To become truly successful at licensing your new product ideas, you must know the industry you're inventing for like the back of your hand. There's no better way of getting to know an industry than by attending its annual trade show. Between the cost of transportation, lodging, and food, it's true that expenses quickly add up. Plan ahead, because there are numerous benefits.

In my opinion, these are among the most significant.

1. The inspiration you receive from checking out the new innovation. I can almost guarantee that you will walk away with new ideas for products. Trade shows are exhilarating! You will feel reenergized. 

2. Face-to-face meetings. When you can connect with people in your industry with the click of a button over LinkedIn, does meeting in person still have value? Even more, I'd argue. If your goal is to build a long-term working relationship that benefit both parties, there is simply no replacement for shaking someone's hand and looking them in the eye.

3. Policing your industry. If you've been submitting your product idea to multiple companies, there's a chance you might see it. Let the industry know you're alive and well.

4. It's your reunion. Make new friends. Say hello to your old ones. This is your yearly opportunity to maintain and develop relationships you value. Everyone is under one roof!

5. Staying current. To invent for the future, you must stay abreast of trends. Where is the industry headed? What are the most popular products today, and why? Ask around, take advantage of the educational materials on site, and listen to the experts.

6. Getting past gatekeepers. Reaching out to potential licensees can be time-consuming and at times, challenging. Connecting with potential licenses at trade shows is much, much easier. There are no gatekeepers, and everyone is excited. You can introduce yourself and maybe even meet the company's CEO.

7. Making sure your licensee is displaying your product correctly. Is the company you licensed your idea to putting in their best effort to display your product? Making sure is a great reason to attend a trade show. The company may invite you to help explain the product's benefit by demoing it. In doing so, you humanize it.  

As an advocate for open innovation, one of my favorite trade shows is the International Home + Housewares show in Chicago. It is absolutely massive, the industry is always evolving, and most companies are receptive to checking out inventions developed outside of their own four walls. I interviewed product developers who attended the show this year to get their perspective.

Susan Thomson showcased her invention Slide Scoop -- a mess-free way of measuring and dispensing powders -- with her son Stow Miller by her side at a booth in the Inventors Corner section of the show for the first time. Thomson has been selling Slide Scoops primarily on Amazon for a few years and recently signed a licensing deal with powerhouse Lifetime Brands.

"The Inventors Corner is an unbelievably well-trafficked place for someone who has a new invention," Thomson told me. "I highly recommend it." She received significant interest from other potential licensees at the show -- including from companies that had made getting in touch to share her invention prior to the show a little laborious. Her experience with Lifetime Brands had been the opposite: When she reached out Warren Tuttle, the director of open innovation for Lifetime Brands, he responded almost immediately.

"He knows what he likes and he moves forward quickly," she said. (Read my interview with Tuttle about open innovation.)

In 2018, Ed Foster and his son-in-law Nehemiah White attended the Housewares show to approach potential licensees about their invention JugBuddy, a funnel on legs designed to minimize spills when pouring fluids. (Full disclosure: Ed and Nehemiah are students of my coaching program inventRight.)

"Although we showed our product to several interested parties, the very first company we met when we entered the show later connected with us to license our product," Foster said. "From the start, Deej and Jason of Innova Imports showed great interest. They've been great to worth with, bringing a wealth of knowledge and relationships to the table."

This year, Innova Imports debuted JugBuddy in its booth at the show.

"We returned this year, loved the show again, and are excited to see where our product will go from here," Foster added.

Mark Manger has been selling his product GrabOpener -- a bottle opener that only requires the use of one hand and a firm grip -- online since 2013. This year, he attended the Housewares show for the first time, and nearly nabbed a Global Innovation award. He invested in a booth in the Inventors Corner section of the show and demoed his product over and over again to passerby.

"I'm looking to grow my business, and this was an education," he said. "I've been doing this for a while, but really had no idea the scope of this industry and all of the angles, people, and ideas. I'm still unpacking everything I experienced. It was very positive."

Michael Van Horst, the inventor of an all-in-one tool that lets you hang artwork in seconds, described the show in Chicago as "by far the best" he's attended. His invention -- which he licensed to Hangman Products -- will be rolling out in retailers in the next month. (Full disclosure: Van Horst is also an inventRight student.)

"The show did not disappoint!" he exclaimed. "I demoed my product Push & Hang at the Hangman Products booth so many times I had to change out the backboard twice! I did not receive a single negative comment. Everyone who came up wanted to know if they could buy one then, and we signed up many new retailers. I can't wait to do it again next year."

If you have a product that you're currently manufacturing, getting a booth at a tradeshow is a must. Buyers are walking by looking for their next big hit for their stores. But if you're trying to license what is currently a concept-only, I would think twice about purchasing a booth. Another strategy is to find potential licensees by walking the trade show floor. Rather than hoping potential licensees walk by, you increase your chances of success by reaching out to them. Learn more about my perspective on when and why to get a booth (or not) at a trade show for your invention here.

Published on: Mar 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.