If you're serious about bringing your ideas for products to market, you should absolutely attend trade shows. They're always eye-opening. The only way to truly understand the mechanics of any industry is by attending its trade shows.

One guarantee? You'll be overwhelmed.

I've attended all kinds of shows over the course of my career as a product developer, including toys, back-to-school, pet, housewares, hardware, electronic, promotional, music, and more. Checking out the latest innovations and making new friends at a trade show never fails to inspire me.

But I've also wasted a lot of time attending the wrong shows and not having clearly defined goals. When you're starting out, it's especially important that you make good decisions. Your resources are limited! Preparation is key.

At trade shows, I meet inventors who have spent years and tens of thousands of dollars getting ready to show their product to the world. They've paid for a booth and now today's the big day.

Congratulations! Displaying your product at your first show is exciting, not to mention a little daunting.

Others inventors just starting out are carrying working prototypes with them. Still, there's the cost of lodging and transit, which add up.

Either way, what's important is that you consider early on how to take full advantage of the show. Trade shows are expensive. You need to make the most of your investment.

Are you clear on who can help you move your business forward?

How will you get in front of those people?

Like I said, attending a trade show can be enormously beneficial for product developers. But, I'd argue, not unless you have a distinct end game in mind -- a clear purpose for attending.

Important questions for product developers to consider include:

When should I attend a trade show?

Which show should I attend?

Should I pay for a booth or work the show by walking the aisles?

The short answer is, it all depends on what your goals are.

Basically, are you looking for a licensee? Or do you intend on venturing, which is to say, become a manufacturer yourself?

Licensing and venturing are two distinct strategies for getting to market. I licensed many concepts and had a successful venture selling creatively shaped and marketed guitar picks. I'm a big fan of licensing as a business model, which I've written about at length online for nearly 10 years now.

At the last trade show I attended, I asked inventors why they were there and what they hoped to accomplish. Over two days, I visited more than 100 booths located in the inventor section of the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas.

Most of the inventors I spoke to weren't sure about their goals. They could not articulate a concrete game plan. They were hopeful their product would be discovered -- that a buyer for a major retailer would walk by, and that would be that. Like Marilyn Monroe!

When I started inventing new products, I had similar hopes. I was convinced that if the right person saw my ideas, I'd be set. Then I'd become successful. My ideas were that good.

But that's a dream, not a plan. In reality, entrepreneurship is never that simple.

For example: A major retailer could walk by, stop at your booth, and fall in love with your product. They might even want to carry it in their product line.

But that is unlikely to happen, because big-box stores work with manufacturers that are established and have a proven track record. They want you to have worked out all of the bugs selling in hundreds of smaller retailers first. By that time, you'll have keyed in on the right price point and packaging.

And because of the effort required to become a vendor, retailers like these prefer companies that have a line of products, not just one.

For example, WalMart began selling my products only after they were successful in 7-Eleven stores for a few years. When my company became a vendor, thousands of retailers carried our products. Meaning, there was no risk. I was in business; I could ship. I had a warehouse.

Some inventors told me they hoped their favorite retailer would want to license their product idea. Which doesn't make a lot of sense... because that's not what major retailers typically do.

Many of them have their own private label brands, true. But these products aren't innovative. They're generics that have sold extremely well for many years. There's an established market for these items. Taking on a brand new idea -- one without a sales record -- is too risky. It just isn't part of their strategy.

Big-picture wise, you should never wait for something to happen, like getting discovered. The odds aren't great.

In reality, most of inventors I spoke with were not in a position to capitalize on interest from a major retailer anyway. They had paid for a small production run and were not actively taking orders.

Making the Decision to Purchase a Booth

If you purchase a booth at any tradeshow, you need to be ready to ship product. That's my opinion. You should already be selling your products in retail stores and online. That is to say, in business.

In that case, maybe you're hoping to find a distributor at the show.

The good news is, distributors do walk by and are looking for new products. But they too seek products that have a proven track record.

You see, distributors distribute. They don't sell. The first time I heard that priceless bit of insight was at a music trade show in Southern California. At the time, our guitar picks were in about 100 stores. To my delight, we even won "Best in Show."

Our next step was to find a distributor, or so my partner and I thought. But when a distributor came by our booth, he explained why his company would not carry our products -- yet.

"We carry thousands of products, Steve. You must create demand for yours. Stores need to be asking us for them. Then we'll distribute your picks in our catalog. But please realize: We do not sell. If you're in our catalog but people are not asking for you, we cannot help."

That was an eye-opener. Our next step was actually to keep taking orders, it turned out.

Reasons to Delay Purchasing a Booth

Showing your product at a trade show increases your chances of being copied. That's one good reason to delay purchasing a booth at a trade show until you're in a position to act fast. At the hardware show, I met an inventor who was worried that everyone was taking photos of his invention. I would be too.

If you're in business and looking for retailer buyers, my advice is to get in the main room. Yes, it's going to be much more expensive. But that way, they know you're serious -- that they can buy from you and feel confident you'll deliver.

When you're starting out, retailers know you'll have more difficulty filling orders and your price point is likely to be high because you don't have the volume. That's just a fact.

If you're venturing, I recommend getting into a few retailers before you attend a trade show. These experiences are invaluable. At that point, you'll have developed a pricing structure that works and figured out how to package your product so that it sells at retail. By then, you'll be much more familiar with the landscape and the lingo.

There are potential benefits to getting a booth sooner, like receiving critical feedback. Does your packaging work? What about your signage? How about your pitch? Practice makes perfect. Consider taking advantage of any opportunities to present to a panel of experts. 

If a buyer does walk by, make sure to get their opinion and contact information. If you were selling in other stores, would they be interested in carrying your product too? What would need to be different?

For example, one inventor I spoke with said a buyer had told him: "Your end cap would never hold up at mass market. Make it sturdier."

If you receive positive feedback, you can use it strategically later on. "At the show, the buyer for this company told me he would carry it...."

This is a form of pull-through marketing, which can be used to secure a licensing deal.

If you are going to have a booth, make sure to bring someone with you. You need to be able to leave and visit others to move your business forward.

Using Trade Shows to License Your Product Idea

If your goal is to license your product idea, I highly recommend walking the show to identify potential licensees. There is no need to have a booth at this point. The likelihood of the right people at the right companies walking by is low, at best. So don't wait. Don't take that chance. You need to approach companies that work with outside product developers and are a good fit.

Paul Sorenson, the inventor of a more efficient spatula, attended the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas this spring because a new licensee was rolling out his product. Quickly, he realized just how important it is to spend time closely looking at the show's Exhibitor List prior to registering.

"Attending a show where your product is debuting or displayed is not required, but always cool. It's similar to seeing your product in stores: Just a great feeling. That said... there are a lot of costs associated with any show. You want to make sure there is direct value to you and your current product before committing to go," he emphasized.

There turned out to be very few manufacturers that would be a good fit for invention licensing opportunities at this show, Sorenson said. The audience was pizza restaurant owners, meaning there was "every variety of flour, cheese, tomatoes, peppers, spices, beans, meats, mushrooms, chicken, and gelato imaginable. The bonus was 95 percent of booths had samples of pizza."

In total, Sorenson found less than a dozen companies that he would consider pitching new ideas to at the show. They were all open to receiving new product ideas, which is encouraging. So, the show wasn't a wash, but you do the math.

Full disclosure: Sorenson coaches product developers for inventRight, the company I co-founded in 1999.

Focus on building relationships with the companies you would like to invent for. There is no substitute for meeting face-to-face. Make sure to collect cards from everyone you meet you so can follow up later.

How to Make the Best Impression Exhibiting Your Product

Some presentations at the hardware show really impressed me. But many more booths needed some work.

Great thought should be given to how you debut your product at a trade show. This is the time to look your best. Your marketing materials, which include you, need to be spot-on. Between signage, travel, hotel, meals and the help of an assistant, you can quickly spend between $10,000 and $15,000 even on a budget.

1. Focus on showcasing the benefit of your product as clearly as possible. At some booths, I stared at the big banner in front of me for several minutes but still wasn't quite sure: What was the benefit? What was the product? This is a major problem. 

2. Be able to communicate your product and its benefit quickly. This is not easy to do. You can't wing in. You need to hone in on one sentence that delivers a punch and use it over and over again on your marketing materials and in person. Strive to be clear and concise. If you've keyed in on a winner, you will engage your customer within seconds. Potentially without a product, even! When people get it instantly, without any visuals at all, that's when you know you have a great one-line benefit statement.

At trade shows, anything is possible. Entire industries are gathered sans gatekeepers! Use these tips to plan ahead so that your effort is truly worthwhile.

Published on: May 30, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.