Trade Shows Are for Suckers (not startups)

There’s even a trade show for trade show folks!

These events are typically produced by event production companies, industry consortiums, media firms, analysts or trade organizations. I have been to my fair share of them, starting back in the late 80’s when I was a junior product specialist at a relational database company. We attended Comdex in Las Vegas (that’s right kids, before CES the premier tech industry event was Comdex, RIP; I remember visiting the Microsoft, Novell, Ashton-Tate and Borland booths, and crashing the IBM black-tie event. Microsoft had fewer than 20 young kids manning their booth, while IBM had at least 100. Ahh, those days are so fresh in my mind.

Anyway, so over the years I have been to tons of trade shows, as an attendee looking to buy something, as a representative of my firm trying to sell something, as well as a guest (trying to soak up the specific industry trends and offerings.) When it came time for us to think about my current startup, Drumbi, we put off the decision to participate in events for a long time but ultimately thought it would be a good investment.

The decision process and rational went a little something like this:

  • it will officially mark our product launch
  • it makes us BIG
  • our competitors will know we are on the map
  • we will get tons of leads
  • we will close business
  • it will be awesome

I remember getting an email or cold-call from an event production company telling us how great their event was and why It would be perfect for Drumbi. Focused on innovation in call centers, the event would bring 50+ Chief Customer Officers, VP’s of Customer Care/Call Centers, and Mobile together; exactly what I wanted. They sent me the sponsorship kit and I almost choked when I saw the $20k price tag. I said “no way!” so they kept hammering me, telling me how great it was going to be for our business, throwing in more freebies, ultimately slashing the price… until I said “yes.”

So… we wrote the biggest check we had ever written for any type of sales or marketing initiative and prepared ourselves for the big two-day event. I remember having a goal for the number of qualified opportunities we would discover, and the number of new customer we would end up signing as a result of this effort. All of which resulted in a big hypothetical ROI. At least on paper.

Well…things didn’t quite turn out the way we expected. We were the smallest company at the event, the earliest to market with our product (no competitors), the one with the smallest booth, the least brand recognition, and only yours truly to man up to prospects. Yes, sounds a lot like a startup. Compared to the behemoths around me, all of whom had done this many, many times over, we looked like rookies.

I did manage to collect a couple of dozen leads and followed up with each of them. This resulted in calls, remote presentations, and even a bunch of in-person meetings. Not one of these turned into a sale, and in most cases I didn’t even get a firm “No!” or understand what the obstacle was. They just went radio-silent on me.

What did I learn from this experience (and from another trade show we were comped to attend)?

The very nature of these events works against the grain for most startups (not all; I’m sure there are exceptions):

  • trade shows signify a large opportunity, with lots of vendors
  • by definition, they lend themselves to commodity products and servicesthe fact that most have to invest in elaborate booths or hire scantily clad women to act as eye candy is a testament to this (and really shocking in this day and age)
  • trade shows are like a circuit (think NASCAR), with a set season, schedule and locations most startups are thinking in weeks, months, or even a quarter out
  • having someone stop by for a few minutes isn’t the best way for you to introduce your innovation to them
  • they have very little frame of referencethey are likely looking for an established set of features, at a given SLA or pricethe big guys will crush you at this
  • tip: most of the attendees don’t even plan on buying anything
  • they are there as part of a research effort, to build something themselves or for long-term planninglots of attendees see these affairs as a junket; lots of food, booze and entertainmentstartups are there to sell, to make payroll, to live another week or month, so our urgency is not aligned with the attendees expectations

Save your money. Save your time. Before considering a trade event ask yourself this:

  1. have we figured out a repeatable sales process
  2. do we have lots of references
  3. are there a number of competitors, with well established brands
  4. can we afford to send 2-3 people to attend the event and spend the necessary time with prospects
  5. will you have an existing customer attend the event as well, and act as an onsite reference
  6. do you have enough marketing budget to support the circuit, in conjunction with all the other marketing initiatives
  7. do we have a well defined lead processing and follow up process with software/automation to support it (i.e. drip marketing, CRM, special price

If you answered “No” to more than 2 questions I would strongly recommend holding off on the event circuit and the commitment it will take.

Focus your efforts on other forms of lead-generation, even using local meet-ups as a proxy for participating in bigger events.

Pro-Tip/Hack: Create success before you commit the $$$$. Create a fake landing page announcing your participation at an upcoming event, setup an email campaign driving traffic to the landing page (targeting known or prospective attendees and existing customers) and see how many 1-1 meetings you can book. If the results are good, go for it. If crickets… move on.

Double Pro-Tip: My friend and author Patrick Vlaskovits did an amazing job describing how disruptive innovation requires a rethinking of the channels and mediums used for marketing. Read this, learn, prosper.

Shervin Talieh