Part of the First Client Checklist is to go to a meetup group. Going to a meetup should not be a passive event though! It is easy to go to the meeting, listen quietly in the back, and then get up and leave - but resist that urge! Instead, here are some tips to make the most out of going to a meetup:
Interact with people
If you were going to just watch a talk quietly, then you could save a lot of time by just watching it on YouTube. The whole point of a meetup is to actually meet people! This can sometimes be difficult (especially for introverts - I know, I'm one of them!) but it's vitally important that you actually talk to people at meetups. The good news is - that everyone else who is there, is there to meet new people too! So even if it's difficult for you - both you and the other person will be happier if you make the effort to talk to them.
Then, when you talk to people - try to form a connection. Ask: Where do they work? Why did they come to the meetup? What types of things are they interested in (related, or not related to the meetup)? Is there a way you can follow up with them (email, twitter, etc)? Not only will you learn a lot of interesting things, but you'll being to expand your local network.
Show up a bit early, and leave a bit late
If you are going to interact with people, then you need to have time to do that! Most meetups (excluding "networking" events) have a speaker as the main attraction - but while the speaker is talking, you can't meet or talk with anyone else. Because of that, make sure you show up before the speaker starts, and stick around afterwards so that you can have time to talk to other people.
Most speakers leave room for questions at the end. During the talk, write down things that you want more detail about, or items that you can ask follow up questions about. If I can't think of a question, I like to ask about the speaker's personal experience with a section of their topic - like:
"How long did it take to get really good at X?"
"In practice, do you find you can do Y? Or do you actually have to do a lot of Z?"
Asking questions is great for a few reasons. First, it shows you were actually listening and that you cared about the talk. Second, if speakers don't get questions, they often think they didn't connect at all with their audience - so it's usually a relief when people ask questions. Finally, some of the most interesting parts of talks come during the questions - the speaker is finished with their prepared remarks, and so you can get some really candid answers that sometimes help more than the presentation itself did.
Thank the speaker
I try to always thank the speaker - either in person (at the meetup), or later, in a follow up email. For one, it's just a nice thing to do when someone has spent a lot of time to prepare a presentation - but also, it introduces yourself to the speaker; so that at the next meetup, it's easier to strike up a conversation. And since the whole point of a meetup is meeting people - it's an easy way to do that.
Meet the organizer
Another person at a meetup who is easy to approach is the meetup organizer. If you don't know who else to talk to - or you're nervous or feel awkward about approaching total strangers - find the organizer. You can say thanks for putting on the meetup, or ask a question about how many people usually come, etc - but the point is just to talk to them. They are usually really friendly people, and are happy to talk. The whole reason they put on the meetup is to help people get connected!
Also, meetup organizers may know a lot of people that you don't. They are usually happy to connect you with people if they think it would be mutually beneficial - so getting to know the organizer is a great way to grow your local network.
Go out afterwards
Many meetups will go out for drinks afterwards. Don't skip that part! I know it can be tempting to just go home and relax afterwards; but socializing outside of the meetup location is an important part of meeting and connecting with new people.
If you don't drink, then you can always order a water or something else - no one will judge you. The important part is that you're out and talking with people - and getting to know them better.
Invite someone to lunch or coffee the next day
This step is optional, but highly recommended. If you meet someone interesting at the meetup - invite them out to lunch or coffee some time! You can reference something specific (like a specific technology or technique they were talking about), or just that you'd like to get to know more people in the area. I don't think I've had anyone turn down an offer for free lunch; so it's a great way to meet more people, and get to know them in depth.
Even if you do everything on this list - going to just one meetup and then being done won't get you anywhere. Instead, try to keep going every month. Keep talking to people, and keep going out for drinks. Importantly - keep reaching out to people outside of the meetup; just say it was nice to meet you, or send them a more message over email or meetup.com (there is a feature where you can message anyone in a meetup group that you are apart of).
One final point - the purpose of going to a meetup is not to pitch your products or services. You can mention that you're getting into consulting and are looking for clients, but don't belabor the point. People are coming out to meet people, learn something, and socialize - so don't be the person who is always selling.
It's about the people
In the end, the point of going to meetups is about meeting people, and learning new things. Since you can't always control how good the presentation is, or whether or not you learn something new - just focus on meeting new people, asking a lot of questions, and following up with the people that you meet.
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