Don’t Call It Networking: Designing Intentional Experiences

Written by: Jenny Sheets

There is a word we don’t like to use very often at Emerging Prairie. Shh…I’ll tell you… networking. The word has become associated with suits and ties, drab conference rooms, and sales, sales, sales. Even though we may not use the word, the intention behind networking events is critical to building community. The basic formula is this: create a designated space and time for people to connect with one another. However, with a little more intention and design, events can be opportunities for super-connections to happen with far-reaching ripple effects that impact not only those in businesses but our entire community.

Why We Need Events

Before you get too cozy with a remote lifestyle, don’t forget about the importance of face-to-face interactions and “accidental collisions” at events. Events connect people to other people, resources, and education. They are designed for interactions that wouldn’t normally happen by accident. Specifically looking at startup events, programming and design positively affects the entire community by addressing topics such as workforce development, student success, quality of life, and more.

Introverted? We hear you. Sometimes it can be daunting to think about attending an in-person event, let alone hosting one. For this reason, at Emerging Prairie, we try and make our events as comfortable as possible for all personality types. There are opportunities to connect with individuals, but also options for solo activities and spaces to sit and gather with one or two others.

Designing Startup Events and Experiences

Don’t ask me how to plan a medieval renaissance fair (although, that would be really fun). The focus of this “how to” guide is on in-person startup and business events. Our Experience Team at Emerging Prairie, led by the fabulous Hali Christenson, created the outline below to use as we think about every single event we host. As you’ll see, this does not get into event registration, marketing, or tickets. Those are critical components to an event, but they are secondary to the important questions below.

What’s the goal of the event?

Don’t rush this. Work with your team to answer: Why are we throwing an event? Is it necessary? What do we hope to accomplish? Nail down the primary goal in one phrase or sentence and return to it for the entire planning and executing phases. Example of a goal: This event is designed to connect founders in one to five-year-old startups to private capital resources in the Upper Midwest.

Who is the event for, and who is it not for?

There’s a marketing adage that applies to events: if you market to everyone, you market to no one. Don’t delude yourself into believing that your event is for everyone. Clearly identify a target market that includes as many demographics as you can. More importantly, who is the event not for? Think of it this way: if these “not” people came to your event, they would negatively impact the vibe and goal of your event. Example: you are hosting a fundraising gala in the evening and “cocktail attire” is recommended. Young kids would definitely damper the evening.

What’s the “vibe?”

Is the word “vibe” too trendy for you? Then use “feeling.” The feeling of the event should connect to your goal and will influence your venue, music, and design. For example, are you looking to impress some bigwig investors from New York? You may want to choose a sophisticated space with appropriate music, food, and drinks. If you are hoping to connect employers to recent college graduates, make sure the venue and aesthetic are fun and appeal to young people.

Attending Events

Do you need to “network” or connect? If you are in a startup, then probably. Expanding your support system will help you establish meaningful relationships and find resources quickly. On the other hand, don’t distract yourself with events when you should really be building your business. It’s a balance. If you are leading or working for a startup, the work can be fast-paced, intense, and sometimes isolating. Do yourself a favor by connecting with others who understand what you’re going through.

Jenny Sheets is the Director of Startup Programs at Emerging Prairie, a company focused on uplifting the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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