Networking. To some, it's the chance to meet new people and drum up new business. To others, it's a God-forsaken chore, full of awkward silences and chewy canapés. We asked Roger Willcocks to track his travels at one of the biggest networking events in the IT calendar. But Roger had his own, very personal, reasons for going...
Meeting Bill Gates isn't easy. You're unlikely to bump into him at a friend's dinner party in Clapham. I did manage it once ten years ago at a Microsoft event in Los Angeles. Bill was keynoting; I was in the audience. I approached him as he was sound-testing. Bill sweetly said that my company's software was the most popular in its category that didn't work on Windows. I said, "that's what I wanted to talk to you about." Bill said, "let's grab a 'pop' later and talk about it." For the rest of the day, I kept my eyes glued to him, waiting for my moment. My heart stopped when I lost him. It came back at double-speed when he reappeared. We chatted about artificial intelligence (the eighties technology fad, not the Spielberg movie). I asked for $750k. Bill offered $250k. I said okay (my now-legendary powers of negotiation were non-existent in those days). Bill told me to sort out the details with Steve Ballmer. The deal was done. Just like that.
Ten years later, almost to the day, I was given another shot.
The occasion was the annual pan-European IT industry event, ETRE (European Technology Roundtable and Exhibition) in October. ETRE is the brainchild of Alex Vieux, a Frenchman who is one of the most accomplished networkers around (some might say that ETRE's very raison d'etre is to place Alex at the epicentre of the IT industry). In the world of IT, it's the closest we get to Davos. The 2001 event, in Rome, brought together some of the biggest names around. Mind you, at $4,000 a head, it ought to be good.
My purpose there was to represent an early-stage company - Fractal:Edge - that makes visualisation software and is seeking funding and partners. As well as two days of impressive seminars and presentations, Bill Gates was the keynote speaker on the final afternoon before the black-tie dinner. Fractal:Edge software would, I reckoned, be spectacular in every copy of Windows. The goal was wide open, all I had to do was kick the ball.
Conference Agenda - Day 1
08.00 - 11.30 PITCHING THE COMPANY
08.00 - 23.55 SCHMOOZING
On Sunday afternoon - yes, you have to give up your weekends to the networking cause - my wife and I set off for the Sheraton, Rome. While I trod the boards, she was booked into the "Spouse programme." This included visits to museums, sights etc and cost a further $1,000.
Sunday evening came, and it was time to present the company at a "Meet the Money" session. I was to pitch the company in three minutes flat to a panel of blood-thirsty venture capitalists in front of a large audience. No Powerpoint. No time extensions. To secure this questionable privilege, I had spent many months and countless e-mails wooing the organisers and their editorial committee (via its UK partner, the European Technology Forum, itself a prime networking organisation). I'd promised the earth by way of impact, content and entertainment value.
The three minutes went pretty well. I even got a ripple of applause. Then came the grilling by the panel. After that, they pronounced their austere verdicts: one thumbs-up, one thumbs-down and one reserved judgment. The lesson here: prepare, practise and then prepare again.
The evening's campaign needed planning. Fortunately, Dasar does a first-class job of laying on extravagant venues, loosening the tongues of the expectant attendees with wine and buffet every night. Hot on the heels of the hard day's work comes the opportunity to meet and bond with other guests in a more relaxed format. The first night was at the superb villa Armandaleggi overlooking the Vatican; the weather was hot and steamy - hardly ideal conditions for hand-to-hand verbal combat.
On the journey there, I cosied up to two big-swinging US software CEOs. The bombs had started raining on Kandahar 30 minutes earlier and they had fearful looks on their faces. The nine buses were escorted by the Carabinieri to protect the assembled and to smooth the challenging Italian traffic flows.
Not only were the CEOs completely disinterested in my attempts at conversation, delivered at a gentle pace and with minimal business content (maybe that's where I went wrong?), but they also spent most of their time glued to mobiles.
Before you get stuck into a networking event, you have to cross the painful threshold of isolation. Everyone seems to be cutting a deal with someone else, renewing old acquaintances. Meanwhile you're trying desperately to look busy, even though you must stand out like a sore thumb, snacking on your finger-nails, scanning for a familiar face in the throng. Please let my mobile phone ring. Nobody recognises you, and you recognise nobody.
But it's never as bad as that. I've been a successful player in the industry for 20 years, I'm six-foot-three and socially competent. Plus, I actually knew quite a few people there. I'd already met Bill, of course, a meeting engraved in my memory - but would he remember me?
Forcing myself into the melée, I quickly met people who knew people I knew, as well as a few I just knew. I circulated like a hungry shark, peering over shoulders to catch name-tags (enforced for the duration of the event), plotting that impact-grabbing lead-in. Sometimes at networking events, fortune favours you - that pre-determined target who just happened to be talking to my old mate James Dobree. James introduced me easily: the finely tuned reflex of the seasoned networker.
Networks operate on a "pay-it-forward" basis. You must make contributions - normally at the expense of your Rolodex - before you receive benefits. And they can be fun. Talking to people is, in general, of value: you learn stuff, you hear their experiences and aspirations and you may even enjoy their company.
Conference Agenda - Day 2
08.00 - 08.30 GROGGY BREAKFAST
09.30 - 23.55 WHERE'S BILL?
Day two started at breakfast. The pace never let up. I was slightly groggy, having got up to write some e-mails at the crack of dawn. Poise regained, I limbered up for the next stage of the campaign. Fortunately, James was at the sausage counter, so breaking the ice was a breeze. I spotted the name badge of a potential business partner - and he was friendly and helpful. He had no business card to swap, having left them at his hotel - a criminal failure at such events, and all the more remarkable by high US standards. (Or maybe it was a deliberate tactic.)
The morning went quietly, with an encouragingly upbeat and frank keynote from Michael Dell, founder of the Dell PC empire. His presentation was simple, unscripted and personal. With these mega-players, it's not what they say that's interesting; the insights come from their attitude and body language. Dell came across as a rounded, normal human being who's managed to achieve huge things. At lunch, I sat next to another US CEO who shamelessly told me he was only there for networking. His theory is simple - the deal will never be done there but, one day, as you review your Rolodex, maybe his people can help your people. You call them up or e-mail them, refer to the conference, and they help.
A journalist I met told me I should talk to a lady who was chairing one of the roundtables. She wrote for Time magazine. I went along to her roundtable and collared her afterwards. I told her I'd been told to talk to her about angel investors. Quickly, she agreed and said she'd introduce me to a gentleman later. I never saw her in the evening, but I spotted the gentleman in question the next day and referred to my new journalist friend. To my astonishment, she had briefed him earlier that evening. The man himself was ready with contacts. Surely this is beyond the call of duty, I thought. Or maybe that's just how it all works. The person you are talking to might not be able to help, but they probably know somebody who does. If they like you, like your story, there's always something to work with.
I needed to introduce the company to AOL. I had gleaned from the delegates' bumper Who's Who @ ETRE publication that one of the company's senior European managers was present. I spotted two men in the crowd, one of whom was wearing the AOL name-badge. I circled, I approached and, when a gap appeared in the heaving mass of businessmen, I lunged. "I'm not interrupting an important moment, am I?" Catch me in five minutes in the lobby, came the response. Five minutes passed and a man showed up. I started excitedly, explained my purpose and then noticed with horror that his name-badge did not boast the letters AOL. In my naïve haste, I'd addressed myself to the wrong man; the man from AOL had escaped my clutches. As it turned out, the wrong man may yet turn out to be the right man, but there is a lesson here too: look before you leap. Or perhaps, "every cloud has a silver lining." I was reasonably confident that I wouldn't muddle up Bill with someone else.
Day 2 continued
14.00 - 14.30 THE BIG PITCH
09.30 - 23.55 BUSINESS CARDS
My company presentation was due. I got 50 people and their undivided attention for 15 minutes. I knew Bill wouldn't arrive until seconds before his keynote, so wouldn't be in my audience. But I did need to get the contact details of as many of my audience as possible - always a challenge. I offered printed material - business plans, demonstration software etc - upon application and exchanged this for business cards.
Aha, the great business card debate. Do you use up every last centimetre of real estate on your card to promote your company's USPs or do you leave the white space on the back for astute note-taking? (Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft - ETRE conference, Rome, 2001). On balance, I prefer scribbling room. But remember, write your notes as soon as you can. Otherwise, you'll experience one of those "who the hell was he?" moments and when you ring to identify the card-holder, you'll discover that it was the large German recruitment executive you kept being seated next to at dinner.
18.00 - 19.00 HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT
19.30 - 23.55 ENDURING CONTACTS
Evening two and back to hand-to-hand combat. Another cocktail party, this time at a swanky Roman palazzo down-town. On the coach, I spied a man I once competed with in a very different context. Phillip Crawford has held many lofty positions in the IT trade and has built up an impressive track record, as well as a decent degree of personal wealth. In years gone by, he and I vied for Computer Weekly's prestigious "IT Bachelor of the Year Award" (let's face it, the only worthwhile award in the industry). Sadly, Phillip had more employees at his beck and call and - once threatened with summary dismissal if they didn't vote for him - stole the award by a controversial margin. All this proved an excellent entrée, and we exchanged views on a range of subjects. Lesson: there is always a link. You have a friend in common, live in the same town, share a hairdresser, both support Chelsea, use the same PR firm. At any networking event, it is absolutely your responsibility to establish the common ground that creates that initial link.
You can go too far - and I did. Chief executives nowadays have to be kings of PowerPoint. I, too, was equipped with my portable powers of persuasion. By day three, I was up for it, big-time. Wielding my PC in my flimsy promotional handy-bag, I accosted all and sundry. "Boy, have I got something to show you!" "I think I've got just what you're looking for!" This was actually quite successful: Fractal:Edge's software is visually appealing and best explained by example. Legendary venture capitalist Hermann Hauser seemed impressed; the chairman of Palm liked it and pointed me in the direction of his top software man; software entrepreneur Charlie Muirhead opened his Rolodex for me. I even got DASAR themselves enthusiastic. Okay, maybe I did overstep the mark by whipping it out over lunch when seated next to the editor of FT MarketWatch - I was ticked off by Alex for harassing his top speakers, he even threatened not to have me back next year. Lord knows what he'd have done had he discovered my Bill Gates plan.
It all got a bit manic on that final Tuesday. I had to stay alert and fresh for the final assault. As the day wore on, I had a few "real-time referrals", where you meet someone and they then walk you over and hand-introduce you to a suitable contact. At one point, the phone rang and I arranged to meet a senior executive from Bear Stearns for a beer in south-west London. I was going to have to travel fast to keep that appointment.
In fact, I was simply becoming more and more tired. It's incredibly hard work plotting your networking campaigns, researching your suspects, engaging in those awkward conversations until you see an angle, making the same pitch over and over again. And there's only so many cards you can fit in your pockets without creating an unseemly bulge. Lesson: don't bother getting the card of the large German recruitment exec.
The appointed hour for Bill's keynote loomed. I hadn't seen him in the crowd - last-minute arrivals being the hallmark of exceptionally wealthy people. The crowds gathered. They took their seats. Any minute now. Should I make my move as he set up, or wait until he finished? Both had risks. I decided to wait until the end, when the time horizon was more open-ended.
After Bill, we were all rewarded with a black-tie dinner in another grand palazzo. This time, delegates were camped at a fixed table, after Prosecco and canapés in the courtyard. Reckoning that I'd done my best by now, I settled for some R&R and chat with the team from iGabriel (Charles Muirhead's investment outfit). The evening started to go wrong when I stood in a floor candle, and molten wax spewed upwards all over my DJ trousers and then congealed, leaving a mass of suspicious smears from groin to toe. At least I could hide my legs under the table as I made new friends at dinner. Exhausted with all the hubbub and my exertions, I declined the invitation to go to Heaven, a Roman nightspot, and shared a taxi back to the hotel with a couple of old friends. And that was it - up early and out the next morning to brave air travel at a time of international conflagration.
Only time will tell whether the event was worthwhile. My scorecard shows about 50 new introductions. At least ten will result in short-term dialogues and another ten are people whom I actually liked and will endeavour to stay in touch with. I'll admit that I no longer recognise some of the cards.
And so to my secret mission. I never even came close. It was impossible. Bill's keynote was delivered live by satellite and I somehow doubt that he saw me in the audience. I came, I saw, I watched. No pop, no deal.