How to Dominate Any Tradeshow, and Why Even Solo Entrepreneurs Should Try 88 Comments
Lance Kalish and Ido Leffler of Yes To Carrots
Intro by Tim
How do you build a multi-million dollar global business?
Well, you might start by visiting Israel and negotiating the rights to an unknown brand (Yes To Carrots)…found in 16 stores. Then, you might use cold calling artistry and Jedi mind tricks to get carried by Walgreen’s in its 7,000+ stores. Next, you might get your product into 25,000+ stories internationally and smile when you see Rosario Dawson using your goods publicly. Now, as the happy ending (of sorts), every 6 seconds in the US, someone buys a Yes To product!
But that’s leaving out the details, isn’t it? I hate business articles and books that do that.
I’ve known Ido Leffler, Yes To’s co-founder, for ages. I met him at a Summit Series event in Miami. His trademark hug was the first thing that caught my attention: inexplicably slow-motion and super gentle, as if he were cradling a baby panda. Of course, there’s his subtle Australian accent and persuasive (and deliberately less subtle) Israeli chutzpah. Who the hell was this guy? I’ve come to love him, but perhaps more important to you, I’ve come to love his methods. He deconstructs problems like Sherlock Holmes with a twist of Richard Branson…
His partner Lance is even more methodical. In many respects, he is to Ido what Steve Wozniak was to Steve Jobs. That’s part of the reason their partnership works. To paraphrase one of Yes To’s investors: “He [Lance] is the numbers guy, and he [Ido] is the pictures guy.”
This post by Ido and Lance explains their methodical approach to tradeshows. But why should you care about tradeshows, if you don’t already? I used tradeshows (e.g. SXSW, lounges at CES) to successfully launch The 4-Hour Workweek to the bestseller lists. You can use tradeshows to network with people who would otherwise never return your email or phone call.
Tradeshows can be — even for a solo entrepreneur — the best single use of time in a given year, and Ido and Lance know how to make it count.
For the full Yes To story, you’ll need to grab their new book, for which I wrote the Foreword. The book explains, step-by-step, how they went from selling out of a suitcase to building the second largest and fastest growing natural beauty brand in the US, with almost 100 unique products (or “SKUs,” pronounced “skews”).
It’s tempting to write that the Yes To story is a beautiful example of the American Dream. But that’s not quite right.
It’s the Australian Dream.
It’s the British Dream.
It’s the Indian Dream.
It’s the [fill in the blank] Dream.
Ido and Lance’s story is the dream of doers everywhere–the dream of making something happen, of creating something meaningful from nothing.
Have you ever had a job and thought “I could do a better job than this guy” while watching your boss? Have you ever thought of an invention for solving a common problem and asked “Why hasn’t someone DONE this yet?!?” If so, you’ve found the right teachers.
Before I hand the mic over to the Australians, I could say “May the wind always be at your back,” but that’s not how this game works.
Instead, I’ll recommend that you gird up your loins (figuratively), grab a cup of coffee, and prepare for an adventure.
Enjoy the ride…
Enter Lance and Ido
This post everything we know about how to extract the most value from a trade show.
Keep in mind that we threw together our first U.S. trade show booth with nothing but hope, good vibes, a modest budget, and a fortuitous Google search that led us to an amazing design firm in Israel and a builder in Hungary who were able to build our booth for pennies on the dollar.
Trade shows are absurdly expensive; save money on everything but don’t skimp on your visual presentation. Sleep underneath the registration table. Eat nothing but stale pretzels. Shave in the McDonald’s bathroom. But make sure that your booth looks fun, deluxe, well designed, and tells a compelling story. You need it to catch buyers’ eyes as they run past you to the established businesses in the primo spots on the convention floor. Trade shows are an incredibly useful weapon to get introductions to massive retailers, and no matter how much you think you know about international retail, there are always going to be retailers out there that you’ve never heard of and whose stores you need to be in. So give it your all. Presentation is everything.
Ido: When we first started Yes To we would attend the National Association of Chain Drug Stores convention in San Diego every year. It’s a huge deal; literally everyone who is anyone in health and beauty is there. We always had the same spot, year after year; and so did the guy a few booths down from us. Now, I admired our neighbor’s products. They were well formulated and effective. But I struggled to understand his approach to selling these products. Every year he had the same collapsible table, covered in the same tablecloth, with a dropdown backdrop showcasing his products. He wore a slightly scruffy suit and stood morosely at his table, rarely engaging with anyone he didn’t already know. In other words, he had a great product and a terrible presentation; his table looked cheap, he seemed uninterested, and no one was going to fall in love with cheap and uninterested. You don’t need ridiculous amounts of money to make an impact, but if you’re working with a minimal budget, you need to brings tons of imagination and effort and add something unique to your presentation. Don’t go with a little table and a pull-down sign at the back. You don’t need to spend a lot of money — just be different.
The Taj Mahal booth
Ido: What do we mean by different? We mean be bloody different. A few months after we shook hands with Walgreens on our online exclusive, I went to an industry conference in Hong Kong called the Cosmoprof convention. I’d squeezed Lance for about 200 percent more money than he thought we could afford; it was still a minuscule budget by the standards of a big trade show. We’d found an architect in Israel who designed a fantastic, modern, über-hip booth for us and the aforementioned builders in Hungary who were willing to build it for a fourth of the cost of Israeli contractors. Nobody knew anything about us except that we were the brand new company with the over-the-top, bright orange, sexy booth. The booth had a carrot structure that rose like an orange Taj Mahal over the rest of the exhibitors. The green fronds brushed the ceiling and could be seen from any point on the floor. We filled it with energetic young people, glowing with good health, who handed moisturizer samples and carrot juice to everyone who walked by. Basically, we were the party booth, and we were packed from morning to night. Turns out that our structure was ten feet too high and broke every rule of the convention center, but we managed to stall the demolition team till the last day. By the time the convention wrapped, we’d drunk our own weight in carrot juice many times over, but we’d also made hundreds of new friends and new contacts. Success. Now when we attend conferences we do it with an even more fantastic booth than we had at the last event. Other companies recycle their booths for decades. What’s fun about that! Sometimes the booth will have a Frank Lloyd Wright look to it, other times it will be futuristic, but it is always big, orange, and fun. No matter what, our booth changes every year and is always the one that people are talking about on the opening day of the convention. A first impression is always going to be the most lasting impression. There is a certain expectation that your booth and your presentation will reflect the reality of your business’s size and market share.
This is an expectation that we chose to ignore. Our booth reflected the company we planned to be in a few years, not the company we were at that moment. So you don’t need the biggest booth or the biggest budget. But at the same time, you can’t simply follow the norm of having a plasma screen playing a generic video or hosting a random giveaway or competition.
By the end of a trade show, people want two things:
• They want to be entertained.
• They want free stuff.
If you can make them laugh and send them home with a bag of goodies, then you have a reasonable chance of getting them to remember you. Think of a trade show as speed dating on a massive level. Every account in that convention hall has the opportunity to sit down with every buyer for three minutes. In those 180 seconds you need to find some way to click with them, make them laugh, give them an insight into your brand’s philosophy, put some samples in their hands, offer them a carrot juice and a key ring, and hope and pray that they felt the same little spark that you did. It always shocks us when we see brands not putting a 150 percent effort into a trade show. I feel personally offended when I see attendees sitting down and reading the paper or sneaking out early. What’s the point? Attending a trade show is a massive investment, especially if you’re a small company with a modest budget. Don’t slack off even when you see your competitors half-assing it. In fact, look at their half-assing as an opportunity for you to wow the retailers they are underwhelming.
The Master’s Degree of Trade Shows: Working the Show
Lance: In our early days with Yes To we made a huge effort to attend the Cosmoprof convention in Italy. This was a biggie, and we put down a huge amount of cash to fly our team out, assemble gift bags, and make our booth look fantastic. By the end of day two, though, our booth was quiet; all the good-looking carrots, handing out juice, and the team couldn’t get people interested. For whatever reason our magic wasn’t clicking. “What the hell are we going to do?” I wondered. “This is a disaster.” “Why?” Ido asked.
“Because our booth is empty, and it’s been empty all day!” Ido laughed.“Mate, we built this booth to meet one person, from one account. I’ve met him, he loves us, and nothing else matters.”
Have goals. Be strategic. Know whom you need to meet and what kind of business you need to do with them. Identify your “whales,” the most important people you want to meet at a trade show. It’s critical that your team knows the names (and ideally the faces) of the whales on your hit list. Make sure they understand that if Mr. or Ms. Whale shows up, then they need to get your attention immediately. Trade shows are full of perfectly charming people who are lots of fun but essentially irrelevant to your business. If you are talking to one of these people, and you miss your chance to talk to the whale, then you are in trouble.
Ido: I’ve shamelessly run after a whale that got away; Captain Ahab would be proud of me! After all, this might be the only day your particular Moby Dick attends the trade show. Do not miss your opportunity to talk with them. Manifesto Rule Numero Uno: Turn the convention hall into a walking billboard about you and your brand. Conventioneers love tote bags. Why? Because there are tons and tons of free stuff to be had, and after about two hours they are going to need something to carry the swag in. We always order thousands of great tote bags. No cheap paper or thin cotton for us. Our bags are big, bright, and unique, and by day two we try to make sure that every single person in the hall is carrying one. Be shameless and be fun. Slap your logo on the bag, add some bright colors, and make sure that people instinctively smile when they see it. Have tons of product to give away at the booth, and give it away freely. Don’t be one of those guys withholding the good stuff for the “big guys.” Instead, be the guy with the product that everyone is using and talking about. Freely distributing swag (even if it costs you) is in your best interests; you want those walking adverts wandering the convention.
Try to stay in the hotel where the important people are staying, because you want to be able to interact with them in the elevator, in the bar, or at breakfast. A two-minute conversation in the breakfast buffet line can be invaluable if it creates a tiny bond or shared experience between you and an important buyer. Give yourself the chance to have that moment. These hotels are expensive, but it is so, so worth the extra cost if you are able to use it to your advantage. Always make sure you and your team have a uniform — and not a suit. Order some logo shirts, but make sure they are funny, not droney. Do something goofy and unexpected. Order everyone in the team those East Coast preppie trousers that are covered with embroidered whales. Have fun with it, but whatever you come up with, make sure it makes you stand out. You want to be a little bit different and also be comfortable, so don’t wear a corporate, uninviting suit. One caveat: It’s useful to have someone who looks more conventional in your booth. Some of your meetings will be with a person who needs the reassurance of seeing someone who looks a little square. Lance: At every damn trade show Ido sees me putting on my jeans and polo shirt and says, “I’m dressing cool, you dress like the accountant.”
Ido: That’s just because of your terrible taste in jeans. No, we need one guy who looks serious and traditional, and seriousness comes more naturally to Lance. Note: The more conventional, reserved-looking guy should not be the boss or, in our case, both of the bosses. Make sure that at least one of the founders or the CEO is wearing the more casual look, like everyone else. You want your CEO or founder to be fun and superapproachable. You don’t want him or her wearing a suit and sitting in one spot and looking like a monarch on a throne. Keep the boss approachable, and don’t create the impression that you have an impenetrable hierarchy. Buyers buy from people they know, like, and trust. Give them a chance to build that relationship with the head guy, even if it is the one and only time they will ever have anything to do with him. Always have a pen and paper, or an iPad, or a voice recorder handy. As soon as you finish a meeting, scribble down all the pertinent information: name, contact info, and any details you can recall. Small talk is everything, and six months later you may be glad you remembered that their youngest is playing ball at State, or that they grew up in an area you know well. Send a follow-up note to everyone you contacted over the course of the day, and every evening debrief with your team so you figure out who to delegate your new contact to. Keep the initial note brief; no one has the time or energy to read a detailed letter while the show is still running.
Once you are back home, give them a couple of days to settle back and then hit them again with an action-based e-mail. Always remind them who you are, and refer back to your notes. If you have a personal comment that feels appropriate, such as, “I hope John’s first day of school went well,” make it. Know how to cut your losses; if someone says, “I am coming back,” without scheduling an actual time to return and talk, it means they are never coming back, ever. Let it go. The minute the trade show closes for the day is the minute the real work begins.
Practice the fine art of thinking while drinking
Lots of the important business at a trade show is done after the convention closes for the day. In order to get in on these opportunities, you need to be organized, aggressive, and targeted. Plan ahead. You want at least one after-hours social interaction with all your potential partners, retailers, distributors, press, and even your competitors. You need to start planning these social interactions months before the convention, so start calling and e-mailing and Facebooking well in advance of the show. Don’t be afraid to approach people whom you’ve never met or who feel “out of your league.” Everyone is in the same boat of wanting to connect with people and discover the next big idea before their competitors do. This makes it relatively easy to get a meeting at a convention that you might struggle to get in day-to-day life.
You are at that convention to build relationships and make friends, and the after-hours booze fest known as “cocktail hour” is a great place to do so. For better or worse, conventions are fueled by alcohol; this can be challenging if you don’t drink, but either way, it’s critical to be out there taking part. Conventions, especially the after-parties, can also be tricky if you’re not a naturally outgoing person. I have friends and coworkers who are great in the more structured environment of the convention floor but struggle with the after-hours socializing. It’s critical that you are genuine, relaxed, and unguarded, so find something about the evening that you enjoy. Go to karaoke. Laugh. Have fun. Say yes to after-dinner drinks and late-night drinks; late-night drinks is where you can form the strongest relationships. People are relaxed, they open up a bit, and you will have a really memorable shared experience to refer back to as your relationship develops.
Lance: Ido and I never sit together at these after-hours events. We spend plenty of time together as it is! You should chat and catch up with your partner only when you go back to your room to debrief. These after-dinner and late-night drinks are work, and we stick to our divide-and-conquer strategy. If I had a huge ego, this would be a problem, but the reality is that there is room for only one star, and in this setting the star is Ido. In this business you have to put away your feelings of insecurity. You don’t need to show them, particularly when you are trying to sell an aspirational brand. So I’m cool with Ido having the spotlight, and I use my time most effectively in supporting him as he makes these connections with the major players. At the end of the day, we both end up winning.
Be the most noticeable guy in the room
If you have a key account coming to a trade show, do whatever it takes to have him or her to yourself for the night. Don’t book the best restaurant in town. Book the most fun restaurant in town. The dinner is not about spreadsheets and marketing plans; it’s about eating great food, drinking plenty of great wine (or, in the case of some of our most “fun” accounts, getting blasted on shots of Jägermeister), and truly becoming friends with people whom you generally do not get to see outside of a corporate setting. There are going to be a few meetings that are a tougher “get,” and these are generally the very biggest companies at the show. If you’re struggling to get a meeting with them, ask around and find out if they are throwing a party. Yes? Great! Go and have fun and shake some hands. This is an infallible strategy — if you’re invited! If you aren’t invited, then you need to worm your way onto the guest list. The more exclusive the party, the more important it is to attend. So here’s our crash course in, well, crashing.
1. Ask your neighbors and customers what they are doing that evening; identify the big-ticket party for that night. Are you on the list? No? Then get working!
2. Find the best-looking and most genuinely charming guy or girl from your booth. Brief them on their objective and send them off to infiltrate the booth of the company hosting the party. Arm them with free samples and big smiles.
3. If that doesn’t work, find out where the party is, dress up, and tag along with a few other people that you know were invited and behave as though you own the joint (works 95 percent of the time). Effusively shake the host’s hand and thank him or her for the invite. Now that you’ve been such a mensch (gentleman) there’s no way they can kick you out!
4. Party like they are throwing the event just for you! Don’t act like a fool, but make sure everyone at the event knows that you are the life of the party.
5. Convince your most important suppliers/friends/staff to join you for after-party drinks at the bar in their hotel.
6. Look at your watch and realize that the conference floor opens in forty-five minutes! Run up to your room. Do fifty push-ups and drink three coffees.
7. Repeat every night till you are ready to cry with exhaustion.
8. Go home!
Treat your booth with love, and it will love you back.
First, make sure you have lots of products to swap at the end of the show! Your spouse/partner/roommate will be very happy because you can barter your stuff for other people’s stuff. Second, all conventioneers love getting products for free or in a barter. They’ll give it to their friends, or even better, give it to their family members, and there is nothing more effective than a buyer’s family liking the product. Most trade shows end in the early afternoon of the last day, and most trade show rules stipulate that all attendees keep their booths fully open till the very last minute of the last day of the trade show. But that last day is hard; you’re exhausted, and all you want to do is go home and sleep. You suddenly realize that consuming nothing but coffee and pretzels for four days is a questionable idea. By noon the convention floor is almost empty, with only a few people running around to wrap up last-minute deals. The temptation to put up your “closed” sign and slip some teamsters $500 to make your booth go away is HUGE.
Don’t do it. As much as you may be sick of the sight of your booth by the end of an event, always treat it with respect. Remember that you are going to want to use parts of it again, so don’t just hand over the job of tearing it down to a couple of guys loitering around the coffee stand. Always make sure you know who is going to pull the booth down and where it is going to go. Make sure your original builder has supplied some kind of plan for safely packing and shipping the booth. We ended up flying two men over from Hungary to pull down our first booth; we reckoned that the additional investment was worth it if it improved our odds of still having a beautiful booth for the next trade show.
Third, and equally important, squeeze every drop of value out of that show. The last day is generally quieter and slower and you never really know who might show up at the booth. If the last day is very quiet, it can be a good time to start following up on the people you and your team met during the show. Make sure you speak to the show organizers to secure you the same or a better location for your booth for next year. (If you forget to do this, you may end up wedged in between the line for the toilets and the rubbishy food outlets. Not good.)
The Multibooth Philosophy
After a show, our booth is shipped back to a storage facility, which is a little like the government warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. We have various booths in storage crated up and ready to go. Our philosophy is to never show the same booth twice at the same convention or trade show. For example, the Taj Mahal Carrot will never go back to Hong Kong, but it will do very well at Las Vegas. The goal is to keep things surprising and fresh. You want people to be curious about what you’ve done differently from last time, and by rotating the booths we maximize the chances of our important accounts seeing something new every year. You may not have the budget for this; if that’s the case, then get creative. Keep the same basic shell, the same colors and overall design philosophy, but change things up a little. Have fun, but make sure your aesthetics align over the years. You want to surprise people, not confuse them.
Getting people excited about Yes To was the easy part. The hard part was everything else! Even while we were circling the world on the Trade Show Express, we had to deal with the nuts and bolts of actually manufacturing and shipping ever-increasing amounts of product. Now, remember how we talked about how partners have to work well together, in good times and bad? Another one of those bad times is coming up right now.
Trade Show Directories and Tips
- 2012 Top 250 US Trade Shows
- Trade Shows, Exhibitions, Conferences & Business Events Worldwide
- Exhibitor Magazine’s Exhibit Design Awards
- Exhibitor Magazine’s Sizzle Awards
- 22 Tips on How to Operate a Trade Show Booth
- Exhibitor Central – Tradeshow Tips
- Barzilai Design (our exhibit design firm)
- Evernote (for note taking)
- BuildASign (for signs and print)
- Chimpadeedoo (for capturing leads)
- Square (for collecting payment)
- Cafepress (for schwag)
- InternMatch (for finding booth staff)
For the detailed story of Yes To’s improbable rise, including the stupid mistakes, near fatal catastrophes, existential crises, and fancy sales footwork, check out Get Big Fast and Do More Good: Start Your Business, Make It Huge, and Change the World.
Posted on November 8th, 2013