Great Networking Events

Is networking a skill required by established entrepreneurs? Apparently it is1, even though many entrepreneurs consider themselves too busy doing exactly what they need to do to build their business for the random unplanness of networking.

There are zillions of blogs with advice for attendees on how to navigate the social and logistic challenges of networking. Here, I ponder what differentiates a great event from a mediocre one, inspired because I’ve discovered PitchitTO/York/Durham/etc 2. The Pitchits are 3 for 3, as far as I’m concerned. Being the analytical type, I need to dissect to find the ingredients that makes them so good.

I recommend networking to entrepreneurs for three reasons: learning, community, and building the business. Controlled serendipity is a rush. There’s magic when you bump into the person who:

1. can explain something you’ve been trying to figure out (or you’re the explainer and help someone else), [learning]

2. has the same challenges you do, [community]

3. wants to hire you to do a project you know exactly how to do [business].

Recent examples I experienced from each category:

1. On marketing. Do you find it hard to speak convincingly about your own abilities – key if you provide knowledge-based services? Someone said to me: ‘Consider it a natural ability that you should share.’ Wow! That sounded so much more palatable than pushing services. It turned ‘I’m selling this thing and I think you should buy it’ into ‘Let me help you because I know how’. [learning]

2. Sleepless nights. Even though I do a lot of speaking in front of (sometimes) critical audiences, it makes me nervous. Sometimes, so nervous I can’t sleep. Hearing someone else, a successful, public-speaking someone else, recount the same experience, only worse, gave me great comfort that even when it looks easy, it isn’t. [community]

3. Clients. Yes, I’ve found clients at networking events. [business]

A good networking event makes it easy for every attendee to find people to learn from, share with, and do business with. And this happens how? I won’t pretend to have the perfect recipe, but can make a few observations based on years of attending everything from the dullest events where no one moved from their front-of-the-room-facing seats, to ones that were so high energy I needed several hours to calm down afterward.

Here’s what I think makes a good event:

  1. The right physical space. Find an interesting, quirky setting. Maybe it has natural beauty, sunlight, water, or a forbidden quality. Make it somewhere people feel good. If they have to sit down, have them do it at large tables. Small ones form hard-to-enter cliques. Treat the attendees like house guests. Give them food, drink, bacon even.
  2. Invite well. We all know the marketing rules about reaching the right audience – publicize to find unconnected but like-minded people and those with a breadth of experience from seasoned to fresh out of school. Stack the deck of attendees with people you know will mingle and be inclusive. It’s a numbers thing3 – if enough of the attendees are determined to talk to everyone, then everyone will talk to everyone.
  3. Awesome leadership. It works in large corporations and small, and networking events. Good leadership – vision, coaching and walking the talk, will set the tone. The message should be loud and clear that everyone is there to help each other and learn from each other and do business together (see above three principles).
  4. The Program. Putting effort into crafting a stimulating program will get people talking. Inciting excitement gets the room riled up and ready to chatter.
  5. Fun. The culmination of all of the above, the atmosphere, the attendees, the leadership, and the event schedule, should be fun – enjoying life while making things happen.

Finding networking events that deliver all these things won’t happen all the time. And there is an element of personal fit. Not every venue, topic, or style energizes everyone in the same way. My latest find – the Pitchit events – have all the right elements – atmosphere, appropriate crowd, supportive message from the organizers, presentations every entrepreneur can related to, and serious fun.

Go find the perfect event for you. There will be people there you should know.

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1For example, this academic study suggests so:  Morris, M., Webb, J., Fu, J., Singhal, S. (2013) A Competency-Based Perspective on Entrepreneurship Education: Conceptual and Empirical Insights. Journal of Small Business Management 51(3), pp. 352–369.

2 Pitchit is a new GTA thing where several startups are given ten-ish minutes to present their business to the crowd which contains a variety of potential investors and fellow entrepreneurs.

3There’s a mathematic model here somewhere, but let’s settle for: if there are three people, one of whom is determined to talk to everyone, and the other two who are cliquing, everyone will talk to everyone because the outgoing one will intervene with the other two. To get the idea of how many zealous networkers you should invite: multiple by one third of the number of expected attendees after subtracting the people who look like they are networking but are really running the event. Divide the program time by the time it takes for a good networker to have a conversation. Combine these factors. Do this in hexadecimal and it should predict the logarithm of the number of new dollars invested because of the event. 🙂

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Life Sciences Startups – Some Things are Old, Some Things are New

After more than a decade in the doldrums, life science startups are back in vogue. What’s new and what has stayed the same in the path to commercialization for these early stage companies? Yesterday, I attended an event at MaRS, a panel discussion on the Road to Commercialization in the life sciences.

I cut my business teeth in the biotech boom of the mid ’90s – there’s plenty that’s changed, but certain concepts have prevailed. Based entirely on my recollections of the sector twenty years ago, which may be a little hazy or lop-sided, because that’s the way human recollections are, here is what I see as evolved and entrenched between the life science commercialization of 2015 compared to 1998.

What’s different – the ‘hot’ topics¹. Currently epigenetics, obesity, big data approaches to solving problems. In the past, we’ve been through therapeutic antibodies, vaccines, gene therapy, pharmacogenomics, nanotechnology.

What’s the same – discussion about scarce resources, with generalizations that there is insufficient capital for investment in early stage companies. This may be especially true of the valley of death, the gap in interested investors to support companies between startup and IPO or between in vitro proof of concept/target and first clinical evidence of efficacy.

Different – the level of sophistication of investors in the life sciences. Although only a fraction of the total investor pool have the risk tolerance for investment in the sector, those that do are guided by due diligence from people with advanced biomedical degrees and strong connections into the healthcare industry. This wasn’t the case years ago.

The Same – investors say there is plenty of available capital for good quality companies.

Different – consumption of healthcare. I can’t possible do this topic justice here, but how decisions are made about what products are used to treat patients has changed. In Canadian, cost cutting and group buying patterns pervade, in the US ObamaCare has been introduced. Globally, there are new markets.

The Same – debate about the need to support an independent Canadian life sciences sector and associated laments about buyout of Canadian companies by US or multinational firms. This ongoing debate usually raises discussion about a globally competitive market for healthcare products.

Different – the level of government involvement and support. The reason I ventured out from my comfy academic environment into the world of business in the mid ’90s was that public support for research was shrinking, shrinking like a popped ballon, and I believed the future for medical innovation was in the public domain. Today, there are many accessible government programs for early stage companies. Technology transfer from academic institutions reached a zenith and has been replaced with a multitude of programs to support the creation of startup companies in the past couple of years. There were few familiar faces at the event, whereas if I attended in the 90’s, I would have known or recognized at least half the crowd.

I’ve been busy over the past decade supporting commercialization of technology and startups in communication, software, hardware and manufacturing sectors. It’s a pleasant surprise to see the life science startup system has become more sophisticated. That’s a good change – more knowledge, new people, more nurturing support. The things that have stayed the same, and are the same in any sector: good companies, those likely to attract investment, are those with valuable solutions for an identified market, with sound management and business planning.

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¹All medical needs are always of interest but certain technological solutions and disease states garner more attention at any given time.

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Government Funding for Entrepreneurs – Is there such a thing as Free Money?

What is the number one thing you need to get your business up and running?

Money?

What if there was a source of funding, with few strings attached, to support your entrepreneurial venture? All you have to do is ask and you might receive.

There are numerous programs, primarily from provincial and federal government agencies, that provide support to start-up businesses.

Some might call government grants ‘free money’, which like the proverbial free lunch, aren’t really free – but if you put a little time in to satisfy the requirements, they do exist.

Government grants have fewer strings attached than other sources of company development funds. Angel or venture capital investors require equity, or an ownership stake, in the business. Commercial banks provide small business loans, but generally expect collateral (tangible goods that can be resold to repay the loan) and repayment. Newer methods of raising money, like crowd sourcing, usually promise delivery of a product to supporters. Like investment from venture capitalists, commercial banks, and other investors, you will still need to have a fundamentally sound business plan to successfully apply for government funding.

The prospect of applying for government funding may seem daunting, full of mysterious terms, acronyms, endless voicemail loops and online forms. And then there’s the time: time to write the proposal, wait for the assessment and the money.

The keys to understanding government grants fall into four categories:
1.What’s available. – This changes from year to year, and many programs have set dates for application.
2.What are you eligible for. – Many programs have specific target audiences, like green energy products or youth entrepreneurs.
3.Who to talk to for help to understanding the terms and conditions. – Most programs have specific people available to answer questions about the application process.
4.What to emphasize in an application to appeal to the funders. – Regional Innovation Centres and Business Advisory Centres (in Ontario) and representatives from the government agency offering the funds may offer advice on how to apply. A solid business strategy and fit with the program are important.

This link is a great new resource to help entrepreneurs find the government program that suits the needs of their business:  .

With a little knowledge, work and patience, government grants can be a great resource for building a business.

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