Is your inbox full of invitations to industry conferences? Mine is and my solution to conference invite overload is to start with a wish list of what I want to gain by attending a specific conference. This systematic approach has helped me achieve a lasting return on my time and money. So where should we go next?
The Big Four custodians have the money to throw giant conferences at brand-name hotels in major cities. “I’ve always wanted to go to Miami” is not a good reason to attend a conference. The reasons to attend should be to be educated by the numerous marquee speakers on topics that are important to your business. You will also run into the service providers whose calls you have been screening and you will be able to watch a demo of their products to see if they might work for your firm. The other attendees are also a good sanity check to swap war stories and possible solutions to your operational problems. Each new idea you discover is seductive but will require work to insure the idea is added to your daily routine. We suggest you follow the sage advice that the psychological scientist Dr. Anders Ericsson gives in his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. He recommends you partner with an experienced coach who has studied and written about the ideas you are considering in order to increase your chances of success. One more thing, Dr. Ericsson recommends you follow his most famous research idea, the 10,000 hour rule. Finally, independent advisors should walk the talk of being custodian-agnostic when they choose what conference to attend each year. Each conference will be different and provide you with new ideas and contacts to pursue.
Boutique conferences provide a focused agenda for a smaller group. The focused agenda allows you to make good choices about which conference you would like to attend and to dig deeper on the subject matter. The gold standard of boutique conferences is Tiburon Strategic Advisors. Chip Roame’s keynote address consistently discusses the elephant-in-the-room topic that large firms are concerned about but do not address in public. Interestingly enough, many of the conference attendees are C-level executives from leading firms, ensuring the Q&A is often as informative as the presentation. The education is important but often trumped by the honest dinner and cocktail party conversations between professionals. Senior executives’ schedules don’t allow for meaningful conversations with like-minded contemporaries. Boutique conferences facilitate conversations that can be the preliminary step to bigger deals or even a potential merger. The largest merger of all time, the Time Warner–AOL merger, started when Steve Case and Gerald Levin met at a casual event with no investment bankers present, and the rest is history. One more thing: The merger would have never happened unless Case and Levin didn’t have a personal bond that started at a casual dinner and was enhanced by the human observation of how each person treated others, especially their spouse! A casual setting like a boutique firm’s conference could be the foundation of your personal relationship with your new business partner.
The Steve Jobs line of “one more thing” worked well for Apple but will leave you wanting months after you attend a conference and depart with one more good idea or contact. The relationships and the good ideas will only endure if you revisit them each week—advice I didn’t follow with my girlfriend from summer camp.