Last week, we were very fortunate to have an invitation-only and very coveted space in the Local Resource Cafe at the New York Times Small Business Summit. We had a unique opportunity to meet and interact with 700 small business owners, and we were determined to make the most of it.

Since the event last week, the dust has started to settle and some pretty powerful takeaways are rising to the top of the heap. Here are some of the invaluable lessons that we learned.

Being Prepared Isn’t Just for Boy Scouts

This was the first event we attended since we launched in February, so we were starting from square one when it came to signage, promotional items, handouts, etc. With the help of one of my favorite online printers, Vistaprint, we we ready for the event with signs, postcards, business cards and even gift bags filled with Bonfire-branded products to raffle off.

We arrived at the Summit stocked with the current issue of The Spark (our newsletter), hundreds of Small Business Bonfire S’mores Kits (because you need s’mores around a Bonfire, right?), and an action oriented marketing plan. The hours we spent prior to the event outlining our goals and how we were going to achieve them was one of the determining factors in having a successful day at the event.

[image img=”” alt=”Small Business Bonfire at NYT Small Business Summit” title=”bonfire-table” width=”232″ height=”286″ rounded=”all” /]
[image img=”” alt=”Small Business Bonfire at NYT Small Business Summit” title=”bonfire-table” width=”300″ height=”286″ rounded=”all” /]

Without the amount of preparation we did, I am certain we would have been more stressed with less opportunity to connect with people individually. And that was our goal — to make individual, one-on-one connections.

Lacking Confidence? Go Home.

Business networking events are no time to be self-conscious or timid. If you’re not ready to make the first move by approaching people and introducing yourself, then why are you there?

Since we were in the Local Resource Cafe, we weren’t able to mix and mingle with attendees unless they wandered into our space. But when they did, we made sure they were approached and welcomed. It’s Sales 101. If you are selling something, you need to be proactive; you can’t just sit back and wait for your ideal customers to find you.

During the event, we invited people to visit us when they walked by, tweeted about where we were located and explained what we had at our table. We tried to make sure everyone left our area with something.

If we weren’t confident about what we had to offer small business owners and willing to stick our necks out there and make a pitch, we would have had a very difficult time making connections with attendees.

Shhhh…Are You Listening?

During the event, I saw so many robotic and one-sided chats. It was almost like people had their elevator pitch set to auto-rewind and repeat, and their ears were turned off. In some cases, it was painful to watch.

I am a firm believer in the power of an elevator pitch — it’s a great tool for all business owners for many reasons. But, when your elevator pitch becomes a crutch or starts to blind and deafen you to everything around you, it’s time to quiet down and listen.

You need to be able to adjust your presentation to your audience, even in one-on-one situations. That means asking the other person what he or she does, listening to the answer and letting that information frame how you describe your own business. It all comes down to being conversational, relatable and, quite simply, friendly.

Listening also gave us a whole slew of things to explore in the Bonfire. For example, many people asked about live, in-person events as part of our membership packages, and getting more hands-on small business help in their businesses. We’re looking into adding both of these things to our list of member benefits.

At the end of our whirlwind of a day, we emerged with a few hundred business cards, some great new opportunities, and a pocket-full of potential. And it was a learning experience that will benefit us for a long time, both for future events we attend and in how we continue to develop our community. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To be able to learn from each experience and apply the lessons where it counts.

What was the last small business conference or event you attended? What was the biggest takeaway for you?