Should You Show Your Invention at a Trade Show?

ABSOLUTELY ATTEND AT A TRADE SHOW. But if you show your invention, do it right.

Trade shows are places where people active in an industry get together to learn things and find opportunities for profit. If you are even half way serious about your invention you should absolutely make the effort to attend a leading trade show that is relevant for your idea. However, with one exception, you should only attend as a trade guest and not as an exhibitor. The exception is when you are launching a business and want general feedback and need help from sales representatives, contract manufacturers, warehousing and fulfillment operations, marketing experts and all other manner of business service providers - note that I am not saying buyers.

In general, trade shows are lousy places to sell products and services. The biggest buyers know that an innovator with a start-up business isn't ready to supply them. They may come by your booth to learn about your fantastic new innovation. They might even give you encouragement. But they are not going to place an order based on a prototype - they'll wait until you get the kinks out of your operation, or until one of their existing suppliers knocks you off. As a rule, only meet with buyers when you are ready to ship product.

I've attended more than 100 trade shows over the years as both an exhibitor with a booth and as a trade guest walking the show; the shows were dedicated to hardware, auto accessories, housewares, office products, water management, manufacturing equipment, direct marketing, internet marketing, advertising specialties, Halloween, surfing, beachwear, outdoor sports, broadcast radio, internet radio and yes, inventions. Without exception, I can say that walking the shows has always been worth it and that showing at the shows rarely has. As for paying to have someone else show your invention at a booth at a trade show when you're not there - forget about it - you're better off spending money on lottery tickets. Really.

The best way to attend a trade show as an inventor is to register as a trade guest (or designer) and to walk the exhibitions. Sign up for the exhibits only, avoid the conference (unless it really interests you) and you'll save a lot of money. Your primary goals at the show should be to learn how the industry works, what new products are exciting people and maybe find possible licensees.

Not only is walking a show more effective and less expensive than exhibiting, it's also safer. Product designers and engineers attend trade shows to see what's new, to find ideas they can use on their own products. When you are an exhibitor you have no control over who sees your invention. But when you walk the show as a trade guest you get to choose who you talk to, you get to decide if disclosing your idea to someone makes sense.

When showing your invention to exhibitors at a trade show you should respect that, for most everyone you meet, you are the lowest person on the totem pole. Sales reps will be happy to talk to you and give you feedback, but as soon as someone with a buyers badge comes by, they'll ditch you like yesterday's pancakes. Accept it and don't be offended. That's the way things work.

At this year's Housewares Show I tried something new. When I got to a company's booth, before anything else, I asked the first person I met if they worked with outside inventors. Some companies welcome innovations from outside and some don't. Those that are closed to inventors aren't worth pursuing (at least not at a trade show). But those that are open almost always have someone assigned to receiving ideas from outside. In small companies it's often the president, in larger ones it could be an engineer or a product manager. In the largest it's sometimes a legal assistant (who is usually useless).

The new approach worked great. It saved a lot of time and started me off on the right foot.

One last thing to mention. People at trade shows are open to new ideas and looking to make connections. Every trade show I've been to left me feeling energized and encouraged... for a few days. The week after the show is where you find out what's real. Once people get back to their daily grind they look at things with colder eyes and most of your hoped for deals fade away. But every now and then one sticks. That's what it's all about.

- Mike Marks

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