Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What is Common Here May Be Innovative There

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun. Every storyline has been written. Every idea has been developed. All that remains in rearranging old ideas into new.

Well that's depressing.

Or is it? What if that means that to be creative you don't have to do something entirely new that has never been done before. It just means that you have to introduce something old to something new.

When I ran Phoenix Games, we did a series of movie showings. We would buy out the entire theater of 286 seats on opening night then resell those tickets to creative a private showing of movies like X-Men 2, Matrix Reloaded, and Return of the King. It was an awesome time, and a very unique experience for everyone involved.

It was also not my idea. A DJ named Todd Mayhew did it first, and I took over the idea from him when I started running my store. Flash forward to the present. I am working with a local cinema to get some excitement going for their establishment. I bring back the idea of special movie showings for opening nights of some geekier movies, working with local businesses to promote the special showings and adding to the geek cachet.

As I approached the local businesses, they were generally positive about the project, but found the idea entirely unfamiliar and new. Some of these people had been involved in the geek community for decades, yet had never done anything like this.

Sometimes, being an innovating genius is nothing more than taking a commonly known idea from one place to a new place.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Making the Most of Business After Hours Networking

They say that in business, it's not what you know, it's who you know. Some people use that axiom as an excuse for failure, but I simply see it as a fact of business. If who you know is very important, and you don't know the right people, what do you do about it? Meet the right people!

One of the best ways to start making connections is an open networking event. Most chambers of commerce run something similar. Some call it "Business After Hours" others call it "After 5". Whatever it is called, the structure is the same. A member organization looking to show off what they do hosts the event, which runs every month or so at different venues. There is generally food and drink provided, and a whole bunch of people show up and put on name tags.

The after hours networking event.
Valuable opportunity or terrifying
chore, depending on your
This can be one of the most valuable and rewarding or terrifying and stultifying events you will encounter depending on how you approach it.

The first thing to do before you even show up is to prepare. Be sure that your look is the look that you want the business community to know you by. If you are a creative type who always wears jeans and a polo, and that's how you want people to know you, you can wear that. If you want to appeal to the professionals and bankers and lawyers, you'll want a suit, or at least a nice button down shirt. Whatever look you are going for, make sure it is neat. Tousled hair, 3 days beard growth, and ratty sneakers will not give anyone confidence in your business.

If you have business cards, make sure to bring them. If you don't, get them printed. They're cheap, and they are a very good way to start the conversation.

Finally, figure out what your goal is in attending the function. Are you looking for clients? Are you looking for networking partners who can help introduce you to clients? Are you looking for other people in your industry with whom you can share ideas? Are you looking to enjoy the company of other business people because it's a nice change from the office? Depending on what your goal is, you will want to adopt a different approach to the event.

If you are lucky, you have a friend to introduce you around. Most chambers have "ambassadors" who introduce new people around. If you have someone like that to guide you, then you are in good shape, assuming that your guide can introduce you to the people you are looking to meet.

If there is a specific individual you are looking to meet or someone from a specific company, ask a member of the host chamber if they could introduce you. It is much easier to get an introduction to a specific person than an introduction to some people.

The experience of a new person without a guide is often the same: you walk in, possibly knowing one or two people. Maybe knowing no one at all. Everyone seems to know each other. They are all standing in little knots of twos and threes and none of them seem particularly interested in talking to you. Some people, at this point, will start to think of the group as cliquish, and write it off as just a bunch of old buddies getting together, making it hard to meet anyone. Resist that temptation.

Of course, they are not particularly interested in talking to you. They don't know who you are, what you do, or what you have to offer. It's your job to create interest. (You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?) If you have someone to introduce you, the introduction can create the interest. If you are on your own, however, it's up to you. So, how do you meet people at an event where everyone seems to be engaged in conversation?

While the food is often phenomenal,
you came here to build your business,
not feed your face.
Everyone at a networking event is wearing a nametag, and most of them are there to network and meet new people. Most of them are also just as shy about walking up to new people as you are. The difference is that they know people there, so, where your alternative to meeting new people is holding up a wall, their alternative to meeting new people is talking to the ones they already know.

Now, that you understand that most of the people there actually are open to meeting you, let's meet some people. Find a clot of people who are of interest to you. Perhaps the business indicated on their nametag tells you that they would be someone good to meet. Perhaps they are the group standing closest to you. It doesn't matter, you will meet lots of people in the next two hours.

Approach the group, and observe their body language. Most people at these events are engaged in casual conversation, but some might be trying to conduct some sort of business or at least formally introduce themselves in preparing for future business relations. If that seems to be what is going on, then you might want to move on to the next group. You are less likely to make a good impression if you interrupt what was developing into a valuable opportunity for those you are interrupting.

A glass of wine might help you relax
and be more open to approaching
people, but remember you are here
for business. Stay sharp, not
I discussed cliquishness earlier. That happens between people who have known each other a long time. If people know each other, they won't be talking serious business at their after hours event. They'll be chatting about golf and that thing that happened last year and kids and wives and cars. In other words, the clique standing around talking might be more open to being interrupted because they are more likely to be shooting the breeze, while the newer members, just meeting people and feeling out opportunities, may be harder to break into a conversation with.

So, let's say that you are approaching a group, and you find a break in the conversation. Often, a member of the group will notice you standing there, and draw you into the conversation. Since the only thing they really know about you is what's on your name tag, they will often start there. "So, Michael, what's Concardia?" I am often asked by way of introduction. Have your business card ready to hand to them as you explain what you do.

This is what the "elevator speech" is for. Be prepared to explain your business in 30 seconds or less. One or two sentences is better if you can do it, especially if they are crafted to elicit the response of "oh, really, that's interesting. Tell me more." You'll know you are doing it well if your business becomes the seed of the next conversation more often than not. After a polite amount of discussion of what you do and what you are looking for, turn it around and ask them what they do.

If no one starts the conversation, and if no obvious segue comes up to enter the conversation, wait for a lull in their talk and use the networking pick up line I described above. "So, Susan, what is Phillipson Associates?"  or "So, Robert, what do you do with Liberty Mutual?" There are few things wrapped up in this introduction. You are saying:

  • "I am interested in you and what you do."
  • "I am giving you the floor of this conversation for a moment to talk about yourself."
  • "Please tell me what you are looking for so I can see if I can help you with it."
  • "When you are done talking about you, I hope you will reciprocate with the opportunity to talk about me"
Your mission at these events is not to make sales. It is not even necessarily to make appointments to meet later. You have a very short 90-120 minutes to meet as many people as you can. During your time with each person you meet, your job is to arouse interest and get their card so that you can follow up and arrange an appointment to meet later. We'll talk about networking appointments in a future article.

If you approach an open networking event well prepared and equipped with a goal, you will come into a room seeing dozens of potential business contacts with whom you will have valuable, long lasting relationships. If you come in ill-prepared and unplanned, you will see a noisy, crowded room full of unfriendly strangers.

I attend the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours events regularly. If you are in Eastern Connecticut and would like some introductions, drop me a line. I'll be happy to help!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Lesson I Learned from Fum and Gebra

The Internet is full of funny cat videos, but this particular montage of Fum (a cat) and Gebra (a barn owl) being friends well exemplifies a very interesting lesson.

As you may be aware, cats eat birds and anything else small enough for them to eat without having to worry about being eaten. Cats are also somewhat social, so once they learn that another animal is neither food nor foe, they can be friends. (In fact, I am writing this with a very friendly cat in my lap.)

For more Fum & Gebra,
you can visit them on
While I was watching this video, I began to wonder why Fum did not try to eat Gebra in the first place. I realized that it was a matter of confidence. Gebra knew that he was not cat food, so he acted accordingly. Fum, seeing that Gebra did not act like food, began to treat him as an equal and eventually they became adorable friends.

I suspect that very few of my readers are owls looking to learn how to befriend a cat. However, I expect that many of my readers have situations in which they need to introduce themselves and establish relationships, possibly above their station.

Station? There's no "station" in America. We live in an egalitarian culture! No nobility! No aristocracy! No titles! And if you believe that, try to meet Warren Buffet.

But wait a minute. What if you wanted to meet Warren Buffet? Why couldn't you? In my life, I have met many impressive people. Writers, actors, politicians. When I went to UMass, I had a half hour sit down with the Chancellor of the 40,000 student institution.

If you tried to go meet Warren Buffet, you might find difficulty because you are not a sufficiently august personage to meet someone like that, but how does he know how august you are? This is America. It's not about your pedigree. It's not about who your family is or where you come from. So, how can someone know what your social position is? Easy, you tell them.

Maybe this is a nice guy who cares
about his customers, but you won't
stick around long enough to find out.
You tell people your social position every day, all the time. You tell them by how you dress, how you speak, how you act, how you carry yourself. Sales became a much easier challenge for me when I learned this. It can be difficult to get to a decision maker at a business if you act like and present yourself as a sales person. Who wants to talk time from their busy schedule to talk to a salesman selling something?

The best place to see this phenomenon is in the dating scene. People will often look at someone that they are interested in and figure that person is "out of their league." The secret is that no one knows what their own league is. They only know that they are out of your league because of the way you present yourself to them. If you can think of yourself as attractive and desirable and project that image (without being a cocky jerk, of course) then the game changes.

Think about this. The only objective way to know your own attractiveness (by which I mean a combination of physical and other traits) is by the quality of suitors who approach you. However, since most people underestimate their own attractiveness, they tend not to approach people they consider out of their league. If most people think that way, then the most attractive people would actually get less attention, except from people with an over inflated sense of themselves.

Knowing this, in any encounter where you are meeting someone for the first time, for business or personal reasons, why would you present yourself as anything less that highly desirable.

This does not mean that you should be cocky or arrogant. Those are not confidence. Those are warning flags for a lack of confidence. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and the key is to identify with your strength. If you want to meet with Warren Buffet because you believe that you have something of value to offer, don't think of yourself as a nobody trying to meet with a rich and powerful person. Think of yourself as a person with something of value to offer. Both are true, but only one is someone who might get that meeting.

This guy is a Problem Solver. The
beard is a key part of the look. Grow
a beard and don't look like a salesman.
He also has a perfect record of
convincing cats on the first meeting
that he is friend, not food.
Since nobody wants to talk to a salesman, I stopped being a salesman. I started being a problem solver. When I needed to speak to the general manager of a local movie theater recently, I walked up to the counter and said, "I need to speak to the general manager." A minute later, I was talking to her. When I got my job at Valenti Motors, I walked in the front door, went to the receptionist and said, "I'm here for a sales position." A minute later, I was sitting with the general manager.

People find out what you are from what you show them. If you have something to offer, then approach with confidence. If you believe that you are a great candidate for the job, then you are doing them a favor by allowing them the chance to hire you. If you are selling a good product that solves a problem, then you are doing them a favor by allowing them a chance to consider it. If you are not confident that you have something of value to offer, why are you wasting their time?

The world does not know if you are the kind of bird that they eat or the kind of bird they make friends with until you tell them. Why tell them that you are the kind of bird they eat?