure you’re familiar with it.
Tip #2: Arrive early.
The ripest time to network -- to have genuine, productive conversations -- is at the beginning of an event, as people are coming in, before they’ve settled in with people they already know. It’s always tempting to show up fashionably late, but strategically you want to arrive when other attendees are a bit adrift. They’re looking for people to connect with and talk to during the slightly awkward time before the event really gets going, and that’s an ideal time to connect. Approaching people early on also demonstrates assertiveness and consideration. No one likes to be stuck in a corner alone, and anyone you approach and engage in conversation will remember you for reaching out. Strike up a conversation.
Someone whom you meet early in the gathering could even help you network later on by introducing you to their colleagues or boss who just arrived. In a sense, you can create a micro network at the event which can serve your long-term networking goals.
Tip #3: Be passionate, be reciprocal.
When you’re networking, it’s really important to convey enthusiasm about what you do and your interests. But you also don’t want to be too intense; that can get tiresome quickly. Make sure you listen at least as much as you talk. Demonstrating that you’re a good listener indicates thoughtfulness and perceptiveness, both of which are important in business.
Sometimes it can be tricky when you have a highly successful game title because while you want to tout your successes, you also need to allow room for other people to convey excitement about their work as well. As I mentioned before, networking works both ways -- I absolutely believe in karma when it comes to networking.
Tip #4: Ask good questions.
During your research in Tip #1, jot down a few good questions -- questions that indicate that you have genuinely thought about (or read about) a company or a particular business challenge. Good questions will demonstrate your knowledge of the industry, and they will indicate to whomever you are speaking with that you are curious -- always a good thing.
The worst cliché at a networking event is “So, what do you do?” You might as well talk about the weather. My favorite generic icebreaker that’s a different spin on that question is “So, what are you working on?” When you phrase it this way, the question can be taken to mean whatever the subject wants to talk about -- the macro or the micro. But it shows that you are interested in what they are doing, as a person or a company.
The best questions though? Remember that homework you did after reading Tip #1? Get specific with your icebreakers. Ask people about their company’s new product that just shipped, or congratulate them on the recent funding round they closed.
Tip #5: Follow up!
Within 48 hours of the event, reach out to people whom you met via email and/or LinkedIn. Refresh their memory with an allusion to something you talked about, e.g. “Great chatting about your experiences at X corporation.”
Kind of common sense, right? You’d think! But in all my experience in networking and collecting business cards, relevant follow-ups are exceedingly rare. But this dearth is your opportunity: your follow-up will stand out. And forget about the empty “I’d like you to join my professional network on LinkedIn” generic invitations. Customize your message to show that connecting is important to you.
Networking is a skill that can be developed over time. It’s also the social glue that business relies on. Good networking skills are always rooted in doing your homework beforehand so you know who you want to connect with and what to talk to them about. Arrive early at an event in order to have good conversations before the environment gets too busy or distracting, and then, once you are in a conversation, temper your enthusiasm about your own work with good questions and listening skills. Finally, be sure to follow up with anyone you’ve connected with quickly. Since networking is a skill you develop -- a slow-boil rather than a lightning strike -- get out and start hustling. Conference season is the perfect opportunity to hone these skills so you can start off 2016 on the right foot.