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Planning to start a business? Do this first

Trade shows are among the very few sales and marketing vehicles that haven’t changed much with the “digitization” of business. Having exhibited at hundreds of them around the world over the past twenty years, I have a love/hate relationship with them – they can be a real money pit, or they can pay off. Small businesses in particular often come away wondering whether the money could have been better spent in other ways.

But if you’re starting a new venture, especially as a bootstrapping first-time entrepreneur, a trade show can be one of the cheapest, easiest and most efficient tools at your disposal. Don't pour your scarce dollars into a booth of your own, but simply walk around. In fact, that’s how I spent the past few days, walking a show in an unfamiliar industry we’re hoping to break into.

Investing in a trip to a show gives you the chance to do a lot of eyes-on, one-stop investigative shopping. Here are some areas where your attendee badge can be just the ticket for vetting and launching your new business:

- Scoping the competitive landscape: Thanks to the good folks at Google, you can find out a great many things about a company without ever leaving the comfort of your favorite chair. But just as you can’t taste the food on a restaurant website, you can’t get the full flavor of a business just by its online representation. The trade show gives you a better sense of who the players are and what their place is in the food chain. It’s the only practical way you can see many or most of your prospective competitors -- what they’re selling and how they’re selling it, all live in one place.

- Gauging demand and popularity: Pay attention to individual booth traffic relative to overall show attendance. Walk any show and you’ll see some booths packed three-deep with visitors. Meanwhile there are others where the exhibitors are just standing around, talking to one another, eating lunch, reading email or even napping (there’s at least one sleeper at every show). A dead booth can mean that the company picked the wrong venue (I’ve seen people hawking stuffed animals at an electronics show), or that it didn’t do a good job making its booth eye-catching, but just as often it’s at least a hint that attendees aren’t interested in what these exhibitors have to say or sell.

- Learning how the industry works: Whether you are visiting a true trade show (which by definition is a “closed” business-to-business event) or an open show geared towards consumers, you can glean a lot about the way things are done in your chosen field. What are the sales channels and typical distribution models? Do small companies factor meaningfully in the industry or is it dominated by giants? Are the people generally personable and approachable, or is it a more hard-nosed, cynical vibe (I find this to be a noticeable difference from one show to another)? Are there particular high-profile people everyone knows (or should know)? Immerse yourself. After all, this is the world in which you plan to spend a lot of your life.

- Getting educated: Almost every trade show has a broad offering of seminars and presentations. They usually cost extra, and some are better than others, but it’s worth checking the offerings when you sign up for your pass. You may find a class that will be of value.

- Making your own marketing decisions: The show floor is sensory overload, but its bright lights shine on every conceivable type of product, service, branding and marketing tactic in an industry. You can pick up literature (yes, they still print stuff), listen to sales pitches, and get a sense of whether you might want to spring for your own booth at some point. Talk to some of the other small exhibitors there and ask what they think of the show. Many will be happy to share their experience and opinions. Just remember to talk to them when they’re not busy. There’s nothing an exhibitor hates more than someone bending their ear when they are trying to do business.

Clearly, trade show intelligence isn’t an exact science, and you have to apply some judgment to the conclusions you draw from your visit. It is, after all, a show, and like any other form of advertising it’s meant to put a high gloss on companies and their wares. But even accepting that it is an artificial business environment, an exhibition is still a uniquely effective way to get the lay of the land.

One last benefit to walking a show -- you don’t have to leave the exhibition hall to buy souvenirs. In one day of booth-hopping you can fill a tote bag with stress balls, pens, mints, key chains, stickers and other swag. Your kids will love you, and you might learn a business lesson about how not to waste money.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, Dave Taylor.

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