There's nothing quite like the atmosphere at a major trade show. You can feel the energy and excitement in the air. And it's contagious! To be surrounded by so many people who have come together for the explicit purpose of doing business and celebrating innovation? For a lifelong entrepreneur whose specialty is bringing new products to market, there's no place I'd rather be. But merely attending a trade show isn't enough. You can't just stand there and expect the right people to appear before you. That's not how it works -- not in life, not in entrepreneurship, and definitely not at trade shows.
I began attending trade shows again around this time last year, starting with the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago. In the past, I walked trade show floors to forge relationships with companies I wanted to license my ideas for new products. This time around, I'm going to report on the state of open innovation.
I want to know: How are the most innovative products being brought to market today? That's my beat. So when I walk a trade show, my perspective is: Please, by all means, engage me in conversation! Ask me to come over to your booth. Tell me a story. That's what I'm looking for. That's why I'm there.
At Toy Fair in New York City last month, some companies did everything but that.
To those who acted as if they might be interrupting me, I assure you, you're not! Don't be shy.
To those who were chatting with their colleagues at the very back of their booth, doing seemingly everything in their power to avoid making eye contact with passerby... I can only wonder, why are you even there?
It's really quite simple. To get more out of trade shows, you need to be proactive. If you're a startup, drawing people in is easier than you might imagine. In fact it's downright straightforward.
For example, I cannot stop thinking about Alex Phares, the young man who looked me straight in the eye at Toy Fair, smiled, and clearly and loudly asked, "Can I show you my product?"
Those are the six magic words.
Sure, I said, and walked over to listen to him describe his stepfather's invention Card Caddy, a Kickstarter funded playing card carrying case that doubles as a discard tray. When he was done, he looked me in the eye again. "I see that you're a reporter," he said. "What do you write about?"
Phares, who is just sixteen years old, was one of the only people to pose that question to me so explicitly all weekend. I was impressed by his directness. And sure enough, about a week later, Chris Nichols -- the inventor and founder of the Card Caddy -- followed up with me over email. Bingo.
How had he and his stepson landed on such an effective entreaty, I wanted to know.
"We really did just kind of sit around and watch people walk by at our first couple of shows," he admitted. They needed to get out in front of their booth, he realized, to actively draw people in. So they began testing out different one-liners -- a lot of them. In time, the simple question Nichols deployed at Toy Fair, their fifth major trade show, became the clear winner.
The question is so effective partly because it's incredibly to the point, and being as concise as possible is critical, Nichols said.
"You don't want to waste anyone's time if they're not interested. At the same time, posing the question that way works because people don't want to say no," he explained. I could not agree more. Several people actually thanked him for stopping them. They were grateful, because otherwise they would have just walked on by.
My advice for small startups who want to get more out of the trade shows they attend?
Remember to be human, meaning make eye contact and smile.
Keep it simple! Ask, "Can I show you my product?" Or whatever will get you a yes the fastest.
Practice makes perfect. If your approach isn't working, change it up.
Ask the individuals you meet about themselves and their purpose. You never know.
Follow up! The single most important step of all.
When it comes to the press specifically, please understand that all reporters have a beat, meaning specific topics they cover again and again. Ask the press you encounter at trade shows about theirs. How can you give someone what he or she is looking for if you don't know what that something is? Your story will always be the same, but it can be told from so many different angles.
Nichols, for his part, describes himself as an introvert. "Being on all the time isn't easy for me. It's a matter of practicing and doing things that you may not be comfortable with."
Isn't that what being an entrepreneur is all about?