10 Lessons From A First-Time Trade Show Exhibitor

  1. It’s expensive to attend but incredibly valuable market testing. For $5000 (booth, banner, postcards, t-shirts, and travel accommodations) I had four full days of exposure to 35,000 retail buyers from around the country and across the globe! I quickly learned that my product (Dust Panda) was not fully formed yet. I was sad to learn that I would not be recouping the cost of the show, but I realized that this was the perfect place to solicit feedback from the retail industry’s front line.
  2. Buyers aren’t the only ones who attend these shows. Many business consultants, product developers, and national representatives come to the show looking for new products or lines to promote. For someone looking for national distribution, finding a rep at one of these shows could make all the difference. Keep in mind that every relationship will likely come with a price, but there are people out there who can help spread the word, and who will often work on commission or shared profits.
  3. Network! Network! Network! Buyers and agents aren’t the only ones willing to help! There are thousands of exhibitors at these shows looking to connect with like-minded individuals and are willing to talk for free. Many of the distributors and manufacturers I spoke with were solo designers/artists, eager to share their experiences about what it took to get to where they are. Not only did I meet amazing people with incredible ideas, but they were more than happy to provide feedback about how to make my product better and share their tricks of the trade.
  4. Product development is costly, time-intensive, and rarely pays off. Speaking to a product launcher, who was at the show selling his über-successful kids accessory item, he said that he has launched 15 products in 10 years, only three of which have hit it big. Four out of five of his products have failed. And he’s one of the successful ones! Another designer I spoke with has been seeing moderate success with his novelty Valentine’s Day teddy bear which he has been manufacturing and selling for 10 years. It pays the bills, but his product has yet to go mainstream, and therefore he spends his nights and weekends sewing and silkscreening satin heart pillows. Every night. For a decade. Get ready to go into it for the long haul.
  5. Think Marathon not 100m Dash. Most of the developers I met at the show have been doing this on average for five years. Some broke even by year three. Hardly any were profitable before year five. When polled, most designers sunk anywhere from $25,000-$150,000 into a product line before seeing returns! Just creating a plastic mold costs $10,000 in the US. Perhaps less overseas, but then you’re working with a middleman (not for free), you have to import your goods, and you’re dealing with massive order quantities.
  6. Consider attending with a collective. Paying for a 10×10 booth all for myself was important to me before attending, but next year I will try attending the show with a group. Having the purchasing power for a larger space allows for more flexibility and also spreads the cost across a group.
  7. Not every exhibitor knows what they’re doing. I certainly didn’t! Then it became clear to me that there were numerous exhibitors trying to sell ill-conceived products with no clear road to profitability. Some had already sunk $50,000 into inventory and had yet to come up with a way to sell their products, and had not done any market testing!
  8. Consider exhibiting at a trade show before going to production. It’s weird attending a show with three prototypes and no inventory, but it cost less than buying the inventory and I’m glad I exhibited first. My product will be better when I do go to production, and I learned a lot about the art of exhibiting which I’m glad I learned before trying to seriously market my product. When I told fellow exhibitors that I hadn’t “gone to press” yet, many of them were jealous! I am grateful that I waited to print my first batch of products since I realize now that I’m only half way there.
  9. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to walk away. It’s important to accept that our brilliant ideas may not make for brilliantly successful products. Knowing when to quit is just as important as knowing when to persevere, and you can save yourself a lot of time and tens of thousands of dollars by quitting while you’re ahead. I have not internalized this lesson quite yet, but it’s out there. For now, I’m thrilled to continue developing Dust Panda given the overwhelmingly positive response and the experience I had at the gift show.





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Entrepreneurs Aug 28, 2013 @ 11:59 PM

Kate Harrison