Radio Operator: “Maverick, you’re at 3/4 of a mile. Call the ball.”
Maverick: “Roger. Maverick has the ball.”
Based on the title of this article, you probably expected me to open with a funny quote from the 2005 hit movie, Wedding Crashers (which is about a pair of guys who crash weddings to meet women). This premise seems appropriate for crashing VC conferences, more than you would think to find in the scenes of Tom Cruise landing planes in Top Gun.
However, central to the plot of Wedding Crashers is the adoption of false identities in order to sneak into a stranger’s wedding, and if you are going to crash a networking event or conference, you want to be yourself. After all, your goal is to make new professional contacts; you don’t want the benefit of your hard work and daring to go to someone who doesn’t even exist.
Instead, let’s focus on our quote from Top Gun. “The ball” is a navy term used to describe the light apparatus used to assist pilots in landing jets on aircraft carriers. Bringing such a large, heavy, and fast-moving jet to land safely on an extremely short and moving runway is no easy task.
The light apparatus helps the pilot gauge a safe glide path to approach the runway, and calling the ball means that the pilot has visual contact with the optical landing system and is going to approach and land. Calling the ball is exactly what you need to do to safely navigate your way into a networking event or conference, especially one that you were unable to register to attend.
My story begins with my search for a career within the venture capital community. VC is a tough gig to land as it has few job opportunities, and almost none of these opportunities are publicly posted. The best way to get your foot in the door is through your ability to network. VC conferences are a great place to meet people from all corners of the industry, ranging from fund managers to entry-level associates, from established businesses that received VC funding, to new start-ups trying to learn the best way to grow their business.
I was reaching out within my community and growing my network when I discovered that a very large annual VC conference was going to take place in my city (the conference usually takes place in a location that is a four hour drive from where I live).
Unfortunately, I had already committed to doing contract work on the dates of the event, and didn’t have the nearly-$600 lying around to cover the cost of registration. I’m job hunting, and that is a lot of cash to part with when operating on a limited budget. But this circus doesn’t come to town every day, so there was no way that I was going to miss out on an opportunity this big. I made the decision to crash the event.
How To Crash A Networking Event
This is how I did it:
Step 1: Research
This is the most important step of the process. I wanted to make sure that I was going to get the maximum benefit for the limited time I was going to be there. I looked at the agenda of the conference to find the best time to crash.
I recommend the evening reception; you won’t be able to network during presentations, and the evening receptions at a conference are usually going to attract the most people due to the free food and drinks that are often provided. I also suggest the reception because, well… Let’s face it, you’re crashing, so attending any of the presentations with a speaker (often highly paid for their appearance) is highly unfair to those who did paid to attend.
I familiarized myself with the sponsors of the conference, the speakers, people that would sit on the panel discussions, and the venue where the conference was held. I looked at photos of the conference from earlier years to see how people dressed. I even looked up former speakers in case I needed some extra conversational ammunition.
Step 2: Presentation
When crashing an event, you need to look like you belong. In fact, you want to not only look like you belong, but to actually join the community. Dress appropriately. Act accordingly. This may seem counter-intuitive, as you ultimately want to be noticed and remembered, but your appearance should not draw attention for the wrong reasons, and you will make a much better impression by what you say than you ever could by bucking the dress code of the conference or event.
Step 3: Location Reconnaissance
Before mounting your assault, use human nature to your advantage to scout out the scene. If someone sits for hours in a conference room listening to speakers and panel discussions, the first thing they want to do after the end of the discussion is to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.
In my case, I went to the hotel bar, located at the bottom of the steps that lead to the convention area, and I made sure to arrive at the time that the presentations were ending for the day. I knew from my research that there was a break after the presentations before the start of the evening reception, and guessed that the bar would be the most popular hangout.
By waiting in the bar, I was able to do some preliminary networking, meeting some new people and learning the vibe of the conference group. You may also meet some attendees who have left the conference area early in order to conduct business; you can learn a great deal about the inner-workings of the industry by speaking to these people.
Step 4: CRASH!
If you have followed the above three steps, then step four is the easy one. You know what’s going on, you look the part, you’ve ascertained the vibe of the event, and you’ve already joined the crowd through your preliminary networking. It’s a very easy matter to simply walk in. Just be confident, belong, and go for it.
I have a few pointers and items to consider once you are inside the event. First of all, don’t be greedy; you didn’t pay to attend, so that great looking spread of food and drinks is off limits for you. You are there to network only; grab a snack beforehand, or eat on the way home after.
Second, when meeting attendees and they look for your badge, don’t hide from the fact that you crashed; most attendees will be impressed with your confidence and willingness to do what it takes to join the community and not miss the opportunity.
Also, there is no industry that doesn’t respect a person with the ability to get where they need to go and meet the people that they need to meet. Successfully crashing shows that you know how to navigate your way through difficult situations and can overcome obstacles in order to achieve your goals.
Last of all, don’t be a wall-flower. This is your one chance to meet some of these people in a face-to-face environment and where you can really create lasting relationships with people already in the industry.
Also, when crashing, be aware and prepared for the fact that you may be caught and asked to leave. This didn’t happen to me, but as a veteran of the nightlife industry, I have seen people asked to leave many times, and there’s one right way to exit and about a million wrong ways.
The right way is to politely apologize to whomever you are speaking with, and then quietly go, without any protest, and drawing as little attention to yourself as possible. You want to be remembered as the charming and daring individual that you are, who seizes life’s great opportunities. You don’t want to be remembered as the bum that crashed the party and refused to leave once caught.
I hope this helps you on your quest. So, get out there Maverick, and call the ball.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock