Don’t be creepy or weird: An insider’s guide to networking

lintmachine | Flickr via Creative Commons

Colorado’s technorati made the pilgrimage to Sports Authority Field Thursday for the gonzo networking event, C-Level. Top shelf IT executives gave us the scoop on how startups can stand out among the throng.

The premiere Colorado Technology Association event holds lessons good for any number of large and small networking events. Four veterans of C-Level spilled their secrets on best approaches for meeting new people and some not so memorable moments from the annals of introduction failure.

Don’t be creepy or weird
Aspenware CEO Josh Swihart once received a handcrafted, over-sized bullet made by someone he met following a business networking event. What really took it over the top into stalker territory? The bullet chamber housed a parody biography of Swihart.

“They wrote an article like they were a reporter for The Onion and stuck it inside this bullet,” explains Swihart. They knew my name, my interests and wrote this whole backstory. It was creepy. It looks like a giant phallic.”

“I keep it in my office because it’s such a crackup,” Swihart says.

Along with showing off your arts and craft talents of questionable propriety, over-sharing and that sense of friendly familiarity gets blurred a lot by the rise of social media too.

“It might be a little strange if somebody came up to me and started pointing out things I post on Facebook,” says Teresa Foster, Chief Financial Officer of Business Controls, Inc.

Best bets: Don’t assume your sense of humor is shared by the person you’re meeting. Social media can create a level of knowledge about a person that’s best left online and not shared face-to-face.

Relax
Embrace your inner nerd self.

Foster sums it up with straightforward advice: “Just relax. We’re all normal people and probably just as nervous.”

Frank Daidone, IT Director at Chipotle is a networking veteran and has seen it all.

“There are people that will just lay back and stare at you,” Daidone recalls from his four years participating in C-Level. “They’re like stalkers. It’s weird.”

For folks approaching Daidone keep your introduction focused and have a smile on your face. Act like you’re glad to be there and you’re excited about your business.

“We all know we’re in the shark tank,” says Daidone.

Best bets: Your startup’s success does not ride on one night of collecting business cards and charming IT decision makers. It’s only high pressure if you approach it that way.

Have a plan
Go ahead, gather a dossier of information worthy of a CIA background check on the folks you’re trying to meet if it makes you feel more confident. But there’s no need to rat yourself out. Reciting your reconnaissance can feel a little freaky to the recipient.

Swihart recommends having a knock out question to pose to the people you meet.

“Come up with a question that is very informational,” says Swihart. Not a general question—like how are you or what kind of projects do you have—but one that shows a level of understanding about the business that they’re in.”

Four-time entrepreneur and Dizzion CEO Steve Prather takes a more circumspect approach to C-Level—a smart take that works for other networking events too.

“It’s an unbelievable cool forum,” he says. “They’re there to build a local ecosystem that creates very high quality, high level relationships.”

Following Prather’s line of reasoning: Doing your part to strengthen the ecosystem of Colorado tech companies puts your own networking into sharper perspective. Be of service to others before you go looking for help. Offer advice. Connect interesting people together. Support your fellow startup and trade group events.

Best bets: Study up on the people you want to meet. But spend more time getting to know their companies. Have that killer question in your back pocket that demonstrates your interest in helping them solve a problem.

Don’t overdo it at the bar
A shot of liquid courage might help calm your nerves but no when to say when.

PBR breath is not cool. Ladies, using the swizzle stick as a straw, stop it. And hatching an idea to handcraft a bullet with a funny followup note may sound like a great idea after you chase back several cold ones. Yeah, not.

Prather and Swihart also mentioned it but Daidone tells it like it is: Have a drink then lay off the bar.

Best bets: Grab a beverage and then walk away from the crowd gathering around the drink station. Bonus: You’re likely to have the bigwigs and event veterans to yourself while everybody else liquors up. Oh, and hold your drink in your left hand so your handshake isn’t cold and clammy.

Don’t violate the law of first impressions
The night before a big networking event is probably not the best time to get that body art you’ve always longed for.

According to Foster, “Sometimes the more piercings and tattoos, the more talented the person. But it’s tough to get through first impressions with older, more established executives who’ve been around the block.”

Best bets: Search for photos of previous events and check out how people are dressed. Are people rocking business casual or startup casual?