Industry trade shows are one of the most valuable tools for an entrepreneur or inventor, especially if you're trying to license an idea or create a joint venture. Even though many trade shows have lower attendance numbers due to the impact of the Internet, they still have immeasurable value to the new industry player, as there is no place better to network and learn.
After attending a variety of tradeshows through the years, I mastered the art of taking advantage of these events. One of the great things about a trade show is every person there is there to do business. You never know who is in your company, standing next to you in line, sharing a cab with you or grabbing a lunch table with. I've initiated business relationships with people in all these ways.
Here are my tips on how to get the most of trade shows.
1. Learn who the key players are in a niche (and how they compare). If you plan to enter a market with a product, you can quickly assess who some of the significant players are and how they stack up against each other. Sometimes, companies appear small on the web but are actually large, and vice versa.
2. Meet the leaders in a company. If you try to reach the president or head of marketing in a large company, it can be difficult to get their time on the phone or through email. However, at a trade show, they're often standing near their booth and available to you if you ask. This may be the biggest advantage of a trade show, in terms of making deals happen.
3. Conduct a competitive analysis. If you launch a product or try to license it, there is no better place to learn what else is on the market and size up their features and benefits so you can understand your competition. Usually, similar types of products are grouped in the same area, so you can check out all the competitors in a short period of time.
4. Sit down with business partners. Trade shows are a great place to schedule sit-down meetings, as you will have access to numerous people from around the country in one place at one time.
5. Make sales and cut deals. Trade shows are a great place to generate interest in an opportunity. During the show, people tend to get what we call a "trade show high." They wheel and deal and are more open to opportunity than usual. Create strong interest at the event and try to keep the momentum going with a quick, enthusiastic follow up.
6. Meet potential allies. Not everyone is a prospective client, some are just allies in the industry. You never know what connection will lead to what, so take time with even non-obvious opportunities. If someone wants to engage, make friends with them. Even if it never "pays off," having friends gets you connected to the industry as a whole and helps you feel like an insider.
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7. Create serendipitous business opportunities. I once caught a cab ride with someone to the convention center from our hotel. He turned out to be the CEO of a major electronics-accessory company and by the end of the ride we were friends and discussed opportunities. This cab ride led to a nice contract for my company. Business is in the air at a trade show, so don't be afraid to have an open dialogue with everyone you run into.
8. Get inspired. Be delighted by the creations of other companies. Often, I see new things that motivate me to think in new directions, leading to some of my own great ideas. Plus, you get to see all the coolest gear in your industry and take note of trends so you can play into them.
9. Make friends. No matter where you are in life, making friends makes things fun – and can make going to trade shows year after year even more enjoyable. Some of my best friends I see once a year in Chicago at the Housewares Show. When we see other it's like no time has passed at all.
10. Keep going back. Some of those great friends were strangers the first year we met, and we only became friends because I kept showing up. After the fourth or fifth year in a row of seeing each other, we were hugging and happy to catch up on each other's lives. If I had stopped going, we never would have created that friendship. If you plan to stay in an industry, keep going back and no matter what, eventually you become an insider.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Christopher Hawker is the president of Trident Design, LLC, a product development and commercialization firm working with everyone from independent inventors to large corporations, based in Columbus, Ohio. He has brought over 70 products to market in a variety of industries, including the PowerSquid and the Onion Goggles. He has worked with Stanley, Philips, GE and Kyocera among others. He blogs at theinventorsmind.com.
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