The Exponential Upside of Events


Nederland, Amsterdam, 24 september 2009 picnic, picnic09, networking, event, westergasfabriek Foto: Thomas Schlijper

I was recently read a blog post that was particularly negative on the upside of events. The premise is that most events are a waste of time and I cannot necessarily disagree having gone to plenty of questionable ones in the past. So what actually constitutes a quality event that would be worth one’s time?

We live increasing busy lives where time is at a premium.  How often do we find ourselves saying “I don’t have time for that” or “if I just had a bit more time”?  That includes me, and so the day is always a constant balancing act between the plans for the day, competing priorities, and the occasional fire drills.

My free time these days is pretty limited.  That makes it all the more important that I spend that time wisely, and events get particular scrutiny.  With a growing plethora of events nowadays in NYC and elsewhere, choosing what to attend can be challenging.  Every day I am getting notices about new meet-up groups and events, and it only seems to be accelerating.

That is why getting stuck at a bad event can be so frustrating.  You are losing time in 2 ways; the time lost traveling to and attending the event as well as the opportunity cost of not spending time on more productive activities.  Therefore, over the years, I developed a method of categorizing events as “High Value” or “Low Value.”

It might be helpful to reiterate what is so important about attending events.  I believe networking is strategic to your professional development.  Just as you would study or train to build up your skills, networking is a way of generating social capital and expanding your influence.  You can have incredible skills, but without a network, few will ever notice because no one is around to see all that you accomplish.  That was the revolution of social networking, the allure of reality TV and the power behind great events.

In order to find those great events, it is useful to have some guidelines to help us choose what events to attend.  Here is how I view “High Value” and “Low Value” events:

High Value Events have all the factors that one looks for in a quality event. The crowd is solid, there is engaging and thought-provoking discussion, and the vibe is energetic.  You come away from such an event thinking that you learned something valuable and that you met interesting people that you would want to stay in touch with.  Some of the best connections you can make in your career can come from attending High Value Events.

Low Value Events are the types of events that immediately have you thinking you made a huge mistake. Whether it is the odd grouping of people, the lack of focus of the event or the poor choice of venue, the only thing you can think of is your escape plan.  You come away from such an experience feeling cheated that you wasted your time and nothing was gained from attending other than the opportunity to send out a lot of snarky tweets.

When you attend a High Value event, you place yourself in an environment that exponentially creates opportunities.  Think of events like TED and Davos, where you are not only listening to thought-provoking content, but you are engaged in thought-provoking conversations with people that are changing the world.  Sometimes these conversations lead to collaborations and business deals and partnerships that change the entire course of your life.

It is said that people make their own luck.  Quoting Seneca, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  High Value events are the platform for the type of serendipity that connects your preparation (all of your skills and knowledge and experience) with a room full of opportunity.  Just as Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz, shares, many of your best contacts will come out of events, the types of contacts that positively influence your future prospects.

In order to avoid getting caught in the vortex of awful events, use the following criteria to identity the types of events that place you in environments with exponential upside:

Why should you attend? — You should have some purpose in taking time out of your day, whether it is to learn more about some topics, to meet new people in your industry, catch up with folks in your network, etc. Don’t just attend an event for the sake of attending or because a few friends are also attending.

What is the agenda, what are the topics and who are the speakers? — Is the topic of interest and the agenda sensible? Sometimes the topic sounds interesting, but you should dig into the details to ensure that the agenda and speakers match up to the promise of the topic. Note that sometimes the topic might not be of interest, but a great speaker can draw a quality crowd for networking purposes.

Who is organizing the event? — Much can be learned by doing some cursory checking of the person or organization that is hosting the event. If they have a solid reputation and have hosted such events in the past with success, then chances are the event will be worthwhile.

Is the event open or exclusive  — an open event is not a bad thing as you have the opportunity to meet new people outside of your network. The advantage of an invite only event is that it tends to be more exclusive, with an attendee list that is curated by the event organizers to be more relevant and targeted.  Some straddle the fence by using “gating” tactics such as charging fees or targeting a specific niche to ensure attendees are legitimate.

What is the size of the community? — A large community increases the diversity of people and ideas, but also can get unwieldy to manage and maintain focus. A small community is more targeted and generally has people that are more of like-mind and purpose, but if it is too small then the events are going to be poorly attended.

How many people are attending? — Large events can be fun, but are rather chaotic at the same time. In an event with hundreds of people, it is hard to know how to navigate the crowd and who you might want to talk to. Mid-sized events that are around 30-to-70 people are a good size for facilitating conversation and interactivity, and you have a realistic chance of meeting and talking to most of the other attendees.  The tipping point is around 100 people, and then the quality of interaction tends to plummet pretty quickly.

Paid admittance or free? — If an event is paid and they are still getting strong attendance, then you know that people value the event and that attendance will be strong. With a free event, you can never be sure how many people will attend or bow out at the last minute.

Who else is going? — Event organizing sites like Meetup, Eventbrite, etc. as well as social network sites like Facebook and LinkedIn sometimes allow you to see who else is attending. If there are people that you really want to meet attending a certain event, that might in and of itself make the event worthwhile to attend.

Is it only for networking? — Networking is important, but should not be the exclusive purpose of the event. Most “networking” events tend to attract the type of people that are all about networking for the sake of networking and the whole vibe is way too forced.  Unless it is a very tight-knit and exclusive community, general networking events are simply lousy experiences.

Other red flags — Some events just scream “Low Value.” Be careful of events with gimmicks like “speed-dating” or contests, charging a high cost of entry, incessantly sends out spammy requests by organizers and attendees, and anything that makes audacious claims like guaranteeing you will find the perfect co-founder, eternal inner peace, or massive wealth.

Using these criteria may not save you from attending the occasional dud of an event, but you will save yourself a lot of agony and frustration in the future.  You will be much more focused on attending worthwhile events that give you the opportunity to experience that exponential upside.

If you are in B2B sales, I would recommend checking out a local chapter of the Enterprise Sales Meetup, a community for sales professionals to share ideas, network with peers and learn from accomplished sales leaders.




Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by PICNIC_Network

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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