BlogHer has held events for seven years now, and all of them have something special about them. The Annual (we'll have our EIGHTH this year!!) in the summer is like a wedding--It's overwhelming, and yet, the show must go on. I always end up feeling like I didn't get to speak to anyone for any substantive length of time.
Our smaller events are equally important, but feel less formal. For instance, with BlogHer Food I'm more an observer who moderates a panel from time to time. I get to experience more of these events as an attendee experiences them.
BlogHer Entrepreneur is a special case. This is a relatively new event we launched last year. It's small--made for 100 attendees and 50 mentors--women and a few men who have launched successful careers as VCs, entrepreneurs, and business heads who generously donate their time to meet with aspiring female entrepreneurs. It's also the event that from a content standpoint I now relate to the most.
I moderated three panels: 1. The Ask, or the art of networking when you are growing your company and need funding and advice; 2. Selling, or more accurately, selling when you don't consider yourself a salesperson (something most entrepreneurs must do at some point in their company's trajectory, if not throughout); and 3. Partnerships, or as I jokingly refer to it, keeping the marriage alive.
All of my panels elicited thoughts about how I have handled all three topics. In particular, the networking panel made me think about how I developed a "networking mojo" without ever really thinking of it that way. For an entrepreneur, networking is breathing. We're always asking for advice or a contact. Sometimes we ask for money. But now, being on the other side of the ask, where I'm asked for things by potential business partners and entrepreneurs, I've encountered both good, bad, and mensa-mensa networking.
I have made it a point to help others like I was helped to grow my business, but some people are a lot easier to help. Some people I meet with leave me inspired to help; others leave me confused. In gathering my thoughts for my panel I forced myself to organize my thoughts more around what works and what doesn't. I believe that one of the reasons that networking attempts fail is failure of the asker to think through what she wants from a contact. Now, it's fair to say that we don't always know what we want, but if we actively approach someone, we ought to be clear about what we want, even if that contact ends up not being one who can provide it.
A structure that can help organize an "ask" is to look at types of contacts in your network. I have identified these:
1. Educators: These are often early-stage contacts who help you home in on what you want to accomplish with your business. I had the pleasure of meeting women at BlogHer Entrepreneurs who had not even worked in the industry in which they were growing a business. They needed to understand the nuts and bolts of their new industry by meeting with folks who, say, had built a piece of technology, or negotiated a seed funding deal. Educators may not be the people who ultimately advise or fund your company, but they help to make you a whole lot smarter about your business before you do go out and ask for advice or funding. They also tend to be the most under-appreciated components of a network--subject to short-sighted wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am infoseekers who buy them coffee and then never follow up. That's just asking for bad karma!
2. Connectors: These are people who simply know a lot of people--and a lot of people who want to know the people they know. The mistake that anyone could make with a connector is to take their easy-breezy e-intros for granted. Fact is, connectors will lose their ability to connect--for themselves as well as others--if they constantly put people together without much thought about the quality of their intro. I, for instance, won't intro anyone if I don't know something about her. I preface all of this with a big, fat "it depends", but I can say for certain that I won't intro people because they are sisters of cousins of friends. That person needs to share why they need to be intro'd. And even then I may still not intro them, if I'm not convinced that the connectee has something of value to the person they are seeking to be connected to.
I have a personal disdain for responding to notes from people I hardly know who are putting me together with someone they hardly know. Connectors who don't screen requests or protect their networks are not good connectors. Networkers should only seek out good connectors who require you to do some legwork before connecting them. Ask a connector if you can provide a paragraph of background on your business and bio. I will not always use every word you send me, but I appreciate your saving me time I don't have for crafting an intro.
3. Inspirers: These are folks that you may have read about or seen speak somewhere, and they infuse you with energy to pursue your company or strategy. This is someone you emulate or, perhaps, is even an example of the type of entrepreneur you want to be. This kind of person might be famous or not, realistic to grab coffee with or not, but regardless of whether or not you have an opportunity to meet this person face to face, the ask should not be a very tactical one. There may not even be an ask, other than for their story and perspective. If I ever did get my chance to sit down with Oprah Winfrey, for example, I would not ask her for the name of her accountant. I might, however, ask her if she'd known when she started her famous talk show that it would set the standard for personal development media. And how does she divine what to do next?
4. Advisors: I love to share a pithy bit of advice my business partner, Lisa Stone, received when we decided to seek a first round of venture funding: If you want advice, ask for money; if you want money, ask for advice. Be careful going to someone you don't really want advice from, but rather funding. Funders want to see what you already know, not how much you still need to know. Advisors are folks who very well may decide to fund you or refer you to a key contact, but for whom you are willing to open the kimono a bit in order to really learn something.
When we went out for our first round, we met with VCs and entrepreneurs with whom we could openly share our business plan and vulnerabilities. The point was not to get their funding, but to position ourselves to better approach the marketplace before we actively fundraised. It was hugely helpful and, I think, a key reason why we were not traumatized or fleeced by accepting a first, second, and third round of capital.
5. Sponsors: Like advisors, sponsors are not necessarily funders, but could be. Sponsors' role is to actively vouch for you in the marketplace. For a contact to be a sponsor they need to have worked with you, or been exposed to enough of your work to be willing to vouch for you. They really are your fairy godmothers and godfathers, though to be clear, their role is not to simply wave their magic wand and insist to their powerful friends that you really are the next Zuckerberg. You still need to work to be in their good graces. Think of the people for whom you've done extraordinary work, someone who really believes you deserve a shot. Not all of us can ID a true sponsor. That's why there's been such a push in women's business circles to find not just a mentor, per se, but a sponsor. Mentors mean well but can't or won't always take that next step and say to the world, "I am willing to stick my neck out for this gal."
6. Funders: These make up the other end of the networking spectrum from advisors, even if in some cases they are one of the same. You want to have your intros, business model, executive summary locked, loaded, and ready to go before you seek these contacts. I recall an aspiring entrepreneur who had asked to meet with me for advice on starting a business. Imagine my surprise when she showed me her one-page business plan and asked if I'd be interested in buying her unborn company! Where do I start? I couldn't even reasonably refer her to anyone after that. It's one thing to refer someone to a funding source who's simply not a fit with your business, it's another to send a drippy, unbaked cake over to a respected friend, and wish them luck.
But while funders want to know that you've adequately thought through your business model and actively researched, if not tested, your business premise (nothing helps more than a track record, even if a short/small one), they also don't want to be yes'ed to death with a lot of bullshit. You need to be confident and knowledgeable with funders, but if you don't know the answer to something, say I don't know. If the funder uncovers a vulnerability, acknowledge it. They aren't seeking perfection, but, as Brad Feld shared with us at BlogHer Entrepreneurs, are mostly interested in your thought process.
We have a terrific corporate board. Three of our board represent our funders. They have actively helped us to grow our business. They weren't seeking perfection when they funded us (though I'm sure they wouldn't have complained if that were the case); they sought enough of a model and track record to put reasonable faith and investment into our company. But please, folks, you have to be reasonable and have enough behind you before you engage.