4 Tools to Maximize Your Time at This Year’s Startup Conferences

“Learn all you can and develop all the tools you can for your toolbox — you never know when you’re going to need them.”

I was fortunate enough to hear these words of advice from Nicole Forbes, my mentor. I met Nicole for the first time at the 2013 South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual, week-long event in Austin, Texas, that features film, interactive media, music, conferences and mentorship sessions.

At the time, Nicole was Razorfish’s business development manager, and I was in charge of my company’s marketing and business development team. While we’ve since both moved into other leadership roles, I’ve never forgotten her suggestion. In fact, I attribute much of my success to her counsel. Had I not participated in that conference (a relatively mundane decision that has had profound consequences), who knows what role I’d have today.

Therein lies a powerful lesson: If you’re serious about taking your game to the next level, you owe it to yourself to attend conferences, events and networking sessions. Of course, you have to know which to attend and how to make each moment count. Otherwise, you’ll miss serendipitous opportunities like my connection with Nicole and wind up squandering some future possibilities without even knowing they exist.

Related: How to Build Relationships That Matter

Can’t-miss conferences that belong on your radar

Most areas of the country host tons of smaller local events that leaders can attend throughout the year. While these are invaluable, especially when it comes to networking and integrating with your immediate community, your list for this year should also include a few national events. Three of my favorites are SXSW, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Summit, and the Inc. 5000.

I touched on SXSW earlier, which begins today and runs through March 18. The Small Business Summit is held in Washington, D.C., and runs from September 10 through September 13. It’s a great event that brings together founders, entrepreneurs and idea makers from an array of industries and locations. Much like SXSW and the Small Business Summit, the Inc. 5000 conference, which runs from October 17 through October 19 in San Antonio, is a black-tie experience that also features morning workouts and a golf tournament.

By attracting a bevy of experts and experts-to-be, all three of these events offer entrepreneurs the chances to mingle with like-minded talent and explore companies and opportunities from all over the country. Even though you may have already locked in your dates and booked your flights, it’s not enough just to attend. It’s vital to understand the best ways to maximize your time and ensure that you leave these sojourns with more knowledge, a more expansive network, and clearer sense of your own professional growth when you return to the office.

How can you do that? Here are four strategies leaders can use:

  1. Keep a full dance card

Well before you hop on the plane, check out the schedule of both official and casual conference events. Then, with a sense of what you hope to gain specifically from this event, make a chart of those sessions you feel you should attend, those you want to attend, and those you could attend if your schedule suddenly changes. Making sure that you always double- (or triple-) book means that you have a backup, as many sessions hit capacity early on.

  1. Stop talking to start learning

As a leader, it’s important to listen first, then act. Take this same approach to each event and practice the art of listening. Whether you’re in a curated session or a pre-arranged mentoring appointment, taking the time to hear about new ideas and observing what happens around you is essential. The less your mouth is moving, the more apt you are to recognize the seeds of opportunity and innovation when they present themselves, and the more you can develop your listening skills for when you get back to the office.

  1. Don’t sleep on opportunity

Ironically, the most interesting moments at any event don’t typically occur during formal workshops or scheduled talks. Instead, they’re likely to happen while you’re in the hallway, enjoying a meal, or otherwise “out of character.”

Organic, personal and insightful conversations swirl around at events like these 24/7. However, you’ll only be able to capitalize on them if you’re attuned to these moments of opportunity to connect with others. Moreover, networking with fellow entrepreneurs at these events can help you re-embrace and relearn the power of connecting with your team, an essential trait for any leader.

  1. Stop worrying about the fear of missing out

You’ll see attendees driven by FOMO at every event. They’re the ones with their heads in their phones, trying to stay in touch with the office while simultaneously experiencing the event. Although they seem to be masterful multitaskers — and their social feeds are choked with conferences images and updates — they’re actually the ones who are failing to immerse themselves in the experience.

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So stop worrying about seeing and doing everything. Concentrate on being in the moment. Not only will this allow you to optimize your experience, it will also rejuvenate you when you return to work.

While every year brings a host of events you can use to broaden your professional horizons, make 2018 your year of conference participation. By preparing in advance, listening to people and embracing connections, and living to learn while you’re onsite, you’ll not only grow as a leader, but you may also find yourself in a position where previously undisclosed opportunity is suddenly clear. Put these conferences on your calendar, and maybe I’ll see you there.

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